When people go through a stressful medical event, their religious beliefs may help or hinder them psychologically, a new study shows.

The study shows less distress after heart surgery in people who lean on faith for comfort and support than those who feel spiritually angry or doubtful.

The researchers included Amy Ai, PhD. She’s an associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.

Ai’s team studied 309 people due for major heart surgery at the University of Michigan Medical Center between 1999 and 2002.

The study was presented today in New Orleans at the American Psychological Association’s 2006 convention.

Doctors May Differ From Patients on Religion

The patients were 33-89 years old (average age: 62). Their faiths:

Christian: 83 percent

Jewish: 3 percent

Muslim: less than 1 percent

Other: 3 percent

No preference: 10 percent

Patients Want Doctors to Discuss Spirituality

The patients were interviewed twice -- once in person and once by phone -- before surgery. They also took a survey about 36 days after surgery.

The presurgery interviews gauged the patient’s religious coping style as being positive or negative.

Here are examples of those religious coping styles:

Positive: Finding forgiveness, spiritual support, and love in their religious beliefs. Negative: Feeling spiritually discontent, angry at God, or questioning God’s love.

Other factors -- which aren’t necessarily religious -- were also measured, including the patients’ sense of hope and social support before surgery.

People with positive religious coping styles reported less psychological distress in the postsurgery survey than those with negative religious coping styles.

Social support and hope tended to go with positive religious coping styles, the study also shows.

Patients’ faith may deserve more attention from health care workers, Ai and colleagues note.

What Happens When Faith and Medicine Clash?

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: American Psychological Association Convention 2006, New Orleans, Aug. 10-13, 2006. News release, American Psychological Association.