The Key of Rest
“Teens” and “rest” don’t usually go together, do they? The teen years are busy years, restless years, hectic years. There’s so much to do and so many opportunities that open up for sports, socializing, travel, work, and so on.
However, such a restless, nonstop lifestyle and culture is one of the main causes of the soaring anxiety levels among teens. The chronic stress and internal inflammation that result are extremely damaging to the bodies and minds of our teens. One of the best things we can do for them, therefore, is to help them rest. This isn’t going to be easy, but it’s absolutely essential. This rest can be encouraged in three main areas: sleep, Sabbath, and relaxation.
Here, I’d like to explain some of the science behind these practices in order to help you understand the connections between rest and health, and increase your motivation to direct and support your teens in these areas.
Although teens should ideally get about nine hours of sleep a night, most are getting only six to seven hours. Chronic sleep deprivation (less than six hours of sleep a night over a week) has serious physical, mental, emotional, moral, and spiritual consequences.1
For example, lack of sleep causes damaging changes to more than seven hundred genes. It even shows signs of causing brain tissue loss. It increases hunger, portion size, and preference for high-calorie, high-carb foods, with the resulting risk of obesity. It disrupts the brain’s flow of epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, chemicals closely associated with mood and behavior. Thus, people with insomnia are ten times as likely to develop depression and seventeen times as likely to have significant anxiety. As Charlie Hoehn put it in Play It Away, “Eight hours of sleep is a miracle pill.”2 One of the reasons is that sleep flushes dangerous proteins from our brains, improving mental health, consolidating memories, and improving problem-solving abilities. That means the better we sleep, the better we learn.
Adults play a vital role in helping teenagers through anxiety and depression, and this book gives spiritual encouragement and practical direction for parents and other adults who want to help but don’t know what to do. A companion volume to Murray’s Why Am I Feeling Like This?, written for teenagers.
No teen thrives spiritually when sleep-deprived. They are too tired to pray and read the Bible with any profit. Lack of sleep changes their outlook and makes them gloomy and pessimistic. Faith is harder, unbelief is easier, and willpower is weakened in the face of temptation.
If you do only one thing, ensure that your teens' phones (and other digital technology) are removed from their bedroom one hour before sleep time and charged overnight in the kitchen or living room.
I know there’s a lot of disagreement about whether the Sabbath law still applies under the new covenant. Whether you believe this is an abiding law or not, I’m sure we can all agree on the divine benevolence behind the Sabbath principle and the corresponding human benefits. A lot of our resistance to establishing a weekly rest day is the result of viewing it entirely as a matter of law. Instead, I want you to think about it as a gift of God. That was Jesus’s emphasis. The Sabbath was made for humanity, he insisted (Mark 2:27).
This was quite revolutionary in Jesus’s day because the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into a day of human performance that was given to God in expectation of a reward. Jesus said no, it’s a day that God gives to humanity as a gift following six days of hard work. Jesus reframed it not so much as an obligation but as an opportunity.
Our model will be far more influential than our words.
It’s a day where we can turn aside from all our work and rest with a good conscience. It’s like God commanding that we eat chocolate to reduce our weight. Our response should be “Thank you!” rather than “No thanks!”
Try to reframe the Sabbath for yourselves and your teens as a gift of God, something he designed for our benefit in an unfallen world and that we need now more than ever in our fallen world. Viewed in that way, it’s not something we have to do, but something we get to do.
Even secular corporations, institutions, and organizations like Sabbath Manifesto, are increasingly recognizing the benefits of a weekly rest day.3 Science is finding more and more evidence of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits that flow from this practice. Some general guidelines for starting this in your family are:
- Approach the Sabbath with joy and positivity.
- Center it around worship, going to church, learning about God, and fellowshiping with God’s people.
- Don’t overpack the day. It shouldn’t be another hectic day of rushing from church activity to church activity.
- Make it a tech-free day. Give everyone’s mind a break, even for part of it.
- Enjoy the creation, as God did on the first Sabbath. Feast your senses on all of God’s works.
Breathing and relaxation techniques to relax the body and the mind [can be helpful.] Don’t worry: this can be done without ending up as a Buddhist! Perhaps find good books or YouTube videos that can guide you. I recommend that teens do these exercises first thing in the morning and last thing at night as well as times during the day when anxiety attacks or depression overwhelms. That way, we do both prevention and intervention. It’s like showering every day but also using extra soap if we get especially dirty and sweaty from some activity.
Why not work alongside your teen in this? You could probably benefit from it too. Breathe together with him or her before panic attacks and when it attacks. If we want our teens to improve their mental and emotional health through improved sleep, receiving a weekly rest day, and practicing relaxation habits, we will need to practice this ourselves. It’s not going to work if we ask them to do what we won’t do. Our model will be far more influential than our words.
- See chapter 3 in David Murray, Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017).
- Charlie Hoehn, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety (CharlieHoehn.com, February 7, 2014), 1081–1089, Kindle.
- See Sabbath Manifesto, http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/. See also Emily McFarlan Miller, “The Science of Sabbath: How People Are Rediscovering Rest—and Claiming Its Benefits,” Religion News Service, January 25, 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/01/25/the-science-of-sabbath-how -people-are-rediscovering-rest-and-claiming-its-benefits/.
This article is adapted from Why Is My Teenager Feeling Like This?: A Guide for Helping Teens through Anxiety and Depression by David Murray.
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