Psychological Self-Help

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relaxation techniques and prayer groups located around the
world...the results: patients prayed for had "fewer complications." This
is strange stuff and it gets even more spooky in other studies where
prayer reportedly affects bacteria, enzyme cells, animals, and plants.
No one knows the mechanisms, if any, behind this power of prayer. It
is mind-boggling. Here is my current belief--just like a caring Mom and
Dad keep an infant or child safe and healthy, just like mature
teenagers look out for each other and help each other be reasonable
and safe, so an openly concerned, nurturing, warmly "tending and
befriending" church or support group or family would give good advice
and support one another to be healthy. On the other hand, I have
serious doubts about the effectiveness of any totally secret (unknown
to the sick person and his/her doctor), mystical, scientifically
inexplicable prayer curing human disease, improving the results of any
physical treatment, helping sperm enter an egg, or helping plants
grow better. However, a friend, minister, or loved one sitting down
with you and holding your hands as they lovingly express concern and
affection (or pray) may be psychologically very comforting and, thus,
physically helpful.. 
So how do the results I just called spooky happen? Well, if there
are lots of these studies (and there are), 5% or 10% will show
"statistically significant" effects just by chance. Studies finding "Prayer
Heals" would get the attention of the press, but not the studies that
suggest prayer is powerless or even harmful (i.e. the 5% to 10% of
results that are significantly negative by chance). There are other
possibilities: mistakes made while gathering data, having employees
handling the data who have biases that unconsciously distort the data,
and just plain intentional fraud. Chance results are the most likely
explanations of spooky results, mistakes and biased but innocent
distortion of the data are next, and very rarely is it intentional
distortion, but it occurs.. 
If your religious beliefs and practices relieve stress and calm you
down, they almost certainly contribute to your health. But what is at
work here, religious beliefs or stress reduction? Is religion any better
at reducing stress than many, many other ways? That answer surely
differs from person to person. It needs to be studied. Reading the
literature, thus far, doesn't help much to answer these questions. As I
have indicated many "studies" have been interpreted by the authors to
mean that being religious yields health benefits. Yet, scientists (Sloan
& Bagiella, 2002), carefully reviewing all the religion-health studies
published in 2000, conclude there are virtually no scientific grounds for
believing religious beliefs alone improve health. They actually found
that 83% of the published 266 medical articles in 2000 were irrelevant
to the question or had serious methodological flaws. Many other
scientists have come over the years to the same skeptical general
conclusion. One has to wonder why so many poor research designs
were published by highly scientific medical journals. There is intense
emotional investment in this issue, much like the 150 year controversy
over evolution. Strong needs distort our thinking.. 
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