Prayer for Treating Psychological Disorders

Does prayer really help those suffering from a mental illness? Learn about prayer as a treatment for depression, anxiety, addictions and other psychiatric disorders.

Does prayer really help those suffering from a mental illness? Learn about prayer as a treatment for depression, anxiety, addictions and other psychiatric disorders.

Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness. Each state and each discipline has its own rules about whether practitioners are required to be professionally licensed. If you plan to visit a practitioner, it is recommended that you choose one who is licensed by a recognized national organization and who abides by the organization's standards. It is always best to speak with your primary health care provider before starting any new therapeutic technique.


Prayer may be defined as the act of asking for something while aiming to connect with God or another object of worship. Praying for the sick or dying has been a common practice throughout history. Individuals or groups may practice prayer with or without the framework of an organized religion.

People may pray for themselves or for others. "Intercessory prayer" refers to prayers said on behalf of people who are ill or in need. Intercessors may have specific objectives or may wish for general well-being or improved health. The person being prayed for may be aware or unaware of the process. In some cases, prayers involve direct content using the hands. Intercessory prayer may also be performed from a distance.

Clergy, chaplains and pastoral counselors are trained by their respective institutions to address the spiritual and emotional needs of physically and mentally ill patients, their families and loved ones.



It has been suggested that patients who pray for themselves or are aware that others are praying for them may develop stronger coping skills and decreased anxiety, which may improve health. Some people believe that prayer or positive thinking has beneficial effects on the immune, central nervous, cardiovascular or hormonal system.

Studies of the effects of intercessory prayer on health provide conflicting results. Most prayer research is not well designed or reported. Prayer is difficult to study for several reasons:

  • There are many types of prayers and religions.
  • Intercessors do not always know patients in studies and, therefore, the prayers are often nonspecific.
  • Controlled studies with "placebo prayer" are challenging.
  • There is no widespread agreement on how to best measure outcomes.


Scientists have studied prayer for the following health problems:

Improved health (general)
Numerous studies have evaluated the effects of intercessory prayer on illness severity, death and well-being of patients or loved ones. Results are variable, with some studies reporting benefits of prayer on severity or length of illness, and others suggesting no effects. Several studies in which patients knew that prayers were being said on their behalf report benefits. However, in these cases, it is not clear that prayer is superior to other forms of compassionate interaction. Most research has not been well designed or reported. Additional studies are needed, with clear descriptions of prayer techniques and well-defined health outcomes.

Critical illness
Several studies have measured the effects of intercessory prayer on behalf of patients in intensive care units with severe heart disease or infections. Some of this research suggests positive results, but most studies are poorly designed and reported. Further research is needed to make a firm conclusion.

End stage renal disease, coping after kidney transplant
Preliminary research shows positive trends associated with prayer and spirituality in these patients. Further research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

Quality of life in chronically ill patients
Improved quality of life has been measured in patients who have others pray for their healing. Results are not conclusive, and better-quality research is necessary to make a firm conclusion.

Heart disease, heart attack
Studies of intercessory prayer for heart disease patients report variable effects on illness severity, complications during hospitalization and death rates. Well-designed research is needed to draw firm conclusions.

Early studies of cancer patients report that intercessory prayer has variable effects on disease progression or death rates. Some studies report possible increased quality of life and coping skills in cancer patients using spiritual techniques, including prayer. High-quality research is needed to make a recommendation.

Because of poor study design, data on the role of prayer in AIDS-related illnesses and hospitalizations cannot be considered conclusive.

Rheumatoid arthritis
Early research suggests that in-person intercessory prayer may reduce pain, fatigue, tenderness, swelling, and weakness when used in addition to standard medical care. Better-quality research is necessary to make a recommendation.


Burn patients
Limited research in burn patients reports improved outcomes associated with prayer. However, these results cannot be considered conclusive because of poor study design.

Birth complications
Initial studies report fewer birth complications in people who are religious or who pray. Well-designed studies are needed to support these results.

Blood pressure control
Intercessory prayer shows no effects on blood pressure in early studies. Further research may provide better information.

Alcohol or drug dependency
Intercessory prayer shows no effects on alcohol or drug dependency. Further research may provide better information.

Higher pregnancy rate during in vitro fertilization
The potential effect of intercessory prayer on pregnancy rates in women being treated with in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer has been studied. Preliminary results seem positive, but further research is necessary.

Longer survival in the elderly
Preliminary study suggests that older adults who participate in private religious activity before the onset of impairment in activities of daily living appear to have a survival advantage over those who do not. Further research is needed to confirm these results.

Couple interaction during conflict
Prayer appears to be a significant "softening" event for religious couples, facilitating reconciliation and problem-solving based on one study.

There is some research that suggests that religiously active persons may be less likely to smoke cigarettes or, if they do smoke, may be likely to smoke fewer cigarettes.

Psychological well-being in homeless women
Forty-eight percent of the women in one study reported that the use of prayer significantly related to less use of alcohol and/or street drugs, fewer perceived worries, and fewer depressive symptoms. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

Sickle cell anemia
Prayer has been studied as a coping mechanism for patients with sickle cell disease with mixed results.

Prayer has not been shown to help prevent or treat diabetes or related health issues. Diabetes should be treated by a qualified health care provider using proven therapies.


Unproven Uses

Prayer has been suggested for many other uses, based on tradition or on scientific theories. However, these uses have not been thoroughly studied in humans, and there is limited scientific evidence about safety or effectiveness. Some of these suggested uses are for conditions that are potentially life-threatening. Consult with a health care provider before using prayer for any use.

Cystic fibrosis
Gastrointestinal disorders
Immune system stimulation
Increased cerebral blood flow
Inflammatory dermatoses
Kidney disease
Lung disease
Mental health
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) anxiety
Multiple chemical sensitivity
Neurologic disorders
Perioperative management
Prostate cancer
Psychiatric disorders
Psychological well-being in the homeless
Respiratory disease
Spinal cord injury
Spinal cord surgery recovery
Successful liberation from prolonged mechanical ventilation
Wound healing

Potential Dangers

Prayer is not recommended as the sole treatment for potentially severe medical conditions, and it should not delay the time it takes to consult with a qualified health care provider. Sometimes, religious beliefs conflict with standard medical approaches, and therefore open communication between patients and caregivers is encouraged.



Prayer has been suggested for many health conditions. Available scientific studies have not proven prayer to be more safe or effective than other treatments. It is not recommended that you rely on prayer alone to treat potentially dangerous medical conditions, although prayer may be used in addition to standard medical care. Speak with your health care provider if you are considering prayer therapy.

The information in this monograph was prepared by the professional staff at Natural Standard, based on thorough systematic review of scientific evidence. The material was reviewed by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School with final editing approved by Natural Standard.


  1. Natural Standard: An organization that produces scientifically based reviews of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) topics
  2. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): A division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services dedicated to research

Selected Scientific Studies: Prayer

Natural Standard reviewed more than 200 articles to prepare the professional monograph from which this version was created.

Some of the more recent studies are listed below:

  1. Astin JA, Harkness E, Ernst E. The efficacy of "distant healing": a systematic review of randomized trials. Ann Intern Med 2000;132(11):903-910.
  2. Ai AL, Dunkle RE, Peterson C, Bolling SF. The role of private prayer in psychological recovery among midlife and aged patients following cardiac surgery. Gerontologist 1998;Oct, 38(5):591-601.
  3. Arslanian-Engoren C, Scott LD. The lived experience of survivors of prolonged mechanical ventilation: a phenomenological study. Heart Lung 2003;Sep-Oct, 32(5):328-334.
  4. Aviles JM, Whelan SE, Hernke DA, et al. Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clin Proc 2001;76(12):1192-1198.
  5. Baetz M, Larson DB, Marcoux G, et al. Canadian psychiatric inpatient religious commitment: an association with mental health. Can J Psychiatry 2002;Mar, 47(2):159-166.
  6. Bernardi L, Sleight P, Bandinelli G, et al. Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study. Br Med J 2001;Dec 22-29, 323(7327):1446-1449.
  7. Brown-Saltzman K. Replenishing the spirit by meditative prayer and guided imagery. Semin Oncol Nurs 1997;Nov, 13(4):255-259.
  8. Bloom JR, Stewart SL, Chang S, et al. Then and now: the quality of life of young breast cancer survivors. Psycooncology 2004;13(3):147-160.
  9. Butler MH, Gardner BC, Bird MH. Not just a time-out: change dynamics of prayer for religious couples in conflict situations. Fam Process 1998;Winter, 37(4):451-478.
  10. Cooper-Effa M, Blount W, Kaslow N, et al. Role of spirituality in patients with sickle cell disease. J Am Board Fam Pract 2001;Mar-Apr, 14(2):116-122.
  11. Connell CM, Gibson GD. Racial, ethnic, and cultural differences in dementia caregiving: review and analysis. Gerontologist 1997;Jun, 37(3):355-364.
  12. Dunn KS, Horgas AL. The prevalence of prayer as a spiritual self-care modality in elders. J Holist Nurs 2000;Dec, 18(4):337-351.
  13. Dusek JA, Astin JA, Hibberd PL, Krucoff MW. Healing prayer outcomes studies: consensus recommendations. Altern Ther Health Med 2003;May-Jun, 9(3 Suppl):A44-A53.
  14. Gibson PR, Elms AN, Ruding LA. Perceived treatment efficacy for conventional and alternative therapies reported by persons with multiple chemical sensitivity. Environ Health Perspect 2003;Sep, 111(12):1498-1504.
  15. Gill GV, Redmond S, Garratt F, Paisey R. Diabetes and alternative medicine: cause for concern. Diabet Med 1994;Mar, 11(2):210-213.
  16. Gundersen L. Faith and healing. Ann Intern Med 2000; 132(2):169-172.
  17. Grunberg Ge,Crater CL, Seskevich J, et al. Correlations between preprocedure mood and clinical outcome in patients undergoing coronary angioplasty. Cardiol Rev 2003;11(6):309-317.
  18. Halperin EC. Should academic medical centers conduct clinical trials of the efficacy of intercessory prayer? Acad Med 2001;Aug, 76(8):791-797.
  19. Hamm RM. No effect of intercessory prayer has been proven. Arch Intern Med 2000;160(12):1872-1873.
  20. Harding OG. The healing power of intercessory prayer. West Indian Med J 2001;Dec, 50(4):269-272.
  21. Harris WS, Gowda M, Kolb JW, et al. God, prayer, and coronary care unit outcomes: faith vs works? Arch Intern Med 2000;Jun 26, 160(12):1877-1878.
  22. Hawley G, Irurita V. Seeking comfort through prayer. Int J Nurs Pract 1998;Mar, 4(1):9-18.
  23. Helm HM, Hays JC, Flint EP, et al. Does private religious activity prolong survival? A six-year follow-up study of 3,851 older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2000;Jul, 55(7):M400-M405.
  24. Hodges SD, Humphreys SC, Eck JC. Effect of spirituality on successful recovery from spinal surgery. South Med J 2002;Dec, 95(12):1381-1384.
  25. Hoover DR, Margolick JB. Questions on the design and findings of a randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch Intern Med 2000;160(12):1875-1876.
  26. Karis R, Karis D. Intercessory prayer. Arch Intern Med 2000;160(12):1870-1878.
  27. Koenig HG, George LK, Cohen HJ, et al. The relationship between religious activities and cigarette smoking in older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 1998;Nov, 53(6):M426-M434.
  28. Krause N. Race,religion, and abstinence from alcohol in late life. Aging Health 2003;15(3):508-533.
  29. Kreitzer MJ, Snyder M. Healing the heart: integrating complementary therapies and healing practices into the care of cardiovascular patients. Prog Cardiovasc Nurs 2002;Spring, 17(2):73-80.
  30. Leibovici L. Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial. Br Med J 2001;323(7327):1450-1451.
  31. Levkoff S, Levy B, Weitzman PF. The role of religion and ethnicity in the help seeking of family caregivers of elders with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. J Cross Cult Gerontol 1999;Dec, 14(4):335-356.
  32. Lindqvist R, Carlsson M, Sjoden PO. Coping strategies of people with kidney transplants. J Adv Nurs 2004;45(1):47-52.
  33. Lo B, Kates LW, Ruston D, et al. Responding to requests regarding prayer and religious ceremonies by patients near the end of life and their families. J Palliat Med 2003;Jun, 6(3):409-415.
  34. Maraviglia MG. The effects of spirituality on well-being of people with lung cancer. Oncol Nurs Forum 2004;31(1):89-94.
  35. Martin JC,Sachse DS. Spirituality characteristics of women following renal transplantation. Neprol Nurs J 2002;29(6):577-581.
  36. Matthews DA, Marlowe SM, MacNutt FS. Effects of intercessory prayer on patients with rheumatoid arthritis. South Med J 2000;93(12):1177-1186.
  37. Matthews WJ, et al. The effects of intercessory prayer, positive visualization, and expectancy on the well-being of kidney dialysis patients. J Am Med Assoc 2001;2376.
  38. Meisenhelder JB. Gender differences in religiosity and functional health in the elderly. Geriatr Nurs 2003;Nov-Dec, 24(6):343-347.
  39. Mitchell J, Weatherly D. Beyond church attendance: religiosity and mental health among rural older adults. J Cross Cult Gerontol 2000;15(1):37-54.
  40. Newberg A, Pourdehnad M, Alavi A, d'Aquili EG. Cerebral blood flow during meditative prayer: preliminary findings and methodological issues. Percept Mot Skills 2003;Oct, 97(2):625-630.
  41. Nonnemaker JM, Mcneely CA, Blum RW. Public and private domains of religiosity and adolescent health risk behaviors: evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. 2003;57(11):2049-2054.
  42. Palmer RF, Katerndahl D, Morgan-Kidd J. A randomized trial of the effects of remote intercessory prayer: interactions with personal beliefs on problem-specific outcomes and functional status. J Altern Complement Med 2004;10(3):438-448.
  43. Pearsall PK. On a wish and a prayer: healing through distant intentionality. Hawaii Med J 2001;Oct, 60(10):255-256.
  44. Peltzer K, Khoza LB, Lekhuleni ME, et al. Concepts and treatment for diabetes among traditional and faith healers in the northern province, South Africa. Curationis 2001;May, 24(2):42-47.
  45. Reicks M, Mills J, Henry H. Qualitative study of spirituality in a weight loss program: contribution to self-efficacy an locus of control. J Nutr Educ Behav 2004;36(1):13-15.
  46. Roberts L, Ahmed I, Hall S. Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health (Cochrane Review). The Cochrane Library (Oxford: Update Software), 2002.
  47. Rosner F. Therapeutic efficacy of prayer. Arch Intern Med 2000;160(12):1875-1878.
  48. Rossiter-Thornton JF. Prayer in psychotherapy. Altern Ther Health Med 2000;6(1):125-128.
  49. Shuler PA, Gelberg L, Brown M. The effects of spiritual/religious practices on psychological well-being among inner city homeless women. Nurse Pract Forum 1994; Jun, 5(2):106-113.
  50. Sloan RP, Bagiella E, VandeCreek L, et al. Should physicians prescribe religious activities? N Engl J Med 2000;342(25):1913-1916.
  51. Smith JG, Fisher R. The effect of remote intercessory prayer on clinical outcomes. Arch Intern Med 2000;160(12):1876-1878.
  52. Strawbridge WJ, Shema SJ, Cohen RD, et al. Religiosity buffers effects of some stressors on depression but exacerbates others. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci 1998;May, 53(3):S118-S126.
  53. Targ E. Prayer and distant healing: Sicher et al. (1998). Adv Mind Body Med 2001;Winter, 17(1):44-47.
  54. Taylor EJ. Prayer's clinical issues and implications. Holist Nurs Pract 2003;Jul-Aug, 17(4):179-188.
  55. Townsend M, Kladder V, Ayele H, et al. Systematic review of clinical trials examining the effects of religion on health. South Med J 2002;95(12):1429-1434.
  56. Walker SR, Tonigan JS, Miller WR, et al. Intercessory prayer in the treatment of alcohol abuse and dependence: a pilot investigation. Altern Ther Health Med 1997;Nov, 3(6):79-86.
  57. Wall BM, Nelson S. Our heels are praying very hard all day. Holist Nurs Pract 2003;Nov-Dec, 17(6):320-328.
  58. Wiesendanger H, Werthmuller L, Reuter K, et al. Chronically ill patients treated by spiritual healing improve in quality of life: results of a randomized waiting-list controlled study. J Altern Complement Med 2001;7(1):45-51.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 1). Prayer for Treating Psychological Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 18 from

Last Updated: July 10, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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