The nationwide lockdowns that came during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the ways people around the world connected with others, fulfilled school and work obligations, and took care of their own mental health.
For Philip Baldwin, faith was essential for making it through three months of lockdown. Baldwin lives alone, and when he found out that his local church’s services and group prayer gatherings were suspended, he experienced what he described as “a time of anxiety.” During the months-long isolation, he focused on nurturing his faith.
“I created a sacred space in my home for prayer and reflection,” Baldwin said, “with a few select items like the Bible and candles, celebrating Jesus and reflecting on his teachings.”
Baldwin’s church helped congregants maintain their connections with one another through weekly newsletters.
“Each week we’ve been sent a service sheet so we can worship at the same time on a Sunday. We pray for selected members each time so nobody feels left out.”
Whether it’s a large-scale crisis such as a pandemic, natural disaster or war, or a personal crisis such as the death of a loved one or an unexpected job loss, faith and spirituality can be valuable coping mechanisms. Baldwin is far from alone when it comes to a reliance on spiritual beliefs for weathering difficult times. In fact, as a result of decades of research, many clinicians recognize religious coping as an invaluable tool during crises.
In a small study that observed how religious coping methods affected participants’ mental, physical, and spiritual health over time, researchers found that those with positive religious coping methods had better outcomes than those who didn’t rely on spiritual beliefs. Another study shows that regularly participating in religious and spiritual activities literally changes the brain, causing the cerebral cortex to thicken. This may provide protection from depression, particularly in those more susceptible to this disease.
How Faith and Spirituality Help During Times of Crisis
Like Baldwin, many people cite their faith as an important aspect of handling difficult situations. Religion has been helping people for thousands of years process grief, make sense of the world around them, and remain optimistic about the future. There are numerous positive aspects of religious coping regardless of the belief system an individual identifies with.
Religious Coping Can Help Reframe Circumstances
Crises such as losing loved ones, financial troubles and discouraging medical diagnoses are often inescapable. Religion and spirituality provide positive ways to reframe difficult circumstances and enable individuals to see them as opportunities for self-improvement. While religious coping doesn’t necessarily minimize the pain someone experiences, it can help them maintain optimism and hope.
Religious Coping Can Promote a Sense of Connectedness
Humans are inherently social creatures. For many people, an important part of their identity comes from their social group. Unfortunately, making friends and fostering a sense of community is hard. Despite the increasing number of social media platforms oriented around helping people build connections, a growing number of people report being lonely. Not only does loneliness affect a person’s current quality of life, but it also can have serious long-term medical consequences such as an increased risk of dementia, depression, heart disease, and stroke.
In a world where meaningful social connections are hard to come by, belief systems offer ready-made social groups that are generally eager to accept newcomers. People have an opportunity to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves, giving them a sense of purpose. While this is valuable during any season of life, it may be particularly helpful during difficult times. For many people who identify as spiritual or religious, being a part of a community in which members give and gain emotional support is essential for handling crises.
Religious Coping Can Bring Comfort Through Rituals
Rituals play a large role in anyone’s life, religious or otherwise. Most people follow the same pattern of events every day from the moment they get up until they go to bed. Large-scale rituals are used to mark important occasions, including births, graduations, marriages and deaths. Small rituals that individuals participate in regardless of what else is happening in their lives, such as the morning cup of coffee, evening walks, and bedtime routines, provide comfort.
According to Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist who focuses on ritual behaviors, people tend to perform more rituals during times of uncertainty. In a 2015 lab study, Xygalatas and his colleagues observed that during times of stress, people’s behavior becomes more ritualized. When life becomes unpredictable, rigid routines and rituals bring a sense of comfort and predictability.
Religious rituals, whether they’re congregational gatherings and small group meetings or personal times of prayer, study, and reflection, bring a sense of normalcy. Xygalatas’ study shows that this can reduce symptoms of anxiety and create a sense of normalcy.
5 Ways to Rely on Faith During a Crisis
C.S. Lewis, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, once wrote, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
For many people, prayer is vital during difficult times. It can help them gain perspective and bring feelings of alignment with God. The individual may also experience peace, gratitude, and hope, all of which are important for getting through crises. Some people prefer to pray in their own words while others are guided by written prayers. Either way, praying can provide a helpful outlet for gaining perspective, processing feelings and maintaining faith.
Meditation is a spiritual discipline that’s associated with decreased stress, better concentration, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are multiple types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, and yoga meditation, all of which provide the same benefits. During times of crisis, meditation gives the individual the opportunity to quiet their minds and separate from stressful circumstances for a few minutes.
Read Religious Texts
Reading sacred texts that are significant to the individual, such as the Christian Bible, the Quran, or the Talmud, is another spiritual discipline that can help ground the individual and bring meaning to suffering. Memorizing passages and thinking about how they apply to specific circumstances can provide comfort and insight.
Connect with Other Believers
Among the biggest benefits of being a part of an organized religion is the opportunity to gather with other believers. Being part of a religious community is associated with a wealth of benefits including decreased isolation and depression. During a crisis, an individual’s religious community may provide emotional support and practical help.
Religious Coping When You Don’t Identify as Religious
Fortunately, the benefits of religious coping aren’t reserved for those who consider themselves to be religious. There are many religious rituals that are used by people of all faiths as well as those who don’t ascribe to a belief system at all. Yoga, for example, is rooted in Hinduism, and mindful meditation comes from Buddhism. However, people all across the spiritual spectrum participate in and benefit from these traditions.
Those who aren’t religious and don’t gain comfort from religious gatherings or traditions can still seek inspiration from connections with others, nature, and philosophical writings.
When to Seek Professional Help
An individual’s faith can help them get through many trials and may be an essential part of a multifaceted approach to handling mental health. While reliance on spiritual beliefs is often an effective coping mechanism, it’s not always enough to prevent or treat mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. In some cases, professional help is necessary for reframing difficult circumstances, navigating emotions, and addressing conditions such as postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance addiction.