Spiritual beliefs may impact physical and mental health, MU study finds

Individuals who blame karma for their poor health have more pain and worse physical and mental health, according to a new study from University of Missouri researchers. Targeted interventions to counteract negative spiritual beliefs could help some individuals decrease pain and improve their overall health, the researchers said.

"In general, the more religious or spiritual you are, the healthier you are, which makes sense," said Brick Johnstone, a neuropsychologist and professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions. "But for some individuals, even if they have even the smallest degree of negative spirituality - basically, when individuals believe they're ill because they've done something wrong and God is punishing them - their health is worse."

Johnstone and his colleagues studied nearly 200 individuals to find out how their spiritual beliefs affected their health outcomes. Individuals in the study had a range of health conditions, such as cancer, traumatic brain injury or chronic pain, and others were healthy. The researchers divided the individuals into two groups: a negative spirituality group that consisted of those who reported feeling abandoned or punished by a higher power, and a no negative spirituality group that consisted of people who didn't feel abandoned or punished by a higher power. Participants answered questions about their emotional and physical health, including physical pain.

Those in the negative spirituality group reported significantly worse pain as well as worse physical and mental health while those with positive spirituality reported better mental health. However, even if individuals reported positive spiritual beliefs, having any degree of negative spiritual belief contributed to poorer health outcomes, the researchers found.

"Previous research has shown that about 10 percent of people have negative spiritual beliefs; for example, believing that if they don't do something right, God won't love them," Johnstone said. "That's a negative aspect of religion when people believe, 'God is not supportive of me. What kind of hope do I have?' However, when people firmly believe God loves and forgives them despite their shortcomings, they had significantly better mental health."

Individuals with negative spiritual beliefs also reported participating in religious practices less frequently and having lower levels of positive spirituality and forgiveness. Interventions that help combat negative spiritual beliefs and promote positive spiritual beliefs could help some individuals improve their pain and their mental health, Johnstone said.


University of Missouri


  1. Shell King Shell King United States says:

    The idea that religious belief is equated with better health has been debunked. Studies have revealed that non-believers have equivalent levels of health. There may be a correlation between social support and "being healthy" however this is not a correlation between religiosity or spirituality. The early comments detract from the validity of this brief writing.

    Overall, from research from Recovering from Religion, and others, would suggest that negative religious beliefs in the US are more prevalent than ten percent in addition. I would ask the evaluators if a belief in a hell is a 'bad belief', with a potential to cause anxiety and fear in large populations of people?

    Perhaps there was a bit of confirmation bias in this study.

  2. rodger ricketts rodger ricketts Italy says:

    Another confusing aspect in this article is the lack of a clear definition of spirituality and religion. They are not directly related to each other for many people and dictionaries. So it would be interesting to know how they measured religious and/or spiritual.

  3. rodger ricketts rodger ricketts Italy says:

    Also, definitions of spirituality and religion are incompatible to many people and dictionaries. This all shows a certain sloppiness in the definitions which would negatively impact how/what they were measuring. However, interesting point.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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