The Science of Prayer

The Science of Prayer


Prayer is perhaps the most powerful vessel of our time. Whether we’re religious or not, there’s something calming and reassuring about having someone or something to confide in when we need help– something to help give us guidance, or to simply help us feel better. Prayer can be a very powerful tool when it comes to both emotional sobriety and defeating addiction— mainly because it allows us to connect with and encourage ourselves when we need it most. Spirituality isn’t dead. It’s a large part of the addiction treatment experience.

The Study

In 2016, New York University undertook an arduous task: trying to find relevant science to back up the theory that prayer actually does work. They chose the Alcoholics Anonymous model to test, and in their conclusion confirmed what addiction treatment specialists have known for a long time– that prayer really does work in reducing the urge to use. The study, spearheaded by senior author Dr. Marc Galanter, took brain images of about twenty long term AA members that had reported no cravings within the weeks leading up to the testing. The brains were scanned before and after providing each individual with first a neutral newspaper article and then an AA prayer “promoting abstinence from alcohol” and showing pictures of various people drinking and using alcohol in an attempt to stimulate cravings. According to Galanter,  “[the] findings suggest[ed] that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience—prayer in this case―to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing craving.”

In essence, reciting the prayer led to decreased cravings from everyone that recited it. While the individuals still had cravings, it was the prayer that helped them better manage them. According to Galanter, who’s also spent a significant amount of time studying emotional sobriety and spirituality in addiction treatment, previous studies have suggested that alcohol users that have reported a “spiritual awakening” in AA or other addiction treatment programs have also been about half as likely to report cravings even after leaving initial treatment.

The relation of prayer and emotional sobriety

Studies like the ones presented by New York University make a strong case for the intersection of spirituality and sobriety– and the consistent results agree with an assertion made by The Big Book that tells us addiction is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit. Here, the spiritual malady concept indicates that once we overcome our spiritual illness, the mental and physical aspects of our addiction also straighten out.

In order to understand how emotional sobriety as a concept corresponds with prayer, it’s important to have a working definition as to just what emotional sobriety is. According to Psychology Today, emotional sobriety revolves around the general ability to feel our own feelings. It’s being one with ourselves, living in the present moment, and being mindful. It’s about balance, and learning how to cope with our emotions– both good and bad. In the vein of being one with ourselves, prayer often acts as a way for us to connect with ourselves presently, much like meditation. It also helps us find ways to cope with situations that we may have turned to substances before to deal with. The truth of the matter is that even though treatment helps us conquer addiction, we still have to conquer sobriety everyday, and it’s our ability to be emotionally sober that helps us do just that. As Bill W. says in The Big Book, “we members of AA may never again have to deal with drinking, but we do have to deal with sobriety every day. How do we do it? By learning – through practicing the Twelve Steps and through sharing at meetings – how to cope with problems that we looked to booze to solve back in our drinking days.”

When it comes to the science behind prayer, we need look no further than Bill W.’s assertion that prayer helps us examine ourselves internally, much like a surgeon examines his patient. “If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent unhealthy demand,” Bill W. says.

When we repeat prayers, as is often the case in addiction treatment programs like AA, our praying can also play a role that’s entirely different but just as effective– the role of constant reassurance. We all know the classic story of the little engine that could– that small train engine that made his way up the hill by nothing more than hard will and saying “I think I can.” Not only has science proven time and again that repeating ideas and concepts can help us remember them better– but science has also proven that words in and of themselves can have a powerful impact on our brains and spirits. By constantly motivating ourselves through prayer, we’re not just uttering a few words– we’re reassuring ourselves that our sobriety journey is possible.

Thrive Treatment of Santa Monica, California is an outpatient treatment facility that helps our clients master the nuts and bolts of life in order to excel in the recovery process. We rely on the power of prayer, reassurance, and spirituality to treat addiction just as much as we rely on hardcore science and proven methods. When you begin the Thrive Treatment experience, you’re welcomed into a family that has just one thing in mind: getting you better. Call us at (888) 975-8474 to get started today.

Thrive Treatment

Thrive Treatment’s founder collected some of addiction treatment’s most respected and successful clinicians who authentically share a passion for helping others flourish and believe in the same key ingredients to long-term recovery success: values, accountability, life skills, and having fun in recovery.