When Dr. Charles Zeiders was conducting his post doctorate studies, he was exposed to the work of Dr. Andrew Newberg, a medical doctor who had researched the relationship between the brain, the body and spirituality. Newberg had surveyed spiritual experiences, researched the effect of meditation on memory and studied brain scans of people in trance states and deep prayer. Evident were the positive changes this state of mind creates in the brain and how that transfers to a healthier state of health overall. This mind change, Zeiders said, is playfully referred to as “the brain on God.”
A 1985 graduate of Elizabethtown College, Zeiders continued his studies in cognitive behavior psychology, cognitive forensic therapy and cognitive behavioral Christian counseling. He has concentrated his work on how the mindful calming of the soul impacts the physical being. It’s easy to think of prayer and meditation as escapist and having nothing to do with the body, he said, but “you can’t separate the two.”
It is scientifically known that the “prayers of mystical quiet tend to shut off fight of flight responses,” noted Zeiders, who is now a licensed psychologist at Main Line Health System in Bryn Mawr, Pa., working in a “Christian clinical setting on a medical model.”
In psychotherapy, if someone has a religious system – “Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical” – deep prayer practices can treat or arrest anxiety, Zeiders said. “Think of the calming effect of the Catholic rosary.” The brain is positively influenced by the repetition of a monosyllabic word. Joy, peace, hope, love. “Said slowly and softly within a person’s mind, this repetition is known to trigger a relaxation response. It’s the same intensity of a feather hitting a pillow,” said Zeiders.
During past work in geriatric psychology with people facing end of life issues, Zeiders said he found that those with spiritual or religious beliefs tended to be better equipped to make adjustments in their thinking. “All things being equal, if mental health patients have some sort of spiritual belief system their outcomes tend to be better than those who do not,” Zeiders pointed out. “We know that beliefs, themselves, have tremendous psychosomatic power. If they have negative thoughts they are depressed; if they have a positive thought that is rehearsed, the idea has an antidepressant effect.”
A practicing Anglo Catholic, Zeiders said his beliefs tell him that “ultimately our consciousness is immortal and loved by God. … The connection is the understanding of a greater good.” Mindfulness meditation does not require a belief system, “but it helps,” he said. Christian understanding, traditions and beliefs better help the patient. For other religions — Jewish, Hindi, and Muslim –the idea of the rigor and seriousness of practicing a certain belief are the foundation, he said. “There is a certain way they connect with God, so it can be useful in their psychological goals.”
Clinically, Zeiders said, it is not ethical to use psychotherapy for evangelizing, so he works within the patient’s domain of spirituality. When the therapy reaches a certain level he introduces the idea.
Some years ago Zeiders noted that he worked with a population of Christians who had, in their lifetimes, someone who had done or who was doing something to them that was “traumatic, mean-spirited or evil.” One patient, in particular, he remembers had generalized anxiety disorder and stomach problems. Then the patient forgave the “bad actor” at a formal religious level —“formally, in prayer, in line with the teaching of Christ.” The stomach problems abated, Zeiders said, and the anxiety significantly decreased.
“Forgiveness is not easy,” he said. “Psychotherapists must help patients understand who hurt them, get to the core wound, the rejection, anger, rage or bitterness. Conducting an act of forgiveness, conducting that spiritual act, to those who trespass against us causes patients who are stuck in therapy to breakthrough. … Forgiveness is the simple most deed I know to get well fast.”