Health is not just physical. I believe in the interconnectedness of our minds, bodies and spirits.
In my experience as a surgeon, patients who have identified themselves as religious or spiritual have been better equipped to handle the roller coaster ride that follows a difficult diagnosis. Whenever I come across a patient who has strong faith, that person is more at peace — even when there are complications.
By contrast, my patients who don’t believe in a higher power or don’t consider themselves spiritual often exhibit more anxiety or have feelings of abandonment and anger. There’s an innate sense of disaster.
Prayer and positive thinking
However, if you have faith, you cry out for help, and you expect that help to come from God. Prayer has been shown to activate the reward system of the brain known as the caudate nucleus, according to a 2008 study by Danish researchers. The study found higher levels of activity in this area of the brain through MRI scans of people during prayer — indicating that they are anticipating a future reward. For surgical patients, the anticipation might center on a positive outcome.
Six months later the same group of researchers published another study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience using expanded MRI analysis to confirm the results. They found that a group of Danish Christians, who consider God capable of answering prayers, activated a part of the brain that is responsible for social interaction during impromptu prayers. They considered prayer an experience similar to normal interpersonal interaction. Their prayers indicated a positive mental outlook that gave them hope.
A positive mental outlook has been shown to lead to better outcomes for conditions like cancer and heart disease, according to an August 2009 study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.
Blending prayer with medical care
When I know my patient will be receptive to it, I offer to pray with them prior to surgery. It certainly seems to put them more at ease.
Prayer gives us as human beings access to God. This is my personal belief as a Christian — that human beings were created to praise God and acknowledge God. Interacting with God provides a powerful connection.
Prayer isn’t necessarily a cure-all, but for people of faith — regardless of a person’s specific religion or personal belief — calling out to a higher power can assist in the healing process.
About the Author
Dr. Mohan Airan is a general surgeon on staff at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital with offices in Lombard, Ill.