Religion and Psychology Share Methods for Reducing Distress

Summary: Religious people tend to use cognitive reappraisal strategies to help cope with emotional and mental health problems.

Source: University of Illinois

Religious people facing life crises rely on emotion-regulation strategies that psychologists also use, a new study finds. They look for positive ways of thinking about hardship, a practice known to psychologists as “cognitive reappraisal.” They also tend to have confidence in their ability to cope with difficulty, a trait called “coping self-efficacy.” Both have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The new findings are reported in the Journal of Religion and Health.

“It appears that religious people are making use of some of the same tools that psychologists have systematically identified as effective in increasing well-being and protecting against distress,” said Florin Dolcos, a professor of psychology in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who led the study with psychology professor Sanda Dolcos and graduate student Kelly Hohl. “This suggests that science and religion are on the same page when it comes to coping with hardship,” he said.

The research was prompted in part by earlier studies demonstrating that people who are religious tend to use a coping strategy that closely resembles cognitive reappraisal.

“For example, when somebody dies, a religious person may say, ‘OK, now they are with God,’ while someone who isn’t religious may say, ‘Well, at least they are not suffering anymore,'” Florin Dolcos said. In both cases, the individual finds comfort in framing the situation in a more positive light.

To determine if religious people rely on – and benefit from – reappraisal as an emotion-regulation strategy, the researchers recruited 203 participants with no clinical diagnoses of depression or anxiety. Fifty-seven of the study subjects also answered questions about their level of religiosity or spirituality.

The researchers asked participants to select from a series of options describing their attitudes and practices.

“We asked them about their coping styles. So, for religious coping, we asked if they try to find comfort in their religious or spiritual beliefs,” Hohl said. “We asked them how often they reappraise negative situations to find a more positive way of framing them or whether they suppress their emotions.”

The researchers also evaluated participants’ confidence in their ability to cope and asked them questions designed to measure their symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Hohl said she looked for correlations between coping strategies, religious or nonreligious attitudes and practices, and levels of distress. She also conducted a mediation analysis to determine which practices specifically influenced outcomes like depression or anxiety.

“If we are just looking at the relationship between religious coping and lower anxiety, we don’t know exactly which strategy is facilitating this positive outcome,” Sanda Dolcos said. “The mediation analysis helps us determine whether religious people are using reappraisal as an effective way of lessening their distress.”

This shows two heads and a brain in a lightbulb
The research was prompted in part by earlier studies demonstrating that people who are religious tend to use a coping strategy that closely resembles cognitive reappraisal. Image is in the public domain

The analysis also shows whether an individual’s confidence in their ability to handle crises – another factor that psychological studies have found is associated with less depression and anxiety – “facilitates the protecting role of religious coping against such symptoms of emotional distress,” Sanda Dolcos said. “We found that if people are using religious coping, then they also have decreased anxiety or depressive symptoms.”

Cognitive reappraisal and coping self-efficacy were contributing to those decreased symptoms of distress, she said.

The study should be of interest to clinical psychologists working with religious clients, Hohl said. “It should also speak to clergy members or church leaders who can promote this kind of reappraisal to help parishioners make sense of the world and increase their resilience against stress.”

“I hope this is an example of where religion and science can work together to maintain and increase well-being,” Florin Dolcos said.

About this religion and psychology research news

Source: University of Illinois
Contact: Diana Yates – University of Illinois
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Religiosity and Resilience: Cognitive Reappraisal and Coping Self-Efficacy Mediate the Link between Religious Coping and Well-Being” by Florin Dolcos, Kelly Hohl, Yifan Hu & Sanda Dolcos. Journal of Religion and Health


Religiosity and Resilience: Cognitive Reappraisal and Coping Self-Efficacy Mediate the Link between Religious Coping and Well-Being

Qualitative evidence points to the engagement of religious coping strategies when facing adversity, and evidence also highlights the effectiveness of cognitive reappraisal in reducing the impact of distressing emotions on well-being. It has been suggested that religious practices could facilitate the use of reappraisal, by promoting reframing of negative cognitions to alter emotional states. However, the link between religiosity and reappraisal in influencing resilience against symptoms of distress is not known. The current study (N = 203) examined connections among these aspects, using self-reported measures of religious coping, habitual use of specific coping strategies (positive reappraisal) and perceived confidence in using coping strategies, as well as questionnaires assessing symptoms of distress (anxiety and depression). Results point to a mediating role of reappraisal and coping self-efficacy as part of mechanisms that provide a protecting role of religious coping against emotional distress. These results provide novel scientific evidence further validating millennia-old traditional coping practices and shed light on psychological factors influencing adaptive behaviors that promote increased resilience, reduce symptoms of distress, and maintain emotional well-being. These findings inform general counseling practices and counseling of religious clients alike.

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  1. Great read, quite a few programs out on the theological side adding more and more psychology to their programs. I am currently pursuing a Masters and later PsyD in order to better understand why these correlations work so well. While I love biblical counseling, often the various counseling tools offered in clinical practice can be both profound and useful in getting people to see where they need to be. Both Christian Counseling and Psychology facilitate people and or groups to “find their way back” to a more successful and satisfying lifestyle. It is up to the person to do this, and with the help of those properly trained to understand both side of the coin. Fine examples include those persons who come into office asking to pray or those who want or need help in an addiction situation. The extra knowledge on either side never hurts!

  2. Good study and I would like to add that as knowledge and globalization of knowledge exchange has increased ,more logical rationalizations will work better like the regular utterances of “inna lillahi…..: when somebody dies shaking a person to the reality that everybody has to give up life …OR ..”in sha allah”…when we intend anything to be done ….giving an absolute belief (in reality) that everything is happening as per God’s will …we can add lots to this list of absolute realities which can work with all people of all levels of education.

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