Reflecting on religious and scientific beliefs does not appear to buffer against stress

Reflecting on your personal beliefs immediately before a stressful experience does not appear to mitigate the psychological and physiological impact, according to new research published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

“For over a century, psychologists have argued that religion provides people with meaning and can thus help alleviate everyday stress,” the authors of the study explained. “More recently, it has been suggested that science can also be an effective source of meaning, serving as a surrogate belief system for nonreligious individuals.”

To examine whether God or science can be used to buffer against stress, the researchers recruited 51 religious individuals and 49 nonreligious scientists and had them undergo the Trier Social Stress Test.

The test required participants to prepare and deliver a speech in front of three judges. Prior to the test, some of the participants wrote about what science or their religion personally meant to them while other participants (the control group) wrote about their favorite season.

The researchers found that the stress test reliably increased perceived stress as well as cardiovascular measures of stress. But they found no evidence that those who had been prompted to reflect on their belief in God or science experienced less stress.

“Despite people’s inclination to seek out faith especially during stressful times in their lives, our study showed no evidence that activating belief in God or science allowed participants to down-regulate stress at either subjective or physiological levels,” the researchers wrote.

The new findings run contrary with some previous research on the topic, which has indicated that religious belief is associated with enhanced psychological adjustment to stress.

“Perhaps it is not religious belief per se, but rather the larger complex of religious practices, affect, and social support that helps believers cope with stress,” the researchers noted.

“Another possibility is that whereas momentary activation of belief did not mitigate acute stress in our study, having faith or participating in faithful practices may provide people with resources to cope with ongoing, chronic everyday stress.”

The study, “The Effects of Belief in God and Science on Acute Stress“, was authored by Miguel Farias and Anna-Kaisa Newheiser.