power-of-prayer-in-chronic-illness

The Power of Others

When dealing with a chronic illness, it is sometimes our deepest desire to enlist the help of others. We might be too afraid to ask on the surface, but unconsciously we desire connection to others, especially when we feel alone. Often people want to help us, but can’t or don’t know how best to do so. Sometimes the best thing they can do is pray or send positive thoughts our way.

Is the concept of “thoughts and prayers” actually helpful? Or is it something we say to each other, and accept on our behalf as low-effort?

I think it boils down to your perspective. If you are a glass-half-full person, then having someone pray or reflect on you is helpful. If you are a glass-half-empty person, then it might be a hollow offer.

How can others help you through your health crisis? If you are new to my blog, please review this month’s disclaimer before reading any further.

The Power of Prayer (or Positive Thoughts)

As a teenager, I remember sitting and listening to my religious leader “cite” a study on the effect of prayer for those in crisis. I use quotes not to disparage, but because the leader was extremely vague about the study, the details, and did not provide resources to find the study on our own.

Reflecting back, I believe they were referring to Dr. Randolph C. Byrd’s 1988 study, “Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population.” The study found that participants who received intercessory prayer fared better in their follow-up appointments than those in the control group, who received no prayer at all.

Unfortunately, subsequent studies found that Dr. Byrd’s 1988 study to be at best flawed, and at worse irresponsible. Relying on prayer, regardless of the religion, to heal a patient can prevent the patient from receiving the necessary medical intervention needed to help with the illness. Each study that comes out relating to prayer and health finds little correlation between prayer and improvement of health.

Here comes the “but…”

While prayer itself may not change the outcome of a medical diagnosis, there is something behind knowing that others are thinking about you. It may not improve your health, but do you feel comfort when you know others tell you they are thinking/praying about you?

Unfortunately, I ran into a bunch of dead-ends in my research for this post surrounding the benefits of having others think about you. Current trends are to not worrying about what others think, and focusing solely on self-care. Both of these are positive in its own right, but it doesn’t answer the question: what are the benefits knowing others are thinking about us?

What I am about to say is speculative and unscientific: I believe knowing others think about you, whether it’s via prayers or positive thoughts, provides comfort. It allows those of us with a chronic illness to know we aren’t alone. Others may not know our experience, we may be alone (mentally) in our disease, but when others care for us to spend a few moments out of their day to reflect on our journey, it means a lot.

Going Beyond “Thoughts and Prayers”

If you are reading this as a friend or family member of someone with a chronic illness, there are some things you can do to stretch out your “thoughts and prayers” for them.

Use the time you reflect on them and find ways you can help. Sometimes, when we say we’re thinking about someone, it’s the most we can do. That’s fine, but consider doing something in their honor.

What You Can Do to Help

  1. If the person is dealing with a massive health crisis, consider getting yourself screened. For example, if they have cancer, try to get tested for that particular form of cancer. Or, get yourself screened as a potential donor for them or in general.
  2. Learn all you can about their health crisis and be better prepared for how to engage with the patient. In your research, find out what other patients say about the “dos and don’ts” in conversations.
  3. Donate money in the person’s honor towards research for their illness.
  4. Share across social media the latest information and research on the illness, but make sure to get their consent before tagging them.
  5. If you can physically help the person, take them to appointments or for a social outing of their choosing.

There are many other ways you can help someone with a chronic illness to extend the efficacy of thinking about them. You just have to find what works best for you and them.

Powerlessness and Control

Often, those in our lives feel powerless when we get a chronic illness diagnosis. They stand beside us, hold our hand, and do everything to help us manage our illness and still feel like they can do more.

Prayer or reflecting on us is an additional way to feel like they are helping. It’s calling on a higher power or the universe to intercede on our behalf. While the answer may never come, or be positive, it’s yet another way for our friends and family to feel in control in an out of control situation.

Sometimes saying “I will pray/keep you in my thoughts,” is enough to empower the person to go beyond the statement and spring into action.

When faced with powerlessness, the smallest action can help someone regain a sense of control. Next time someone says, “I am thinking about you,” think not of it as a common thing we say when there’s nothing to say, but rather a way of providing comfort at the moment.


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