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The healing power of pausing, praying

| May 5, 2020 1:00 AM

Most realize fairly early in human experience that releasing our most pressing thoughts has healing, even restorative effects.

One way to accomplish that is through meditation or prayer. Call it devotion or stress release, spirituality or health practice — perhaps all of these, whatever your perspective science backs up its value.

If it’s not already a habit, May 7 is a good day to start. Signed into law on April 17, 1952, and commemorating a similar call by the Continental Congress, the National Day of Prayer calls on Americans of all belief systems to share a spiritual moment.

Besides this potentially unified focus, prayer and meditation in general have been associated with a variety of benefits.

Addiction. A 2016 study at NYU published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that Alcoholics Anonymous members who recited AA prayers (which can be adapted to individual belief) after viewing drinking-related images reported less craving after praying, compared with those who didn’t. The reduced cravings corresponded to brain activity measured by MRI.

AA has long incorporated a spiritual element to overcoming addiction.

Happy chemicals. Multiple studies confirm meditation boosts mood-impacting serotonin — the “happy neurotransmitter” — and reduces the stress hormone cortisol in the brain. University of Montreal research published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience in 2007 quantified the relationship between serotonin levels and self-induced mood changes by contemplating happy or sad feelings.

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ben Shapero is studying 15-minute daily mindfulness meditation as alternative therapy for depressed patients who don’t respond well to drugs or counseling, with good results confirmed by MRIs. He’s been working with HMS Radiologist Gaelle Desbordes, whose research in 2012 demonstrated that serotonin-associated brain changes in subjects who learned to meditate over two months continued even when they weren’t meditating, while they did everyday tasks. She reported that was the first time such a continuing change had been detected.

A little focused quiet time daily, with eyes closed and slowed, deep breathing, apparently does wonders.

Physical health. Prior studies have linked meditation with changing gene expression and lowered blood pressure (2018 Bhasin et. al.), along with associated health improvements such as arthritis.

Calling prayer “a special form of meditation” with “healing power,” psychopharmacological research published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2009 reported improved outcomes in wound healing and desired pregnancy rates for patients who prayed (although not in cardiovascular patients, echoing 2001 Mayo Clinic and 2005 Duke studies).

Collective consciousness. French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) argued that religion is broader than its particular beliefs, also providing social cohesion and bonding through common belief and a comforting sense of togetherness. Collective consciousness, he said, is the fusion of all our individual consciousnesses and creates a reality of its own.

His ideas are a popular subject of research, including prayer.

While the frequency of prayer did not show a significant reduction of anxiety, generally prayer by individuals who feel “secure in their attachment to God” was associated with feeling less anxious (Ellison et. al. 2014).

A 2009 study reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Medicine indicated “significant improvement” in feelings of depression and anxiety by patients participating in a prayer group. While their measured cortisol levels did not change, reported feelings of optimism lasted one month after the final prayer session.

While praying alone has not been associated with improved symptoms in patients with severe anxiety (Baylor University and Ellison 2014), for others, when coupled with secure belief systems and church attendance, it has been associated with feeling more satisfied with life.

Hundreds of scientific papers have been published linking positive thinking in general with better outcomes in one form or another. But science aside, here’s the thing: Focusing on our spiritual side with good intentions, however translated — prayer, meditation, forest bathing or merely quiet time to reflect carved out of a busy day — sure can’t hurt.

And doing it together just might improve how we see the world and each other.

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.