The Religious practice of Health Psychology

by Teresa Corbett

Some of my favourite things to study are those which are common to so many of us… yet we’re still kinda weird about. Why is sex so taboo? Why don’t people like to talk about their health? How did religion come to be such a force in our world today? These issues impact everyone, yet are often only discussed in negative ways: fundamentalism, obsession, extremism. But maybe it’s time we started looking for a more positive spin on them?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am fascinated by religion. Educated for most of my childhood in a Catholic school-system in rural Ireland and then dumped into the new world of the big smoke and Trinity College, I spent (and spend) a lot of my time talking to people about their religious beliefs. I came home every weekend to work in a nursing home for nuns; and as a psychologist and a fan of Fr. Ted you can only imagine the impact this had on me. But I also befriended the wonderful Rev. Julian Hamilton and often

The fab, suave Rev. Julian Hamilton and me posing way back in 2012.

The fab, suave Rev. Julian Hamilton and me posing way back in 2012.

talked to him about his Methodist faith (sometimes even being roped in to do a reading at a service here or there), as well as having friends from Islamic, Hindu and other backgrounds (and many with no faith at all). With friends in the choir and living with the organ scholar, I frequently attended ecumenical services that were quite far removed from the single faith world I was used to. I guess it was an eye-opening experience that sparked an interest that has stayed with me.

In the nursing home I cared for this great lady, Sr. Lelia who turned 100 last week. (I think I've already proved the point of this post!) Like all the crew in the convent, she's a staunch Munster supporter so Irish rugby star Donnacha O'Callaghan popped in to join the party.

In the nursing home I cared for this great lady, Sr. Lelia who turned 100 last week. (I think I’ve already proved the point of this post!) Like all the crew in the convent, she’s a staunch Munster supporter, so Irish rugby star Donnacha O’Callaghan popped in to join the party.

Especially around this time of year. Easter is a really interesting time in the Christian Calendar. I love it. There are so many rituals and strange mystic traditions. Feet get washed and teenagers have a sip of wine to wash down the Easter eggs. The congregation shout at the priest to “Free Barabas!!” and to crucify their Savior. It must be baffling to an outsider.

Love it or hate it, world religions have had a huge impact on the world we live in. Culturally- inspiring music and art. Politically- electing presidents, promoting peace, and igniting wars. And, I’ve been thinking… what about health? Religious groups often advocate lifestyles that incorporate many health behaviors … something that we as Health Psychologists might consider thinking about…?


  1.  Diet

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Practices such as fasting or limiting food impact are described as tenets of faith by numerous religions.  Before there was ever a 5/2 diet, Catholics fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. This practice was so intertwined with Irish society that the Irish word aoine (“fasting”) is the root of the names we give Wednesday (Céadaoin or first fast) and Friday (Aoine). A longer example of fasting is seen during the month of Ramadan for certain Muslims. Further, given recent debate about the role of meat in our diets, many world religions promote limiting or avoiding the intake of meat. For example, many Buddhists are vegetarians, though some include fish in their diet. Whether this served to reduce eating or to teach self-regulatory practices I don’t know.. but why would so many religions have a say in what their congregation ate?

2. Social Support

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One of the key features of religious practices is the social support that comes from communal gatherings. A sense of belonging is harnessed in traditions that bring people together. This can be seen examples as far apart as the coming together of local parishes at Mass on a Sunday, to the throngs of worshippers who gather in Mecca (see picture), the center of the Islamic world, to celebrate their faith.

3. Movement

'Ruku' is the fourth stage of Islamic prayer. Worshipers are instructed to bend their body so that their back and neck are straight and level with the ground, keeping their eyes there. Their back and head should be in a 90 degree angle with their legs.

‘Ruku’ is the fourth stage of Islamic prayer. Worshipers are instructed to bend their body so that their back and neck are straight and level with the ground, keeping their eyes there. Their back and head should be in a 90 degree angle with their legs.

Ever done the Camino de Santiago? The popularity of this ancient pilgrim route had grown in the last few years as people search for a more active and spiritual way to spend their holidays. However, even without considering pilgrimages in the mix, many world religions incorporate physical activity into their faith. Consider the standing and kneeling and sitting at a Catholic Mass- gets the blood flowing, keeps you alert… and isn’t a million miles off the type of movement you might do in a gentle yoga class. Given recent findings about the harms imposed by being seated for too long, isn’t it interesting that most world religions have a way of getting us up out of our seats?

In yoga, people are taught to work stiff muscles safely, promote lower-body flexibility, and find correct alignment in  forward bends.

In yoga, people are taught to work stiff muscles safely, promote lower-body flexibility, and find correct alignment in forward bends.

4. Mindfulness

Take notice. Be mindful. Meditate. You can get apps for it now. But thinking about religious practices, they seem to have been on the ball centuries ago. Taking time from your busy life to relax on a holy day or for a ceremony is part of many religious doctrines. Lighting candles and limiting distractions is also entwined in many faiths. Regular mindfulness practice is promoted as a way of coping with stress, worry, lack of focus, relationship problems, addictions and more. And it is associated with improved wellbeing, focus, creativity and better relationships. If you consider that a Muslim is obliged to pray at least five times a day… what is the function of these prayers? The five daily prayers serve as a template and inspiration for conduct during the rest of the day (setting intention), transforming it, ideally, into one single and sustained meditation (being mindful). The Islamic prophet Muhammad spent sustained periods in contemplation and meditation… long before Headspace was keeping us relaxed.

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Proposed benefits of mindfulness according to the Headspace website

  1. Volunteering time and money

f51cea099891ea09b49ea8ddb79baf9cA growing body of evidence suggests that people volunteer might have improved physical health—including lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan. For example, a study in Psychology and Aging found that adults over age 50 who regularly volunteered were less likely toblog-1-700x461 develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.  Religious organisations are often highly effective in bringing people together to become active volunteers and some studies suggest that religious people do more voluntary work than non-religious people. Protestant denominations often encourage civic engagement and volunteerism in the larger community.  Many Catholics in Ireland were raised with the Trócaire box in the classroom, teaching us to think about those less fortunate and to give back. The practice of charity is called Dana in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It is the virtue of generosity or giving.


Perhaps one striking example of the relationship between religious practice and physical health is that is that Seventh-day Adventists in many countries images (2)have lower mortality rates than the general population.  It is not believed that this is linked to their spiritual beliefs, but rather the lifestyle encouraged by the church. An Adventist diet typically includes by large amounts of fruits, vegetables and nuts, and a low consumption of meat. A vast majority of Adventists do not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes and vigorous exercise is encouraged as part of their lifestyle. Maybe they’re onto something?

Now before I am faced with a barrage of emails and comments about punishments and the evils carried out in the name of religion, I feel obliged to say that I am not promoting or aiming to offend religion, nor am I saying that you need it to be healthy. But these institutions have had a huge socio-cultural influence on the world we live in. Their aim (besides worship) was often to manage their congregations in a manner that would help their faith to thrive… and this, unquestionably would be more likely to occur if everyone was in good health. Something that holds true of society nowadays.  It seems that the leaders, consciously or unconsciously, were promoting health behaviours and health psychology all along. Well… at least until their celebrations were hijacked by chocolate bunnies and selection boxes.

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If you want to read more here’s a book that might be of interest!

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1 Comment

  1. Love this timely post Teresa, I was thinking about some of these ideas just yesterday. As a singing atheist I’ve spent a lot of time in churches over the years, and although I don’t ascribe to any of the beliefs I wondered why we don’t adopt more of the techniques and systems religious orders use to keep their beliefs ingrained. Like the weekly meetings, and the idea of the prayer nut in buddhism, which I suppose it’s not unlike the function of wearing the crucifix, or having rosary beads: An instant talisman to remind one of the teachings/beliefs that might be easily forgotten in a world of temptation and distraction. It struck me that psychologists are using these same techniques in their interventions – apps and ESM and that there are probably other systems and practices which we can ‘borrow’ from the world’s religions, like those you outlined above!

    Liked by 1 person

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