4 Weapons in the Fight for Mental Health

overcoming-2127669_1920I’ve always been a much more melancholy person. Introspective, introverted, deep thinking – even overthinking. However, for most of my life I was also a very positive person. I always remember having the attitude that things would work out in the end.

This changed in the last few years. A darkness I had never known appeared, and wouldn’t go away. I had long seasons of sadness, but also bleak tiredness. The things I normally loved gave me no joy or satisfaction. It was like a thirst that was unquenchable, and nothing would satisfy. Sure enough, I was diagnosed with “moderately severe” depression.

For a time I had no idea what was going on. How could I? People in our world are only just learning about what depression is and why some struggle with crippling anxiety.

Like I do whenever I am faced with something I don’t understand or troubles me, I researched. I began devouring information and wisdom from those more experienced than me when it came to mental and emotional health. Books, counselors, psychologists, older friends, whatever or whoever it took. I was dead set on figuring this stuff out and conquering it.

Connection

Psychologist Henry Cloud’s book “Changes That Heal” had many life-changing insights for me, including the fact that often our depression or anxiety is tied to loneliness, and that feelings like loneliness are meant to move us to connect with others.

It was a huge insight: I was disconnected. It made perfect sense – I had made two significant moves far away from family, friends, and familiarity in as many years. As a selectively sociable introvert who struggles to develop and connect with others, moving away from my safe people took a big toll on me, and it was going to require some work to get healthy.

Combine that with some not-so-good relational choices, like trying to connect romantically to someone before I was part of a solid social support network, and that was bad news for my psyche. Actually, trying to get close to someone romantically heightened my anxiety and depressive symptoms. I found out later that it was because the relationship highlighted my loneliness instead of fixing it. One person is not meant to fill the void of a network of people.

Meaningful Challenge

Besides connection, there was a need for meaningful challenge in my life. I needed relational challenge – going through the friction of new connections for the sake of social fulfillment. But I also needed to take baby steps in ensuring I was putting my hands to work and doing meaningful things at work and in life.

For example, while my anxiety and loneliness made me want to stay inside on days when I had some challenging work days ahead, that would have hurt me more than helped me. This doesn’t mean a day off was always a bad idea, but when you’re so isolated and sluggish, propagating that isolation and sluggishness is probably a bad idea. Sometimes the scary or hard things are just what you need to overcome your fear or whatever is holding you down. I think this is the case for a lot of people with crippling anxiety or depression. You need to get out there, socialize, and do meaningful and challenging things.

Yes, it was hard – but that’s part of the point. Stress is not a bad thing, not when it is in moderate levels. In fact, the same research that says too much stress is bad for you shows us that not enough stress has similar effects. Just like muscles that atrophy when not used, our ability to withstand even mundane pressures in our lives decreases when we are not experiencing regular healthy stress to keep us strong. That was an important part of my recovery and an important part of staying healthy and mentally strong.

Paradigm Shifts

Finally, I actively worked on my thought patterns. I had grown into a pattern of worry that spiraled out into despair. I was regularly worrying about how life might end up and that it really wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. I had to learn to fight that negativity and hopelessness and start to get excited about how life “could be”.

Our thoughts can naturally build on each other. Anxiety easily escalates. I needed to learn how to manage my thinking or even stop it before I could deal with deeper issues and causes. Positivity can work the same way, fortunately. I learned to build new, positive thought patterns to keep out of needless and fruitless valleys of depressive thinking.

For me, part of the “get excited” thinking had to be about building meaningful relationships. So I thought about how fun they could be, and meaningful, and how even tough conflict could yield beautiful trust and connection. I took baby steps that would apply stress on my life as I stepped out to be vulnerable with people. It was scary – and beautiful, and healing, all in one.

There was a season that medication was incredibly helpful. I had gotten to such a low point that it was just unrealistic that my body and mind would heal on their own, especially since I was barely sleeping. I needed some stability, something to get me at normal levels so that I could function enough to 1) survive and 2) deal with the underlying things that were leading to being depressed and anxious.

So while I’m always a fan of keeping on the natural side of things when makes sense, I would say there are definitely seasons where medication is a very helpful option when dealing with near-crippling mental health issues. I am also very open to the fact that some of us may just have simple brain chemistry issues (or others) that could lead to us always requiring medication. I would say do your best to avoid it, but don’t be afraid to use it if you think it wise and necessary after talking with wise people including your doctor.

Thus, connection to others, challenging myself in important areas of life, and taking good care of my mind and body (with brief aid of medication) helped me out of my mental health issues.

A Lense and an Anchor

Some of you from Christian backgrounds might now be asking: what role did your faith play? Why is it not on this important list?

Well, my faith did play a significant role in my recovery. But it was a more indirect or passive one.

Simply, my faith was both an anchor in my times of despair and a lense through which to see hope in my suffering. It was incredibly helpful to know that my suffering had purpose, and that all was never lost, even when it felt like it.

It was also so meaningful to know that even Christ suffered purposefully, and that the Bible has always promised difficulty and suffering in this world. Thus there was purpose, and I knew that God, who had suffered as the man Jesus Christ, knew something of my pain and empathized with me. I still had to hold on tight and be honest even in my bitterness towards God.

I suppose my faith has also given a helpful retrospect to my suffering and prepared me for more in the future. I know now that there is a way through, and that hope always awaits me on the other side, along with increasing closeness with God. And, reminded that he is with me and giving meaning to every step, I move forward, ready to face the challenges my Maker has for me. I will embrace the scars and the difficulty, knowing I will only become stronger and more powerful even as I am humbled in all of it.

I pray the same will be for you.

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