Northwest Indiana hospital chaplains, psychologists tap into healing power of prayer - December 16, 2018

Courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana • December 16, 2018

Written by Karyn Brodsky

When someone is diagnosed with an illness, well-wishers often say, “I’ll pray for you.”

But what about the person who is stricken? Can religion and belief in a higher power affect their health and healing?

According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a direct correlation between religion or belief in a higher power and physical healing.

“These possible benefits to mental health and well-being have physiological consequences that impact physical health, affect the risk of disease and influence response to treatment,” according to NIH reports. “The majority of studies report significant relationships between religion and spirituality and better health.”

Barbara L. Critton-Green, a clinical psychologist who works at Methodist Hospitals and in private practice, agrees.

“Psychological theories, as well as direct interaction, can help us understand the connection,” she said. “I’ve seen it in my 20 years of working with patients at Methodist.”

She explained that an individual facing a health crisis can be overwhelmed, experience anxiety or sink into depression. Belief in a higher power often brings a sense of release that the patient needs to help with recovery.

“An illness diagnosis challenges you to deal with losses, such as function, mobility, independence or even status, which can send a person into a grieving process,” she said. “Spirituality can provide hope. A belief in God can give them the strength to move forward. By activating faith and tapping into spiritual practices, they may feel more ‘helpful’ or in control of their healing.”

She noted that studies show that reading the Bible or Quran, praying or meditating puts the body in a state of mindfulness and helps eliminate stress.

“The autonomic nervous system is composed of two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems,” she explained. “Each controls tension, blood vessel constriction, breathing and more. When we feel the threat of illness, we revert to the sympathetic nervous system and experience tension, shallow breathing and stress.

“The more you activate the sympathetic nervous system, the worse it is for the immune system and more vulnerable you become to more illness. Prayer or meditation slows down breathing and helps the body switch from the sympathetic nervous system to the peaceful parasympathetic nervous system.”

She uses cognitive behavioral intervention, which affects how we react and behave, to help patients recognize that their response to a situation can release stress and assist in their healing. She uses relaxation techniques to help patients direct the response to illness from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system.

“Changing thoughts and beliefs can improve your health. Slow and easy breathing is one the most effective ways to release stress,” she said. “When you pray, you take in more oxygen, your heart rate slows and you’re going from stress to peace. In addition, a belief in a higher power instills the idea that the patient is not alone in their struggle, so they can rise above depression and let go of anxiety.”

The Rev. Michael Porter, a chaplain at Porter Regional Hospital, cautions that belief in God can “go both ways.”

“Sometimes it hurts because a patient may not believe in God anymore. They’re not only sick and worried about their health, but they might think a higher power has let them down. And their spirituality is threatened,” he said. “I believe that each patient has the answer within themselves. I listen to them and facilitate the process of redefining their spirituality, or what brings them purpose and meaning in their life.”

The Rev. Carmen McKee, a chaplain at Methodist Hospitals in Gary and Merrillville, also taps into each patient’s individuality.

“When I walk into a room and the patient is happy to see me, I know they have hope and they’re glad they have someone who believes in something with them. That’s one side of the coin,” she said. “Older, very religious patients or those of other cultures are fearful when they see the chaplain. They associate us with death, as opposed to health and healing, so we have to be very mindful of that; assessment is important. We have to know what the person is projecting in order to have happiness for that patient.”