The Psychophysiology of The Jesus Prayer
As a psychologist and practicing Anglo-Catholic, I sometimes prescribe the Jesus Prayer as a psychological and behavioral treatment for Christian patients who suffer from various types of nervous exhaustion.
The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer is among the great repetitive prayers of the Christian contemplative tradition. The prayer is prayed: Lord Jesus Christ, risen son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. One recites the prayer over and over with the same amount of gentle intensity as a feather falling to a pillow. Whenever the mind wanders, the worshipper quietly refocuses the mind by simply reciting the prayer again. The prayer is prayed with the intention of spending time with Jesus. When we pray this prayer, we do something that Jesus asked of his disciples, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6: 31). Jesus knows that time spent with him is restorative. Now, a growing body of research suggests that repetitive prayer techniques like the Jesus Prayer may offset the psychological and physiological wear and tear of our stressful lives.
The Psychological and Physiological Wear and Tear of our Stressful Lives
Anxiety Disorders and General Adaptation Syndrome are caused from over-activation of the autonomic nervous system.
Our autonomic nervous system controls the glands and the muscles of our internal organs. Like an automatic pilot, it may be consciously overridden. But it operates on its own to influence our internal functioning, including our heartbeat, digestion, and glandular activity.
The autonomic nervous system is a dual system. The sympathetic nervous system arouses us for defensive action. If something alarms or enrages you, the sympathetic nervous system will accelerate your heartbeat, slow your digestion, raise your blood sugar, dilate your arteries, and cool you with perspiration, making you alert and ready for action.
When the stress subsides, the parasympathetic nervous system produces opposite effects. It conserves energy as it calms you by decreasing your heartbeat, lowering your blood sugar, and so forth. In everyday situations, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together to keep us in a steady internal state.
However, under stress, the sympathetic nervous system can switch on and not turn off. This gives rise to a host of physical disorders like chronic muscle pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and cardiac disease. Stress hormones associated with this problem also degrade the function of pleasure centers contained within the brain.
Anxiety Disorders are the psychological manifestations of the chronically aroused sympathetic nervous system. These are insidious. So is General Adaptation Syndrome, a lethal clinical problem that emerges from mental and physical exhaustion caused from the ravages of a relentless fight/flight response.
Scientific research into the effects of contemplative, repetitive prayer techniques at Harvard Medical School and at the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Deaconess Hospital show that repetitive prayer observably switches off the fight/flight response associated with the sympathetic nervous system and switches on the relaxation response associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.
It is predicted that when you say the Jesus Prayer—or any other type of repetitive or contemplative prayer—that the following changes will occur within your body immediately:
- Metabolic rate decreases
- Blood pressure lowers
- Heart rate lowers
- Oxygen consumption declines
- Muscles relax
- Brain waves configure into a serene Alpha state
If you persist in saying the prayer—make it a habit—it is predicted that you will:
- Tolerate stress better
- Experiences less dysphoria
- Increase longevity
- Bolster immunity
- Experience more pleasure in living
- Mitigate or reverse brain deterioration
- Feel closer to God
Prescribing the Jesus Prayer is a best practice when the clinician has assessed that the patient is a practicing Christian whose Christian theology and subculture support repetitive prayer techniques. Since treatment follows diagnosis, the patient should also experience some Religious or Spiritual Problem coeval with their Mood, Anxiety, or Behavioral Health diagnosis.
An evidence-based spiritual prescription for Christian patients carrying stress-related mental health diagnoses, the Jesus Prayer delivers a handsome health return on the behavioral investment. We do not pray the Jesus Prayer, however, only to enjoy these health benefits. For the Christian clinician and patient, it is intrinsically good to spend time with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Good holistic health simply emerges as a secondary benefit of resting with Jesus in prayer.