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Think your God is “awwwesome?” How the answer may affect your health

Is yours a fearsome God or an awesome God?

Many times, the answer to that question can provide strong indicators of whether religion will be helpful or harmful to your well-being.

Three new studies deal with related themes as they explore how faith may help or hinder individuals coping with the loss of a loved one, in the battle against obesity or in providing resources to protect against anxiety and depression.

So, for example, a strong personal relationship with a loving God may help people experience personal growth during the grief process.

But spiritual struggles including fear of a distant, judgmental divinity can lead to greater stress and anxiety associated with obesity and mental health issues.

Doubt and obesity

Worrying whether God is on your side may make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

A study of nearly 1,500 adults in the Landmark Spirituality and Health Survey found that people with a more anxious attachment to God were more likely to be obese.

However, this increased risk of obesity became weaker the more members of their congregation told study participants they loved and cared for them and personally helped them get closer to God.

At the highest levels of emotional and spiritual support, the researchers found, even having an anxious attachment to God was still associated with a lower risk of being obese.

There is a vast literature showing that higher rates of stress are associated with greater risks of obesity, University of Michigan researchers noted.

When people are dealing with spiritual struggles, researchers said, empathy and spiritual support from significant others at church “may go a long way toward offsetting the stress that arises when individuals experience an anxious attachment to God.”

Faith and well-being

“Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.”
– Garrison Keillor

A question that has long interested researchers is how much of the positive health outcomes associated with going to church are due to an individual’s faith, and how much can be attributed to the social support they receive from the congregation.

A new study of 855 young adults from three universities found that intrinsic religiosity, the importance of faith in one’s life, was played a more central role than social support in predicting mental health benefits among worshippers.

Having a deeper connection with God “may provide a partial inoculation against symptoms of depression and anxiety,” researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Colorado said.

The findings suggest that increased social support is not the sole reason for the mental health benefits of going to church.

“Rather, it appears that the relationship is at least partly the result of people trying to live their religion in their daily lives,” researchers said.

Facing death

Death is universal.

And in some ways the response to mortality among both religious and nonreligious people is similar, according to a new study.

The study of 101 people across the country recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk found there was no difference between religious believers and nonbelievers in facing death anxiety.

But religious individuals reported “less grief and greater growth in response to loss,” said researchers at Santa Clara University and California State University Northridge.

Among believers, different beliefs and perceptions of the divine also yielded different outcomes.

Thus, believers who perceived God as fickle and sometimes cruel or distant and uninterested were more likely to experience more intense grief and greater death anxiety.

But greater belief in the afterlife appeared to be associated with both lower death anxiety and greater growth through the grief process in areas such as increasing personal strength, experiencing spiritual change and appreciating life.

“Mortality and death are unavoidable aspects of human existence,” researchers said. “People face these realities differently, some using religion as comfort, some not.”

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a scientist to figure out why the teachings of many major faiths emphasizing the awesomeness of a God who loves and cares for them may lift the spirits of believers.

In one of the few polls where the question was asked, 57 percent of parishioners in the 1984 Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life classified God as “extremely awesome.”

For a more contemporary example, one can just watch and listen as Gospel groups like Ricky Dillard & New G get audiences to their feet and moving as they sing, “We serve an awwwwesome God!”

Image by David Mulder, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Image by Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Image by Saint-Petersburg Theological Academy, via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]

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