Study Examines Attachment to God and Psychological Distress

Summary: Researchers report religious people who relate to a God in an uncertain or anxious manner are more likely to experience psychological distress disorders, including anxiety, paranoia, and obsessive compulsions. Findings reveal how different styles of attachment to a deity may be associated with poorer mental health outcomes.

Source: Westmont College

A national study examines the link between a perceived relationship with God and mental health from a sample of more than 1,600 Americans.

The research suggests that religious believers who relate to God in an uncertain or anxious manner are more likely to experience symptoms of psychological distress, including anxiety, paranoia, obsession and compulsion.

The study, “Attachment to God and Psychological Distress: Evidence of a Curvilinear Relationship” appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. It relies on data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, a national survey of American religious beliefs, values, and behaviors. The research sheds light on how different styles of connecting to God—or attaching to God—may be related to poorer mental health.

“Most research on attachment to God has suggested a simple linear relationship, where a less avoidant—or secure—relationship is associated with better mental health and a more avoidant relationship with worse,” said Blake Victor Kent, assistant professor of sociology at Westmont College. “But there have been hints in the research that the relationship may actually look more like an upside down U-shaped curve. So that’s what we looked for, and that’s what we found.”

The inverse curve was found in a scale composed of six items measuring avoidance and non-avoidance in relationship with God. Sample items read:

  • “I have a warm relationship with God.”
  • “God knows when I need support.”
  • “God seems to have little or no interest in my personal affairs.”

“Essentially what we found is that those who are less avoidant and those who are more avoidant in their relationship with God both have lower levels of psychological distress,” said study co-author W. Matthew Henderson, assistant professor of sociology at Union University.

“That challenges the existing research. These data suggest it’s only those in the middle, those who experience uncertainty in the relationship with God, and not the avoidant, that have worse mental health.”

This shows stained glass windows
While the study suggests avoidance may not be a red flag for some aspects of mental health, the authors contend avoidance can still cause problems in relationships, including relationships in the church. Image is in the public domain

This doesn’t mean avoidant attachment to God is unproblematic, however, according to Kent. “Avoidance is what happens when you just stop relying on God—you don’t trust that God will be there for you, so you learn to rely on yourself,” he said. “And that extends to other people as well.”

While the study suggests avoidance may not be a red flag for some aspects of mental health, the authors contend avoidance can still cause problems in relationships, including relationships in the church. “The more we understand how we relate to God and others, the healthier we can be,” Henderson said.

About this neurotheology and mental health research news

Author: Scott Craig
Source: Westmont College
Contact: Scott Craig – Westmont College
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Attachment to God and Psychological Distress: Evidence of a Curvilinear Relationship” by W. Matthew Henderson and Blake Victor Kent. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion


Attachment to God and Psychological Distress: Evidence of a Curvilinear Relationship

Previous religion/spirituality (R/S) research on attachment to God and mental well-being has relied entirely on linear models. Scholars, however, have called for more nuanced analysis of religious beliefs and dispositions relative to mental health, and several studies using a nonlinear approach have yielded fruitful results with a handful of R/S predictors.

Relying on national data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, this study investigates potential nonlinear associations between attachment to God and psychological distress by fitting curvilinear models of avoidant attachment to God and multiple measures of general and psychological distress. For conceptual reasons, linear models of anxious attachment are also employed.

Results reveal a nonlinear relationship between avoidant/secure attachment and distress and a deleterious linear relationship between anxious attachment to God and distress.

This supports the overall hypothesis that anxiety or a lack of certainty about one’s relationship with the divine represents a threat to psychological well-being.

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  1. First of all I would like to thank Neuroscience for their hard work and dedication to us the readers. I found this article interesting and my appinion is this the human body in structure is very similar across the board as is our lives it is simply the choices we make that determines how we feel or what we beleave. we were created from dust the creator has many names but love and wisdom,connects all things the creator to the creation and the creation back to the creator. Life is confusion.satisfaction,sadness,happiness in motion.fora number of days. Then death does come.and our bodies return to dust or ash. I beleave our body’s have two souls that live to love and live to fight to survive for eternity

  2. I think the article is good writing! I will say in my opinion and experience is that not enough people are able to separate God from an idealized religion. Religion is what caused my damaging beliefs about God but GOD in and of himself or herself or a higher power.. has nothing to do with religion. The laws and conforms of religion are the parts that create the performance based beliefs. Or the avoiding attachment styles if you will. God has nothing to do with it. People do once again. People are the ones who are using God’s name to create laws and rules and suggest that if you do anything other than perfectly adhere to principles and behaviors, you are damned to hell. The Bible doesn’t even say that. The Bible is also to be interpreted through the spirit.. not read and understood with a human mind. Also, there are sooo many things that give a loving caring and forgiving example. Like children, perfect, imperfect flawless beautiful innocent creatures. Until we force our will societal standards and our beliefs on to them. Once again,this is well written but please know.. God didn’t do any of this. People did.

  3. 100% false, it’s better to say relations with setan, devil or idols leads to this problem. God is peace, love and life.

    1. God believers love to speak in the name of his fantasy god, that “god don´t like this, or approve this, or do that” because their fantasy god never replies, just because god has never existed outside the heads of believers.

  4. Personally, I have been most at peace when I am close with God. I struggled with anxiety and depression before I learned to give all my stresses and worries to the Lord. It takes time, but teach yourself to pray the instant you feel anxiety and start to let your worries take over your mind. Study the Bible. Pray all the time, not just when things are going wrong. Don’t let the worldly view of things make up your mind for you.

  5. Westmont college turns out to be a Christian college. Shouldn’t that be mentioned somewhere since it appears their study was clouded by their own belief systems? Is this study purely on Christians? Are their ideas about how people should relate to “God” clouded by their preconceived ideas about how people should relate to god? This doesn’t seem like it’s credibly designed.

  6. You mean people get anxious because they are “uncertain “ about their relationship with God or “His” existence at all? Of course!
    Questioning where we come from and who created us (if at all there is a who) is an anxious process. I would’ve liked this study to be focused on a certain age group and a wider variety of religions. Somehow I feel the scientific methodology or even the point behind this research is lacking.

  7. As a Mental Health Therapist I do appreciate the information yielded by this scientific study. It just makes sense to me. Just as human beings who experience insecure attachment to their primary care givers, insecure attachment to a greater power creates anxiety, insecurity, a sense of not being safe, vulnerability, uncertainty, fear. Although not surprising, it is good to have a body of research to support the belief.

  8. How stupid! What an idiotic study! You could carry out a study on any relationship to prove that it creates stress. How about coming from the other end and studying how many people have found strength and peace in God. It’s like saying, being in a relationship with your parents creates stress and anxiety. People and circumstances can vary so their experiences would be different. If a person sees God as wrathful, his relationship would be very different from someone who perceives Him as Merciful and loving.
    So much time wasted in studying, researching and publishing absurdity. Find something more useful to do!

  9. You can not ignore the intelligently design and description of the universe ✨. Even a friction of seconds deviation is noticed in our lives and planet. Yes we are free in our well and to choose from descriptions existed. My suggestion would be to follow and live with that ALL Powerful in a belief that we will choose good deeds and not harmful to others.

  10. Thankfully this is untrue for myself. I find great comfort in God and my church community in times of personal distress.

  11. This is what passes as “news”?

    How about atheists? Or did the study throw them in with “avoiders”?

    So much dogma makes statements that “assume” there is a God. Yet when you get down to the nuts and bolts of evidence it’s all about…”well, everyone else thinks so”

  12. “Researchers report religious people who relate to a God in an uncertain or anxious manner are more likely to experience… anxiety…”

    So if you are more anxious you’re more likely to experience anxiety… Glad we cleared that up. ?‍♂️

    Perhaps if they also studied the individuals who relate to God with certainty or non-anxious manner they would find a lack of anxiety. Imagine that.

    Or how about the anxious non-religious who experience anxiety? Or maybe the non-anxious, non-religious who don’t?


  13. So what you seem to be forgetting is that in the Walk with God Any distress you may have comes from the Adversary, Satan, the devil. The more you try to give yourself to God, in my the beginning of your walk, the more Satan attacks you because he doesn’t want you to be happy or successful or at peace. These are things you obtain through God and Jesus. True happiness and peace and success. But as you walk more and more with the Father and the Son, you learn how to fight and defeat Satan in your mind and in this world. He is the master of confusion and destruction. He’ll stop at nothing to try and make us all bad. Any distress comes from him. And you cannot do a study in this field to figure it out. We are all different and attacked and blessed in different ways. And in time sins and bad memories will be erased!!!! Love you all!!!

  14. This article is presented as though a god exists, when there’s absolutely no scientific basis for that stance. To believe in God is to believe in magic and the supernatural, which has no place in science.

    I understand the need for research to determine how the belief in God impacts people, but to present that research as though a god’s existence is not questionable seems suspect.

    When it comes to the definitions in this research, is an atheist point-of-view the same as “avoidance”?

    1. I believe that God is a process, and l hope my poem below, captures my view.

      There is no Division.
      There is no division
      between science and religion
      Either there is an external God,
      who created everything,
      Or an internal force
      of pure consciousness,
      intelligence, energy and organisation.
      This internal force
      resides within every atom,
      Regulating and organising
      with accuracy and intelligence,
      And is the outward manifestation
      Of a divine force or God.

      First you have to define what you mean by the word “God”. lt`s amazing the number of people, who, when l have asked them “What is your definition of God” have been stumped for an answer !l personally do not like ANY religion, as thay are all man made, to reflect the beliefs and culture of the time, but l do believe in a higher power, a power that is beyond any religion, was there before any religion and will be there long after any religion . This power, by whichever word you choose to call it, ie, God, consciousness, energy, is to me a PROCESS, which is intrinsic in and the essence of, everything we can see, feel, hear and touch as well as that which we cannot, ie the invisible. and is a living energy, organisation, intelligence and consciousness which runs through everything and for all time, it is eternal !!!

      Everything in observable reality points to an Intelligent Direrector.|”
      This is in line with my comment on this thread about God being a process. lt seems obvious to me as an intelligent human being that EITHER there in intelligent organisation within everything physical or there is some external creator, it can only be one or the other.

      In a nutshell:
      The energy, organisation and consciousness intrinsic in and the essence of everything inwardly expressed outwardly !

  15. I would first like to say that this is just one more thing that seems to say there was only one God and he is the Christian / judaic / Islamic God. I am sorry if I offend but Americans have the bad habit not only assuming that everyone is Christian but writing things that way. And speaking them that way and assuming that way. You might have said something like the judeo Christian God which would have been a lot less offensive to the Millions of agnostics and atheists to the Millions of pagans in this country not to mention who knows how many Hindus and other religions. I’m sure I will seem picky to you but rest assured I speak for the millions of people in this country who do not believe in the abrahamic god.
    I would like to see a study looking into the difference mentally between the new Evangelical Christians and the type of moderate Christians who do outnumber them.
    Dragonmom (Tana)

    1. Thank you Tana. While I believe this study focused on the Judeo Christian god, it is possible to effect extends to other deities and beliefs (If the researchers could confirm, that would be helpful. If not, it could be another avenue for research). I also included “a god” and “a deity” in the summary, rather than stating just one iteration of “god”.

    2. There are many religions but only one God. An analogy would be that religions are the branches of a tree but that God is the tree itself.
      l say more about this in my earlier comment.

  16. I always have relied on myself but when times became too much for me causing anxiety I turned to God. He always helps me get through the trying times. ?

  17. It seems odd with the mental health care crisis in America where there are a million people living on the street and millions more in desperate need you chose a study of 1600 people to state they sound like the typical worriers who live in Suburbia.

  18. I’m sure there is important information in this article. However I needed a more descriptive explanation of an avoidance/non avoidance relationship with God.
    I had difficulty fully understanding.
    I wish information had been presented in a more
    ‘lay person’ format.

    1. Precisely LK. I think the article had interesting information but perhaps could have been written a bit more ‘reader friendly’.

    2. l think this is a very good article and has provoked a lot of response, very varied response!

      l hope my 2 comments on here, 1 very short, 1 very long, starting with a poem on science and spirituality, both give a description of how l always feel connected to a higher power that is not a religion !!

      l also hope the moderators might consider having an upvote button and a downvote button, that would give them and the posters a better idea of what people find interesting or not !

  19. What a load of crap. This is a sad cry fir attention by appealing to those who look down on religious faith to begin with. Snd a study group of 1600 is nothing.

    1. People don’t “look down on” you, that’s martyrdom talking.

      We just try to avoid you, because religious people ABSOLUTELY “look down on” the nonreligious, as well as DEMAND we respect and participate in your rituals!

    1. This article is based on biased data from a Christian god based research, and is inherently skewed.
      I come to Neuroscience News for real Scientific information, not statistical data gathered for a manipulative purpose.
      Furthermore, what does god, any god, have to do with Neuroscience News, especially from 2010?
      Many science oriented readers may not believe in any god, and to insinuate that may be indicative of mental health, or psychological problems, is preposterous.

  20. Your title is misleading. You imply that attachment to God creates psychological distress. Was that purposeful?

    1. This study seems incomplete. What if people have more ambivalence in their religious beliefs BECAUSE they experience more psychological distress? Also,they state that avoidance of God is otherwise problematic but don’t specify how . . Other than not relying on God for support.

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