What’s All the Fuss About? A Perspective on the Growing Trend of Pediatric Anxiety

What’s All the Fuss About? A Perspective on the Growing Trend of Pediatric Anxiety


Anxiety Disorders are now the most prevalent psychological condition in children and adults in the United States.[1]  It is a startling statistic.  Many of those who suffer from severe anxiety have more resources and safeguards than any other generation.  It is particularly worrisome for our children who appear to be struggling to cope with the demands and privileges of our time.  By the time a child reaches eighteen, one in four will have met criteria for an anxiety disorder.[2]  It appears that these rates have climbed noticeably over the past thirty years.[3]  If this is true, the questions remain.  What are the factors that are associated with this increase? Does it coincide with changes in our generation?

As parents, the first question is whether or not we have something to do with this. Despite what we may perceive, our children are safer in many ways than ever before.  Since 1970, infant mortality has dropped significantly[4].  Since 1907, the mortality rate of young children has dropped almost fifty fold[5].  In the last forty years, the rates of violent crime against children have decreased by over 60%.[6]  Statistics from the last fifteen years indicate that of all the children that go missing every year, almost 99% are found within hours or days.[7]  Of all kidnappings, roughly four out of five are perpetrated by family members.[8]  Less than .05% (approximately 100-115 a year) is characterized as “stereotypical abductions” such as the cases of Elizabeth Smart and Adam Walsh. [9] Since 1987, the rates of serious injury and death for children who were bicycling or walking have declined by over 50%.[10]

Meanwhile, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for individuals ages 15-20[11].  Analysis indicated that between 2001-2007, increased texting volumes accounted for 16,000 additional road fatalities.[12]  Studies indicate that cell phone usage while driving may at least be as dangerous as drunk driving[13]. Over 90% of people have cell phones today.  Thirty percent had cell phones in 1999.[14] Over the last thirty years, suicide has declined or remained the same in all age groups except ages 5-24.  This group climbed to higher levels than any other period since 1900.[15]  Divorce rates have skyrocketed since 1960.[16]  Youth spend an average of six hours a day exposed to media.[17]  We are sleeping 20% less than a hundred years ago.[18]  Reports of sleep difficulties have increased significantly over the past thirty years.[19]  The percentage of pediatric obesity has more than tripled over the past four decades.[20]  Children born in 2000 have an ominous opportunity.  That is, to become the first generation since the Civil War to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.[21]  Type II diabetes increased tenfold from 1982 to 1994 in the greater Cincinnati area[22].  Attendance to religious services has dropped significantly over the past forty years[23].

Why is this all important? Because research has indicated that each of these factors is associated with a person’s level of anxiety.  There is little doubt that we have become a nation of worriers.  Our children appear to have caught on.  The question is, are we worrying about the right things?  And do we have more to fear within ourselves, and our choices, and our homes than we do from beyond?

Within each area of concern, there is also promise of better outcomes and adjustment. The science that has illuminated potential causes of anxiety has also identified clear remedies.  Treatments do exist to address anxiety when it becomes impairing.  However, factors beyond the anxiety itself play a significant role.  These factors either serve to perpetuate the anxiety our children feel, or decrease the likelihood it will occur. Five particular areas have emerged.   These are critical to a hope that our children will experience their world in a happier, less anxious way.  Even mild improvement in these areas can make a difference.  Although some overlap exists, these areas include fitness, faith/spirituality, parental adjustment, sleep, and media.

Fitness: Evidence has indicated that individuals who have diets higher in non-processed foods also have less anxiety and mood issues[24].  Exercise alone has been shown in multiple studies to decrease depressive symptoms.  Studies have indicated that involvement in athletics can decrease substance abuse problems and improve academic performance.

Faith/Spirituality:  A majority of research has indicated that those engaged in faith-related practices have less anxiety, better adjustment, and decreased negative mood[25].  Studies also indicate better physical outcomes.  These include decreased hypertension and better recovery from illness.  Evidence suggests this relationship exists for children and adults.  However, it appears particularly important that children have a strong relationship with a higher power.

Parental Adjustment: Improvements in parental health, adjustment, and relationships with others are significantly associated with better outcomes in children[26].  Improving communication patterns in the household is associated with less stress, decreased anxiety, and better compliance.  Less conflict between divorced parents is associated with better outcomes in youth.

Sleep:  Sleep is critical to repairing tissue and consolidating information, especially in children.  An appropriate amount of sleep is associated with increased attention, memory, frustration tolerance, and mood regulation.  Most sleep issues in children can be resolved without the aid of medication[27].

Media/Technology:  Certain television programs or learning videos can encourage prosocial behaviors.  However, research has indicated that limiting a youth’s screen/mobile time per day is associated with increased attention, better mood, and better decision-making[28].  This is especially true in risky situations such as driving.  Evidence also suggests that regular interaction with young children increases vocabulary faster than educational videos.

A series of five articles will examine these questions further. These are available at www.stmarys.org/articles. As parents, we are faced with a multitude of choices every day. Each has the ability to affect the lives of our children in many ways.  We wear ourselves down hoping that the choices we make will give our children the best possible chance to live a meaningful, productive life.  Fixating on things that we have little control over only serves to make it more difficult to focus on circumstances that we can change.  And we certainly want to make sure that the decisions we make are based on our own values and sound science, not just the going trend.

We at least owe this to our children and ourselves.

Just thinking…

Jim Schroeder is a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children and a father of five.

[1] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/index.shtml;  Cartwright-Hatton, McNicol & Doubleday, 2006;  Muris & Steerneman, 2001

[2] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/index.shtml

[3] Twenge, J., et al., (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. In press, Clinical Psychology Review 30, 145-154.

[4] Dept. of Health & Human Services/ Child Mortality 1935-2007

[5] Dept. of Health & Human Services/ Child Mortality 1935-2007


[6] Bureau of Justice Statistics:  Violent Victimization Rates by Age 1973-2003, 2004

[7] U.S. Department of Justice National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, 2002 (http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/documents/nismart2_overview.pdf)

[8] U.S. Department of Justice National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, 2002 (http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/documents/nismart2_overview.pdf)

[9] U.S. Department of Justice National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, 2002 (http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/documents/nismart2_overview.pdf)

[10] NHTSA data published by Safe Kids, 2003

[11] http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811169.PDF

[12] November 2010, Vol 100, No. 11 | American Journal of Public Health

[13] Redelmeier DA, Tibshirani RJ. Association between cellular-telephone calls and motor vehicle collisions.  N Engl J  Med. 1997;  336:453-458.

[14] Wilson FA, Simpson JP. Trends in Fatalities From Distracted Driving in the United States, 1999 to 2008.  American Journal of Public Health: November 2010, Vol. 100, No. 11, pp. 2213-2219

[15] http://www.nber.org/papers/w8556

[16] Monthly Vital Statistics Reports; http://cdclv.unlv.edu/healthnv/family.html

[17] Roberts et al., Media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds., Family Foundation 2005

[18] Lauderdale et al. Objectively Measured Sleep Characteristics among Early-Middle-Aged Adults: The CARDIA Study Am. J. Epidemiol. (1 July 2006) 164(1): 5-16

[19] Mindell JA, Owens J. A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep: Diagnosis and Management of Sleep Problems. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2003.

[20] Centers for Disease Control:  http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm

[21] http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm/ http://suffolkpartnership.com/programs/healthy-youth/childhood-obesity.html

[22] Pinhas-Hamiel O, Dolan L, Daniels S, et al. “Increased Incidence of Non-Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus Among Adolescents.” The Journal of Pediatrics 1996, vol.128, pp. 608-615.

[23]Natalie Angier, “The Bush Years; Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” New York Times, 2001-JAN-14, at: http://ffrf.org/ / http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_rate.htm

[24] Walsh, R. (2011, January 17). Lifestyle and Mental Health. American Psychologist. Advance

online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021769

[25] Koenig, H. G., McCullough, M. E., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Handbook of religion and health. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

[26] Brooks, R., Goldstein, S. (2001).  Raising Resilient Children.  New York, NY:  McGraw-Hill.

[27] Mindell JA, Owens J. A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep: Diagnosis and Management of Sleep Problems. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2003

[28] http://www2.aap.org/healthtopics/mediause.cfm

What’s All the Fuss About, Part I:  Media & Technology

The last fifteen years have seen a remarkable change. Technology has become such a part of our daily lives.  This contrasts with the limited options for personal communication during the previous few thousand years.  The telephone was invented in 1875.  The fax machine was introduced shortly thereafter.  Before these inventions, the options for contacting someone included writing a letter, telegraph, or seeing the person face to face.  Today, things are dramatically different.  Types of rapid communication include, but are not limited to, talking by cell phone, texting, instant messaging, emailing, tweeting, blogging, Skyping, and social networking.  The global mobile industry was expected to exceed $1.3 trillion dollars in 2011.  In a similar fashion, video games have exploded in popularity across the life span.  In September 1971, the Galaxy Game was installed at a student union at Stanford University. The first coin-operated video game was based on Spacewar!, an early digital computer game. Three decades later, the gaming market is expected to gross $48.9 billion dollars in one year.  Games have gone from a few dots on the screen to virtual, interactive worlds. There is a significant blurring between reality and fiction.  Regardless of your perspective, it is amazing how fast technology has changed.

The question remains. Are we as humans prepared for these changes?  Even more importantly, are our children prepared?  While the manufacturers have been brilliant in their marketing, it is not clear that this seismic shift represents a positive trend for our youth.  Studies in the last five to ten years indicate that children spend an average of six hours per day exposed to media.  This includes internet, cell phone usage, social networking, television, video games, music, and other outlets.  In 2010, it was estimated that 83% of 17-year-olds had a cell phone.  Fifty-eight percent of 12-year-olds owned one, compared to 18% in 2004.  Despite this, studies have generally indicated that higher rates of media exposure are associated with increased anxiety and health issues.  Research has indicated that the more children watch television, the more likely they will have difficulties with the following: obesity, sleep, limited consumption of produce, reduced compliance at home/school, poor academic performance, decreased creative play, increased aggression, and negative mood.

Parents often cite worries about safety as a justification for the use of mobile devices for children. However, the dangers of drunk driving and using a cell phone in a car appear to be similar.  This raises serious questions about whether this safety device may in fact be causing more harm than it is preventing.  It has been well-known that teenagers are years from fully developing their decision-making skills.  They simply struggle to know when to use their phones and when not to.  70% of adults admit to using their cell phones while driving.  We shouldn’t be surprised that youth are particularly tempted to do so.

But the biggest question may be this: Our youth are spending massive amounts of time engaged in alternate forms of leisure and communication.  Is there a price to pay for losing the art of a face to face conversation?  Researchers have begun to think so.  Many people will admit that they have become a slave to the rapid pace that their technology allows while their personal lives seem to suffer.  Ask a high school student today what it would be like if they didn’t have a cell phone.  The response will likely be a somewhat quizzical, confused look as if you were asking them to be silent.  Ironically, this in itself may be the biggest thing of all our kids are losing – the right to be quiet and alone with their thoughts.  Silence allows for what is termed the “eureka,” or “a ha!” scenario.  For thousands of years, silence has perhaps been one of the most important elements in fostering the most inventive and creative minds of our time.  It also provides us with daily opportunities for renewal and reflection.  But we must design our lives to make it possible.

For a second (or maybe a few), put aside all the research. Ask yourself this:  Do I feel that my children benefit from the time they spend tuned into their media devices?  Will the insatiable stream of information create a brighter mind, greater creativity, happier outlooks, deeper relationships, and more meaningful ventures?  Or could it just be largely filling space?  Even worse, could it be harming them in the process? If your gut says that the latter might be true, then the question we need to ask ourselves as parents is:  How assertive am I in fighting the battles and rallying the troops (i.e., other parents) to go counterculture, and insist that marketing must not dictate the way we will lead our lives?  Innovation and technology can be a great thing. It is just that too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.  In the process, our children may be losing confidence in themselves, and relying too much on their “friend” attached to their side.

The results might be astounding. By the time your children reach adulthood, they might even thank you for it.

What’s All the Fuss About, Part II:  Sleep

We live in a world today that never stops. We can shop for designer jeans at 2 A.M.  We can catch the latest news twenty-four hours a day.  Ingredients for brownies are available at all hours.  No longer is there a time when things shut off for good.  It hasn’t always been this way.  Less than three decades ago, most networks would end with a night full of fuzz.  Other than a few quick marts and gas stations, shopping was reserved for the daytime.  This seems like eons ago.  But, something else has seemed to change.  Studies have indicated that over the last hundred years, we are sleeping 20% less.  Although it is unclear whether this is an evolutionary trend or a casualty of the current times, it appears that our sleep is decreasing.  Researchers have begun to wonder whether our well-being is being compromised along the way.

What is clear is that we depend on sleep more than we will ever know. Many hormones that promote daily bodily functions, such as growth and appetite, are only secreted during sleep.  Processes as broad as consolidating information from the day or repairing our tissue occur during sleep.  Changes in sleep patterns have been associated with negative trends in muscle growth.  Appetite suppression or stimulation can occur with sleep changes, which can decrease our metabolism.  Studies have indicated that sleep alone can affect the success of a diet.  Pregnant woman who more naturally follow the seasonal cycle (for sleep) are more likely to have infants who sleep better.  Sleep has been shown to have direct connections to a person’s attention, mood, memory, and other daily functions. Tired drivers can act a lot like drunk drivers. Children who are chronically sleep-deprived look very similar to those with ADHD.  Adolescents with decreased sleep are more likely to be obese and show signs of diabetes.

The sinister findings seem to be growing. But our children’s sleep seems to be shrinking.  The last thirty years have seen a significant increase in sleep problems among youth.  The average 8-year-old should be sleeping ten to eleven hours a day.  Research suggests that most are only getting 9.5 hours or less.  Sleep is slated to take up half of a 4-year-old’s day.  Many children this age are missing out on approximately thirty to sixty minutes of sleep.  This means that every year they are missing out on an average of more than 180 hours.  One of the most robust findings with youth is that less sleep leads to more anxiety, and more anxiety leads to less sleep.  One of the common sources of anxiety that children report is what they watch on TV, which leads to another concerning trend.  Many current studies estimate that half, or more, of children have a television in their bedroom; unfortunately, having a TV in the bedroom is associated with increased risk for sleep problems, obesity, and lower test scores.  Many theories abound, but one thing is clear:  Once a TV is placed in a child’s room, parents are reluctant to remove it.  Often the suggestion that it be removed even from a preschooler’s room is accompanied by a parent’s look of despair that chaos will ensue once this happens.

The problem is simple. We, as parents, are not allowed to choose what is most necessary for our children’s minds and bodies to function well.  Many parents will profess that they have done just fine on a life with minimal sleep.  I would like to challenge them to think about what their health, mood, attention, and anxiety might have been if they had been taught how to sleep well as a young child.  Don’t we as parents want to teach our children the healthiest habits?  Those which will not only sustain them, but help them flourish throughout their lives? If sleep turns out to be as important as it appears to be, it may be that one of the most vital things we teach our children to do is, well, not do anything at all.  Learning to disconnect, to turn it off, to call it a night, and to appreciate the darkness and the silence starts at infancy. Every year that goes by, the habits are harder to break.  So why wait any longer?  The research is clear.  Most children, except those with significant developmental concerns, do respond to behavioral treatments without the need for medication.

It can start simply. Is there a calming routine?  Is the bedroom designed for sleep or for entertainment? Is TV restricted before bedtime? Do dietary issues (caffeine, excessive sugars) contribute to difficulties falling asleep?  Are medical problems, including excessive anxiety, restricting sleep? More tips are provided for free at the following link:  http://www.stmarys.org/articles

The advice is clear. But it all may have to start with an apology that goes something like this. “I am sorry that we are going to have to take the TV and video games out of your room, but we realize now that it is not good for your sleep.  And good sleep is too important for your mind and body.”  Even great parents make mistakes.

What’s All the Fuss About, Part III:  Parental Adjustment

Most people enter into serious relationships with great expectations. We know there will be challenges.  But when we truly invest and commit to another human being, a part of us becomes a hopeless romantic.  We believe the relationship will be able to overcome the obstacles that exist in ourselves and the barriers that exist between each other.  Whether it is pheromones, faith, or just idealism, most of us feel in some way that we will defy the odds steeped against us.  By now, we all know that over half of marriages end in divorce, and the more you get married, the more likely it will end again.  We know that divorce is costly.  This goes way beyond the 1.8 billion dollars spent every year in the United States to end it for good.  We have heard that divorce has skyrocketed since the 1950’s.  However, in the last ten years the rate has stabilized and dropped well below the peak that occurred in the late 1970’s.  We are encouraged by this statistic.  Then we learn that the rate of unmarried households (including those with children) has gradually climbed since the divorce rate peaked.  It has reached an all-time high in the last few years. Many of these relationships will also dissolve in disappointment.  This is bad enough.  But then we hear the experts telling us that divorce and relational satisfaction in parents is strongly correlated with anxiety in children even when conflict is minimal.  It seems that we know all of this too well.

Frankly, it is depressing. None of us committed to each other so that our children, health, and finances would suffer.  We did not go into things thinking that it would be fun if we could invest everything only to see it fall apart.  We don’t set ourselves, and certainly not our children, up for failure – at least not on purpose.

For over forty years, John Gottman has been doing research on marriages. He and his colleagues have tried to understand what makes them work and what doesn’t.  He has uncovered some clear, replicable trends that predict divorce.  Many of them are easily discernible by just observing a couple during a few minutes of interaction.  He found that negative patterns of communication, such as repeated criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness, significantly increased the rates of conflict, unhappiness, and divorce.  In contrast, true forgiveness between spouses had little to do with the elegance of the repair attempt.  Rather, it had everything to do with what kind of friend you were to your spouse.  Even for those who divorce, the way you are towards your ex will have a lot to do with how your children carry on.  Again, it seems like we know this, right?

So why do the statistics continue to look so grim? Maybe communication is just a proxy for something deeper.  Maybe knowledge does not always equal power.  Maybe it is really about respect and empathy, both for us and others.  If we do not treat our own bodies and minds with respect, then how can we expect our spouse to do the same?  If we do not respect our significant other, then how can we expect our children to show the respect that we so desire?  And if our children did not witness this at a young age, then how can we expect them to carry on lovingly when they become the parent and a spouse one day?

Years ago, I was asked by a close companion, “Could you be a friend to yourself?” It remains one of the most difficult questions ever posed to me.  But it made me think. If I despised and hated who I was, one thing was sure.  I certainly couldn’t love and respect another human being the way that they deserved. If I thought I was worthless, and I was troubled at what I saw in the mirror, it certainly would make it difficult to give good will to others. It seemed a rather impossible feat, unless I began to change some of the things that held me back in the first place. In reality, the anger I felt about who I was would only find itself displaced on someone else.  That person would likely be my spouse.

It seems that this is what the marriage researchers are trying to tell us. We have to be able to take care of ourselves and our marriage.  Then we can take care of our children.  We can’t expect our children to feel less anxious, be more agreeable, and embrace good health habits if we aren’t doing the same.  Look at it this way.  None of us would ever expect our children to drive a car, handle bills, or prepare dinner if we couldn’t do it.  Then why would we expect our kids to regulate their emotions, manage conflict, and get along with others if we weren’t doing the same?

Take a courageous step. Before you schedule your kids in for an appointment, ask yourself one thing.  Do I and/or my significant other need help, too?  It is never too late to face our own fears so that we can have a positive impact on those that we love.  Now that is something to feel good about.

What’s All the Fuss About, Part IV:  Fitness

It has long been known that both chronic, stressful conditions and traumatic episodes can have a negative effect on a person’s health. Individuals with significant psychiatric problems have shorter life expectancies than the general population. They also have more medical difficulties.  The “flip side” also seems true.  A growing body of evidence suggests that irrespective of any other factors, eating more non-processed foods alone means that you are more likely to feel anxious and depressed.  This is a scary fact given that over 60% of the U.S. population meets criteria for being overweight. This seems to pertain to children as well.  Using the most updated Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY) statistic, pediatric neuropsychiatric disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc…) had a larger burden on society than any other medical condition in children. This statistic looks at variables such as premature mortality and disability.  The same is true for adults. Given that anxiety is the most common psychological complaint in children and adolescents, the health costs for each child and society are likely more than we can fathom.

It is important to note that anxiety itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It is generally understood that anxiety as it relates to performance typically functions on an upside-down, U-shaped curve.  When anxiety is very low or non-existent, there may be limited motivation and/or focused attention to do well.  When anxiety is too high, it may serve to overwhelm a person, thus resulting in poor performance.  The best outcomes usually occur when anxiety is moderate.  The person is both “keyed in” to what they are doing and has a good degree of anticipation.  Anxiety is a great thing when it mobilizes.  It is the worst thing when it immobilizes.

There seems to be a problem, though. When it comes to our children’s health, we have been lulled to sleep.  We can certainly blame marketing for some of this.  A recent New York Times article lamented the fact that McDonald’s is now advertising its new healthy breakfast options.  These options are meant to lure families into feeling that they are making a good decision by snagging oatmeal at the drive thru.  The problem is there is no fine print to let them know the real truth in advertising.  McDonald’s oatmeal contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only ten fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin. (Even without the brown sugar it has more calories than a McDonald’s hamburger).  It does quite a number on raw oats, which remains one of the healthiest foods we can eat.

As parents, we have an obligation to make informed decisions. Rates of overweight children have more than tripled in the past four decades.  Children born in the last ten years have a 35% chance of developing diabetes.  Type II diabetes was once called adult-onset diabetes because it was so rare in children.  Now it accounts for 90-95% of all diabetes cases.  There was a tenfold increase in Type II diabetes from the early 80’s to the mid 90’s in the greater Cincinnati area.  Rates have continued to grow at a striking pace.  A number of studies have linked obesity in children to greater rates of anxiety and low self-esteem.  The bad news keeps coming.

Part of the American dream is that our children will have a better life than we did. As it stands now, our children may die earlier, be more anxious, deal with skyrocketing medical costs, and struggle more with preventable illnesses than we ever will.   Much of this does not have to be.  If there ever was something to be anxious about, or for that matter outraged over, our children’s health would be a good place to start.  Every day in my office I feel heartbroken.   Children walk through my door whose poor health has already created a chronic state of fatigue and indifference.  They can’t understand why they don’t feel happy, as they spend much of their day eating the wrong foods and being planted on the couch.

It is a complex problem with a few simple solutions. The first is this:  we as parents have to get excited about being healthy ourselves.  Then, we must pass this along to our children.  There are many reasons we eat more than we need to.  In the end, though, it is often that we are struggling to fill that time with something more meaningful and/or less painful.  If we start young, our children can learn the basics (e.g., foods that are grown are generally better than those that are made).  They can appreciate why limits are set and why different types of foods should be consumed.  They can be taught to eat more than chicken nuggets.  Even preschoolers can develop quite an understanding of important dietary principles.

Becoming healthier is only an inconvenience when there is no meaning behind it. When there is meaning, whether that be for your child or to truly be free to pursue your mission in life, food loses control.  You gain even more than imagined in the process.  Only the fast food joints end up losing out.

What’s All the Fuss About, Part V: Faith

We live in a spiritual world. From the earliest records available, we have been people shrouded in faith, religion, and belief.  Almost every modern institution has a spiritual background or underpinning in some fashion.  This is represented through statues, creeds, or principalities.  Ninety percent of the world’s people engage in spiritual or religious practices.  Polls indicate that 95% of Americans believe in God.  Over three out of four people profess to base their approach to life on their faith.  Over 90% pray at least occasionally.  Eighty percent feel that religion helps strengthen family bonds.  We are a nation, and for that matter a world, of religious beliefs.

At the same time, polls suggest that trends are changing. Estimates of those actually attending church between 1965 and 1994 indicated a drop of over 60% in attendance to a religious service the previous weekend. In our local Catholic diocese, the average attendance to Sunday Mass has gradually fallen by over 5% in the last 10 years.  It is a trend mirrored across much of the country.

For those of us who consider religion and spirituality a critical part of our lives, and it appears that is most of us, this is a concerning trend. But are we losing more than faith?  There is another body of literature to consider.  A review of over 700 studies prior to 2001 was done.  A large majority of these studies indicated a significant positive association between faith and mental health.  Those engaged in religious practices generally had better relationships, less conflict, and lower rates of anxiety and depression.  Greater overall well-being was noted. Suicide rates were lower. Positive correlations generalized to other health variables.  Believing in a higher power was generally associated with decreased hypertension, better recovery from illness, and reduction of risk factors associated with premature mortality. In one of the most astounding studies to date, individuals who attended weekly religious services were found to live seven years longer than those who didn’t.  This was after factors such as baseline health and lifestyle were taken into account. Multiple studies have even shown better rates of improvement for hospital patients being prayed for by strangers, even when the patients were unaware that this was occurring. The positive effects seem to generalize to children as well.  Anxiety and maladjustment was generally lower in children engaged in religious practices; however, findings suggest one important factor in improving psychological health.  It was the strength of the child’s relationship with a higher power.

So it makes you wonder. If the decreasing trends in religious practices are real, is it only our souls and our pews that are suffering?  Studies have suggested a parallel beyond questions that only faith can answer.  The model of a faithful believer is often synonymous with the actions of a resilient person.  Messages of discipline, and of perseverance, and of optimism, and of meaning, even in the midst of difficult suffering, seem strangely familiar to the values of many professions.   These include psychologists, pastors, physician, or parents.  In the end, we all have the capacity to be healers, just as our religious texts, medical journals, and parenting books profess.  We all have the capacity to be healed if we embrace the values that faith teaches.

It brings up an interesting idea. We teach our kids that a good diet, regular exercise, and avoidance of negative habits like smoking or drinking are critical to well-being.  Wouldn’t we want them to know that faith apparently can be too? Especially if many of us believe that our lives should be built upon it.  In her book, Unprotected, Dr. Miriam Grossman sends a message to the psychological community, “God is Good for You”.   It seems that many others in the professional world agree.

Our children deserve the best information that we have to offer, even if it means sitting through a boring church service. It could pay dividends later in ways they would have never guessed. In the end, they may find eternity AND health.  Not a bad combination.

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