Participating in a faith community could give you a boost when you need it and buffer you against difficulties, even life-threatening ones.
A strong commitment to spirituality may help people withbipolar disorder cope and build a foundation of greater self-worth.
“Religion can be supportive [by providing]social support and resources and the internal means of being able to cope with the impact of the illness on their lives,” says psychiatrist Mario Cruz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque.
While excessive religious behavior was once seen as a symptom of psychosis, Dr. Cruz says, there’s little evidence to support this. Rather, his research, which involves interviewing people who have bipolar disorder, suggests that people who are bipolar often use religious activities, especially prayer and meditation, as ways to cope with distress.
A study of 168 people with bipolar disorder published in 2013 in Bipolar Disorders found that those who report the ability to cope through spirituality, such as feeling a spiritual connection with others and believing in a fundamentally benevolent world, have a higher quality of life and less depression.
Benefits of Faith and Spirituality
Cruz says his research also shows that when depressive symptoms become severe, religious participation drops off.
The benefits of religious participation for people with bipolar disorder, Cruz says, can include:
- A supportive network of friends and acquaintances
- Financial and other types of practical support
- Uplifting messages and activities that may help regulate emotions and provide a source of hope
- Scriptural messages that interpret the challenges of bipolar disorder as a way to grow closer to God or to grow spiritually
- Reinforcement of the messages of many substance-abuse programs, especially 12-step programs
In a study published in 2014 in The Gerontologist, researchers looked at mood and faith participation in more than 7,000 adults and found that those who were active in their faith communities or prayed often had less risk for depression over a two-year period. Another study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Religion & Health,reviewed existing research and found that faith participation is particularly beneficial for people with depression (but found no benefit or harm for people with bipolar disorder).
Further, belonging to a religion that has a moral objection to suicide may be protective against acting on suicidal feelings. Psychiatrist Maria Oquendo, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and co-author of several papers exploring the relationship between religiosity and suicide risk, published the results of a literature review in the July 2015 issue of the Archives of Suicide Research that found a possible protective effect of religion against suicide attempts, though religious participation did not protect against thinking about suicide.
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The relationship between religiosity and mood is mixed, however. If you are conflicted about your faith or have conflict in your faith community, that can negatively affect your mood, Dr. Oquendo says.
“If you’re really struggling to understand how your core beliefs can be reconciled with broader faith-based beliefs, that can contribute to anxiety,” says psychiatristHolly Swartz, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. She recommends making an effort to address those conflicts to find some resolution.
Finding Hope and Meaning in the World: Julie’s Story
Julie Fast, author of Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder, says she had her first psychotic episode when she was 19. She had a vision of herself walking into traffic, being hit by a car and thrown, dead, at her own feet. Despite her hallucinations, periods of paranoia, and the severe effect of bipolar disorder on her daily life, Fast learned she had bipolar disorder only at age 31.
Now 51, Fast describes herself as someone who was raised Christian, although she is not a practicing Christian today, and as someone who has a profound, connected feeling of the metaphysical depth of life. At her lowest point with depression, she says, she lost contact with that deeper positive spiritual meaning that had always been a support to her.
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Fast says one strategy that helps her, and which she recommends, is to understand that bipolar disorder is like an added layer on top of a person’s identity. She says that if you know what your baseline beliefs and temperament are, it’s easier to know when bipolar disorder is affecting you. For her, knowing that she was losing her belief in the world as a positive place, which was her baseline belief, became a rally for change. She began to do the hard work of pulling out of severe depression and can now say that her strong foundation has returned.
“Maybe religion is not put on this Earth to stop suffering; maybe it’s to help you get through suffering,” Fast says. Dr. Swartz agrees that being part of a faith community and having a strong religious belief can buffer people with bipolar disorder against difficulty.