University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee Campus



Study: Religious service participants faced less isolation-related anxiety during COVID-19

USF researchers have published a study that shows religiously observant people coped better with periods of isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic because of a sense of belonging derived from their religious belief.

The study, Belongingness is a Mediating Factor Between Religious Service Attendance and Reduced Psychological Distress During the COVID‑19 Pandemic, appears in the Jan. 24 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health (Springer Nature). It was conducted by USF faculty members Jay Michaels and Feng Hao and student researchers Nicole Ritenour and Naomi Aguilar.

Jay Michaels

Jay Michaels, assistant professor of psychology

“It is well known that religion relates to better coping and general wellbeing for many people,” said Michaels. “Yet, there has been a need to better understand what psychological and social factors play a role in the link between religion and wellbeing. This study is important as we found it wasn’t actual social interactions through religious involvement that linked religion to better coping during the pandemic. Instead, people who were more active in attending religious services before the pandemic retained a stronger perception that they belonged. This mere perception of belonging is what explained the link between religion and reduced depression, anxiety and distress during the pandemic.”

The researchers report that prior to their work, few if any studies examined religion’s psychological effect during prolonged periods of pandemic-induced home isolation and social distancing. Medical experts associate extended periods of isolation with stress and anxiety, which can lead to harmful psychological and other ill health effects.

The researchers note that religious observers who participated in their study were better able to cope during these prolonged periods and so avoid related stress and anxiety.

Conducted last year, the study is based on a survey in June 2020 of 645 American adults, evenly divided among men and women and from all 50 states, although a majority of respondents came from California (14.4%), Florida (10.5%), New York (6.4%) and Texas (4.3%).

It concludes that, “This study addresses this critical gap in the literature and may be the first empirical study to provide evidence that people who more frequently attended religious services before the pandemic had greater perceived belongingness, and this belongingness related to both diminished perception of COVID-19 impact and diminished psychological distress.

“Together these findings validate the idea that the (sense of) belongingness people gain by attending religious services, even in the past, helps minimize the psychological distress that so often accompanies stressful, uncontrollable life events.”

Nicole Ritenour

Nicole Ritenour, student researcher

All of the researchers are from the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. Michaels is an assistant professor of psychology and Hao is an assistant professor of sociology. Ritenour and Aguilar are graduate psychology students.

“Religious attendance contributes to a sense of belonging, which then reduces the COVID-19 impact and psychological distress,” Hao said. “The finding sheds light on how religion can help the public to manage the pandemic and their mental health.”

Meanwhile, Ritenour, Class of 2021, who currently works as a research associate at Centerstone’s Research Institute in Bradenton, said the study helped prepare her for a career in research. The USF alumna is now pursuing a graduate degree in psychology. 

“This study was a wonderful opportunity to strengthen my critical-thinking skills and knowledge in psychological research,” Ritenour said. “Dr. Michaels brought me on this all-inclusive journey into experimental research, from analyzing and interpreting data to source research and scholarly manuscript writing. His mentorship has prepared me well for my current position as a research associate in the Program Evaluation Department at CRI.”

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