Tis’ the season – for joy, laughter, community…and busyness, worry, and stress. It is no secret that the holidays are some of the most stressful times of the year. In fact, studies show that people of all ages, but especially teens and pre-teens, are facing more stress and anxiety than ever. Pressures that previous generations didn’t have to think about until they were nearing graduation (college choices, scholarships, career choices) are now being pushed on students starting in the sixth grade. What this pressure leads to is an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, confusion, unpreparedness, and anxiety on students who very recently were still learning basic multiplication. This is a very real issue that we, as people who care for students, must understand and accept as reality, and then learn – just how do we deal with this?
Many will suggest some kind of behavior modification – some form of ‘just suck it up, don’t let people know you’re freaking out’ kind of tool for coping with stress. This isn’t healthy. On the flip side, enabling dangerous behaviors such as poor eating choices or binge watching Netflix during down time is similarly unhealthy. I want to suggest that in order to help our students (and even ourselves!) manage stress, we can actually take one cue from secular brain science and another from scripture in how we cope with the stress that is beginning sooner and sooner in our lives.
You see, there have been several studies in the past few years on an area of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). The ACC is unique in that it has connections to both the area of the brain that controls emotion and the area that controls logical progressions. This area of the brain is responsible for triggering responses in the body to situations where there is potential for mistakes, and regulating the severity of those responses in response to the perceived severity of said mistakes. Studies have show that, for those who believe in God, thinking on the things of God during stressful times actually greatly reduces the activity in this part of the brain, reducing anxiety and allowing for more positively coping with the stress of the situation – leading to more positive outcomes from stressful situations. How powerful is it that just thinking about the things of God relieves stress and helps us manage our lives more efficiently.
It is tempting to think that this is a new revelation unveiled by modern science, however we see this calming effect of meditating on the things of the Lord as a common theme throughout scripture. The psalmist writes in Psalm 16:8 – ‘I have set the Lord continually before me. Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken’. By thinking on the things of God continually, the psalmist is able to remain steadfast – much like the effect thinking on God has on the ACC. In fact, meditation on the things of God and His Word are mentioned more than 20 times in the book of Psalms alone in relation to finding comfort in stressful life situations. Another example of meditating on the things of God in stressful time we find in Luke Chapter 2. In this scene, the angel of God has just appeared to Mary and informed her that she will be birthing the Messiah. While we, as people who grew up going to Christmas events and hearing the Christmas story, often take this news for granted, for a Jewish girl who was quite young and not even yet married, this was both utterly amazing and downright terrifying. But, instead of having an anxiety attack or going on a shopping spree, check out what Mary did in reaction to this news: ‘But Mary treasured all these things; pondering them in her heart’. Wow. Mary knew that the message she received was from the Lord, and dwelled on His promises for her life, just as we can today!
Here’s where the rubber meets the road – in order to think on the things of God, they have to be in our minds in the first place. We cannot think on what we do not know. And, let’s be honest, hearing about God once or, at best, twice per week is NOT enough exposure to bring these thoughts to the forefront of our minds during stressful times. It isn’t for me, and it isn’t for you. What this means is that a daily time with God is necessary and crucial to hiding His Word in your heart. There is no ‘secret sauce’ to get it in your brain a different way, and no amount of great preaching can make up for spending time with God everyday. As believers, we must spend daily time with God. Parents – please talk to your kids about their daily quiet times. Just ask them what they read and what they learned, and if they are pleasers who will give you the same three answers and passages over and over again – call them on it! Encourage them to read different passages in the Bible – and you do the same. By hiding His Word in our hearts, we can greatly affect the way we handle stress by simply thinking on the things of God during stressful times.
Has there been a time where thinking on the things of God has helped you manage a stressful situation? Have you memorized scripture that you think on when times are hard? Who do you talk to about what God is teaching you daily? Feel free to comment your answers below!
Discover more about the Anterior Cingulate Cortex – Click Here! –
-Stuart Payne, Middle School Pastor