Whether or not you realize it, prayer is a form of complementary and alternative medicine.
Maybe you see it as you walk by a hospital room, or maybe you experience it right before you discuss matters with a patient. Whether or not you realize it, prayer is a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Just as patients have a time to take their medications, they may also have a time to pray in their daily lives.
Scientists are rightfully skeptical about anything’s therapeutic benefit. Prayer’s health benefit always interested me because I feel relief from bearing my heart’s burdens through this form of conversation, but I’ve wondered whether science could ever quantify what a feeling can’t.
According to Mosby’s Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, prayer is a “communication with the spiritual or ultimate reality, which may be understood as transcendent or immanent, and described in theistic or nontheistic terms.” This means prayer can be for the religious or nonreligious, and although it may be tied to a religion, it isn’t prejudiced toward any faith, but all-inclusive.
In terms of CAM, prayer is often viewed as a mind-body therapy to “focus on the relationships among the brain, mind, body, and behavior, and their effect on health and disease” and “often implemented by patients because of the low physical and emotional risk, the relatively low cost, and [its] ability to allow patients to take a more active role in their treatment.”1 Understanding prayer’s role in CAM is essential to gathering information about its effects.
In a 2014 study, 77 newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients reported their quality of life while using various CAM over a 6-month period. When 88% of these women used prayer as their form of CAM, as their quality of life decreased over 6 months, their stress and mood level (anger, depression, anxiety) surprisingly also decreased, which they attributed to prayer. These patients revealed that prayer allowed them to be in “control” of their efforts to fight through their cancer.2
To further emphasize the effects of prayer, another study examined cancer patients’ response to their depression when prayer was added to their daily routine. Implementation of various types of prayers (eg, thanksgiving, adoration, well-being of others) was negatively correlated with depression symptoms. Interestingly, prayers for thanksgiving were hypothesized to be mediated by familial support, but this was proven false after the experiment. Rather, rumination, or the reflection of past worst events, encouraged prayers for thanksgiving.3
In another study, around 3300 patients with a detected bloodstream infection were divided into control and intervention groups. The first names of members in the intervention group were given to a randomly selected group of individuals to pray for, even though they had no idea who those individuals were. Although the morality rates between the 2 groups were similar, the intervention group had a shorter duration of stay and fewer fevers during their stay.4
It’s clear that prayer can have some effect on depression, stress, and anxiety, but other therapeutic effects may be discovered through further study. Based on qualitative results, prayer may also provide a sense of control in patients’ lives and allow for reflection through tough times, which ultimately brings comfort. If prayer provides comfort to a patient when nothing else can, health care professionals should encourage its practice.
1. Wahbeh H, et al. Salivary cortisol awakening response in mild Alzheimer disease, caregivers, and noncaregivers. Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord. 2008;22:181-183.
2. Kang DH, et al. Changes in complementary and alternative medicine use across cancer treatment and relationship to stress, mood, and quality of life. J Altern Complement Med. 2014;20(11):853-859.
3. Perez JE, et al. Types of prayer and depressive symptoms among cancer patients: the mediating role of rumination and social support. J Behav Med. 2011;34(6):519-530.
4. Leibovici L. Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2001;323(7327):1450-1451.