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Religious songs help to ease stress

SingingThe sad reality is that stress happens. Everyone knows this. What everyone does not know is how to handle stress. Some turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, others to ineffective techniques, but most want to be a part of the few who find and practice ways that actually work at reducing stress and coping with the curveballs life throws at them. One such common way is singing religious songs. Medical expert Jill Hamilton (University of North Carolina) and colleagues took special interest in African Americans’ use of singing religious songs as a way to alleviate stress.

Specifically studying African-American singers yielded a variety of interesting advantages. For one, when compared to other Americans, African Americans have a greater tendency to pray (at least) daily, affiliate themselves with a religious group, see religion as highly important in their lives, and declare their certainty of God’s existence. African-Americans exhibit some of the most religious tendencies in an already highly religious country. Furthermore, religious music and song play an intregal part in African-American culture, and so African American religion provides an ideal case study for looking at the relationship between religious songs and stress.

Since older adults would have experienced the greatest stress, the researchers decided to focus on them. They set out to see what kind of songs older African-Americans sang, under which circumstances they sang them, and if this differed from how younger African Americans used song to ease stress.

The sample included 65 African-American respondents of at least age 50 or older. Because the researchers relied on local announcements and cooperation with local churches, these 65 participants came exclusively from only the southeastern United States. Critically, each of these participants had experienced the loss of a loved one or a serious, life threatening condition (the leading causes of death for African Americans include heart disease, cancer, stroke, and unintentional injuries).

The researchers gathered data by conducting 15-60 minute interviews with the participants that consisted of three questions: “Can you recall a time in your life that was particularly stressful for you?” “Tell me about a religious song, scripture, or prayer that helped you during that time,” and “Tell me how that song, scripture and/or prayer helped you during that time.” The following follow-up questions may have been asked afterwards: “Can you recall how you were feeling when you used that song or scripture, or prayer?” and “Tell me why you used that particular song, scripture, or prayer.”

An analysis of this data revealed that the songs older African Americans used to get through the loss of a loved one or a life threatening condition fell into five categories: (a) songs of thanksgiving and praise (the most commonly sung type of song), (b) songs that are instructive, (c) songs that evoke memory of ancestors (the least frequently sung type of song), (d) songs that are communication with God (prayers), and (e) songs expressing a belief in an afterlife. Not surprisingly, as participants got older, they tended to sing more songs involving an afterlife.

Regarding these song types' general usage, when faced with the death of a loved one or a life-threatening condition, older subjects primarily relied on both songs of instruction and songs of thanksgiving and praise. But when faced with work-related stress they instead relied on songs of communication. Overall, the most common type of song centered on God as a deliverer from suffering (and thus would fall in the “song of thanksgiving and praise” category). Participants used songs of instruction to instruct themselves and those around them of what to do when suffering -- namely, remember and rely on God’s healing power. Songs for recalling ancestors helped participants to reconnect with past loved ones because these particular songs were ones they learned from their remembered loved one. Direct appeal to God came through songs of communication (for example, petitions for healing). Finally, songs pertaining to an afterlife came into play when subjects longed to be free of pain and to see their loved one again.

From this qualitative data, the researchers concluded that religious songs play an instrumental part in helping older African-Americans deal with stress. While many may criticize their approach for being qualitative rather than quantitative, a bigger pitfall comes from the lack of a control group. Why not also have a similar number of African-American respondents in the same age range who use secular songs to cope with stress? Is there anything about the religious nature of the songs that make them effective? Or is it simply part of African-American culture? Music in and of itself may be therapeutic. And if so, the focus on religious song would be unnecessarily narrow.

For more, see “‘You Need a Song to Bring You Through’: The Use of Religious Songs to Manage Stressful Life Events” in the journal The Gerontologist.


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