Can spirituality or religion decrease or even prevent depression?

by Kay Klinkenborg, Church of the Palms UCC; Spiritual Director; Retired: RN, LMFT, Clinical Member AAMFT

A burst of joy went off inside me as I read of research by Dr. Lisa Miller, PhD that has clinical documentation revealing depression is avoided and certainly significantly reduced in persons that recorded a high connection to religion and/or spirituality.1 I had a hunch that was true.  Each of us has had a thrilling moment when we read something that ‘jibes with what we thought but we couldn’t prove it.’  I anticipate that is what your reaction will be to this essay about depression/ religion/spirituality.  Dr. Miller has just published her book: The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life. She is a practicing psychologist and faculty at Columbia University.

     The fields of psychology and psychiatry have been hesitant to do research to determine if there was a correlation between depression and personal connection to religion or spirituality. Some of that stems from the long history that science and religion have no connection in many academic fields of study. Another factor of resistance comes from the hesitation to know the truth.  What if is true there is a correlation? “But I don’t want to be a religious/spiritual person. That doesn’t fit with how I see the world, or even might not believe in a creator.” Attached to that are topics beyond this essay as to what defines spirituality and what defines religion.  And ‘religion as a formal place to worship’ or ‘belonging to a denomination’ is not in those definitions.

     I add a statement of medical reality before you read further. There are mental health diagnoses that are beyond the scope of this article; and there are diagnoses of chemical imbalances, etc. Miller is talking about widespread depression that many around the world experience. I will comment more later.

     In 2012, Dr. Miller approached the idea to colleagues on an upcoming research project about depression: “I’d be very surprised if we find any kind of association between spirituality and depression, but we shall see,” (senior MRI colleague in charge of the research). Contemporary psychotherapy tended to characterize spirituality and religion as a crutch or defense, a set of comforting beliefs to lean on in hard times.1,2

     Miller’s team had used colleague Myrna’s multigenerational sample of clinically depressed and non-depressed women, and their children and grandchildren. We’d taken MRI scans of people at high and low genetic risk for depression to see if there were any patterns among the brain structures of depressed and non-depressed participants that could allow us to develop more targeted and effective treatments.1   

     They asked all participants to respond to a major question used in the clinical science literature to quantify inner life: How personally important is religion or spirituality to you? 1,2

            THE RESULTS of MRI BRAIN SCANS:  “On the top half of the page was a black rectangle with two brain images inside. The scan on the left showed the composite brain image of participants with low spirituality—those who had reported that religion or spirituality was of medium, mild, or low importance. The scan on the right showed the composite brain of participants with sustained, high spirituality—those who had said religion or spirituality was of high personal importance.

     The brain on the left—the low-spiritual brain—was flecked intermittently with tiny red patches. But the brain on the right—the brain showing the neural structure of people with stable and high spirituality—had huge swaths of red, at least five times the size of the small flecks in the other scan. The finding was so clear and stunning, it stopped my breath. The high-spiritual brain was healthier and more robust than the low-spiritual brain. And the high-spiritual brain was thicker and stronger in exactly the same regions that weaken and wither in depressed brains.”1

Spirituality appeared to protect against mental suffering.1,2

     “The MRI findings marked a pivotal moment on the way to my breakthrough discovery that each of us has an awakened brain. Each of us is endowed with a natural capacity to perceive a greater reality and consciously connect to the life force that moves in, through, and around us. Whether or not we participate in a spiritual practice or adhere to a faith tradition, whether or not we identify as religious or spiritual, our brain has a natural inclination toward and docking station for spiritual awareness. The awakened brain is the neural circuitry that allows us to see the world more fully and thus enhance our individual, societal, and global well-being.”1,2

     I interpret Miller’s findings as supporting that God has created us with a phenomenal capacity to have an awakened brain. How do we feed that possibility?  In raising children, what needs to be a focus on their learning and exposure to keep that part of the brain and alive and curious?  There is “a God within us” and it is alive and active. What a celebration to have science document something that is thousands of years old, known by mystics, orally told through the ages!

The awakened brain offers more than a model for psychological health.1,2

Through many examples in her book, Miller documents that when we have a moderate to high connection to spirituality/ religion: “we awaken, we feel more fulfilled and at home in the world, and we build relationships and make decisions from a wider view. We cultivate a way of being built on a core awareness of love, interconnection, and the guidance and surprise of life.”1

“I’ve discovered that the awakened brain is both inherent to our physiology and invaluable to our health and functioning. The awakened brain includes a set of innate perceptual capacities that exist in every person through which we experience love and connection, unity, and a sense of guidance from and dialogue with life. And when we engage these perceptual capacities—when we make full use of how we’re built—our brains become structurally healthier and better connected, and we access unsurpassed psychological benefits: less depression, anxiety, and substance abuse; and more positive psychological traits such as grit, resilience, optimism, tenacity, and creativity.”1

     I hear your appropriate questions: “But I have physiological depression, a chemical imbalance in my body” or “I had a stroke and after that I have lived with depression, never had it before, but now it’s a constant companion” or “after heart surgery I was blue and never been like that before in my life.” Where do I fit in this study?

     Part of the answer is that medical/physiological depression is a different experience than situational or stress-induced depression. There is no guarantee that any of us will go throughout our entire life and not experience one or more bouts of depression, of varying degrees. Life is more complex than to say: “if you are highly spiritual and religious you won’t have depression.”  What the study does show is that the correlation of those who ranked a high importance of spirituality and/or religion in their life, had far less experiences of deep depression or persistent depression. It is about learning to honor the ‘lure to spirituality/ religion’ and reinforcing an active healthy mental and spiritual life.  Miller in her book goes into chapters of detail through memoir notes and case studies that prove what the research found on the MRI brain scans plays out as true in real life:  a moderate to high connection to spirituality/religion is a powerful tool to a healthy balance in our lives; we can develop skill sets that help us be resilient, compassionate and live full lives.  

1Miller, Lisa  (2021).  “Can a Commitment to Religion or Spirituality Help Ward Off Depression’s Debilitating Hold?”  Lit Hub on line e-letter, August 19, 2021.

2Miller, Lisa (2021). The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.  Random House, New York.

© Kay F. Klinkenborg, September 2021