Dr. Timothy Jennings, a board-certified psychiatrist, author, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatrist Association, and President of Come and Reason Ministries. Dr. Jennings explains how our physical bodies are very much connected to our spiritual souls, and how engaging and experiencing God, truth, and love can result in better health and better life, especially as we age.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you for joining us today for Family Policy Matters, the North Carolina Family Policy Council’s weekly radio show and podcast, which is designed to inform listeners about the critical issues of the day and to encourage you to be voices or persuasion for family values in your community. I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise that there is a deep, deep connection between our physical bodies and our spiritual souls, and the state of our faith actually affects our physical and mental wellbeing.
Today we are joined by Dr. Timothy Jennings, a board-certified psychiatrist and master psychopharmacologist. Dr. Jennings is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and President of Come And Reason Ministries. He spent more than two decades researching the interface between biblical principles and modern brain science. In fact, he was invited to the White House in 2017 to discuss the issues of mental health, opioid addiction and faith-based initiatives with some of our nation’s leaders. He’s also the author of several books, including, The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life, and his newest book, The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind, and that’s what we’ll be discussing with him today.
So Dr. Jennings, thanks so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
JOHN RUSTIN: Based on your research and knowledge Dr. Jennings, how does a person’s view of God affect their mental condition and subsequently their health?
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: First thing we have to understand is the brain is in a state of flux, and it’s reacting to the thought patterns, decisions, the behaviors we engage in. So, if you decided to go out today for the first time and start piano lessons, and then you took lessons for a period of time, your brain would begin rewiring to create pathways to make you more efficient, not only at the motor movements of playing the piano, but reading and comprehending the notes that you see on the page. If you decided to take a foreign language,and you begin practicing the language, your brain will begin making new pathways. This is normal brain function. If we then worship and think about a God, then the God that we worship will then determine which pathways in our brain are firing. If we have an authoritarian God, a punishing God, or a God that incites fear, then that will activate fear pathways in our brain, which activates stress circuits in our body, increasing inflammation, and it contributes to health related problems. Worshiping a God of love, who is benevolent and compassionate actually has the opposite effect. It turns off those stress pathways and results in better health and better life.
JOHN RUSTIN: You’ve talked about the impact of faith and belief on our physical abilities and also the kind of re-programming of our brains, how does our relationship with this God, and also with other people, affect our mental health and the intersection of those different capacities of physical and mental in our bodies?
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: So we are designed for relationship and one of the things that people struggle with is the fear of rejection: fear of not being accepted; fear of not being loved; carrying around an internal sense of shame for the shortcomings or mistakes that we’ve made. Part of the healing process for us to actually experience a state of wholeness and wellness is to reveal our true selves to somebody and experience acceptance, and that person loves us. They may not accept the struggles that we’re having, but they accept us and want to see us victorious over them. This is why 12-step programs are so effective in helping people with substance use problems. They will come in and say, “Hi, I’m Joel, and I’m an alcoholic,”and they don’t get condemned. They get accepted as a person and they feel supported that they want to help them overcome that problem. And so relationships are very powerfulin helping us come to a state of being a whole within ourselves, and people who live in isolation and don’t have those relationships actually have higher stressand have more health problems than people with healthy relationships.
JOHN RUSTIN: Fortunately humans are resilient creatures, God created us that way. But there are individuals who have experienced deep emotional and/or psychological wounds. Talk about the healing process and how both the physical and the spiritual aspects of our lives really impact our ability to recover from traumatic experiences.
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: The two big healing principles that really help people are truth, which helps set right our thinking patterns, and then the altruistic love being loved as a human being. People who have been abused, allpeople who’ve been abused, will have distortions or false perceptions that become part of their internal world or dialogue or the way they perceive themselvesor the world around them. So kids who’ve been abused, for instance: they will grow up feeling like they’re gross or they’re ugly or they’re damaged or they’re not worthy. They will have some distortion about that that gets internalized. And so, part of the healing process is helping them reprocess the events in such a way that are more historically and truthfully accurate, so that they recognize that they are not defined by events that happened to them. And they’re really defined by their own character development. And then experiencing that they can be loved as a person, for who they are, in spite of some ugly things that may have happened to them, also very healing.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Jennings, what does science tell us about how the brain changes with age?
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: That’s the great question. The brain is in a constant state of flux and is constantly changing. One of the things I try to teach people in my books is this concept of design law: laws upon which reality are designed to work, like the laws of health, or the laws of physics, or the law of gravity. One of those is a law of exertion. If you want something to get stronger you must exercise it, because if you don’t use it, you lose it. Well, that’s not just your muscles, that’s your brain circuitry as well. If you do want strong math ability, you’ve got to work problems, strong musical skill, you’ve got to practice your instrument. So if we are active learners, lifelong learners, engaging and expanding our databases and our understanding of reality then our neural circuits expand andour brain stayshealthier as weage. And we actually turn on genes that produce proteins in our brain that keep our brains healthy and make us more resistant to dementia as we age. But if we are not lifelong learners, if we, at a certain point in time, retire and when we retire we just put our feet up, eat and watch TV, then that causes atrophy and the brain actually declines more rapidly. So depending on the choices we make, we can keep our bodies and brains robust, or we can’t accelerate decline.
JOHN RUSTIN: With the connection between the physical and the spiritual aspects of this as our brains age and change over time, and in some cases begin to lose ability and capacity because of just growing in age, or some sort of disability or disease, how do you see this affecting the spiritual component of people’s lives? Is there a correlation?
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: One of the things I teach people is that in the Bible, what God promises all of us here now, we have the promise from Him that if we choose, we can have a new heart and right spirit. In other words, we can be renewed in the inner person that have hearts that love, hearts that trust, that are honest. We can have character of mature people who are loyal, faithful, and kind. But we’re not promised new physiology, new biology until this mortal puts on immortality in this corruption puts on incorruption. So while we can suffer with physical ailments and problems that make us slower, weaker, etc., physiologically, that doesn’t mean we cannot experience growth in our capacity to love others, trust God, and have a sense of well being and peace with who we are.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Jennings, there is a growing trend in our nation to consider a person’s value as commensurate with their ability to function and to be quote, “a productive member of society.” This has led to a rise in acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide and just the devaluing of the human person. In your opinion, where does the value of the human person derive? Is human worth simply dependent upon an individual’s capacity to perform or does it come from somewhere else?
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: This is a great question and even transcends past the question of the euthanasia question. I have so many patients that come to see me who were struggling with feelings of worthlessness, feeling like they don’t matter. That they feel like they have to do more in order to earn somebody’s love, earn a place of acceptance. I point out the question, you know, for most parents I will ask if they have children who are my patients, I’ll say, “When they put your child in your arms for the first time, did that child have any value to you, any worth?” And I say, “How much?” And of course you couldn’t put a price on it. And I say, “Well, what did the child do to earn it?” And the light bulb goes off and they realized, wait a second, they’re worth or value is not in what they do, it’s in who they are. And so the question has to be answered, and this where we have a debate in society: Who are we? Are we just the latest step in an evolutionary chain from slime to frogs to monkeys, or are we children of God? Do we have an identity in our creation or do we just randomly appear from random forces? Of course, my view is we were created in the image of an intelligent, loving God and thus our worth and value is inherent in who we are.
JOHN RUSTIN: I think that’s a great example when you speak in terms of an infant in the value that a baby that you have in your arms has just inherently, and I think there is no parent in that circumstance who would argue that that baby, despite being unable to care for themselves, has utmost importance and value to them. So I think that’s a great way to put that. So how can all of this help us to think about, interact and truly care for those among us who are less able or, even in some cases, unable to care for themselves, and to do so in a way that honors both God and the person?
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: It really does depend on our worldview. If we have the worldview of a hereafter, then we understand we are just passing through, and this life that we experience right now is very transient, as the Bible describes it, but eternity is eternity. And so our goal really about being on earth now is not to build houses, it’s not about earthly profit. It is about reaching souls to restore in them Christ’s likeness, the principles of love and to root out the fear and self-centeredness that is so destructive. And when we have the world system—which is a survival of the fittest system—that system is antithetical to the way God created life and happiness to actually work. Neurobiology shows us that when we go the fear-based, me-first system, we actually are less healthy. When we go down the altruistic system where we help and seek to use our energies to benefit others, we live longer, have less depression, less dementia, stay out of nursing homes longer, than people who don’t volunteer and help others.
JOHN RUSTIN: Interesting. Well, I know clearly the Bible says that we as humans are fearfully and wonderfully made, and I think much of what you’ve described today, the way that the brain can reprogram itself and is just always changing and adapting, is just evidence of an incredible creative designer. What words of advice and encouragement would you give to our listeners who may be in a situation that is challenging with a loved one who may be facing issues of incapacity, or with themselves, and they may feel that their life is of limited value, or that they’re facing challenges and need to hear that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, that they are a created being of a loving creator?
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: I would say exactly what you’ve already just said, and add to that: We sometimes can lose perspective and get lost in the moment, and not realize that there is a larger reality and if we can step back and allow our mind’s eye to see that larger reality that goes beyond just the moment we’re in, and the possibilities that God has for us. And we don’t know the future, but the decisions we’re making today for our personal path will have a significant impact. And if we want our lives to go in a different direction than it’s currently on, then we step back today with the wisdom that God gives us, begin making choices to move ourselves in that direction. We’re not stuck in a certain path.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Jennings, we’re just about out of time for our discussion today, but before we go I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can find out more about the books that you’ve written and other resources that you might recommend as they further explore the questions that we’ve been talking about today.
TIMOTHY JENNINGS: Our website is comandreason.com, and we have a lot of free resources there. And then the books can be found in any bookseller, just asked for the books by name or by my name.
JOHN RUSTIN: Great. And that’s again, comeandeason.com. And I want to encourage our listeners to avail themselves of this valuable information. I know our discussion today, Dr.Jennings, has peaked the interest of many of our listeners and I would just encourage them to utilize these resources.
We’re grateful for your time and your attention to these important matters, and appreciate you being with us on Family Policy Matters.
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