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Entries in Worry and Anxiety (6)

Thursday
Feb082018

Why we need kind, compassionate dialogue about mental illness

Recently, in conversation with some family members, I learned that there has been a history of depression on my father's side of the family. My mother's father suffered from depression, and was actually institutionalized at one point, and I was aware of that. The news about my father's family has been a recent discovery. And it is only recent because no one talked about it. It was a shameful thing to admit, so it was never addressed. But now that we are getting more information about mental illness, we can gain a little understanding into what some of our family members experienced.

Three years ago, I felt like I was losing control of myself. I told my husband one day that I felt like anxiety was coming from outside and attacking me. I knew something was wrong. I didn't tell very many people. Why? Because of the guilt associated with it. Especially as a Christian I was embarrassed. And I was aware of the attitudes of other Christians in the face of mental illness from having heard comments over the years: 

"Philippians commands us not to be anxious."

"They just need to trust God more."

"Don't they know that anxiety is a sin?"

"They're self-absorbed."

Today, I don't mind so much talking about it with others, but I'm careful, because frankly, there are just some people I know who will not be kind. And it is the people who have never struggled with it or have never known someone who has struggled with it who are the worst.

One of the things that helped me was knowing that I was not alone. My own father went through five years of clinical depression, and when he knew what I was going through, he called me and offered the kind, tender sympathy that only a fellow sufferer can offer. His attitude was not dismissive nor did he suggest things that would promise instant results. No, my father did not remind me to "Be anxious for nothing," but he patiently listened. 

We need people to talk about their mental health issues because those who came after us need to know; our children or our grandchildren. For some, the first signs of mental illness may frighten them. They may not understand why it's happening. They may need to know if there is a familial link. It can help them cope with it, and provide guidance to their doctor.

Not all people who are depressed or struggle with other kinds of mental illness are obvious about it. Some people are able to mask their suffering quite well with outgoing, gregarious behaviour. They may even make you laugh. But after the laughter has died down, their feelings return. I was able to teach a Bible study regularly while at the worst of my anxiety, and no one but those closest to me knew what was happening. My closest friend sat in on my studies and told me one day that she would never guess that I was overwhelmed. We find coping mechanisms. Simply because someone doesn't look like they are suffering doesn't mean they aren't.

It's lonely to struggle with anxiety and depression. I can testify to that. I was in God's word daily; sometimes hourly. There were nights when I couldn't sleep and I poured over the Psalms and the gospels. I credit that with keeping me from completely falling apart. But it didn't cure things instantly. And I am thankful that I know about our family history. As a mother, it has helped me to discuss things with my children, and to be observant and attentive. We need to talk about mental illness. But more than that, we need kindness and compassion. And we definitely don't need simplistic remedies that betray ignorance.

Sunday
Aug212016

Anxiety and Scaffolding

Last Monday, Adam Ford wrote a guest post about his experience with anxiety. It was well-received (as someone who struggles with this, I appreciated it), and Tim shared some responses to the post this morning. Some of those responses elicited a nod of support from me, and some of them led me to say aloud "wow, wow, wow." I am not here to respond to the individual responses, but I will say this: the connection between the physical and the emotional is more complex than we know, and to accuse an acutely depressed person of not really being ill because there is no blood test for it reflects ignorance and a lack of mercy. There is no blood test for stupidity, either, only behavioural evidence, but we know it exists. 

The issue of using medication for mental illness is still rather controversial. There are people who would shame those who use medication. I suspect those who would do so have never struggled with crippling anxiety; the kind that makes you afraid to be alone or not want to leave your house. A number of years ago, when I was teaching a ladies' bible study, there was a woman who struggled with anxiety and depression, and I made a comment that reflected my ignorance and lack of empathy. She called me on it, and I will always be grateful for her courage to confront me. In our conversastion, she shared with me a useful analogy. Medication is like scaffolding. It gives individuals support as they engage in the work of repair. How can someone who can barely get out of bed meditate on words of Scripture? She told me that medication helped her see things more clearly, so that she could identify how her patterns of thinking were contributing to her situation.

Every case of anxiety is different, but we tend to paint everyone with a broad brush. I think that is unwise. I have never struggled with being overweight. If I have put it on, I have been able to take it off again. Not every woman is the same. Some have different physical conditions, predispositions, and metabolisms. Every anxiety and depression sufferer has a different situation. There is no "one size fits all" approach to the matter, and we need to remember that if we're going to be remotely understanding.

If you can deal with your anxiety without medication, then praise God for it. But don't condemen someone who needs it. I suspect that those who take it already feel a certain amount of defeat as it is. No need to kick a brother or sister when they are down.

Friday
May202016

Before you advise someone with anxiety . . . 

. . . ask yourself if he/she is ready to hear what you're saying.

This past week, I read an interesting article about anxiety, written by Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition. The title, 8 Arguments for Why You Should Be Anxious Today, was provocative, so I clicked on it. For some people who struggle with anxiety, it would be an excellent resource. For some, it would only drive them to being more anxious.

I found the approach, speculating (albeit facetiously, I assume) about whether or not anxiety is "worth it" a little perplexing. Notions of "worth," whether serious or not, don't enter the mind of someone struggling with anxiety. It just happens. Believe it or not, people don't choose to feel anxious. They choose how to cope with it, but even then, it's not always as easy as some (probably the people who have never struggled with it) make it out to be. Anxiety is like a lion inside, waiting to roar, and we often don't know when that's coming.

I have had out of control anxiety. I suspect that I will continue to be sensitive in this area. This time, last year, had I read Justin Taylor's article, I would have thrown something through my monitor. The truth is that anxious Christans, those who struggle on an ongoing basis, know those truths. We've read the Bible. We've underlined verse after verse, written them in our journals, put them on index cards on our desk or refrigerator. And we still struggle. We know anxiety is not worth it. Anxiety is not something everyone can turn on and off like a switch. And everyone's situation is different. As my good friend Persis commented recently, human beings are much more complicated than we want them to be.

If you know someone who struggles with anxiety, be cautious about sharing articles like Taylor's. We all like to help, and it's easy to just send someone a well-meaning article. However, if the person's anxiety is out of control, it may be like talking to a wall. They may think you are not very sympathetic, that you don't understand. Whereas I can read the post today, and appreciate it, when my anxiety was out of control, I would have only felt worse.

Anxious people feel anxious about everything, including their anxiety. When we read the biblical exhortations and feel as if we've gained no success in our struggle, we feel anxious about our anxiety. It gets worse. We feel defeated. We feel like lousy Christians. We need biblical truth, but we also need to get a hold of the emotional roller coaster we're on, and for some, physical conditions are crucial. 

Unfortunately, I think there runs rampant in the Church the notion that there are no physiological issues related to anxiety; it's all just sin. At one time, I believed that, too. I've learned from experience just how much of an impact it has. Once I could deal with my health issues, I was able to benefit more fully from the regular biblical counsel I was being given. 

Biblical counsel is needed for someone struggling with anxiety, but before it will the most effective, the one struggling has to be approachable, and that may mean waiting. It may mean you help by simply sitting with the person while he's weak and trembling. It may mean praying with the person or just listening. The counsel in Taylor's post is great advice, but make no mistake, for someone struggling with anxiety, whether it's "worth it" or not never enters his mind.

Friday
Aug072015

Teaching: you have to give it some feet

As a teacher of the Bible, and one who enjoys good sermons, I've thought long and hard about applying the Scriptures. Last semester, the class I took was about writing bible study material, and the prof's regular critique of my work was that I wasn't giving "visible" applications, i.e., I wasn't suggesting that the student do something. I've always hesitated about that approach, and even if it meant getting a lower mark than I would have liked, I just couldn't bring myself to conjure up some sort of activity to prove that one was applying the Scripture.

I was happy to find support for my views in Jeremy Walker's book Passing Through. As he introduces his subject matter, he uses a phrase which is absolutely perfect in describing contrived applications:

Though I hope to offer applications, I will not give a series of minute prescriptions, for part of the genius of Scripture is that it provides what is necessary for wisdom for all saints in all times and all places. This is often accomplished by means of broad directives that we must then apply to our lives and situations into which God lead us, seeking the help of the Spirit to do so. (emphasis mine)

Did you catch that phrase? Minute prescriptions; isn't that an excellent way to describe some of the applications you've heard over the years? Sometimes, the application is simply, "Wow, God, you are amazing."

That said, as teachers, we do need to provide feet to the theological lessons we want our students to learn. An example of this popped up this past week as my friend and I studied Matthew 6:25-34. In verse 27, Jesus asks: "And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?" Worrying is s a waste of time, and unproductive. It's like being in a rocking chair: you're moving, but you're not going anywhere. 

In studying who God is, we learn that he is sovereign. That's a huge topic to study, and the ramifications are equally huge. In this matter, God's sovereignty means that God has ordained our days from beginning to end. Psalm 31:14-15 says:

But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, "You are my God."
My times are in your hand;
Rescue me from the hand of my enemies
and from my persecutors! 

God ordained when we came into the world, and he has ordained when we will leave it. No amount of worry will change that. When we fret over matters and micromanage things in the hopes that we can stave off the struggles of our lives, we are not adding anything into our lives. In fact, we're taking away from living in today.

Over the years, as I have struggled with worry, my husband has shared that encouragement with me time and time again: worry is fruitless. As the lesson was taught in the context of God's sovereignty, the lights finally turned on more fully. Before, they were dim and hazy; they are shining more brightly now.

I think it is a delicate balance to avoid over applying. It takes stime and study to discern the principles. As a teacher, I don't want to over apply and rob the student of thinking through things herself, but neither do I want to present things in a way that they just sound like platitudes. It's hard work; much harder than I reazlied. It makes me look back and cringe over my teaching in the past. I can only throw myself upon the grace and mercy of God for the times when I have not taught well.

Tuesday
Jul142015

There is no treasure with worry

I have been reading Luke 12:22-34 every day since last Thursday. In the book, Running Scared, by Ed Welch, he discusses that God is generous. He refers to verse 32 to remind the reader that God is so generous that he gives his children the Kingdom. When we are tempted to indulge in worry, we must turn our minds back to who God is, and he is a generous God.

In this passage, Jesus says this:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

There is a parallel passage in Matthew 6:19-21:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth not rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Too much worry and anxiety is a sure-fire prevention against laying up treasures in heaven. We all have worries, but when we indulge in them, they push out any thoughts that might be of eternal value. We stop thinking about God's goodness, and we become too focused on our situation. We don't have the peace that can be ours because we are too busy indulging in our worry.

I've often thought of those verses as addressing the laying up of earthly treasures, such as material gain, or power and influence. But they are applicable to the every day situations we find ourselves in. When we are concerned about something, it's hard to stop thinking about it. If you are someone (like me) who is impatient and wants to do something about a situation, it's even harder. Suddenly, we become like a dog with a bone, pawing at the matter, turning it over, evaluating it, and we can't leave it alone. That prevents the daily habit of laying up treasures in heaven, such as loving others, being patient, being joyful, being faithful. It is definitely not fostering self-control to replay things over and over in our heads. I am far too often guilty of that, and it wasn't until recently that I have seen how worry can interfere with this call to lay up treasures in heaven. When there is too much worry in our minds, it pushes out the thoughts that are good. Obsessing about our worries pushes out the truths about God, and that's what we need to address our worries. It starts with knowing God. 

Spending too much time rolling over in our minds the various worries we have is not only bad for the here and now, because it can render us ineffective in many ways, but it's also deterimental for the future, for how we lay up treasures in heaven. I'm not saying it's easy to put aside worry and anxiety, but knowing how it can adversely affect us is part of coping with it.