Getty: Nancy Honey

Getty: Nancy Honey

Many people find strength in their faith when facing a serious illness. Studies also show that people with strong religious beliefs tend to be healthier — a combination of sticking with healthier habits (no excessive drinking or drug use, for example) and drawing emotional support from faith.

New research suggests that what researchers call “negative spirituality” can actually increase the physical and emotional pain people experienced during certain illnesses and harm their mental health.

Maintaining a Healthy Frame of Mind

Using an established research survey tool called the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality and other forms of measurement, Brick Johnstone, a neuropsychologist and professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, led the team of researchers who assessed the religious beliefs of 200 people living with a variety of health problems. Study participants had traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke, cancer or a chronic illness.

Study scores assessing the severity of physical and mental health problems, as well as physical pain, were higher for participants who said they felt abandoned or punished by a higher power because they were sick.

“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 in a university interview.

“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.”

The researchers suggested that counseling (with a minister or mental health professional) might help people overcome negative spiritual beliefs such as attributing health problems to disobeying or disappointing a higher power and therefore help them maintain better health.