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Does Being Religious Make You Prone To Depression?

by   -  July 14th, 2014

Religion and spirituality certainly offer their share of benefits, but research regarding its ability to stave off depression is mixed.

Depression is described as a state where the sufferer experiences “feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and of being out of control." Depressed people have a hard time finding the silver lining in things. It's not a coincidence that religion and spirituality can sometimes offer exactly what is missing in a depressed person's life.

However, that isn't the be-all and end-all of the situation. In fact, it appears the debate about religion and spirituality's role in depression may be challenged for a while. Recently, there were two studies released on the topic and unfortunately, they don't seem to corroborate one another.

Two Seemingly Contradictory Studies

The first study conducted by Columbia University Teacher's College was published online in December 2013 by JAMA Psychiatry and involved 103 adults at either high or low risk of depression, based on their family history. The subjects were asked how highly they valued religion or spirituality. Interestingly, brain MRIs showed thicker cortices in subjects who placed a high importance on religion or spirituality. This relatively thicker cortex was found in precisely the same regions of the brain that had shown thinning in people at high risk for depression.

The researchers of the study explained that the cortex, the brain's outer layer, may possibly hold some keys to combating depression.

A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression, possibly by expanding a cortical reserve that counters to some extent the vulnerability that cortical thinning poses for developing familial depressive illness, states the research abstract.

The second study conducted by University College, London Medical School was published in October 2013 in Psychological Medicine. Over 8,000 people across seven countries were followed up at six and 12 months to understand the risk factors for depression in religious and spiritual individuals. The study encompassed Great Britain, Spain, Slovenia, Netherlands, Portugal, Chile and Estonia. The subjects were from varying backgrounds and covered urban and rural populations with considerable socio-economic variation.

A key finding of this study is that a religious and/or spiritual life view predisposed those individuals to major depression. This was especially significantly in the UK, where spiritual participants were nearly three times more likely to experience an episode of depression than their secular counterparts.

Regardless of country, the stronger the spiritual or religious belief at the start of the study, the higher their risk was for developing the onset of depression. Interestingly, the incidence of depression over the subsequent 12 months was similar across the different religious denominations (Catholic 9.8%, Protestant 10.9%, other religions 11.5%, no specific religion 10.8%). Those with more strongly held religious or spiritual convictions were twice as likely to experience major depression.

Does Religion help with depression

There are of course, considerations to take in when looking at these two studies and their eventual findings. The first study was conducted over a decade, following the same 103 people, while the second study took place over the course of a year. That being said, the first study had a very small population sampling, while the second was conducted on a much broader base and with diversity in mind. The most interesting finding that I'll be following is the MRIs for the highly religious/spiritual individuals. If the thicker cortices can be replicated on a broader scale, what might that mean? And could it actually supersede any evidence to the contrary of their initial findings?

While it might seem like these two studies completely contradict each other, I tend to be a somewhat skeptical person by nature, despite my interest in many alternative therapies and thinking. One of the things that nags at my mind when researching these two studies is the idea that we need to be comparing apples to apples. Religious and spiritual people as a whole may not utilize or tap into the same part of their brain as those who are considered highly religious/spiritual. Dabbling in religion or having a very broad basis for spirituality can leave someone on a journey with no roadmap. Those who tend to be highly religious or highly spiritual likely will have a very strict guideline for their religious lives and adhere to that without the need for much stress. So these two groups, while seemingly similar, appear to have a key component in contrast: devoutness.

So perhaps the thing to take away from these two seemingly contradictory studies is this: as with everything in life, when you have a plan and goals, you get somewhere good. If you want to get the most out of your religion or spirituality, be true to it. Learn as much as you can. Embrace it and let it guide you. If you do that... you may find living in this world gets a little easier.

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is an passionate author and freelancer from Minnesotan with a focus in creative writing.

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