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Daily spiritual experience may mitigate stress

StressNo one likes feeling daily stress (although some do enjoy giving others daily stress). At the same time, religions provide ways of putting daily stressors in a cosmic context that makes them seem much less significant. Why worry? New research suggests that spiritual activities may mitigate stress. More specifically, research by psychologists Brenda Whitehead and Cindy Bergeman (both of the University of Notre Dame) indicates that daily spiritual experience can buffer the effects of perceived stress and increase the impact of positive affect in older adults.

In order to test the relationship between perceived stress, positive affect, negative affect, and daily spiritual experience, the researchers proposed three hypotheses. First, when individuals experienced perceived stress above their normal average, they would have higher negative affect and lower positive affect. Second, when individuals reported more spiritual experience than usual, they would have lower negative affect and higher positive affect. Finally, daily spiritual experience will buffer or moderate the perceived stress on negative affect—in other words, daily spiritual experience will mitigate that day’s stress.

The psychologists tested their hypotheses by surveying older participants in the Notre Dame Study of Health and Well-Being. These participants’ ages ranged from 55-80 years (with 244 total participants). The participants took the Perceived Stress Scale (which measures perceived stress), the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale (which measures spiritual experience), and the Postive and Negative Affect Schedule (which measures daily positive and negative affect).

After crunching the numbers, the analysis partially supported the hypotheses. Perceived stress indeed correlated with lower positive affect and higher negative affect, and more spiritual experience correlated with higher positive affect and lower negative affect, but daily spiritual experience only acted as a buffer in between perceived stress and negative affect, not positive affect. In other words, daily spiritual experience interacted with negative affect indirectly and positive affect directly. It indirectly mitigated negative affect by acting as a coping mechanism for perceived stress, and directly enhanced positive affect regardless of perceived stress.

As with studies that only survey undergraduate students, this study only surveyed one population – older adults. So the study is subject to similar criticism: what do the results really mean when such a particular portion of the population was selected? At the very least, the findings suggest benefits of spiritual experiences for the elderly. As for everyone else, they will simply have to wait to learn whether the results apply to them as well.

For more, see “Coping with Daily Stress: Differential Role of Spiritual Experience on Daily Positive and Negative Affect” in the The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

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