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LA Faith Group Believes Prayer May Help COVID Patients, Despite Scientific Skeptics

As scientists around the world try to find a drug to cure COVID-19, in a humble little apartment in the West Adams neighborhood, Rosalía González prescribes her own cure for the sick: a combination of faith and prayer.

His prescription is to pray alone in the morning, again before going to sleep, and once a week virtually with a group of 40 parishioners from Saint Agatha Church in Los Angeles who focus on prayer for COVID-19 patients. , for those who have lost a loved one and for the end of the pandemic.

As a Roman Catholic, González said, his prayers are addressed not only to God, but also to the Virgin Mary and to some “saints famous for interceding for the sick.”

“I’m not crazy. I assure you that prayer heals us and others when we ask for it,” said the 49-year-old, who is the group’s director.

González said she could not discuss specific cases in which her group’s prayer interventions had an impact. Prayer, she said, “doesn’t magically get you results overnight.” But she insists that “people with anxiety or depression who come for help see improvement through continued prayer.”

“The group is praying for the whole world and for our members and for the families of our members who have been sick with the coronavirus,” she added. “Many of them healed and we talked to each other about these improvements attributed to our faith.”

His spiritual conviction is typical of that of millions of people of different faiths who take refuge in prayer in difficult times. The coronavirus pandemic sparked a 50% increase in online prayer searches last March – to deal with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, and to implore a higher power to end the pandemic, according to a report from May from the Center for Economic Policy Research, Washington. , DC Think Tank. In the United States alone, more than half of all adults (55%) said they had prayed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Especially in times of massive upheaval – wars, natural disasters – many turn to prayer for comfort, solidarity and a sense of direction, said David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the spirituality and mental health program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

“Part of this behavior is because people are looking for a supreme connection. It helps them to have a feeling of togetherness with others. As they pray, they can feel that someone supreme is taking care of them, which gives them hope. In addition, they feel that their life has a purpose, to help, ”said Rosmarin, who is collaborating with laboratories across the country to study the clinical relevance of spirituality for treating anxiety, mood swings, behavior. psychotic, drug addiction and other disorders.

Scientific opinion varies on the benefits of prayer, whether as a form of intercession (asking someone else) or as a petition (asking for oneself).

Rosmarin said that while research on the physical health benefits of prayer is limited, some studies have shown it can help reduce stress and anxiety.

“Just because the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] don’t recommend prayer because a health intervention doesn’t mean it doesn’t work on our emotions, ”he said. “If someone feels better praying, or if someone feels better knowing that someone is praying for them, it is worth it.”

Dr Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, observed that “there are certainly physiological changes when people pray.”

Newberg has been studying the effects of prayer on the human brain for more than 25 years by injecting a radioactive dye, a tracer, into the brains of his volunteers. Praying or sending prayer thoughts to someone is usually associated with increased activity in the frontal lobe, just behind the forehead.

“Just by doing this, a lot of changes start to happen,” he said.

“The frontal lobe, which is very closely related with the limbic system, our emotional centers in the brain, you can have different intense emotional responses to prayer,” he continued. “You can feel uplifted or calm. If you can better regulate your emotional reactions, it will help you understand how this practice can help you reduce anxiety and depression. “

Also during prayer, a person blocks other sensory information that goes to the parietal lobes at the back of the brain, which helps create a sense of connection “with the people in the church, the world, with God, whatever your concentration, ”Newberg said.

“While all of this is happening in the brain, the emotional centers regulate what is called the autonomic nervous system. This system is the primary mechanism that controls the fight-or-flight response that affects our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress responses in the body, ”he said.

González, a babysitter by profession, said her knowledge of how the brain works is limited. But she knows what she feels like when she prays: “physically healthy” and “mentally at peace”.

In her prayer ritual, she incorporates Saint Roch, known as a protector against plague and epidemics, Saint Agueda and Santiago Apóstol, a guardian against disease, among other saints.

“We must remember that faith moves mountains. We can’t ask and wait if we don’t believe it’s going to happen, ”González said.

Problems at home led González to God. Ten years ago, she was feeling frustrated and angry that her ex-husband was not working, and she had to cover rent, food and household bills and take care of all the housework.

It was then that she began to find comfort in God and in her prayer group. This, she says, has helped her get rid of bad habits, love people more, be patient and not judge.

“Our group was already in force in the church long before I arrived, but last year we had to focus our prayers on the issue of coronaviruses because the whole world was affected,” said the native of Tlaxcala, at Mexico.

Stay-at-home orders forced churches to close in March 2020 and many prayer groups have disappeared, she said. “But our group decided to continue, praying all together or sometimes in small groups of 10. No matter how you pray, where or when, the important thing is to do it.

Antonia Gabriel Vázquez, 52, has been in the same prayer group for 15 years. The West Los Angeles resident said prayer healed her and her husband Luciano, 46, of COVID-19.

Vázquez, who has suffered from lupus for seven years, began to experience symptoms – body aches, headaches, fever, shortness of breath – on last year’s day, as did her gardener husband. On January 5, the two were diagnosed positive.

“There was a time when I woke up and felt the very heavy atmosphere, I had a hunch that I was going to die,” Vázquez said. “I couldn’t breathe and asked God to breathe for me because I had no strength.

She called a friend, Maria Puebla, and asked her to pray for the couple over the phone, while Vázquez and her husband knelt at the foot of their bed. “I don’t remember how long we prayed, but after a while he and I fell asleep. In the following days, we recovered.

“I truly believe that prayer has been effective in healing us. I believed that God had a purpose for my husband and me. It wasn’t our time, ”said Vázquez, who works as a babysitter.

Salah Jaffer Alattar, a religious scholar from Southern California known to his Muslim community as a sheikh, believes prayer is effective and necessary for mankind.

“The beauty of prayer is that the Lord listens to everyone,” he said, “whatever you are and, in any language”.

“I am convinced that this pandemic can be a lesson for us to draw closer to the Lord,” he continued, “closer to our loved ones and reassess what is important like health and family.”

Dr Richard P. Sloan, Nathaniel Wharton Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Irving Medical Center at Columbia University, has suggested that many Americans increasingly wish to replace rationalism with subjectivity, scientific facts with faith and conjecture. .

“There is no reliable literature to support that intercessory prayer for others has an impact. You also can’t take a person’s anecdote as proof, ”he said.

Sloan pointed out that the problem with studies of the effects of prayer (or lack thereof) is that “you can’t just take a random group of people and assign them to pray for themselves or for others in order to see which group does best, because religion is a hallmark. ”

Sloan said that many hospitals across the country are incorporating some form of spiritual service for patients, involving chaplaincy and prayer, “because chaplains can help patients express themselves in ways that cannot be expressed with nurses. But that doesn’t mean that prayer can directly affect physical health.

“I can conceive of the possibility that if you pray for yourself it might help you in some psychological benefit … but there isn’t much evidence for that either,” he added. . “If you decide to just pray instead of going to the doctor, you are risking your health by not getting the decent medical care you need, all because you are in favor of a practice that has no scientific basis. “

In California, many hospitals such as Providence Mission Hospital, UCI Health and St. Joseph in Orange County, as well as Dignity Health Glendale Memorial Hospital and Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles County offer spiritual services. But their chaplains respond cautiously when asked if they believe prayer can heal someone physically.

Reverend Cassie McCarty of Dignity Health Glendale said prayer is “a mystery”.

“Prayer is something that patients may or may not wish for, but we find it brings them peace, faith and comfort,” she said. “I don’t want to say yes or no” to find out if it’s effective for healing.

“Without a doubt, this is a strategy that we want to combine with all the medical care we provide to our patients as part of comprehensive support and care.”

Rather than discussing whether prayer can heal, Father Allan Deck, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, shared an analogy and asked a question.

“Our bodies are like radios, if we’re not in phase we just aren’t functioning properly,” he said. “Prayer brings us into harmony: it opens the heart and the mind to receive the gift of life, the love of God and the love of others.

“Prayer is recognizing that we depend on others. If we don’t believe in anyone or anything, we are vulnerable to extreme loneliness and despair in this huge world, especially in difficult times. Do you prefer to believe or not? “

As for González, she said she didn’t need scientific studies or expert approval to believe in prayer.

“The results of prayer depend on individual faith, and I have faith,” she said. “I will continue to pray for others and for myself. I invite the community to be part of this miracle. “

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