Reducing Anxiety with Daily Prayer

Daily Prayer Reduces Stress and Anxiety

By: Rev. Kirk Bingaman, Ph.D., LCC Pastoral Psychotherapist

In recent months I have been focusing on the extraordinary findings emerging from the field of neuroscience which are revealing that far from being fixed and unchanging, the human brain has a remarkable capacity for neuroplasticity, for continued change and growth throughout our lives. Moreover, the revolutionary discovery also reveals that the “gift” of neuroplasticity is available to us not only in our youth but across the entire lifespan, even in later adulthood.

Neuroscientists have only scratched the surface in terms of what is known about the human brain, which leads me as a pastoral counselor to give thanks to God with the psalmist that we are indeed wonderfully and fearfully made (Psalm 139:14). This holds great promise for the work of pastoral care and counseling, particularly as we help those in our care find healthy ways to manage their stress in these anxious times.

For example, in a landmark study completed several years ago, the American neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg, focused on particular regions of the brain as he studied a group of Franciscan nuns doing the Christian Centering Prayer every morning for fifteen years. What he found by way of periodic brain-imaging scans of the nuns was that a daily practice of contemplative-meditational spirituality significantly lowers the activity and hyperactivity in the stress region of the brain while increasing activity in other regions connected to feelings of peace, joy and contentment. While a certain amount of anxiety and stress is of course part and parcel of human life, an excessive amount is not good for us, physically, psychologically or spiritually.

 

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, encourages each of us not to be anxious about tomorrow, to remain centered in the present moment of today (Matthew 6:34). And while we would all agree that this teaching is foundational for the spiritual life, there tends to be less clarity about how to put it into practice in daily life. We all have heard that it is a sign of faith to trust in God and not live anxiously, but beyond the conceptual and intellectual grasp of Jesus’ words there is often less understanding of how to make this a practical reality. Sometimes I hear from anxious congregants or clients that they even feel guilty for not having enough faith in God to quiet their anxiety, and thus what develops is something of a “double whammy”: along with feeling anxious in the first place about any number of things, now they feel anxious and guilty about feeling anxious. I am coming to see more and more in my work with clients and congregants that it is not so much that we ignore Jesus’ teaching not to be anxious about life and about tomorrow, but rather we are not always clear about how to go about it.

Through the breakthrough discovery of neuroplasticity, knowing that the brain can continue to change and grow throughout the entire lifespan and that it can be done quintessentially by cultivating a daily spiritual practice of contemplative prayer and mindfulness meditation, even for ten or fifteen minutes a day, we can offer those in our care concrete ways to lessen their anxiety about tomorrow and to live more joyfully and abundantly.

Dr. Kirk Bingaman counsels teens, adults and couples at LCC’s Mineola site. He is also Associate Professor of Pastoral Care & Counseling at Fordham University. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he is a licensed mental health counselor in NY and a Fellow with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology & Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA and a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is working on his third pastoral counseling book. Contact Lutheran Counseling Center at 1-800-317-1173 or e-mail us at Center@lccny.org for more information or to set an appointment at any of our NINE counseling sites. Visit our website at www.lccny.org .    

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