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Do 'thoughts and prayers' mean a damn thing? - (6/9/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Bonnie was in the pharmacy performing a task she never wanted to do. Please cancel all my grandmother’s medications,” she told the pharmacist. “She passed away last Monday.” The pharmacist extended his condolences to the young woman. However, Bonnie was not yet finished. “I prayed as hard as I could that she would get better. I begged, I promised, and I pleaded. But she died anyway. I don’t think one damn soul is listening to me when I pray,” she exclaimed through her tears. 

Two things we know: 1) Life is not fair, and 2) Everyone ultimately dies. When any of us hear that someone is suffering for any reason, the courteous response is to send the now-clichéd “thoughts and prayers.” However, do our feelings physically push the needle toward a happier ending? Can prayer make a difference in who lives and who dies? For millennia, humanity has used prayer as an intervention for alleviating illness and holding death in abeyance. There is increasing attention on prayer in health care, in both popular and serious discussion. Those individuals who advocate prayer praise its healing power, while skeptics write it off as coincidence or anecdotal. But is there any hardcore evidence? 

A few studies have been performed, although their results are barely conclusive. A review in Postgraduate Medicine analyzed 41 studies to find a relationship between psychiatric conditions – notably depression and anxiety – and private prayer, that is, praying for oneself. The results showed that in many of the studies, private prayer was associated with a significantly lower prevalence of depression and anxiety. Prayer also significantly improved optimism and coping. OK, very well. However, one can make the argument that prayer can center oneself. Recently, theologians have opined that regular prayer is not necessarily a continuous string of thoughts or words. Rather, prayer can be an open awareness of God’s presence during all facets of everyday life. Centering prayer can help us find God in all our moments. When crippling anxiety or crushing depression incapacitates a person, finding one’s center can make one see a problem more clearly and use one’s intelligence to solve it.

What about praying for someone else? This act is called intercessory prayer. The Christian Bible instructs believers to pray and make intercession for all people (1 Timothy 2:1-6). A couple of oddly designed studies have demonstrated that “something is going on.” A 2000 study in the prestigious Archives of Internal Medicine looked at patients admitted to the coronary care unit (CCU) who were prayed for by total strangers. Patients were unaware that others were praying for them. Also, the intercessors did not know and never met the patients. However, the results showed that the prayer recipients had a "better experience" during their stay than those for whom no prayers were sent. Length of hospital stay did not differ between groups. So, what was the explanation?

Researchers considered two explanations: the natural and the supernatural. Supernatural interventions (e.g., by a higher power, aka God) would not be, by definition, within the ken of science. They are not provable. A natural explanation would credit the benefits of intercessory prayer to "real" but yet unknown physical forces that are "produced" by the intercessors and "collected" by the patients. In other words, it may be provable at some point. Consider the 18th-century discovery that citrus fruits cured scurvy. At the time, no one knew that vitamin C was the therapeutic ingredient in the fruit. Today, we know the value of vitamin C. Similarly, by the year 2525 (If Man is still alive...), we may understand what telepathic forces contributed to this intercessory prayer phenomenon.  

Until then, prayer cannot hurt. It can only help. As the pharmacist told Bonnie, prayer may help us cope with our own illnesses and even the illnesses of others. While not all prayers are answered, the act of praying can bring us optimism in an otherwise unfair world. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.  


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