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Speaking In Tongues: Ancient Practice Producing Results Today

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After more than a year of COVID-19- related lockdowns, remote work, economic, physical, emotional and mental stress, many are trying various methods of building resilience and preserving mental health. Those include meditation, yoga, long walks, cooking, creativity and more.

But there is a practice with more than a millennium of history and scientifically-backed results that few have mentioned: glossolalia. 

Also known as “speaking in tongues,” glossolalia is a phenomenon of speaking in an unknown language during prayer or worship, or making word-like utterances that usually don’t have a meaning.

It can practiced during personal prayer time, in mass religious gatherings, or in small groups. According to the New Testament, glossolalia first occurred among the followers of Jesus at Pentecost, when “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” 

The Bible refers to this phenomenon as the “tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1, explaining that it is a new language given by God through the power of the Holy Spirit (God’s spirit) touching the human spirit. 

Modern science offers evidence that this ancient practice has measurable effects on brain activity and stress levels.  

A classic 1979 American Psychological Association investigated the trance like reports and found  lower rates of depression among those who practiced it.

A 2003 study found less neuroticism, and higher emotional stability as compared to non-glossolalists with a similar cultural and religious background.

A 2008 study reports that glossolalists seem to display a positive mental health status and better coping skills.

In 2011,  a University of Alabama professor studied 52 Pentecostals in New York’s Hudson Valley and found that glossolalia was associated with both a reduction in circulatory cortisol and enhancements in alpha-amylase enzyme activity—two common biomarkers of stress reduction that can be measured in saliva. 

In a 2013 Dana Foundation report, researchers posit that the practice of praying out loud with an emphasis on achieving glossolalia may help focus one’s mind away from stressful worldly things and produce a ‘‘relaxation response.’’  

After this past year, many can appreciate that there are real benefits to finding a way to lower our stress levels.  Long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, substance use problems, sleep problems, pain and bodily complaints such as muscle tension. It also increases the risk of medical problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues, weakened immune system, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. 

The impact of glossolalia may even be visible in brain imagery.  Recent research on mediation and yoga has identified the hippocampus as a brain region potentially involved in religious beliefs and spiritual practices. Hippocampal volumes appear to be affected by exposure to elevated cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, and this change in volume, in turn, has been associated with mental health outcomes, including depression and dementia in later life. More research in this area will help identify the exact neuroscience behind this spiritual/faith-based activity. 

I have found that speaking in tongues has helped me overcome anxiety. Through a combination of praying and listening to Pastor Chris Oyakhilome speaking in tongues on YouTube, I was finally able to enter the glossolaliac state during my personal prayer time.  

Since then, being able to reach this state has helped me tremendously in coping with stress.  After achieving glossolalia, I feel a sense of release and peace that is similar to the experience discussed in this 2006 study. It also helps me find answers to problems that I need to resolve.

Speaking in tongues now seems effortless. Glossolalia is not a focused activity, so I don’t feel the stress of trying to pay attention to what am doing.  Because I am not trying to edit my utterances, it may sound to a listener like babies’ blabber or someone speaking in an unknown language, but the result is deeply profound. 

Initially, I didn’t think I could speak something I didn’t understand.  I also worried that the only people who could receive this gift are those who are closer to God than me. But as I started reading more about it, I realized this is a gift available to all who believe. I started with attempting to repeat and follow pastors as they spoke in tongues, but I soon realized that I was speaking in tongues on my own. 

Incorporating glossolalia into private prayer time may prove beneficial.  Although speaking in tongues may sound like an antiquated practice, recent research suggests it is worth investigating the clinical implications of introducing faith-based activities such as glossolalia in health care settings. 

Perhaps the day will come when, glossolalia is one of the many ancient practices patients are invited to consider to maintain their mental and spiritual health. 

Soumya Padala is Assistant Professor and Director Of Craniofacial Orthodontics service line in the Department of Surgery, Division of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery at Rush Medical College. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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