NPR recently posted an interview with Dr. Lisa Miller, a professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University. Miller uses the tools of scientific research to study spirituality and mental health.
In her book, “The Awakened Brain: The New Study of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life,” Miller discusses her research on neuroscience and spirituality. She tells stories and provides the science that backs up her claim that spirituality is good for our mental health.
She claims that her research finds that “spiritual beliefs can decrease our rates of anxiety and depression and generally make us most likely to lead happier lives.”
I don’t know about you, but I have mixed feelings about this claim. I know many people who have a spiritual life, but are total jerks. I also know many people who have a spiritual life, but suffer from depression and anxiety.
In fact, living a spiritual life does not protect anyone from depression or anxiety – or from being a jerk!
Even Jesus and the Great Saints Suffered from Depression and Anxiety
If you or someone you love suffers from depression and anxiety, you are not alone. After all, Jesus suffered from depression and anxiety. The Gospels are very clear that Jesus had such severe anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane that his sweat was like “great drops of blood.”
In addition, many of the saints suffered from anxiety and depression, too. John of the Cross is not a well-known name, but he made one phrase famous, “the dark night of the soul.” His book by that title delves deep into his own depression. Someone who is much more famous, Mother Teresa, could be described as the most spiritual person of the last century. But she suffered from severe bouts of depression and anxiety.
While spirituality does not guarantee protection from depression and anxiety, it can help us manage depression and anxiety. Neuroscience is helping us understand why.
The Neuroscience of Depression and Spirituality
In her book, Miller describes the brain structure of those who have a high risk for depression and those who have a low risk for depression. People with a high risk of depression often have depression in their family. The outer surface of their right cortex can be up to 28 percent thinner than the average right cortex. The right cortex of the human brain is responsible for how we perceive ourselves and the world. This means that depression is related to a contorted view of ourselves and the world. Relatedly, depression often involves an inability to perceive the bigger picture.
Miller also explored where spirituality resides in the brain by using brain imaging techniques. She found that a spiritual brain is more robust and thicker in the right cortex. In other words, spiritual people have a thicker cortex. A thicker cortex helps people manage depression and anxiety.
She also found that people who have a high risk for depression and who are spiritual have a thicker cortex than those who are at low risk for depression and who are spiritual. Miller and her team theorized that this could mean that people who are susceptible to depression might also be more open to the benefits of spirituality. In other scientific studies, Miller found that depression can actually be catalyst for an even deeper spirituality. We often think of depression as a type of death. But depression can be a sign that some part of us is trying to grow. We might think of depression and anxiety as growing pains that are leading us to become our true selves. This is the point that John of the Cross made in his book on the dark night of the soul. Neuroscience is helping to prove his point.
Conclusion: A Practical Way to Help Someone with Anxiety and Depression
I like to think of myself as a spiritual person. I also know that I have suffered from some severe bouts of depression and anxiety. When I am in this phase, what I need the most is for someone to listen. From my personal experience, advice is rarely helpful. Advice usually comes from a good place of trying to help, but it is often received as if the person giving advice knows better. It can bring a sense of superiority to the person giving advice and inferiority to the one who suffers from anxiety and depression. Again, advice comes from a good place, but it often leads to a deeper sense of feeling inferior and thus even more anxiety and depression. The best way for someone suffering from depression and anxiety is to rediscover the truths inside of us that we already know.
Usually what I want the most during these times is a listening ear and maybe some clarifying questions. Miller’s findings show us the importance of spirituality when it comes to depression and anxiety. One of Miller’s main points is that spirituality is important because it helps us see that there is a bigger picture. If this is the case, maybe what people need the most is for someone to ask something like, “What role does spirituality play in your situation?” This type of question may help the person rediscover what they already know is true – that we are not alone and that there is a bigger picture beyond our suffering.