Worldview and Existential Search are Related to Stress Responding

Worldview and Existential Search are Related to Stress Responding


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Faith is one way many people cope with difficult events to promote mental well-being. However, faith can be a complicated part of a person’s identity.” – Jamie Aten


Religion and spirituality have been promulgated as solutions to the challenges of life both in a transcendent sense and in a practical sense. What evidence is there that these claims are in fact true? The transcendent claims are untestable with the scientific method. But the practical claims are amenable to scientific analysis. There have been a number of studies of the influence of religiosity and spirituality on the physical and psychological well-being of practitioners mostly showing positive benefits, with spirituality encouraging personal growth and mental health.


An individual’s worldview is inversely related to existential search and strong existential search is an indicator of an insecure worldview. An insecure worldview may influence the relationship of religion and spirituality with stress responding.  Hence, there is a need to investigate the relationships of worldview, religion, spirituality with stress responding.


In today’s Research News article “Worldview Under Stress: Preliminary Findings on Cardiovascular and Cortisol Stress Responses Predicted by Secularity, Religiosity, Spirituality, and Existential Search.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: )  Schnell and colleagues recruited college students and selected students who professed being religious, spiritual, atheist, or agnostic. They completed measures of atheism. spirituality, religiosity, existential search, anxiety, depression, blood pressure, heart rate, and salivary cortisol. They were measured for their responses to social stress by giving a speech in front of two researchers with video cameras.


They found that religious participants had significantly better responses to social stress as measured by systolic blood pressure and heart rates while atheists had significantly worse responding. In addition, they found that the higher the levels of existential search the higher the levels of stress responses. Spiritual students had significantly higher levels of existential search.


The results of this study suggest that people with different worldviews (religious, spiritual, atheist, or agnostic) have different responses to stress with religious students the best and atheists the worst. The results also suggest that the differences may be due to differences in existential search. A sample question from the measure of existential search is “As far as my worldview is concerned, I am in constant development.” This suggests that having a settled worldview reduces stress responding. Spirituality is characterized by high existential search suggesting that these individuals see themselves as in a process of continual development and this appears to be the reason for their stress responses. Atheism is thought to be a settled world view. But the individual has no higher power to look to for help when stressed. This may be why they have the highest levels of stress responding; it’s all up to themselves.


These results are interesting but do not reveal causation as the kinds of individuals drawn to the different worldviews may also be the kinds of individuals who differ in stress responding. This is a question that is impossible to resolve as worldview cannot be manipulated to establish causation. Nevertheless, individuals who differ in worldview, differ in stress responding, perhaps underlying the different relationships of religiosity and spirituality with health and well-being.


So, worldview and existential search are related to stress responding.


Research has shown that religion and spirituality can help people cope with the effects of everyday stress. One study found that everyday spiritual experiences helped older adults better cope with negative feelings and enhanced positive feelings.” – Elizabeth Scott


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Schnell, T., Fuchs, D., & Hefti, R. (2020). Worldview Under Stress: Preliminary Findings on Cardiovascular and Cortisol Stress Responses Predicted by Secularity, Religiosity, Spirituality, and Existential Search. Journal of religion and health, 59(6), 2969–2989.



This study reports preliminary findings on the hypothesis that worldview can predict cardiovascular and cortisol responses to social stress. Based on theory and previous findings, we assumed that worldview security would provide a basis for stress resilience. Accordingly, religious and atheist individuals were expected to show higher stress resilience than spiritual and agnostic participants. Likewise, dimensional measures of religiosity and atheism were hypothesized to predict decreased, and existential search—indicating worldview insecurity—was hypothesized to predict increased physiological stress responses. Subjects included 50 university students who completed online questionnaires and took part in a standardized social stress test (Trier Social Stress Test). Systolic and diastolic blood pressure (SBP/DBP), heart rate (HR), and salivary cortisol (SC) were assessed at baseline, immediately after stress testing, and during a forty-minute recovery period. Worldview comparisons revealed lower cardiovascular stress responses among religious than among atheist and spiritual participants and particularly high baseline SC among spiritual participants. Across the entire sample, existential search showed substantial positive correlations with SBP, HR, and SC stress parameters. The findings suggest that worldview security might partly explain the health benefits often associated with religion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *