Improving Your Physical and Mental Health with Prayer

Prayer means many different things to different people, but most agree that it involves lifting the heart and mind to a power greater than oneself. Many choose to call this power God. Studies have documented mental, physical, and spiritual benefits of prayer. 

Scientific studies of prayer

Scientific studies of prayer are complicated by the fact that prayer generally does not take place in a vacuum. It’s difficult to separate the effects of prayer, religious commitment, and social support found in a spiritual community. The three may work together to have a synergistic effect, and there may also be other factors at play. One study found that an individual’s perspective on God or the higher power affects the benefits of prayer. Those who viewed God as a partner or collaborator in their lives had better mental and physical health outcomes than those who believed they were passive recipients of whatever might be doled out by the deity, whether punishment, abandonment, or instructions.

Benefits have been documented

Prayer is often found to have the same or similar benefits to meditation.  Both quiet the mind and can ease depression, reduce anxiety, help a person cope with difficulties, and in a general way, strengthen emotional health

The relaxation response

Prayer and meditation can both elicit what has been termed the “relaxation response;” a series of physiological changes in the body that help to reduce the fight or flight response. Scientists documented reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure, slowed rates of breathing and metabolism, and reduced secretion of stress hormones, such as cortisol in persons regularly participating in prayer or meditation. These bodily changes can also lead to ongoing lower blood pressure and improved functioning of the immune system.  A study at Massachusetts General Hospital comparing groups who regularly prayed or meditated to induce the relaxation response over two years had 43% less need for healthcare during the study than those who did not induce the relaxation response. Patients who entered the study with pre-existing cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and neurologic conditions experienced the most dramatic results. 

Prayer is part of a healthy lifestyle

While few would recommend prayer as a substitute for taking care of one’s health, it can be a helpful addition to other strategies.  It’s still important to exercise, eat a healthy diet, and seek medical help when problems arise. Small changes incorporated into daily life can yield big benefits. For example, you may not have time to go to the gym every day, but you could take a walk during your lunch hour, or park farther away from your destination so that you walk more. When you regularly make healthy choices in other areas, prayer or meditation can boost an already strong sense of well-being, both physical and mental.

Emotional benefits of prayer

While some things are more difficult to measure scientifically, changes in these parameters still enhance one’s quality of life. For example, people who pray regularly seem to have a greater sense of purpose for their lives, better coping skills, and better emotional health in a general way. Prayer can reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, as well as increase optimism, release negative feelings, and help with stress management. Increased compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and hope increased with prayer also contribute to well-being.

What kind of prayer?

There are many types of prayer, as well as many different religions they may be associated with.  The most important thing is finding the kind that is best for you. The relaxation response can be invoked by prayer from any religion, meditation that is religious or non-religious, or even repetitive motion done properly. While repeating the Hail, Mary may be an excellent choice for a person who is Catholic, a loving-kindness prayer may be a better choice for a Buddhist, and others may find a meditation repeating the name of their Deity to be most effective.

The physical and mental benefits of prayer are available to everyone, and the relaxation response elicited by regular prayer could enhance the quality of life in almost any situation. While prayer is not a substitute for making healthy choices in your life, it can definitely provide a boost to your well-being.

Article by Lacie Martin from

The views expressed in contributed blog articles belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Colorado Council of Churches.