Religion Can Make You Feel Better—or Worse

New Research Shows Impact of Religious Activities on Mental Health Depends on Your Spirituality

February 06, 2018
Dr. Steven Pirutinsky
Dr. Steven Pirutinsky

New York, NY - A new study has found that participating in religious activities improved mood among those with depression and bipolar disorder, but only those who truly valued religion reaped these mood-boosting benefits. Others, who were conflicted about their religious life, actually became more depressed from their religious involvement.

The study, conducted by researchers at Touro College and Harvard Medical School, was published online in Clinical Psychological Science.

Previous research has found that spirituality and religious practice improve mental wellbeing and are associated with lower levels of depression. But ., an Assistant Professor of Clinical Social Work at Touro College, suspected that for those who struggle with their spirituality, religious activities might be a stressor. 

“We thought that for people who were intrinsically motivated – meaning that they are motivated by internal beliefs, attitudes, and feelings -- it would lower their depression, but for those who were extrinsically motivated -- they did it for social connections, status, family -- it would relate to higher levels of depression,” says Dr. Pirutinsky.

He and David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School and the Center for Anxiety, conducted a three-year study of 160 Jewish men and women who met the criteria for a major mood disorder. They were drawn from a larger study on Judaism and mental health. Each participant answered questions about their religious activities and their motivations for religious practice, and they were assessed for depression every six months.

The researchers found that for people who were intrinsically motivated, religious practice improved their mood over time, but for those who were extrinsically motivated, religious practice predicted increases in depression. The study also found that both the positive and negative effects of practicing religion were greater in those with bipolar mood disorder as compared to those with depression.

Religious practice can improve a person’s mood because it provides opportunities for meaningful and rewarding activities and social connections, says Dr. Pirutinsky. But if someone doesn’t derive meaning or purpose from religion, the activities not only do not bring them pleasure, but they can create negative thoughts and feelings and can create a sense of disconnect with others fueling a depressive mood.

“Although studies have found that religious practice is generally positive for mental health, it’s important to recognize that there are times when it isn’t, and in fact it could be a source of stress,” says Dr. Pirutinsky, who wants to get the word out to therapists who work with particularly religious patients. One of the strategies to treat depression is behavioral activation which involves identifying meaningful activities that patients can engage in to raise their mood. For those who have a lot of religious commitments, these many of these opportunities may be religiously based. But this study shows that for people who are not intrinsically motivated, these religious-based activities may actually make things worse.

“If a clinician is going to recommend religious activities, they need to carefully assess what meaning religion has for the person,” says Dr. Pirutinsky. “Although this study only included Jewish participants, similar dynamics may exist in other religious cultures, particularly those in which religious life is intertwined with everyday life and behavior, but further research is warranted.”

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About the Touro College and University System

Touro is a system of non-profit institutions of higher and professional education. Touro College was chartered in 1970 primarily to enrich the Jewish heritage, and to serve the larger American and global community. Approximately 18,000 students are currently enrolled in its various schools and divisions. Touro College has 30 campuses and locations in New York, California, Nevada, Berlin, Jerusalem and Moscow. New York Medical College; Touro University California and its Nevada branch campus; Touro University Worldwide and its Touro College Los Angeles division; as well as Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Ill. are separately accredited institutions within the Touro College and University System. For further information on Touro College, please go to: www.touro.edu/news