by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project… CLICK HERE to return to Page 1
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (NLT)
I have shared the “Treadmill Story” (on page 1) with almost all of my teenage patients and many of the preteen children I have worked with. I have shared the story with adults and watched tears flow as patients related it to their own climb in life. I then ask the following question.
“When you you’re feeling overwhelmed and considering suicide (and in many cases have attempted suicide), did you want to die, or did you need for someone to turn off the treadmill?”
Of the hundreds of adolescents, and in some cases adult patients, only one person said that he wanted to die. In virtually every case, these kids say that they need the treadmill turned off. Through this story, these people recognize that when they feel they are drained of energy and feel they have no choice but to give up, they are helpless, not hopeless. But the emotional course of cognitive processing suggests otherwise and convinces them that they are hopeless and buried under the weight of their stress.
I shared my “treadmill story” with a young girl in the hospital who told me she felt helpless and knew that she didn’t want to die as she gestured something to her mother and father that appeared clearly suicidal to them. When I asked her what her action communicated to her parents about what she was feeling, this very young girl correctly indicated, “Hopeless.” When asked what she was truly feeling, she responded, “Helpless.” She wasn’t coached to answer like that. The girl understood her experience and drew that conclusion.
So many of these girls and boys that self-harm, do so, not because they are suicidal as much as it appears that way, but to manage stress. However, what they communicate to loved ones and others paying attention (including psychiatrists), is that they are in a place of hopeless despair, which is typically not the case (even though it could be). They are feeling desperately helpless but don’t know how to express that. They themselves are deceived (betrayed) by their own feelings that they are hopeless, to the point they feel they have no options left but to give up and die to experience the relief they so desperately need.
So it is essential to educate these kids concerning the fragile and unpredictable nature of brain chemistry. It is paramount that they discover how to filter raging, desperate emotions through rational, intellectual reasoning, according to what they already know makes the most sense, no matter the intensity of their real-life day-to-day circumstances.
The reality for the teenagers and children, and that of anyone overwhelmed by anxiety and stress or battling depression, is that their circumstances may not change that much except for the change they themselves are willing to make. Anxiety and stress is the result of the absence of control. It’s challenging enough to manage their own feelings of what’s happening, they certainly have no control over anyone else’s feelings and behavior; nor is there any control of natural happening and world events.
At the hospital you could say that we have serial patients who have developed this pattern of desperate behavior that involves suicidal talk, gestures and attempts. Here they are again and it’s reported that it’s the the second, third or fourth hospitalization. What they again communicated that got them admitted was interpreted as hopeless despair. If I can help it, these patients will be sure to hear the treadmill story and tell me or the group that they are—and were—in a helpless place; not hopeless. However, in the moment of desperation when emotion goes rogue and runs roughshod over rational thoughtful, the prevailing feeling of hopelessness is a betrayal against what makes the most sense.
Almost all suicidal patients I’ve worked with were “happy” to get another chance. I have worked with those who dialed 9-1-1 or called someone after slitting their wrists with deadly technique. I have worked with those who attempted to hang themselves until someone found them, or a cord or belt broke. I have worked with those who woke up or were found unconscious after ingesting a lethal dose of pills. Almost all of them were relieved to be alive. I talked to someone the week of me writing this, who claims not to believe in God and believes she would cease to exist if her suicide attempt was successful. She admitted that something inside of her panicked concerning her mortality. She is now wondering what that is and is curious about it from a spiritual perspective.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that so many repeat patients who have heard the treadmill story haven’t been seen at the hospital again since their discharge. Or, I suppose it might just be possible that discerning that they are helpless when feeling burdened and overwhelmed, helps them to feel hopeful enough that they are willing to reach out for outpatient help in the middle of the storm.
The seminal moment is when mindful clarity is activated and those feeling their circumstances are dire—that there is no escape—are hopeful having been empowered from within to find a way because they believe that help is on the way. They are helpless to overcome on their own, while hopeful that the right support is the bridge to living another day.
Something I have written about in recent years is a crisis I experienced that at the time was a burden so heavy it dominated my thought life. As I went through my days, as I totally preoccupied with my hardship that terribly grieved my spirit. I felt a sense of doom and was emotionally exhausted. I was a man of unwavering faith as I never… never… doubted that God loved me. I never doubted what God could do in my time of peril. My agonizing doubt was in what God would do. Why would he? I felt unworthy of the miracle I needed, which only intensified my anxiety and stress.
I talk to kids every day that are experiencing a myriad of what to them are issues that altogether are so burdensome they feel crushed beneath them. They permit the emotional center of their brains to give in to their fear until they are imprisoned by it. There is no way out. It feels as though the only option is to end their suffering by ending their lives.
This one, Jesus, has been there. He too was disappointed time and time again. He was bullied by people who really thought highly of themselves. He was misunderstood and then discarded by those who didn’t see the world the way he saw it. He was even betrayed by his best friends, rejected by most of society, and really did for awhile feel abandoned by God.
He has compassion for these kids.
It’s not a religious thing. All who are willing to accept the sensibility of a creator, having been made by God, with the unconditional love of a father without flaw, can experience connection with him who is already connected to them.
Prayer was never intended to be a religious experience. Prayer is meant to be a relational experience with the One who made us. Working at a Catholic-affiliated hospital does afford me the opportunity to broach the subject of spiritual opportunity to relate to God, so long as I don’t impose my values onto the patients I work with. It can be delicate at times, but for the most part, the people I am trying to help are open to new possibilities.
We talk a great deal about the need to develop coping strategies with more proven results than the coping strategies they’ve been applying that have resulted in being hospitalized at a psychiatric facility. Prayer just might be the ideal coping mechanism for those wanting to try something that they already know works, or to at least try something they have not yet tried when nothing else works.
Here is where it gets interesting.
Often times, as soon as prayer is mentioned or the question is asked, “Do you pray?” the initial response is, “I’m not religious.”
5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. Matthew 6:5-7 (NLT)
Jesus suggests that those who are about the theater that public religion can offer are not sincere, saying that the validation that they get from attention is the only reward they’ll experience.
“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Matthew 6:7-8 (NLT)
Jesus suggests that those who are about the ritual and tradition of religion do not impress God with their words; that they are only exhausting themselves. Jesus is saying that God already knows your heart and what you need even before you pray.
Alright, so the images provided here show people folding their hands. I suppose that’s for the purpose of illustrating that these people are praying, but it isn’t necessary. The folding of hands for some might be a bit ritualistic, but so what. The position the girl is in at the top of this page contemplating taking those pills is in “prayer formation” as well. If you choose not to you don’t have to fold your hands or close your eyes either, for that matter, unless it helps you to be less distracted.
If God knows what I need before I tell him about it, then why pray at all?
To God, prayer is about connection in relationship. God wants to interact with us in the same way parents want to interact with their children. Like a father wants to express and exchange love with the children made through his seed, God wants to love on the children he has made.
For those I help that are interested—and so many are by this point in the conversation—I explain this spiritual connection they can have with God, who made them. I do this effectively by cutting right through the resistance from their emotionally-motivated objection by addressing and challenging their rational sensibilities in the frontal regions of the cerebral cortex. This allows teenagers, and even children, to see why their creator, the God of all of the universe, is not preoccupied with everything else going on and is paying attention to the children he has made and loves; just like a busy father would be who is committed to his children.
These kids really do seem to get that.
So how does prayer actually help?
I am not at all suggesting, as some might think, that prayer is merely some psychological ploy to trick the emotional brain into feeling more hopeful. Prayer isn’t a magic pill. It’s not a drug. (By the way, getting high might soothe the senses for a bit but it doesn’t solve anything.) Prayer isn’t merely some phenomenon. Prayer is the real deal.
Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist, Professor and Director of Research Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Newberg is the pioneer and leader in the field of something referred to as neurotheology, having written The New Science of Transformation and How God Changes Your Brain, among many other writings on the matter of the effect of spiritual faith and the intricate workings of the human brain. He has been featured on an episode of Morgan Freeman’s National Geographic television program, The Story of God.
“It is really a two way street. Your brain changes your thoughts and your thoughts change your brain. The more you focus on a particular belief or belief system, the stronger those connections become. If you focus on God being loving and compassionate, you increase the amount of love and compassion in your brain, and your outward behaviors. If you focus on God being vengeful and hateful, you increase the amount of hate and anger in your brain, and your outward behaviors. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together wire together, and this is true no matter what our beliefs are. The more we focus on something, the more it becomes a part of how our brain functions.” —Dr. Andrew Newberg
In his research, Dr. Newberg has advanced the conversation regarding the experiential effect prayer has on reducing anxiety and stress. These studies reveal scientific evidence through brain imaging the effects prayer and meditation has on strengthening the make up and function on the areas of the brain related to anxiety and stress, love and fear. More specifically, certain elements of prayer with an emphasis on quiet meditation, relying less on words and more on resting in the experience of relationship with God, actually enhanced frontal lobe activity while lowering brain activity associated with anxiety and stress. The noticeable change in blood flow is detected in color changes from these brain scans.
This is incredible research is intended to quantify scientifically the measurable value of prayer.
“Other practices such as conversational prayer activate social areas of the brain and, when combined with feelings of love and compassion, likely reduce stress and anxiety, as well as spill over to enhancing a person’s social interactions.” —Dr. Andrew Newberg
Dr. Newberg speaks of the brain’s read on God as both conceptual and experiential. He explains how the binary process of the brain is affected according to how one’s concept of God affects both the rational and emotional responses in the make up of the brain, while experiencing connection (relationship) with God. He sited the effects on the brain between those who see God as loving and compassionate versus those viewing God as judgmental and punishing.
Listen to what Dr. Newberg has to say about this:
“The brain has a propensity for setting up opposites as a way of understanding the world around us. The binary process helps us to distinguish good from bad or right from wrong. In religion, one of the most fundamental opposites is the difference between human beings and God. How can human beings who are finite, mortal, and limited have any ability to form a relationship with an infinite, omniscient, and all-powerful being? In particular, we rely on the holistic function of the brain to bridge the enormous gap between God and human beings. The binary process is bridged so that human beings can find a relationship with God…
“The long term studies of spiritual practices such as meditation and prayer have increasingly shown that the brain does change over time. Individuals who practice prayer and meditation over many years have been found to have thicker and more active frontal lobes than nonpractitioners…
“Since the brain functions are changing, the person’s beliefs and behaviors are also changing. The brain changes reported to be associated with religious and spiritual practices hint at how they also reduce anxiety and depression while enhancing compassion and love. Most individuals also relate religious beliefs and practices to better coping during stressful life events, and improved relationships.”
God made our brains. He wired them in the first place. How the wires end up getting crossed through the accumulation of life experiences is a mystery. Why can’t the brain remain true to its original make up? Why does it break down to the point that the binary relationship between the limbic system overrides the frontal lobes, leading to emotionally-driven irrational thinking and misguided behavior.
Scientific studies now reveal that it is entirely possible that there is a spiritual process through connection with God that bridges the binary relationship between rational thought and the powerful force of emotion in the cognitive-behavioral process. In rewiring the brain, God is holistic in his approach to reconciling the conflict between factions in how the brain functions. This is huge.
Why is it so easy for children to embrace faith in God?
Because they haven’t been so jaded yet by the accumulation of life experiences, children don’t usually have an agenda that is objectionable to faith in their creator. These may be the same children that for a time believed in Santa Claus. But they grew out of that. But when they have connected with God beyond just believing in what they heard and read about, it sticks with them since the seed of faith took root deep into the soil of what they know, and from there it grows. When children believe in something real, it’s a done deal. There is an assurance about it. There is real relationship. It has taken hold.
Statistics tell us that a vast majority of people who espouse to belief in God do so at an early age. So those who didn’t as a child are not as likely to come along to faith in God unless something happens that takes them back to that place of need. Children are dependent on grownups, namely parents, for most of what matters until they have progressed enough in their lives to think for themselves and take care of themselves.
It is when we return to that place of reckoning when we didn’t quite get it, recognizing our need for love and support from someone who can provide it, that we give faith a chance once again. Jesus was saying that real faith is childlike faith rooted in need. This is the transformative moment when realized faith is experienced in such a way as to renew hope and revitalize meaningful living.
Children are helpless. It is in this conversion to helplessness that faith is the answer to the need for better. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said that unless we come to God with the faith of a child we won’t experience the life that is intended for us. It is faith that is raw and unadulterated.
I had a patient a while back who was completely oppositional to anything remotely spiritual or religious. If there was anything on television at the Catholic hospital or anybody was saying anything that even bordered on spirituality or faith, she would literally cover her ears.
She and I talked for a bit about her circumstances with family and such. She was so depressed about her life that she wanted to die as her way out of her pain. She realized that she really didn’t want to die in that she was not hopeless so much as she understood she was helpless. She acknowledged that she was severely distressed an desperately in need of help. The more I listened to her, the more I had this increasing sense of anxiety that I could not help her.
I looked at her, smiled in a sheepish sort of way, and let out a sigh.
She looked at me inquisitively and said, “What?”
I said, “I have something for you that’s really big but I don’t think you want it.”
We had developed some strong rapport in oura therapeutic relationship by then, so she would not allow me to dismiss what I had for her and asked me to share it with her. I told her that it involved God, but not the “God” of judgment her parents crammed down her throat. I shared with her how the God of mercy and compassion had changed my life; disclosing just enough of what I’d experienced. She believed me. It was making sense to her. Before our conversation was over, she asked me to pray with her as we sat at a table while more than a dozen other kids along with unit staff were in the room doing their thing. She closed her eyes and I kept mine open as I prayed with her. When she opened them, her tears spilled out. It was beautiful. I wish you could have seen it.
Amidst all of the noise in the room, she invited me to invite her into something new. Transformation was evident all over her face as her countenance glowed from angry skeptic to more optimism and enthusiasm I’d had ever seen in the face of a teenager. I wonder what the before and after of those brain scans would look like once God rewired the circuitry of her brain, metaphorically speaking.
Essentially, this means that the circuitry of the brain has wires crossed and moved every which way, entangled by experiences of reward and consequence, affecting how we see ourselves and the world, and how we see ourselves in the world. Once these circuits have been scrambled, correction is way beyond any control we might think we have. God does the rest.
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
The word ‘be’ in “be transformed” is a verb, albiet a passive verb. This means that this so-called transformation is not something we can do. All we do is act on resisting temptation by offering ourselves to God, and no longer conforming behaviorally to what people in the world are doing independent from the plan of God that is in our best interest. Imagine the hope in that.