What effect does faith have on physical healing? Do religious or spiritual practices help people recover from — or cope with — illness and injury? Such questions are the subject of a discussion between Sally Quinn, a moderator of the online feature “On Faith,” and Christina Puchalski, a professor of medicine and health sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine and executive director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health.
Quinn: What is the truth about the statistics on helping people spiritually and religiously in medical situations?
Puchalski: I don’t have the truth — I can give you a reflection. Intercessory prayer studies are usually measuring some sort of health outcome and saying people are getting better because they’re being prayed for; yet if you talk to theological leaders or religious leaders, in most religious traditions, prayer is not for our desired outcome, it’s really for God’s outcome for us. And so one might say that death might be a good outcome if that’s God’s will. People, anecdotally, feel better if they’re prayed for by others, so I think it’s important. And most people who find prayer meaningful are finding something in their life that research can’t measure.
Quinn: But if people are religious, if they are devoutly religious and believe in God, do they have better health outcomes than people who do not?
Puchalski: Other studies have been done that have shown that people who are religious or have religious practices or spiritual practices do have some better health-care outcomes. It would be very hard to do what is a gold standard in medicine, which is a clinically controlled trial.
I think there are possible mechanisms. One, for religious people, there is social support from the community. And clearly, there are numerous studies that show that social support is beneficial.
But I also think that there’s something about religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs, again, that helps people understand suffering, find meaning in suffering. It helps you position your illness, if you will, in an appropriate place. So that instead of the illness becoming the sole meaning and focus in your life, it becomes part of your life. You find meaning from it, you find the ability to reframe your situation and move on.
Let’s say you have an amputation, and you can no longer do the art that you’ve done. What a spiritual approach would do is to say, “What is your life really about? Is it really about the art, or is it about something else?” It really helps you find another way to express that creativity, so that you don’t need your arm to do the art, you might be able to teach about art, or you might be able to do something else.
I’ll give you an example of a colleague of mine who recently died, a Roman Catholic physicist who was diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer many years ago and was given only a few years to live. He died 17 years after his diagnosis. What his belief systems helped him do was to recognize there are certain things he just has to put into God’s hands. He cannot control that. But there are other things he could control and have some impact on, so that’s where he put his energies, and he was able to find peace in that, and actually live, as he put it, “ a more holistic and centered life.”
There’s also very strong research in neurobiology and neurophysiology, for example, looking at changes in the brain for people that have a regular spiritual practice. This has led to some theories that spirituality and/or religion can help people find a coherence, and that you can actually map that in the brain physiologically.