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The Effectiveness of Prayer in Mental and Spiritual Health

The practice of healthcare delivery to the marginalized in our society is a difficult and at times frustrating road to travel. How can you change the thinking of people to value health, care for themselves, have a concern for others and, most importantly, live their lives with God’s guidance when so many are consumed by their own hurts to the point of immobilization? We live in a society where anxiety, depression, chemical dependency and abuse in all its forms seem to be rising exponentially. For many, poverty and dysfunctional living has become a way of life.

In our practices we are often confronted by patients whose physical and emotional difficulties are rooted in deep personal hurts that often defy biological therapy or counseling. What is a solution? It sounds simplistic, but a transforming touch of the Almighty is needed to change thought processes and ultimately the trajectory of their lives. How can this ‘God-touch’ be facilitated? In our experience, documented by a controlled randomized medical study1, it is through a person-to-person prayer for the healing of the soul/psyche.

I was introduced to these transformational person-to-person prayers by Dr. Bill Wilson2 , former Chairman of Psychiatry at Duke University. Since these prayers were outside my own life experiences, I was initially rather guarded. Bill spent a week with us at Cary Christian Center in the Delta of Mississippi teaching our lay home visitors the basics of mental and spiritual health. His clinical experiences utilizing these prayers as a therapeutic entity for clients in dysfunctional living because of deep emotional hurts was a mind expanding and spiritually invigorating experience for me. It placed my life on a trajectory of learning as much as I could about these prayers, about brain functioning affected by these prayers, the interaction between the mind (a metaphysical entity) and brain (a physical entity) and an understanding of Biblical teaching in these areas.

After a week internship utilizing these prayers at Christian Healing Ministries3 with my wife, Eleanor, we began praying with clients God led to us in Vicksburg, MS. These prayers resulted in a dramatic change in the lives of many people whose psyches underwent a transformation. The old hurts were gone and God’s love, joy and peace were experienced in a fresh way. These experiences were one of the more exciting and invigorating times in my life. It resulted in designing and executing a randomized controlled cross-over study on the effect of these prayers on the two most common mental health disorders in our society, depression and anxiety. In this study positive emotions of hope and spirituality were also measured. Forty-eight individuals, all with depression and most with anxiety, underwent six weekly prayer sessions followed by one month and one year evaluations during which time there was no contact or prayer therapy for the clients. The prayers demonstrate a significantly lowering of the level of depression and anxiety and an increase in the level of hope and spirituality that were maintained for one year. During the one year followup exit interviews4, it was interesting to note that seven of the 15 clients who originally entered the study on medication discontinued their medication without any negative effects, and two clients treated unsuccessfully at the University Hospital experienced resolution of their physical problems. The majority had maintained a strong devotional life, had improved personal relationships and had become proactive in managing their life.

Hamilton Depression Scale values.

< 10-13 Mild; 14-17 Mild to moderate;
> 17 Moderate to severe.

Hamilton Anxiety Scale values.

< 17 Mild or None; 18-24 Mild to Moderate;
25-30 Moderate to Severe

Life Orientation Test

An increase in the numerical score correlates with an increase in optimism. The highest score (most optimism) is 32 and the lowest 0.

                                                                                  

Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale.

An increased numerical score correlates with a decrease in spirituality and closeness to God. The highest score (least spiritual) is 94 and lowest score (most spiritual) is 16.

                                                                           

                                                                                                    

When the paper was submitted for publication, the reviewers wanted to have a better understanding as to how these prayers work so I gave them the following case history from the study.

‘Sally’ was a young mother of three who came seeking prayer for depression and anxiety. As a child, her mother was distant, unable to communicate or show love. Her Army father was gone most of the time but when at home sexually abused her. She was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriends as well. In the elementary grades she was continually ridiculed by classmates. She married her high school boyfriend at age 16 to get out of her home. He became the father of her three children and was physically and emotionally abusive to her resulting in three suicide attempts and his ultimate incarceration. She described herself as reclusive, uncomfortable in the presence of others, thinking of herself as a mistake, unable to discipline her children and having great anxiety at the thought of her husband’s release from prison.

In the first prayer session after completion of the intake interview, the prayer minister had a prayer that centered on who she always was in God’s eyes. There were pauses in this prayer during which time she was asked not to pray but rather to focus and meditate on what was being said in the prayer. The prayer incorporated a great deal of Scripture. Asked how she felt after the prayers, she replied, “I felt myself uplifted and bathed in the love of Jesus.” She was given a sheet of Scriptures and told to read several until she found one that spoke to her and then to memorize and meditate on it, after which she should repeat the same format with other verses.

On another visit all of the teasing and rejection she experienced by classmates because of her poverty was addressed. One incident stood out in her mind. She was in the 5th grade. The teacher stepped out of the classroom and her classmates used the occasion to torment her as a group. Focusing on this traumatic memory, the prayer minister proceeded to describe a prayer that involved 4 separate components that she would pray: 1) releasing all the hurts she received from her classmates to Jesus, 2) asking God to forgive her if she had vengeful thoughts, etc., 3) prayers of blessings on these classmates and 4) prayers asking God to bless her. After completing these prayers, she felt relieved. When asked to go back to this painful memory and connect to the associated emotions, she responded, “The hurts are still there but they are much less.”

She had experienced some separation of the negative emotions from the hurtful memory but not a complete separation. Another prayer was needed to accomplish the task. She was told to once again go back to the memory and connect to the negative emotions. The prayer minister then prayed a short prayer asking God to come into this memory and accomplish His healing and allowed a time of silence for the healing to take place. She was instructed not to pray during this time but rather to stay in the memory connected with the emotions. After several minutes, she opened her eyes with a smile on her face. She described how she saw herself in the classroom with the class ridiculing her. All of a sudden she found herself laughing and everyone was smiling and laughing with her. She walked out of the classroom with joy and everything faded. When asked to go back to the memory and connect with the negative emotions, she described that rather than hurtful feelings she now had a warm feeling.

All the traumas in her life were addressed with these prayers as well as others. At the end of the six sessions, she found herself to be a new person invigorated spiritually with a joyful, positive attitude. She related in a better way to her children and received positive comments from fellow workers. The incapacitating fear of her husband’s prison release was gone. (She was able to stand up to him when he returned from prison.)

The two prayers in this case history are foundational to the healing of the psyche. Prayers of forgiveness, consisting of release of hurts to Jesus coupled with prayers of blessing on the offenders and oneself were primary (Mt. 6:14-15). Since some emotional ties to these hurts remained, a healing of her inner being was necessary in order that Christ could live comfortably in all recesses of her heart. When this happens, the client experiences His love more deeply and His presence more intimately (Eph. 3:16-21). What happens clinically during these prayers is a separation of the emotions from a hurtful memory. The memory remains but it is now without emotional significance. This is a huge step forward for people who have been trapped their entire lives with painful memories. These memories no longer trigger thoughts of self denigration since the touch of Jesus has given them a ‘God-esteem.’ They are now positioned to change other ungodly pathways of thinking formed as a result of these emotionally hurtful memories into God’s way of thinking through Scripture meditation. One client described this separation of emotions from memory as the “trigger was removed.”

Another reason this decathexis of emotions from traumatic memory becomes important is that we have a subconscious emotional appraisal system that affects our rationality, and which ultimately affects our decision making5. When unhealthy emotions plague the psyche, individuals are prone to make unhealthy decisions. Clinically I’ve never encountered an individual with broken relationships on a horizontal level who had a strong vertical relationship with God. That is why these two prayers are an important foundation on which other prayers and spiritual disciplines need to be built. If you are interested in a fuller understanding of these prayers and disciplines, they can be found in our book, Released to Soar6 . (It was written for lay people to understand and use.)

These prayers are not found in mainstream medical practice but they are beginning to gain traction among primary care practitioners who are becoming burnt-out by a plethora of patients with physical problems emanating from emotional difficulties for which there is no effective pharmacological therapy7. We are in the process of initiating such a project through Church Health Services in Beaver Dam, WI. Health services employing counselors or psychotherapists could easily incorporate these prayers into their practices. We have conducted seminars for psychotherapists in secular private practices who have incorporated these prayers into their practice and found them truly transformational for their clients. Professional skills are not needed to pray these prayers or have these results since it is God who does the healing. What is necessary is a close walk with God and a lifestyle free of known sins.

It is our prayer that God will speak through this article and moving individuals to investigate and ultimately utilize these prayers so that caregivers and clients alike can soar more fully with God and realize more completely God’s potential for them.

1 Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle, WH, Koenig, HG. A randomized trial of the effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 2009;39,4:377-392.

2 William P. Wilson, Professor Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center; Distinguished Professor of Counseling, Carolina Evangelical Divinity School. www.InstChristianGrowth.org; williamwilson622 [at] gmail [dot] com

3 Christian Healing Ministries www.christianhealingmin.org

4 Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle, WH, Koenig, HG. The Effect of Prayer on Depression and Anxiety: Maintenance of Positive Influence One Year after Prayer Intervention (accepted for publication)

5 Kandel ER. In Search of Memory The Emergence of a New Science of the Mind. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2006.

6 Peter and Eleanor Boelens. Released to Soar- A medical Study Shows the Power of Healing Prayer. The Write Place, 2010. (Available on Amazon.com)

7 Spiritual Care Consultants of Western Michigan www.spiritualcareconsultants.com

Peter A. Boelens, MD, MPH www.ShalomPrayerMinistry.com. As a young physician interning at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, God uniquely touched my heart launching a life-long career in missions. The mission of Jesus became mine. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me…to preach the good news to the poor…proclaim freedom for prisoners…recovery of sight to the blind…release to the oppressed” Luke 4:18. It took the form of a medical/spiritual community health work in post-war South Korea, the Delta of Mississippi, and worldwide conducted by indigenous national Christians. In these twilight years of ministry, the venue has become healing prayer (Shalom Prayer Ministry) providing psychospiritual healing for the oppressed, releasing them to live life in the fullness of the Triune God.

Discover the documented effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. This in-depth medical study measures increased hope and spirituality that endured even through the one year followup. Prayer therapy is gaining traction with primary care practitioners who are looking for a more effective therapy than can be found in pharmacology.