By now we know what doesn’t work as psychotherapy. The list includes psychoanalysis and marriage counseling, but it can easily be extended. To avoid sounding more churlish than usual I will not list the others.
Of course, we have a very good idea of what does help people to overcome anxiety and depression. One might start with cognitive therapy and aerobic exercise, and continue to various medications. Happily, the list is long, and getting longer.
Now, we can add another therapeutic agent, one that will help with both anxiety and depression. It is: faith.
Not faith in the Mother Goddess or in Pan, but faith in God. Whoever would have imagined such a thing?
As we know, it’s trendy to be an atheist. Anyone who proclaims his faith in nothing will be counted among the cognoscenti.
If you are of the atheistic persuasion, if you are so skeptical that you cannot believe in God, ask yourself this: what has atheism done for you lately?
Those who believe in God might find it somewhat disrespectful to ask what God has done for them lately, but surely the question arises.
If we wanted to be more rigorous we could ask what the two different beliefs can do for those who hold them.
These are fair questions. It is obviously impossible to prove scientifically that God exists. It is equally impossible to prove scientifically that God does not exist.
It is, however, possible to study the brain function of believers and unbelievers. And it is possible to examine the behavior of the same two groups.
The results are fairly unequivocal: those who believe in God are more likely to enjoy better mental health. Believing in God gives meaning and purpose to your life and these will stand you in good stead when depression or anxiety threatens.
For people at high risk of depression because of a family history, spirituality may offer some protection for the brain, a new study hints.
Parts of the brain's outer layer, the cortex, were thicker in high-risk study participants who said religion or spirituality was "important" to them versus those who cared less about religion.
"Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this," Myrna Weissman told Reuters Health. "The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods."
Of course, we do not know whether religion helps people to attain better mental health or whether people with better mental health are more prone to believe in God.
It might hint, however, that religiosity can enhance the brain's resilience against depression in a very physical way, they write.
Previously, the researchers had found that people who said they were religious or spiritual were at lower risk of depression. They also found that people at higher risk for depression had thinning cortices, compared to those with lower depression risk.
We can see it now, a new book: How thick is your cortex? Remember the old days when being “thick” was an insult and being thin, in a different context, was desirable?
The results of Myrna Weissman’s New York study correlate well with the results attained in a British study that looked at the issue through the lens of social psychology.
The London Telegraph reports on a survey that asked workers to report their levels of anxiety and depression. It found that good mental health correlated well with being religious:
Religion is the answer to combating work stress because it provides a "buffer against strains" of modern life, research has claimed.
Dr Roxane Gervais, a senior psychologist at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Stockport, surveyed employees to find out how content they were with their working lives.
The study concluded that employees who are more actively religious are more likely to report low levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue and also higher presence of meaning in life, that is feeling that their lives have meaning.
Workers said that attending religious services connects them to a higher being as well as makes them feel better about themselves.
Dr Gervais said: “As the pace of work and life accelerates, people long for meaning, and the younger generation in particular is looking for more than just a big pay cheque at the end of the month.
Does any of this prove that God exists? Not really. But, it would be strange indeed if believing in an illusion did your mental health more good than did believing in nothing.