When the world went into lockdown at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Hannah Thongthai, a then 31-year-old mother of three children living in North Carolina’s Research Triangle area, worried how she would keep her family safe.
It wasn’t just the virus that concerned her.
“You had to survive physically, and you had to survive mentally and emotionally,” says Thongthai, whose children were ages 9, 6 and 1 when the pandemic started. While remaining in their small social bubble, she and her family made a point to visit her parents’ house every week, gathering together not just socially but also spiritually.
When congregational services stopped at churches across America, Thongthai’s parents home became a spiritual place for her and her family. Every Sunday, they met to discuss the latest program from their church and sang hymns together.
This spiritual communion, Thongthai says, was a source of comfort for her and her family in a time when people’s mental and emotional wellbeing was just as much at risk.
“It gave us something every week to expect,” she says. “You looked forward to going to get together on Sunday.”
Thongthai’s family isn’t the only one who relied on spiritual connection to help them get through the pandemic. With every 80,000 newly registered cases of COVID-19, there was an increase in Google searches for topics related to prayer, according to a study by Laura Upenieks for the Review of Religious Research.
People are more likely to lean on faith when facing conflict and uncertainty — and a growing body of research suggests that religious people fared better emotionally, and perhaps even physically, during the pandemic.
The pandemic took a heavy toll on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Nearly half of Americans surveyed in 2021 reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, according to the National Institute of Health — symptoms that were particularly pronounced among those who were facing unemployment or were essential workers. Substance abuse and excessive drinking spiked, as did suicide rates.
Experts believe the increased turn toward religiosity in a time of such crisis is no coincidence. People are more likely to lean on faith when facing conflict and uncertainty — and a growing body of research suggests that religious people fared better emotionally, and perhaps even physically, during the pandemic.
“Religious involvement … is a very positive influence in people’s lives, and it’s been that way for a long time,” says Harold Koenig, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Psychologists have long acknowledged religion as a potent coping mechanism as well as a powerful protective factor for mental health, and the pandemic was no exception.
A June 2023 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that those who believed in the importance of religion before the pandemic benefited from some protection against depression and suicidality as the virus raged on. Those who attended online religious services, the researchers found, were shown to have decreased depression and anxiety than those who didn’t.
A separate review of more than 130 empirical studies from the first year of the pandemic concluded that “religious coping … often related to better mental health in the early days of the pandemic,” with many studies linking higher levels of religiousness and religious coping to lower levels of depression and anxiety. Yet another study found a correlation between religious service attendance and lower rates of substance use during the pandemic.
“Religion really offers us a solution in terms of a global meaning system,” says Maxinne Panagopoulos, a psychology lecturer at the University of Highlands Islands in Scotland.
In her own research, she has seen that religion helps us create sense of global disasters. COVID-19 was a perfect example of that.
Religion not only offers us symbolic immortality “through this idea that I am part of something bigger than me and I am connected to a God that cares about me,” Panagopoulous says. “But it also offers us literal immortality — you know heaven, paradise, etc.”
In that way, she explains, religion becomes a powerful coping mechanism for people. “People are seeking some kind of psychological escape from death,” Panagopoulos says.
With many global catastrophes piling up — climate change becoming increasingly visible with rampant wildfires and other extreme weather events, the intensifying nuclear threat, geopolitical tensions erupting into war — finding effective coping mechanisms is crucial.
But is religion always good for our mental health or can it also be harmful?
Panagopoulos says the more negative someone’s religious beliefs are, the more likely that these beliefs harm their mental health. Feeling shame due to your mental illness and believing that you are being punished for your sins can be dangerous for your well-being, she says.
There is also severe stigmatization around mental health issues in some religious communities, says Panagopoulos, which makes people feel as if they are the problem. Such stigma can prevent religious people from seeking help and making progress toward recovery, she says.
But overall, religion provides people a sense of belonging to a community and the idea that someone bigger than them is in charge. The positives generally outweigh the negatives, according to experts.
“Worshiping and praising God together and praying together, singing together — doing all of this together seems to have a powerful effect on health.”
One analysis by Cornell University sociology professor Landon Schnabel concluded that those who attended services more often in the initial weeks of the pandemic tended to report lower rates of mental distress. “Religion, typically implicated in rates of distress, mitigated the increased distress most Americans were feeling in the early days of the pandemic,” he writes.
But Schnabel also found that more religious Americans were not just less anxious about the pandemic, they were also less likely to support and follow public health guidelines. “It appears religion then is a double-edged sword — helping people cope with hardship yet perpetuating the hardship it is helping them through,” he wrote. “In the case of this particular hardship, some of this ‘coping’ involved avoiding the fact that the hardship even exists.”
To be sure, many religious communities did not adhere to strict mask-wearing and social distancing, Koenig says, and in flouting public health guidelines were linked to the spread of the virus. Still, he concludes, the data shows religious people were more resilient during the pandemic.
“It goes beyond the social component,” Koenig says. “Worshiping and praising God together and praying together, singing together — doing all of this together seems to have a powerful effect on health.”
For Thongthai, getting together with her family every Sunday was the lifeline they needed to survive the pandemic. It gave the entire family a sense of community. Not only did they connect as a family, they also discussed spiritual subjects that helped them answer crucial questions about existence and life.
But she definitely had her low moments.
“I am someone who likes solitude,” Thongthai says. “I remember a few times going to my garage stairs and just crying because no one was going to come look for me there.”
Being home with three children and her husband all the time and not having any escape from her duties as a mother took a toll on her. But days when she was especially down and suddenly a friend would drop off a treat, she says she felt like a higher power was watching over her.
“I felt the presence of God in my life,” Thongthai says.