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After Collective Trauma, Religiosity and/or Spirituality Found to Affect Health Outcomes

A wide range of physical, psychological problems are assuaged by belief or belonging

Release Date: March 24, 2011

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Michael J. Poulin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at UB

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In a new study published in the current issue of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers from the University of Denver, the University at Buffalo and the University of California, Irvine, report that after a collective trauma--defined as a traumatic event that happens simultaneously to a large number of people (9/11, in this case)--religiosity and spirituality independently predict people's health outcomes.

The study, "The Distinct Roles of Spirituality and Religiosity in Physical and Mental Health after Collective Trauma: A National Longitudinal Study of Responses to the 9/11 Attacks," was conducted by Daniel N. McIntosh, PhD, professor of psychology at UD; Michael J. Poulin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at UB; and E. Alison Holman, PhD, assistant professor of nursing science, UC Irvine.

In the three years following 9/11, they found that religious individuals (i.e. those who participated in religious social structures by attending services) had a higher positive affect, fewer cognitive intrusions (unwanted intrusive thoughts about 9/11), and lower odds of new onset mental and musculoskeletal ailments than among those in the study who expressed no religious or spiritual proclivities.

Those who were high versus low in spirituality (i.e. feeling a personal commitment to spiritual or religious beliefs) had a higher positive affect, lower odds of new onset infectious ailments, and more cognitive intrusions, but a more rapid decline in intrusions over time.

"These findings focused on responses to a collective trauma," Poulin says, "but they may apply to stress and coping more generally."

"I think it's reasonable to speculate that religion and spirituality might help survivors of the recent Japan disasters adjust to the stress of that experience, although the pattern of results might not be the same," he says, noting that, unlike Japan, the culture of the U.S. is heavily individualistic.

"The culture of Japan, however, is more collectivistic in that it focuses on the goals and experiences of groups like the family or nation, so religious practice, which involves group participation, may be more important to post-trauma health and well being in that context," Poulin notes.

The authors point out that, while researchers previously have identified health implications of religiosity and spirituality, they have rarely addressed differences between these two dimensions.

"Spirituality and religiosity are substantively related to each other in that both are connected to the idea of something sacred, holy, or transcendent," Poulin says, but this study suggests that different aspects of religious experience may have different health outcomes."

Health information was collected from a nationally representative sample of 890 adults before 9/11. The subjects' health, religiosity and spirituality were assessed longitudinally during six waves of data collection over the next three years.

"Across that time span, with numerous controls, religiosity and spirituality were found to be independently and differentially related to mental and physical health," Poulin says, "so they are not interchangeable indices of religion."

The study controlled for age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, education and household income as well as direct exposure to the attacks, lifetime exposure to stressful events and such health risk factors as body mass index and smoking.

Analyses of the associations of religiosity and spirituality with mental and physical health outcomes were done using multilevel regression models (mixed effects or hierarchical linear models).

"We focus on individual experiences, goals, etc.," Poulin says, "so it's not too surprising that some of our most important study results pertained to spirituality.

Future work, say the researchers, should compare the influence of spirituality and religiosity on health across a variety of indicators and contexts. The resulting patterns will illuminate processes through which these phenomena together and separately influence mental and physical health.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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