Religion and psychology share methods for reducing stress: Univ. of Illinois study

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A new study from the University of Illinois reveals that religious people rely on coping strategies used by psychologists when working through stressful life situations.

The study, titled “Religiosity and Resilience: Cognitive Reappraisal and Coping Self-Efficacy Mediate the Link between Religious Coping and Well-Being,” was published Jan. 7.

University of Illinois psychology professors Sanda Dolcos and Florin Dolcos and graduate student Kelly Hohl conducted the study, which surveyed 203 young adults, between the ages of 18 and 39, living at or near the University of Illinois campus about how they deal with adversity.

Participants were given a list of methods that people use for coping with difficulty in their lives and used scales of various lengths to indicate how frequently or infrequently they engaged in each method. Using the participants’ responses, the researchers analyzed the relationship between the use of religious coping mechanisms, an individual’s confidence in his or her ability to manage stress and an individual’s anxiety and depression. 

Assessing the results of the study, Florin Dolcos remarked that “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.”

Therefore, he concluded, “Science and religion are on the same page when it comes to coping with hardship.” Dolcos expressed hope that the study will serve as “an example of where religion and science can work together to maintain and increase well-being.”

Cognitive reappraisal, where people try to address hardship with a positive attitude, is an example of a coping mechanism used by both the religious and psychological communities. “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’re not suffering anymore,’” Florin Dolcos said.

Elaborating further on the results of the study, Hohl explained that, “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. 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 graduate student contended that both psychologists and religious leaders can benefit from analyzing the results of the study.

The study should “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,” Hohl said.

According to Sanda Dolcos, “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. The mediation analysis helps us determine whether religious people are using reappraisal as an effective way of lessening their distress.”

“We found that if people are using religious coping, that they also have decreased anxiety or depressive symptoms,” she added.

Going forward, the authors hope that future studies on this particular matter include older adults and feature a “more balanced religious representation.” For this particular study, the participants were overwhelmingly Christian, mirroring the religious composition of adults residing in the Midwest. The researchers said that the overwhelmingly Christian sample “limits the generalizability of the present findings to religions other than Christianity.”

The researchers concluded that use of religious reappraisal and coping self-efficacy, an individual’s perceived ability to deal with stress, may “have beneficial effects reflected in reduced symptoms of distress and improved well-being and quality of life.”

“Such positive outcomes are especially relevant when facing a crisis, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as religious individuals may learn and apply helpful emotional regulation and coping strategies from therapy and other faith-based contexts to better manage everyday stress,” they added. 

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