Prayer doesn’t have to be about religion. The ritual itself can boost well-being.
I had made another person’s addiction my be-all and end-all concern, even though she was engaged in her own recovery work.
It got to the point where I was obsessing about what she was doing and where she was going, afraid she might be on her way to relapse.
Worrying about things — and people — I couldn’t control had become my own addiction. So reluctantly at first, I joined my own support network and started my 12-step journey.
It was exactly what I needed.
If you’re like me, it can feel awkward settling into prayer outside of a religious tradition, never mind developing a habit.
I hadn’t prayed since leaving the conservative church of my childhood. It took a while to let go of the old associations and look at prayer in a new way.
I started to see prayer as similar to meditation, something healthy for my mind and my body, a way to lower my blood pressure, and a way to find calm. I eventually learned it has plenty of mental health benefits as well.
Plus, I kept hearing that “worry and prayer can’t exist in the same mind” from people in the program.
I soon suspected they were right.
Those moments in meetings when we said our secular group prayers — each to the higher power of our choice — became my calmest, most hopeful of the week.
Praying doesn’t stop addiction from having terrifying consequences any more than it stops a pandemic or racism from destroying lives.
It does help me center and review my realistic options. It helps me see where my own thinking has been distorted as a codependent in an alcoholic family system, as a privileged white person raised among systemic racism, or even as a community-dependent person nearly undone by the loneliness of physical distancing.
Prayer helps me see and accept the distortions, to overcome shame and embrace accountability, and to act more responsibly and justly over time.
No one can teach you to “master” prayer, because it’s a deeply personal experience. Still, I asked some scientists, psychologists, and activists to share the why and how of getting started.
Prayer doesn’t have to be about religion. The ritual itself is beneficial for mental and even physical well-being.
For people who don’t feel like praying is for them, it helps to think of prayer as another form of mindfulness practice.
Science doesn’t support prayer as a substitute for medical or psychiatric treatment, but growing evidence suggests that it has psychological and physiological benefits.
In a 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association, gerontology professor Carolyn Aldwin found that private prayer helps regulate emotions. This in turn helps regulate physiological processes such as blood pressure.
These soothing effects of prayer have implications for improved autonomy over behavior.
In 2016, researchers from NYU medical center found that after viewing images designed to trigger cravings for alcohol, Alcoholics Anonymous members who recited prayers reported fewer cravings than those who read the newspaper. MRI scans of those who prayed showed increased activity in areas of the brain regulating emotion and focus.
Community sharing and personal writing help people feel good, but prayer makes them feel even better.
In a 2018 study of 196 undergraduates, those who read their gratitude journals as prayers showed increased feelings of hope and self-actualization compared with those who simply read them to themselves or a peer.
Most recently, data collected by the Positive Emotions and Psychology Lab at UNC Chapel Hill found that prayer, meditation, exercising, and self-care create positive emotions. Social media scrolling and texting had the opposite effect.
As an adult, praying to a male authority figure felt compromising. I was trying to reclaim both my independence and my accountability, and that didn’t help. Praying to Wonder Woman, as a well-intentioned friend suggested, didn’t do much more for my sense of maturity.
In A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps, Stephanie Covington, LICSW, PhD, suggests that women benefit from envisioning their higher powers as co-managers, not bosses.
“Instead of being submissive, we can envision an interactive relationship in which we nurture our Higher Power as much as it nurtures us,” writes Covington.
Handing over stereotypically feminine concerns, like soothing others’ feelings or fixing all interpersonal problems, frees you to focus on the things you actually have a say in, like healthy relationship dynamics, work, and health.
A higher power
When you choose to believe that a higher power helps those who help themselves, it’s empowering.
African American teens struggling with depression
Diane Ullius, commissioned lay minister for Universalist Unitarian Church of Arlington, Virginia, has been cofacilitating a prayer group on Zoom since social distancing closed the doors of her brick-and-mortar church.
The people Ullius prays for and with come from many different faith traditions. She addresses group prayers to “Spirit of Life,” “Spirit of Love,” “Source of All,” or “Eternal Mercy,” evoking intimacy and oneness with a higher power.
What to ask
As a kid, I prayed childish prayers, like asking for straight A’s or returned crushes. As an adult, these prayers no longer suit my need for accountability and independence.
None of the individuals I spoke with or have read about advocate for this type of transactional prayer.
Ullius says that in all her pastoral care work, she never prays for intervention, not even to make someone well.
“Alone and for others, I pray for wisdom, compassion, connectedness,” she says.
Memoirist Laura Cathcart Robbins felt alienated when her peers prayed to a white god. When her trusted sponsor urged her to pray, she gave it a try anyway.
In a recent article for The Temper, she wrote, “Every morning for the next few weeks feeling self-conscious AF, I close my eyes for one-minute and try to clear my head, then I utter a silent prayer that goes something like, ‘Please help me stay sober.’”
According to the previously mentioned
This makes sense to me. Somewhere in my habit of praying, I stopped praying to a particular deity or for a specific change to be made, even to myself.
Instead, I started praying for a path.
Some days, even after prayer, I can only see a step or two in front of me. A step is enough to keep me going, though.
Karen Sosnoski’s fiction and nonfiction, most recently in The Temper, explores what happens when people face their limitations through disability, illness, addiction, sports, or other intense encounters, such as art. Her work has appeared in diverse publications including Romper, Culture Trip, The Sunlight Press, Argot Magazine, LA Times, Poets and Writers, Word Riot, Grappling, Bitch, Radioactive Moat, and PsychologyToday.com, and on Studio 360 and This American Life. Berkeley Media distributes her documentary film, “Wedding Advice: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace.”