CU Denver Study: Devotional Prayer Helps Reduce Stress When Facing Confrontations

Research focuses on the reaction of Christians when their faith is challenged by an outside source

February 23, 2021

When Christian core beliefs are challenged, those who had previously participated in devotional prayer saw a less notable physical and emotional response, according to research by University of Colorado Denver Professor Kevin S. Masters, PhD, published by the American Psychological Association. Masters conducted the research in a laboratory with volunteers who reported that they were Christian, with their faith being at least moderately important in their daily lives.  

The volunteers were randomly split into three groups, devotional prayer, secular meditation, and control. The devotional prayer group was instructed to reflect on New Testament scriptures that emphasized prosocial values, such as “love your enemies.” Secular meditation included reflecting on similar passages, but nonreligious readings, while the control group was instructed to relax while looking at a series of natural landscapes.  

“Christians are taught to love others, including their enemies,” said Masters. “Thus, we were interested in determining if after praying for others, Christians would demonstrate less of the type of physical response that is associated with anger when challenged by a stranger.” 

According to research results, challenging Christian core beliefs elicited a notable physical stress response among all three groups. However, Christians who were in the devotional prayer group experienced significantly less of an increase in their blood pressure during the challenge by a stranger as compared to the other two groups. In fact, nearly 60% of those in the devotional prayer group said reading the New Testament was useful in reducing stress during the confrontation, compared to 43% of those who read nonreligious passages and 12% of those who looked at landscapes. Researchers, including an investigator from Syracuse University, also saw a significant decrease in reported negative emotions against those strangers in the devotional prayer group.  

“This suggests that, among Christians, praying for others can foster greater tolerance to interpersonal challenges of the core beliefs of Christianity, promoting behavioral adherence to Christian ideals,” said Masters.  

The study’s findings suggest that understanding religious culture and associated practices may provide a new method for intervention—one that can reduce physical and emotional responses to antagonistic confrontation that rises above similar secular practices among those of the faith. 

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