The Power of Faith

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Skeptics say,  "We all have heard such pronouncements, "faith heals," but how do we know if it really is true?"  Skeptics can now refer to medical studies which explore the relationship between recovery from an illness and psychosocial aspects such as education, personality, social support, family, and religion.  One such study was done by Thomas Oxman at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire which focused on the role religion might play in health and recovery of elderly people.  He took 232 patients over 55 years of age who had open-heart surgery.  Oxman's finding which should be of great interest to young and old alike is this:  those who derive at least some strength and comfort from their religious faith are three times more likely to survive than those who don't.  

This has an even greater significance for elderly because it highlights the benefits of faith.  Let's face it, we all assume that in old age everything declines, our muscles, health, wealth, wisdom and whatever else we have, except our faith.  Faith, instead of weakening, should strengthen.  For all other losses, we can blame someone else, but for faith, we are responsible .  The buck stops here.  

In this column, I have written several articles and cited studies that show that connectedness to others, social support, helping others, and quality of intimate relationships have positive benefits for wellness, and for recovery from illness and surgery.  However, the reality is that in old age, social support systems and close relationships generally diminish for reasons such as death of spouse and children moving away.  So what is available for seniors?  Faith.  Nothing can take away the comfort, security, support, and strength we can draw from faith.  

If we are becoming more spiritual and stronger in faith, it means that we are aging right:  this does not mean that we should become close-minded, rigid, or judgmental about people who are different from us.  Those attitudes of mind increase stress and generate toxic emotions.  On the other hand, spirituality and faith make us more open, flexible, and somewhat playful, the kind of parents and grandparents every child wants to have.  

Coming back to the study, Oxman also confirms the positive benefits of social support and involvement.  Those who participated in social and community groups, such as church, local government, supper clubs, senior center, etc., had three times the survival rate of those who did not participate in any organized social activity.  Now, aren't you curious to find out what can happen if you combine the two, that is, if you are strong in faith and also involve yourself in your community?  Here are the facts from this study:  those who derived support and comfort from their faith and also took part in the organized community groups of some kind, had a ten times higher survival rate than those who deprived themselves of both strengths, that of religion and of community.       

Note that feelings of comfort and support from one's faith are more important to health than religious activity.  For instance, according to this study, if one goes to church twice or thrice a week but does not derive any support and comfort from his or her faith, he/she is not likely to reap any significant benefits.  Likewise, participation in organized groups has significantly more benefits than just visiting friends and relatives.  

Other studies suggest that faith benefits believers in cases of high blood- pressure, heart disease, and cancer.  How does faith work?  At this point, we can only conjecture.  Faith may have an overall calming and relaxing effect.  Faith offers hope and cuts down on negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and depression that often trouble people when they have serious and/or chronic illnesses.  Perhaps, when we are afflicted with pain and suffering, faith shields us from emotional suffering.  As a result of that, we may suffer physically but not emotionally.  Perhaps, faith provides a meaning to our illness and suffering and helps us to make sense of it all.  In absence of faith, we may endlessly ask the proverbial question, "Why me?" and lock up our energy in asking the question rather than finding answers and devising actions to strengthen our recovery process.  According to Dr. Larry Dossey who authored the book, "The Healing Words," and a cassette album, "Power of Prayer,"  meaning of illness is very important in whether and how soon we recover from a disabling illness.                    

In this column, in another article, I have written on the positive effect of prayers on sickness.  Add prayer, faith, and social support in equal measures, and you have a potent recipe.  

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 




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