Do you think prayer has the power to heal? Before you can answer that, you first have to define prayer; the notion is different for everyone. While you may have been taught to think of prayer exclusively as a religious act, or as something that only happens in a house of worship, the truth is this: Prayer takes many forms, requires no religion and can happen anytime, anywhere. Think of prayer as a moment of intense, well-directed thought, if not a conversation with a spiritual being. It’s turning inward to find your deepest inner strength and your greatest place of comfort. With that in mind, ask yourself again: Do you think prayer has the power to heal?
If you answered yes, you’re not alone. In fact, 62 percent of people use prayer as a form of complementary or alternative medicine, according to a 31,000-person survey conducted in 2004 by the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. And these numbers are on the rise. Praying about health dramatically increased among Americans over the past three decades, rising 36 percent between 1999 and 2007, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.
So what health benefits can prayer offer? You may already turn to prayer to find strength during difficult periods, but there is increasing evidence to suggest that prayer may also reduce stress, alleviate pain and ease the symptoms of some chronic health conditions.
Prayer and Stress
Intercessory prayer is used to describe prayer that is used as a means of communication with a spiritual being or the universe at large. But prayer can also be a form of meditation—a moment to sit quietly and reflect on your thoughts, known as contemplative prayer. While both forms have their benefits, the latter in particular has been shown to have a powerful effect on stress and anxiety, reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lowering heart rate and improving mood. And in a 2010 study, participants who were asked to use prayer during a stressful situation logged lower blood pressure readings than those who did not pray.
Prayer and Pain
For those who live with chronic pain, prayer has been shown to offer some relief, in the form of pain tolerance. In a study of patients suffering from chronic pain, those who engaged in daily prayer reported a higher pain tolerance than those who did not. Though it is not yet entirely understood how prayer can change perceptions of pain, it is thought that its ability to foster a sense of spiritual support and therefore improve mood may have something to do with how much pain the brain senses. Prayer also offers a distraction from pain, which is likely a component of how it provides relief, as it requires shifting focus away from what is hurting and toward something comforting.
Prayer and Chronic Illness
Prayer may not be a cure for illness, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have an important effect on your body. Similar to those living with chronic pain, a study of chronically ill patients revealed that those who considered themselves spiritual tended to be happier than those who did not. And a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that adolescents with asthma experience worse outcomes when not using spiritual coping tools such as prayer or relaxation to manage symptoms, though more research needs to be completed in order to better understand the connection between prayer and asthma relief.
Positive Prayer vs. Negative Prayer
Just as there is no “right” time or place to pray, there is no proper form prayer needs to take. Prayer can be an expression of gratitude, a plea for help, a moment of reflection—the possibilities are truly limitless. One important discovery in the study of prayer’s health benefits, however, is the difference between positive and negative prayer. In the same study of patients living with chronic pain, it was found that those who used prayer in a positive way—to find strength and comfort—fared better than those who used it in a negative way, expressing feelings of abandonment or resentment of their higher power. This suggests that while there may not be a correct way to pray, the health benefits of prayer improve with a positive focus.
The Future of Prayer and Health
Prayer may be thousands of years old, but scientific research exploring its possible health benefits has only just begun in the last few decades. Based on some of the encouraging work already completed, more studies are currently being conducted to explore how prayer—and the mind-body connection in general—can work to prevent, treat and slow the course of certain diseases and disorders. But remember, you don’t need a study to tell you why to pray—all you need is the desire within yourself.