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Anger at God Common During Times of Crisis, Study Finds

By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

SATURDAY, Jan. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Although people rarely talk about it, almost everyone experiences anger toward God at some point in their lives, commonly after the diagnosis of a serious illness, the death of a loved one or a trauma.

In fact, nearly two out of three people report that they've felt angry at God, according to a study in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And many get angry because they believe that God is responsible for the negative events in their lives.

Those who reported being more religious were less likely to get angry with God when bad things happened to them.

"People who are more religious don't get as angry. They may be more likely to think God caused the troubling event, but they're also more likely to put good intentions on the event, saying things like, 'God is trying to strengthen me,'" explained study author Julie Exline, a psychologist and an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Exline's study analyzed the results of five previous studies that examined people's relationships with God, particularly during times of personal crisis or disappointment.

In addition to finding that those who were more religious were less likely to be angry with God, the researchers found that certain types of religions, specifically Protestant Christians, were slightly less likely to get angry with God in the face of personal problems.

Interestingly, those who don't believe in God or question God's existence reported more anger at God than people who said they believed.

Other groups that were more likely to be angry at God when something bad occurs in their lives include younger people and whites, according to Exline.

Exline said that the anger people feel toward God often parallels the anger that people may feel in other relationships. For example, if someone sees God as responsible for what goes on in their lives, they may feel betrayed by God when they receive a cancer diagnosis, as if God abandoned them in their time of need.

As with other relationships, Exline said that many people can feel angry at God, but still love God.

"The presence of positive feelings does not rule out the possibility of anger and vice versa," she said.

Anger toward God is generally fleeting. "For a lot of people, they'll have a flash of anger at God, and then their coping resources kick in," she said, but "if the anger is something they can't resolve, if they're having trouble coping or minimizing the anger and can't make sense out of what's going on, they may need to seek additional help."

And, that's especially important because Exline and her colleagues found that people who can't let go of their anger often have poorer mental and physical health than those who can.

"Anger at God can become a vicious cycle for some," said psychologist Simon Rego, director of the cognitive behavior therapy program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "You may think God has turned His back on you, then you feel guilty for feeling angry and that makes you feel more depressed, which then makes you more angry."

Rego pointed out that it's not unhealthy to feel some anger. "All emotions are there for a good reason," he said, but if the anger is very distressing to you or it starts to disrupt your normal life, it may be time to get help.

"When you stop doing what's important to you or you can't function, get some help," said Rego, adding that when you're angry at your spouse, you eventually let go of that anger and heal, which often makes the relationship stronger. If you were to stay angry indefinitely, it would have serious effects on your marriage.

"If you're angry with God and you stop going to church, you're letting your anger stop you from doing something that's been of value to you," he said.

He said it's important to learn to be able to step back from a situation and figure out other ways to look at it. "If you can't learn to accept the idea that a certain mood state is influencing the way you're thinking, you're trapped," he explained.

Rego said that cognitive behavioral therapists can help people reframe their thoughts in a more productive way. Exline said that it's important to see a psychologist who is comfortable discussing spiritual issues, however. She said that clergy members or spiritual directors may be more comfortable discussing matters of faith.

More information

Learn about controlling anger from the American Psychological Association.

SOURCES: Julie Exline, Ph.D., psychologist and associate professor, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland; Simon Rego, Psy.D., psychologist and director, cognitive behavior therapy program, Montefiore Medical Center, New York City; January 2011, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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