Sleep studies find sweet dreams are made of faith

The keys to a good night’s sleep include skipping midnight snacks, turning off the computer before bed – and faith.

A new wave of research on religion and sleep is finding a close relationship with a caring divinity may help religious individuals enjoy a good night’s rest.

In one recently published study of soldiers exposed to combat casualties of comrades, researchers found the more important faith was in the life of the soldier, the more likely they would be able to avoid problems sleeping.

In a separate national study, researchers found that having a secure attachment to God and a strong belief one is going to heaven were significant factors in higher sleep quality during stressful times.

It is not a case of there being no rest for the wicked, as some biblical verses suggest. Rather, researchers find it is feeling a sense of peace derived from faith in a loving God who is by their side in times of trouble that leads to higher sleep quality.

For example, those who believe they are going to heaven may be more likely to view stressful events as speed bumps on the road to eternal bliss.

“Put another way,” researchers noted, “one who believes that he or she is spiritually saved and bound for heaven might not ‘sweat the small stuff’ – and viewed from an eternal perspective, most earthly problems are indeed small.”


Man sleeping at the Jamia Masjid in India

Spiritual peace

Several studies show a positive link between religion and physical and mental health. And numerous studies on sleep have associated difficulties getting enough quality rest with issues including cardiovascular problems, diabetes, depression and lower life expectancies.

Yet the relation between religion and sleep quality has been relatively unexplored.

But that is changing rapidly.

Consider some of these recent findings:

• In a national study analyzing data from the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, researchers did not find an association between religious attendance or private practices such as prayer and reading scripture and higher sleep quality during times of stress such as losing a job or experiencing the death of a loved one. But feeling certain one is going to heaven and believing that God “knows when I need support” and is generally responsive were significant in predicting higher odds of a better night’s sleep amid stressful life events. Believers may wonder why bad things are happening to them, “but they may nevertheless sleep better at night under the watchful eye of a deity” who is concerned about the well-being of the world and its inhabitants, researchers noted. Lead researcher Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at San Antonio reported the findings earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.
• Sleep quality is essential for soldiers who need to be at peak levels during combat situations. Analyzing data from the 2011 Health Related Behaviors Survey of Active Military Personnel, scholars found that U.S. military who witnessed casualties or tended to wounded or dying allies reported greater problems sleeping. But the importance of the soldiers’ religious and spiritual beliefs offset and/or buffered that relationship. For every one step up a four-point scale measuring the importance of religion, the odds soldiers reported a sleep disturbance in the last month decreased 11 percent, researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio and Sichuan University in China reported.
• In a study of college students, researchers found both higher sleep quality and greater spiritual beliefs were associated with lower levels of signs of anxiety and depression. “To decrease psychological distress, interventions should improve sleep quality and increase spiritual engagement,” researchers at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, concluded.
• A study analyzing data from the Landmark Spirituality and Health Survey found people who attend church more often are more likely to believe God works with them to resolve life’s problems. That leads to a greater sense of hope, and individuals who are more hopeful about the future tend to enjoy higher quality sleep.

Looking ahead

There is wide agreement among researchers that a great deal more study needs to be done on religion and sleep, a field that is still in its infancy.

That includes looking at potential negative outcomes, such as whether individuals struggling with their faith, or who tend to view the divinity as a distant and judgmental figure, may have more trouble sleeping.

But the consensus that it is beginning to develop is that better sleep quality, even amid trying circumstances, may be among the benefits of a healthy faith.

Progress in research also will give more tools to secular and religious counselors to help individuals with sleep deficits. Those tools could include creating awareness of positive links and encouraging some individuals who may feel God is punishing them to consider texts and teachings that emphasize a personal, loving divinity.

In the Alabama study of college students, researchers said some practical steps could include providing greater access to religious organizations and other spiritually based social institutions and adopting less traditional approaches such as adding meditation stations.

The more one understands about the science of religion and healthy slumber, the more it may be possible to sleep in heavenly peace.

Image by Cpl. Alejandro Pena/U.S. Marine Corps, via Flickr [Public Domain]
Image by Dennis Jarvis, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Image by clemsonunivlibrary, via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]

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