On Benevolent God: Beliefs and Biochemistry

A landmark study linking belief to health was reported recently by Gail Ironson, MD, PhD, a leading mind-body medicine researcher, and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami. Dr. Ironson runs the Positive Survivors Research Center at the university, and has been awarded several grants from the National Institutes of Health. It is one of the first studies to link particular beliefs with specific changes in the immune system.

Dr. Ironson measured several indicators of health in HIV patients over a four-year period. Once measure was their viral load – the quantity of the AIDS virus in a sample of blood. She also counted the concentration of a type of white blood cell responsible for killing invading organisms. The concentration of these “helper Tcells” (also know as CD4 cells) in he blood is one measure of the progression of AIDS. If the concentration of helpder Tcells drops, our bodies are less able to fend off other diseases like pneumonia. That’s why the I and D in AIDS stand for Immune Deficiency; as AIDS patients lose their Tcells and their immunity to disease drops, they are more susceptible to the kinds of invading organisms – opportunistic infections – that healthy immune systems easily fend off.

Studies like those conducted by Dr. Ironson are especially meaningful to physicians and biologists because they identify key biological markers of illness, as opposed to subjective measures such as the patient’s level of depression, the number of doctor visits, and the dosage of medication required.

In her studies, Dr. Ironson found that there were two particular interesting predictors of how fast HIV progressed in the bodies of her research participants. The first was their view of the nature of God. Some believed in a punishing God, while others believed in a benevolent God. She observes that, “People who view God as judgmental God have a CD4 (helper T) cell decline more than twice the rate of those who don’t see God as judgmental, and their viral load increases more than three times faster. For example, a precise statement affirmed by these patients is ‘God will judge me harshly one day.’ This one item is related to an increased likelihood that the patient will develop an opportunistic infection or die. These beliefs predict disease progression even more strongly than depression.”

Dr. Ironson was surprised to find that many people reported a spiritual transformation subsequent to their diagnostic. This transformation was characterized by a sense of self that was profoundly changed, and resulted in different behaviors. Many kicked their habits of street drugs like cocaine and heroin, or legal ones like alcohol. Some went through such a transformation only after hitting rock bottom.

A common gateway to spiritual transformation was having a spiritual experience. After helping a drunk white man in distress, John, a gay African-American man with a college education, described the following experience:

I felt like I was floating over my body, and I’ll never forget this, as I was floating over my body, I looked down, it was like this shriveled up prune, nothing but a prune, like an old dried skin. And my soul, my spirit was over my body. Everything was so separated. I was just feeling like I was in different dimensions, I felt it in my body like a gush of wind blows. I remember saying to God, “God I can’t die now, because I haven’t fulfilled my purpose,” and, just as I said that, the spirit and the body, became one, it all collided, and I could feel this gush of wind and I was a whole person again.

That was really a groundbreaking experience. Before becoming HIV-positive my faith was so fear based. I always wanted to feel I belonged somewhere, that I fit in, or that I was loved. What helped me to overcome the fear of God and the fear of change was that I realized that no one had a monopoly on God. I was able to begin to replace a lot of destructive behavior with a sort of spiritual desire. I think also what changed, my desire to get close to God, to love myself, and to really embrace unconditional love.

John’s story points to the second major factor Dr. Ironson noted: A participant’s personal relationship with God. Her study found that patients who did not believe that God loved them lost helper Tcells “three times faster than those who believed God did love them.” Another correlation she found was that those who felt a sense of peace also had lower levels of body-damaging stress hormone cortisol.”

Dr. Ironson, in her recent article published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, showed a fairly high number of people increase their spirituality in the year after they are first diagnosed with HIV/AIDS; 45% showed an increase in spirituality, 42% stayed the same, and 13% had a decrease in spirituality. The study showed an enormous strong association between spirituality and the progression of HIV.

“I was surprised that so many people had an increase in spirituality, because being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS can be a devastating event. I could hardly believe the figures, until I saw that another article in the same issue of the journal found an increase in spirituality of 41% of newly diagnosed patients. Perhaps a life-threatening illness, not just HIV, but cancer or a heart attack, can stimulate a person to reexamine their connection to the sacred.”

Dr. Ironson summarizes by saying, “If you believe God loves you, it’s an enormously protective factor, even more protective than scoring low for depression, or high for optimism. A view of a benevolent God is protective, but scoring high on the personalized statement, ‘God loves me’ is even stronger.”

This echoes another study that found that, “Patients who believed that God was punishing them, didn’t love them, didn’t have the power to help, or felt their church had deserted them, experience 10% to 28% greater mortality during the two-year period following hospital discharge.”

Unfortunately, many more Americans believe in the God of thunderbolts and retribution than believe in a benevolent God. In a study done by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, researchers found that 31% Americans see God that way. The number of people believing in an authoritarian God goes as high as 44% of the population in the country’s southern states.

Just 23% of the population believes in a Benevolent God, according to the study, while the rest fall in the middle. They believe in a Critical God (16%), Distant God (24%), or are atheists (5%). Since our view of God can have such huge effects on our health, it’s worth examining our beliefs, and if our religion or spiritual orientation permits such recalibration, adjusting them to fit the most loving vision of God of which we are capable.

Carlos the young man who hit bottom in Ironson’s HIV/Spirituality study, says, “You don’t have to believe in God that doesn’t love you or any God that isn’t here to help you. Because I had a Catholic background, during my addiction, I felt like I was being judged, that I was being punished. I thought I was going to die for my sins. So when I went to this service and I heard (the minister talk about choosing a loving God, it) changed my God to one that was loving and helpful. It was revolutionary.

Shortly thereafter, Carlos went to Alcoholics Anonymous and became sober. Though you may not be  in the same dire straits as Carlos was, your body will be deeply grateful if you adjust your religious faith in the direction of a loving God.

– The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church

Source : techofheart.co

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