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When prayers go up, our fears go down

One of the interesting yet totally obvious neuro-psychiatric observations is that as fear goes up, speech goes down. In imaging studies of neuro function, when the fear cells light up, the speech centers shut down. On the surface that makes perfect sense. When we are frightfully chased our bodies don't want us to be heard. No noise, no lunch for our predators.

We see this acted out in a variety of settings. It even shows up in our sayings. We talk about being scared spit-less, making speech difficult. Our mouths dry up and words get stuck in the phlegm. How many times have we seen speakers at the podium of the Primary or on the dais in the chapel who, from anxiety, are so frightened they couldn't spit out their words? So, when fear goes up, speech goes down.

Understanding that relationship, think how parents experience the physiological equivalent of fear as stress. So when the baby is crying and everyone is exhausted, it can decrease communication just when it is needed most. However, if the only result is silence for protection's sake then those moments without noise are wasted. When the Broca area is mute, hearing has no competition. Listening for the enemy increases survival.

But maybe the silence is not to only hide us but to help us find ourselves. Perhaps by being silent the body is ready to listen.

There is a corollary to the observation that as fear goes up speech goes down: As speech goes up fear goes down. This too is obvious but when put into the biological explanation it makes sense. We talk about the phenomena in phrases such as, "we talked him down" or "we talked her through it". This inverse relationship of speech and fear grows from the mother soothing her child with her sounds. Singing lullabies to a frightened child is the peaceful tone of the human voice to the overly-charged brain of a child. Whispering words of comfort and more importantly speaking directly to the etiology of the dread, inverts the alarm to security.

In our religious history we have a quintessential example of this triple action of: 1) fear going up, speech going down; 2) speech going up, fear going down; 3) and in the middle, the silence opens up the mind to listening. It is the foundation of our faith, this belief of the existence of dialogical revelation. In our mortal insecurities the Word speaks and we and the prophets listen and then we petition; it is dialogue.

In the words of Joseph Smith from the Palmyran woods, "I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak". In that brief moment of stillness he was able to listen.

"This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!"

"No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light …"

In the analysis of individuals' resilience, the best survivors of a crisis are those in need who can call upon others for help. In the spiritual parallel is the capacity in times of trial when the hormones of stress and the centers of fear are roaring to speak, this time on the knees in prayer. As the fear goes up, the speech goes down. When the speech is silent the ears and heart can hear, and when speech goes up the fear goes down.

So the next time stress and worries start to rage, remember to use the imposed quiet to listen. Then start the conversation with yourself, with others, and with your God. When the prayers go up, the fear goes down.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at