Friday, January 10, 2014

Faith Healing

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.

Reuters reported:

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.

Reuters continues:

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.


Ares Olympus said...

Myself, of the great state of Minnesota, elected Wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor 15 years ago who said “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people's business. I live by the golden rule: Treat others as you'd want them to treat you. The religious right wants to tell people how to live.”

He got in trouble for that, mostly quoting the "weak-minded" part, and I admit when "faith" means sitting at home on Sunday morning watching faith healer Benny Hinn reperforming Jesus's miracles, and then writing a 10% tithing to this performer, I think Faith needs a little Reason to protect it from exploitation.

Myself, if you ask me if I believe in God, I might say yes on some days, but if you ask me to describe the characteristics of God, his motives or intentions, I'll say I don't know. And I certainly have no serious expectations of the afterlife, hell or heaven, or whatever, and reincarnation makes as much sense as anything.

The key that I see in religion, is if we're all meant to be children, there's no problem, and we can believe in the garden, and play and laugh, and listen to to John Lennon's "Imagine" all day and be happy.

And to be fair, a lot of modern religion is reduced to theater and feel-good messages that react to feel-guilty messages of older religions, and what's a minister to do - bring people in by telling them what they want to hear, or what you think they need to hear?

So somewhere in all that "Faith" is supposed to do something good for us, whether or not its based on feel-good-lies or on honest-truth?

Myself, sometimes I'm not sure if the purpose of religion isn't anything deeper than story telling. That is, I think there's a need to see things from many points of view, including ones completely outside our normal affinity. So that's why Jesus demonstrated how to side-step moral self-righteousness, and see value in the lowest thing, and the greatest sinners, even tax collectors!

I guess for me what "faith" is comes down to what carries us when the world doesn't conform to our ideals, like King Arthur's "Might for Right", reversing "Might makes Right", so once you have an ideal you can tilt at windmills, and make a fool of yourself, but represent an ideal the world has neglected, but at least in one moment, that ideal is visible through our actions.

The enemy is perhaps our reactionary brain, our fight or flight responses that keep us closed to things we don't yet recognize what they are about. So anything faith can do to give space to seeing what things ARE rather than what they look like, is a sort of miracle.

As Ventura points out, a danger in religion perhaps is that it makes people think because they've assigned an ideal in their minds, and have faith that it is God's ideal, that they have a right to try to impose that ideal on others who are not ready for it, or don't trust it.

There's strange things afoot in self-righteousness, like religious leaders who are most vocal against homosexuality, it turns out are fighting their own inner demons, and abusing others rather than seeing what's inside. So then Faith becomes a shield of keeping the truth hidden, and very bad I think, even if they feel good when it enables them to win battles against the outer enemies of their hidden God.

Anonymous said...

I'm an agnostic. But from the time of Bohr ("If you think quantum mechanics makes sense, you don't understand it") the theories of small particle physics & cosmology have become more and more fantastical. And un-provable.

IMHO, as much as the concept of a Supreme Being.

I lack the capacity for religious faith. I realized that at 13, in Catholic School. I equate "scientism" with it.

I can only echo Camus' "Absurd". And do my best to be a good person. -- Rich Lara

Lastango said...

"But, it would be strange indeed if believing in an illusion did your mental health more good than did believing in nothing."

Or, more good than did believing in the au courant tenets of the Church of Anything, such as:
- Environmentalism.
- the inherent goodness of progressivism.
- the horror of individualism.
- elite government.
- celebrity-ism.
- the fantasy-world of Big Media.
- the pseudo-knowledge of deconstructivism.
- the intrinsic value of internet-facilitated social connection.

Said another way, in the Church of Anything the true believers are worshiping themselves, engaged in a lifelong selfie. They are their own Pan.

Larry Sheldon said...

In a way, it sounds like a Proof of Pascal's Wager.

Larry Sheldon said...

Or something like that.

Anonymous said...

In the movie "Cold Mountain", there's an ante-bellum church scene. Congregants are singing (approx.) "Oh Lord, please take me to Heaven soon. Because this awful life is unbearable".

There's a similar Catholic prayer, which includes, "... mourning and weeping in this valley of tears ..."

Life was terribly brutal until my generation. I got a taste of it recently, with tooth agony that was torture. Bad infection & extraction.

BTW. The pain persisted for 2 days after extraction. My dentist is a sweetheart, but he refused to give me med for pain. I understood. DA's put dentists and Drs in prison for "abusing" pain meds.

I'm not a vengeful man. But I'd like Fortuna to torture those sadistic puritanical DA's & judges & legislators. With Extreme Prejudice. -- Rich Lara

Larry Sheldon said...

Not arguing with the facts given, my recall is from 50 or more years ago and I now have trouble remembering from 50 seconds ago.


The first abscessed tooth hit me a long time ago, and what I am sure I remember correctly is that it started late in the week and I was in denial until late Saturday when I called the dentist at home (they used to have listings in the phone book that worked--my current dentist still does.

He told me that he could go in but it would cost me more than I could afford (I couldn't afford any at all, really),, and that if I could hold out to Monday it would be a bunch cheaper.

So I held out--not sure how, I lived at home and my parents were essentially teetotal).

But Monday morning I was sitting on his front steps when got there.

He did the diagnostic work (finding the "bad" tooth had a crack in it that had not been apparent a month or so earlier during a routine exam.

He drilled a hole in the tooth and the relief of pressure and pain was so great that I became a serious shock concern.

I remember taking antibiotics, but I don't remember any pain meds.

Anonymous said...

My faith healer is Barack Obama. He makes everything better because I believe in him and how smart he is. He's the best president we've ever had. I hope he stays in office forever so we'll have a forever of these amazingly awesome things that are happening to America. He is healing our country from its racist past... because he knows what justice is. For real. Free stuff for everyone! Word.


Anonymous said...

When pot is legal in every state, America will heal.

Larry Sheldon said...

I am not an expert in any of the areas discussed here, but I have noted, over my 75 summers, things that are not well explained by any experts I know.

Some times it looks like "miracle, the result of prayer" is about the best explanation of the facts.

Some times it seems that "placebo effect" is the best available answer.

And so on down the catalog.

The one thing I do know for sure: I don't know.

Dennis said...

Thanks Tip,

I needed that.

The Church of What's happening Now.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, you were practicing psychoanalysis for many years. Did you torture your clients? Did you manipulate? Should you give them their money back? Maybe not.

Lazar, S. (2010). Psychotherapy is Worth It; A Comprehensive Review of Cost Effectiveness, American Psychiatric Publishing.

Shedler, J. (2010). The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, American Psychologist, 65, 98-109.

Summers, R., Barber, J. (2009). Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: A Guide to Evidence Based Practice. The Guilford Press.

Anonymous said...

A reduction in psychiatric symptoms and improvement in work ability and functional capacity was noted in all treatment groups during the 5-year follow-up. The short-term therapies were more effective than psychoanalysis during the first year, whereas the long-term therapy was more effective after 3years of follow-up. Psychoanalysis was most effective at the 5-year follow-up, which also marked the end of the psychoanalysis.
Psychotherapy gives faster benefits than psychoanalysis, but in the long run psychoanalysis seems to be more effective. Results from trials, among patients suitable for psychoanalysis and with longer follow-up, are needed before firm conclusions about the relative effectiveness of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders can be drawn.

Anonymous said...

That's right, Anonymous... by lying on a couch and sharing your subjective feelings about how you see the world, life will get better for you. Without any other social feedback from actual human beings! This idea that talking to someone who says "Yes, yes, go on..." will make a life-shattering difference?

Give me a break.

I respect Stuart for this blog and his humility about what I understand as his previous professional worldview... and his growth from it. He actually wants people to move forward with their lives! It's much easier to follow the same-old, same-old groupthink. He's choosing something else to support his clients.

I'll leave it to Stuart to answer the implied "torture" accusation.


Anonymous said...

Tip, this about torturing is not my accusation, but Stuart's suggestion about analysts. So this is quite obvious to ask for it.
What I think about efficacy of lying on a couch is not important. I gave a lot of links to researches.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 4:26 AM 1/12/14

So what you're saying is that you've set a trap, using an either-or distinction. How very clever.

And you've cited a bunch of research produced by the profession in question. Doubly clever. Do you think that these organizations and practitioners will not have some research to defend the approach that represents the foundation of their existence (Freudian psychoanalysis)?

And your thoughts on the efficacy of lying on the couch are material here. Without it, you have no skin in the game, and are merely acting as an inquisitor. If that is the case, you have no position. You are just trying to make a point while claiming to not be making a point, citing others' research. There's a word for that kind of thing.

And finally, I re-read Stuart's original post and all the comments here. You introduced "torture" into the mix. Stuart made no such suggestion, nor implication. We're talking about what approach has efficacy with anxiety and depression. I said it is my faith in Barack Obama's greatness that gets me through the day. What's yours?


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Aside from the fact that no one who knows anything believes that psychoanalysis works as a therapy, if it is as good as the studies cited pretend, why is it that no one does it any more? In the world of psychiatry psychoanalysis has been eclipsed by cognitive behavioral therapy and, of course, medication. This does not feel like a definitive sign of how effective it is!!

Anonymous said...

But you don't use this kind of thinking when you discuss about global warming.

Anonymous said...