Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations


Understanding the Relationship between Spiritual Struggles and Physical Health: A Physiological Study

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Kenneth Pargament

Second Advisor

Anne Gordon (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Annette Mahoney (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

William O'Brien (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

C. Carney Strange


Psychological research has demonstrated links between religion and physical health and well-being. Although religion is generally beneficial for individuals, spiritual struggles can be detrimental for physical health. Studies have linked spiritual struggles with poor physical health, such as declines in somatic recovery (Fitchett, Rybarczyk, DeMarco, and Nicholas, 1999) and increased risk of mortality (Pargament, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, and Hahn, 2001). Given that spiritual struggles have been tied to harmful health consequences, it is important to understand the biological mechanisms underlying this relationship. Research has demonstrated that life stress causes cardiovascular reactivity, which in turn, is related to cardiovascular problems. The present study explored whether the same mechanism holds true for spiritual struggles and health problems; specifically, whether spiritual struggles were associated with increased cardiovascular reactivity. In addition, the study investigated whether the experiences of spiritual and life struggles were associated with different levels of cardiovascular distress.Undergraduate students experiencing both spiritual and life struggles were identified. Using a counter-balanced experimental design, participants (n = 80) were prompted to talk about neutral topics, spiritual struggles, and life struggles. Cardiovascular distress, heart rate and blood pressure, were monitored continuously during the study while mood and subjective distress were assessed after each condition. The results partially supported the hypotheses, though significant order effects made it difficult to interpret the differences between spiritual struggles and life struggles. Nevertheless, the results suggest that spiritual struggles were related to increased cardiovascular reactivity, particularly blood pressure, when compared to baseline functioning. Implications for future studies and limitations of this study are discussed.