Anxiety in Our Digital Age: Creating a Tranquil Spirituality

The theme of fear and anxiety confronts, in my opinion, one of the greatest emotional challenges we face in modern times. Not surprisingly, the recapturing of spiritual disciplines and practices can play a significant role in protecting our mental health. More specifically, the ability to create and maintain a tranquil state of mind in our modern, digitally driven world can play a significant role in preventing the many emotional disorders that are now becoming epidemic.

It was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 469 B.C.–399 B.C.) who said to his followers: “As it is not proper to cure the eyes without the head; nor the head without the body; so neither is it proper to cure body without the soul.” These were wise words for that time, but I can’t think of any admonition more timely and imperative for our day and age as this. The Socratic idea that we have to treat the body, mind, and soul as a single unit has come to the fore again—and this admonition is not just for physicians.

As a clinical psychologist, board certified in psycho-pharmacology, I believe that we need a wake-up call here. Modern treatments of emotional disorders such as panic anxiety, post-traumatic fear, and depression tend to be treated with only one remedy: psychotropic medication. But now a lively debate is going on in the psychological world about whether psychotropic medications are as effective in treating all these disorders as they claim to be. Many are beginning to question whether these expensive remedies are nothing more than overused placebos in the less severe forms of depression and anxiety. This is one of the reasons why clinical psychology is shifting its emphasis from a disease model to one that is holistic and considers the whole person—body, mind, and spirit.

What has this got to do with the topic I am addressing here? Firstly, we should not see our growing cadre of anxiety disorders only as biological problems. While they have biological consequences, we make a Socratic mistake if we ignore the role that lifestyle and behavior plays in these disorders. Secondly, spiritual disciplines are increasingly being seen as a powerful healing resource, not just for healing these disorders, but more importantly, in preventing them. After all, the word heal comes from the Old English word haelen that literally means “to make whole.” The more we neglect to address the healing of the whole person the more serious will be the epidemic of emotional disorders that is now overtaking us.

The Growing Epidemic Of Anxiety Disorders

According to The Atlantic Journal, “America is turning into a country of hand-wringers.”[1] Nearly one in five adults, that is 40 million Americans, now suffers from some form of anxiety disorder.[2] Panic Anxiety Disorder is the number one mental-health problem for women in the US. It is second in men, the first being substance abuse. I suspect that the epidemic of substance abuse in men is nothing more than a form of “self-help”.[3]

Panic anxiety has become the most common class of psychiatric ailment we face today. Its close cousin, depression, is the second most common class of disorder—an incidence of one in ten and growing. Over a lifetime, the percentage of Americans who will suffer from a diagnosable anxiety and/or depression disorder is now about 1 in 3. It is not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression, or vice versa. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.[4] Obviously, medication plays a major and effective role in the treatment of the more severe forms of these disorders, including genetic forms. But how we treat the less serious, but nevertheless debilitating, anxiety and depressive disorders is now receiving close scrutiny.[5] And it is to this scrutiny that I want to add the important role that spiritual practices can play in both preventing and healing most of our anxiety and depression disorders.

The obvious question that follows then is: “What is causing this dramatic increase in anxiety and depression disorders?” Some might blame the economy. We have been submerged in a long period of economic recession and it is to be expected, many would say, that anxiety is on the rise. The implication is that when the economy fully recovers our anxiety epidemic will subside. But will it? Countries like Nigeria where the basic necessities of life are extremely sparse are five times less likely to experience clinically significant anxiety levels than Americans.[6] General consensus, therefore, is that our anxiety disorders will not go away when the economy improves. If anything, it will continue to grow. And the reason for this trend is pretty obvious: the primary cause of modern anxiety disorders is stress. And with the growth of digital technology now offering a round-the-clock captivity, stress levels are likely to continue rise in the years to come. (I explore this further in my new book, The Digital Invasion: How Technology is Shaping You and Your Relationships, Baker Books, 2013.) And this rise in stress levels will, without a doubt, be paralleled with a rise in the incidence of anxiety and depression disorders.

The Stress/Cortisol/Anxiety Connection

What triggers an anxiety disorder? It can be most helpful for someone suffering from an anxiety disorder to know something about its psychophysiology.

Never in history have we been as busy as we are today. Busyness has become a way of life for most of us and multi-tasking is the norm, not only in the business world, but I see it in the academic world as well. We can’t get away from the glamorous digital world and re-engage nature’s natural remedies. While some can cope with their overstimulation without melting down, all of us will sooner or later pay the price for our overstimulation with overwhelming fatigue, fear, depression and certain disorders like panic attacks. All because modern-day stress has overcome the limitations of how God created our brain’s defense systems.

How does stress create this tranquility disruption? The main culprit is the hormone “cortisol,” a cousin of adrenaline. It plays a major role in self-preservation. In a balanced lifestyle, cortisol is our protector. It does everything it can to ensure a balanced life. It helps us remember dangerous threats from the past by storing memory in the brain’s fear center (called the amygdala.) This helps us avoid these threats in the future. But when pushed to the limits by prolonged stress, cortisol is designed to change its function and switches from being our protector to forcing us out of the stressful situation. For example, in calm times it stores our fat so it is there when we need it. Under stress it releases the energy stored in the fat so that we can “fight or flee” better. This is one of the reasons stressed individuals put on weight—cortisol is helping the body store energy. But when stress is prolonged or severe, as it is for so many in our digitally driven world today, it switches from being our protector and now makes life unpleasant to force us to retreat from the stress. Cortisol blocks the hormone receptor for GABA (a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in “calming” us by regulating the receptors for the brain’s natural tranquilizers). By blocking the GABA, it increases our anxiety and can trigger a bout of depression—all intended to force us out of the stressful situation.

The artificial tranquilizers we take to calm our anxieties can only restore control to a limited extent because cortisol is blocking our GABA receptor, the major tranquilizer that regulates our tranquility system. This means that the treatment of disorders like panic anxiety cannot depend solely on taking tranquilizers, although they can be helpful. The treatment must also include lowering your cortisol level, and this means that lowering the stress level is crucial for anyone who suffers panic attacks.

Tranquility At Risk

Before I go on to discuss what I believe to be an important stress reducing strategy, let me remind the reader that aside from the damage that prolonged stress can cause to your brain’s tranquility system, there are certain behaviors that can increase your risk for an anxiety disorder. Here are just a few that are often over-looked:

  1. Hurry sickness—trying to do too much and never experiencing adequate “down time.” Hurry sickness leads to adrenaline addiction and cortisol flooding.
  2. Multitasking. The idea that the human brain is capable of doing a zillion things at the same time is a myth that has no validity. [7] Thorough research has shown that it reduces efficiency.
  3. Too plugged in. A new Android advertisement says: “Turning you into an instrument of efficiency. Take your work with you EVERYWHERE.” The increased pace of life and loss of recovery and sleep time sets a perfect background for anxiety disorders.
  4. Digital addiction. The power of the Internet and our digital gadgets to grow new addictions is alarming. Pornography, gambling, gaming and even social networking have all been identified as powerful addiction generators.
  5. Perpetual fatigue. Also called “sunset fatigue,” many come home from work exhausted, irritable to spouse and children, and even depressed. Nicholas Carr and many other researchers claim that our relentless digital world is re-wiring our brains. [8] I believe it is also re-wiring the emotional states that can affect our well-being.
  6. Perpetual restlessness. There are many reports in the media that most of us cannot even unplug when we go on vacation. On a recent trip to Hawaii, I took a walk along the beach and many sunbathers were impulsively checking emails, text messages or just searching their smart phones for some distraction. The “variable reinforcement” principle operating here not only creates habits hard to break, but causes a dramatic rise in anxiety.

Creating a Tranquil Spirituality

I now come to the main thrust of this article, namely, to emphasize the important role that our spiritual disciplines can play in reducing stress and healing less serious anxiety and depression disorders.

I suspect that some readers, like myself, come from a conservative theological background and might harbor some resistance to “spiritual disciplines.” When I first released my “Relaxation and Christian Meditation” CD many years ago, I received quite a bit of criticism. Many feared that in promoting relaxation as a powerful healer I was advocating some form of Eastern religion, despite the scientific evidence I presented in support of the power of relaxation to counter the ravaging effects of stress. Relaxation, intentionally and regularly practiced, is a powerful healing agent because it goes right to the root of the problem.

There is no doubt in my mind that the need for such relaxation is built into God’s creation of us. Scripture clearly admonishes us to “be still,” and this is not only for our spiritual lives, but for the benefit of our bodies as well. I cannot conceive how we can communicate with God when we are in a high state of stress. A close companion of relaxation that we need to foster, therefore, is our need for spiritual disciplines, like meditation, contemplation of God’s word and meaningful worship. These practices are not only spiritually beneficial, but God has designed our bodies such that they are powerful antidotes for our stress as well.

In particular, they create and maintain a healthy tranquility system in the brain. When relaxation (which is primarily the lowering of adrenaline arousal in the body) is combined with meditation (which is primarily a lowering of arousal of the mind so that you can focus on God), one has a powerful cure for both stress and anxiety. If we are to control our anxiety epidemic, therefore, we need to know how to turn down the volume knob of our lives and discipline ourselves to engage in those spiritual practices that we find helpful in connecting us with God.

Is Modern Worship a Stress Reliever?

But here we have a major problem facing us. Obviously, just as we differ in our personalities, we also differ in the style of spiritual practices we find helpful. Whereas the spiritual practices advocated by scripture are powerful resources for keeping our stress levels in check, much of what we label as “spiritual” today is not necessarily as conducive to a tranquil state of mind as we might think. Or, to put it bluntly, we really need to be looking more closely at the styles of worship that now prevail and ask ourselves: “To what extent is modern-day worship helping us to balance out the high levels of stress in our lives.” My intent here is not to criticize modern styles of worship, but to encourage the church to also introduce spiritual practices that are conducive to creating a tranquil state as well.

There was a time, not too long ago, when worship was simple enough for all to experience a spiritual renewal that boosted the natural tranquilizers in our brain. I’m old enough to recall when worship and personal “quiet times,” gave us a profound feeling of peace. I grew up in South Africa after the Second World War. I accepted Christ at age 16 and our little church had a small group of vibrant young people. Our favorite songs actually had meaningful lyrics and even if the sermon was sometimes dull, we always left feeling that we had met with God. Most importantly, I now realize, worship time was for all of us a restorer of our peace for all of us.

Regrettably, many now question whether modern worship provides anything near a form of peace and are asking the question: “Does worship really have to be exciting?”[9] Many churches have adopted the idea that worship needs to be exciting—otherwise people won’t come. So we add stage lights, extra loud praise songs and videos to compete with the stimulation of the digital world. And even with stage-sponsored stimulation, many have developed the habit (or is it addiction?) of fiddling with their smartphones during service to make sure that they are not missing something going on outside the church.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not criticizing “modern” worship styles as such. An occasional boost of excitement can certainly keep me awake. But what concerns me, and many others, is that the modern, digitally dependent church is not providing the counterbalance of a tranquil state of worship. We are also not paying attention to how the spiritual stimulations so common today are contributing to the growth of disorders like anxiety and depression by not restoring the brain’s natural tranquility system. Or, to put it more bluntly, while the stimulation of contemporary worship does appeal to many today, where are the Church-based opportunities that can provide an antidote to our over-stress? Where can we go to help us restore our natural tranquilizers that are already over-taxed? If the church doesn’t teach and provide spiritual practices that can counter our over-stimulation, where else can we go for such relief?

I suppose it might be appropriate for some to ask: “How necessary is tranquility of mind?” My answer is “crucial.” I believe that scripture advocates peacefulness. Scripture promises it to us. I don’t think that this means we have to stay in a state of high tranquility every moment of every day or only embrace ancient Quaker styles of worship. Rather, I am advocating that the high stress we face in our work-a-world day demands some relief from our over-stimulation, and I know of no better place to find this relief than in our personal spiritual practices. We need to promote regular prayer time, meditation and plain old-fashioned stillness and quietness, and evaluate to what extent they ameliorate our anxiety states or rob us of God given capacity for tranquility.

The role of spiritual and religious factors in health, viewed from a scientific perspective, has been getting a lot of attention in the scientific world lately. In general, studies have reported fairly consistent positive relationships between physical health, mental health, and substance abuse outcomes, according to Carl E. Thoresen of Stanford University and reported in the Journal for Health Psychology. [10] A lot more research comparing different styles of spirituality is needed.

Obviously, I am not anticipating the elimination of all anxieties. In many respects, a certain level of anxiety is healthy and God-given. It is a normal cognitive and physiological response that is designed to prompt us to urgent action or call our attention to the seriousness of an event or situation facing us. But the more serious forms of anxiety disorders can be avoided if we involve our whole being. (Remember haelen.)

There is much that pastors and church leaders can do to reduce, or at least balance out, the over-stimulation of parishioners. Here are a few suggestions to be considered:

  • Educate congregants in the importance of protecting their tranquility system and in how they can rebuild damage already done.
  • Encourage spiritual practices and provide workshops and other opportunities for believers to develop these practices. (There are many books available that lay out these practices.)[11]
  • Set up regular opportunities for congregants to structure time for reflection and meditation in a group setting. This not only helps to build social unity, but also helps to support those who find it difficult to engage in these spiritual practices.
  • Consider setting a time during every regular worship that interposes reflection and meditation with the high stimulation music activity, so that it is seen to be a part of the whole worship experience. Contemplative spiritual practices need to be demonstrated to parishioners in a practical way. Unless it is offered as part of a regular service and people encouraged to practice it, it will not be discovered.

Protecting Your Godspace

In closing, what can we do as individuals to build and maintain a tranquil state of mind that keeps both fear and anxiety under control? In addition to mastering the spiritual practices you find helpful, the final chapter of my book, The Digital Invasion, emphasizes the importance of protecting your “Godspace,” and I would like to highlight a few of its points for the reader here.[12]

I find the term “Godspace” very helpful. In our busy, overloaded lifestyle, it is the space we set aside for God that gets neglected. The experts keep reminding us that we need to “untether” regularly, or, as The Message translates it in the words of Jesus (Mathew 11:28–29):

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Getaway with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.”

So here are a few suggestions on how you can protect your Godspace:

  • Intentionally, select a time of the day that you can set as your Godspace—and protect it.
  • Don’t let Internet distractions dominate your life—keep a close watch on these distractions so as to prevent them from robbing you of your Godspace. Timothy Keller calls them “counterfeit Gods” and likens them to idols we worship in our modern world.[13]
  • Make sure that your Godspace has lots of silence. Someone called it a “Sabbath of the mouth.” Studies have shown that the average person today, surrounded by the cyber world can only tolerate about 15 seconds of silence. So monitor yourself by occasionally keeping a time record of just how long you can close your eyes, focus on God and sit still.
  • Make sure that your Godspace has lots of solitude. Whereas silence is a “Sabbath of the mouth,” solitude is a “Sabbath of involvement.” Make sure your smartphone is turned off and let go of all distractions. Yes, for many it is painful and might even raise anxiety level. But resist the urge to do something and you will soon master the skill of solitude.

I conclude with these encouraging words also from The Message, where Jesus says:

“Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Mathew 11:30).

 

Scripture quotations are from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson, copyright (c) 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. All rights reserved.



[1] The Atlantic, July17, 2012, p. 39.

[2] http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

[3] Archibald Hart, The Anxiety Cure, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999).

[4] http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression

[5] http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/are-antidepressants-effective

[6] Op. Cit.

[7] Christine Rosen, “The Myth of Multitasking”, New Atlantis, Spring 2008, 106.

[8] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).

[9] Rev. Andrew Compton, “Does worship really have to be exciting?” The Reformed Reader, August 29, 2011.

[10] “Spirituality and Its Relationships With the Health and Illness of Appalachian People,” Journal of Transcultural Nursing, April 1, 2010, 21:175–182

[11]Catherine Hart Weber, “Flourish: Discover the daily joy of Abundant Living,” (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers,.2010).

[12]Archibald Hart and Sylvia Hart Frejd, “The Digital Invasion: How Technology is Shaping You and Your Relationships,” (Grand Rapids, MN: Baker Books, 2013), 200.

[13] Timothy Keller, “Counterfeit Gods,” (New York: Dutton, 2009), xvi.

Archibald Hart:
Archibald Hart 2Dr. Archibald Hart, Senior Professor of Psychology and Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, is an expert in the areas of stress, depression, and anxiety and is well known for his ministry to pastors and churches worldwide through psychological training, education, and consultation. Now retired, he continues to teach courses in psychology (Psychopharmacology) as well as in the Doctor of Ministry program (The Minister's Personal Growth). In 1979 he was the first recipient of the Davis Weyerhaeuser Faculty Award for Excellence at Fuller Theological Seminary, and in 2011 he received the 25th Anniversary AACC Silver Jubilee Award from the American Association of Christian Counselors for Outstanding Influence and Leadership in the Development and Advancement of Christian Counseling around the World. Dr. Hart has published many articles and thirty books, the best known being Adrenalin and Stress, The Anxiety Cure, Sleep: It Does a Family Good, and his latest book just released: The Digital Invasion: How Technology Is Shaping You and Your Relationships.  
  • johnnyceedee

    Thanks for a great integrated and application written article – while written from the USA context, is highly applicable to our New Zealand requirements in both diagnosis and engagment . . .