17 April, 2024

The Chemistry of Mental Health

Features, Sponsored Content

by | 1 January, 2024 | 2 comments

By Dr. Wes Beavis 

The church has shown a growing openness to conversations about mental health. I have been privileged to speak on the subject “Faith and Mental Health” at many Restoration Movement churches across the United States. Recently, Clayton Hentzel of The Crossing in Quincy, Illinois, developed a teaching series called “Weeds in My Garden” that has become a tremendous resource to Restoration Movement churches across the nation. It is encouraging to see churches tackle the subject of mental health.  

But I am aware of an underlying concern among believers that Christian theology and doctrine are being replaced by psychology. I welcome this concern.  

When I was training to become a clinical psychologist, I once asked my professor, “How would you describe the relationship between the two worlds of psychology and Christianity?” My professor, a dedicated Christian himself, replied, “Not without contention!” He explained to me how some high-profile ministry leaders were skeptical and critical of the field of psychology.  

Framed by Scripture 

At first, I was disheartened to hear this. But it stimulated some soul-searching. Could there be a legitimate basis for this skepticism? My answer is yes. For starters, the psychology profession was established to provide an alternative to a religious perspective for explaining human behaviors and mental and emotional conditions. It’s hard not to be skeptical when a founding father of modern psychology, Austrian-born Sigmund Freud, considered religion to be unsophisticated and infantile. He saw religion as humanity’s attempt to provide meaning and answers for the harsh realities of life. Freud purported that, in the age of science and human reason, religion was no longer necessary and needed to be discarded. Freud viewed the worlds of psychology and theology as mutually exclusive. 

Fortunately, one of Freud’s students, Carl Jung, departed from many of Freud’s views. Jung made an equal contribution to the growing field of psychology and saw no need to divorce psychology from Christianity. Jung wrote, “We must read the Bible or we shall not understand psychology. Our psychology, whole lives, our language and imagery are built upon the Bible.” Jung integrated psychology and Christianity, while Freud was completely atheistic in the development of his psychological theories.  

To this day, the field of psychology is presided over by atheists, agnostics, and what I would call integrationists—those who integrate faith and psychology in a way that keeps the integrity and relevance of both theology and psychology. As a licensed clinical psychologist and avowed integrationist, I am committed to the preeminence of God’s Word as revealed in the Bible. What psychological research may reveal is always subservient to the claims of God’s Word.  

Rooted in Scripture 

A plethora of psychological principles are contained in God’s Word. For example, in Romans 12:2, God admonishes us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This is a basic tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy—the changing of one’s experience by changing one’s view.  

So, in writing on the subject of the chemistry of mental health,” the first claim I make is that Christianity and psychology are heterogeneous elements that can coexist in a mutually beneficial way, but they will always be differentiated. In other words, when you add some scientific discovery to the Christian experience, you are not creating an updated version of Christianity. (Scientology has already done that.) In matters pertaining to salvation, Christianity is not benefitted by psychology. But when it comes to understanding how the brain and body work when they are stressed, fearful, discouraged, or anxious, then psychological research has much to offer.  

When a Christian is overcome with fear, it is helpful to know what is happening in their brain and body in that moment. Without delving too deeply into the weeds of neuropsychology, let me explain what happens. Fear releases two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream. These hormones jolt our muscles into action and enable us to intently focus on the alarming issue at hand. This is important when we face “life-threatening” situations. Adrenaline and cortisol help us respond in a way that increases our likelihood of survival. That’s the way God made us.  

However, science also has revealed that too much cortisol running though our system leads to premature aging. Consider the “before and after” photos of the presidents of the United States, especially Abraham Lincoln. A few years in the stressful role of commander in chief seems to rapidly increase the signs of aging. So, when God says to us, “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13), it’s good to know that God is protecting us from premature aging by trusting in him. God put cortisol in our system to be utilized only occasionally. The world, especially the news media, capitalizes on our natural fear response to gain and maintain our attention. Do we require this scientific discovery about adrenaline and cortisol to motivate us to trust in God? No, but it certainly increases our understanding of the benefits of trusting in him.   

Another area where scientific discovery has given Christians a greater appreciation for God’s ways is the domain of sexual intimacy. God mandated that man and woman engage in sexual intercourse only within the context of a lifelong commitment of marriage. God’s sequence is that a man and woman build a relationship together sufficient to make a lifelong commitment to each other. Once that commitment is made, then the sex begins.  

The sexual revolution reversed God’s sequence. Contemporary sexual culture puts sex first and building a relationship second. Sometimes building a relationship never happens.  

Science discovered that a chemical called oxytocin is released in the brain when couples engage in sexual intercourse. Oxytocin is called the “bonding chemical” because it stimulates the formation of deep emotional connection between individuals (more so in females than males).  

Trying to separate the sex from the bonding is a struggle. That’s why secular culture has created a cascade of articles filled with advice on how to have sex without becoming attached to the other person. A quick internet search reveals articles titled “How to Have Sex without Falling in Love,” “How to Not Get Feelings for Someone You Are Sleeping With,” and so on. All of these articles attempt to circumnavigate natural human emotional connection.  

Neurologically speaking, sexual intercourse bonds individuals together. That’s why God intended for sex to be within the structure of marriage. Having sex without lifelong commitment requires participants to hot-wire their brain to physically engage in sex without creating emotional connection. It’s no wonder that after years of reducing sex to a mere recreational activity, people struggle to connect emotionally once they are married. They have spent years training their brain to separate sex from the bonding element.  

Is it necessary for a person to have knowledge of oxytocin in order to stay aligned with God’s will and avoid fornication? No, but this scientific discovery does help us understand why God would establish a sequence to sexual intimacy. God wants us to avoid the pain of sexual dysfunction that can arise from getting the sequence backwards.  

In my counseling practice, I regularly hear couples lament that they did not wait until they were married before having sex. Some couples went ahead and got married because they were emotionally connected through sexual intimacy, and they overrode warning signs that their personalities and family cultures were not good matches. Had they not bonded, they would have been more likely to realize they were not well matched for a lifelong partnership.  

Science reveals that it’s best for one’s mental health to align with God’s sequence . . . because oxytocin is a powerful force that backfires on us when we try to hot-wire our brain to avoid emotional bonding. Neurological science helps us understand that God doesn’t want to kill our fun; rather, God wants us to avoid the pain incurred by getting things out of divine sequence. 

God declares that he created us, with reverence and awe, to live life fully and abundantly . . . not just for our own satisfaction but also to minister to the needs of others. When we live out his purpose for our lives, a constellation of hormones and brain chemicals are released within us that contribute greatly to our mental health.  

Dr. Wes Beavis is a clinical psychologist specializing in the mental health of ministry leaders. 

2 Comments

  1. Diane Mitchell

    God created us down to the last molecule. If something went wrong and a person developed cancer, you would not shame and blame them when they got treatment. The same thing goes for treatment of brain issues, be they physical or mental. The shame and blame must stop. Shame and blame is not loving others as we love ourselves.

  2. jim e montgomery

    R 12:2 ought to be of interest to many in the NT Text, beyond A 2:47. Inquiring of others what the verse means and how to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind’, usually is met with a blank stare and mumbling. Key words in the verse, as known from a Greek-English lexicon, can give this: ‘completely and continually changing one’s(my) character and conduct into another form under God’s(your) Power by aligning with God’s(your) Mind one’s(my) Morals, Spiritual Vision, and Thinking.’ Now, that ought be easily understood as a useful suggestion. Glom onto that this intro: I devote myself to … and, one has a nice awaking thought for each day; going in loaded with Morals, Spiritual Vision, and Thinking correctly aligned and useful and employable at a moments notice … or, not. A choice!

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Features

Follow Us