boundaries

Mental Health and Spirituality

Guest Post by Brandon Smee

Photo by  whoislimos  on  Unsplash

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

For years, Sunday was always the day of the week I dreaded most. For most people, church is a place to step outside of the stress of the work week, to encounter the goodness and peace of God, and to receive encouragement for the challenges ahead. But without fail, I would walk out of almost every service on edge, my thoughts spiraling down at an alarming rate.

The same thing was happening during meetings throughout the week, after small groups and worship services. I seemed to struggle to connect with God in worship like my friends, and I became hyper-sensitive to every sermon point, agonizing over whether I was in or out of God’s moral will. I was constantly anxious that I wasn’t satisfying all of God’s expectations for me, and church would remind me of these fears and keep them churning in my mind for hours and days.

I still loved God, and I loved my church and my community there, but as my anxiety increased, my relationship with God and with my church suffered. It wasn’t until I began seeking out help for mental health that I began to understand what was going on and that I was not alone.

Every year in America, millions of Christians experience mental health struggles, and while for many of them faith can be a source of comfort, it can also become a source of distress. For people of faith, mental health struggles often take on spiritual overtones. Many people shame themselves for not overcoming their anxieties with faith, or ruminate over a thousand miniscule spiritual shortcomings. Others may beat themselves up for not experiencing joy or spend hours just trying to feel close to God.

We are tempted to examine our spiritual lives with painstaking scrupulosity, looking for the defect that must be the root of our struggle. “If only I had a better relationship with God,” we tell ourselves, “then I wouldn’t feel this way.”

The reality is that people can experience mental health challenges regardless of the quality of their relationship with God. Great figures like Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, and Charles Spurgeon, to name a few, suffered severely with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, yet God used their spiritual walks to impact millions of people.

Depression, anxiety, bipolar and the like are not signs of weak faith but rather opportunities for our faith to shine through. As James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” James isn’t saying to stuff our emotions and claim we’re joyful; he’s challenging us to recognize that our struggles test our faith and reveal it to be genuine. Instead of seeing our mental health issues as a deficit of faith, we can realize that God is at work in us, sustaining us and giving purpose to our suffering.

While church can be difficult for many with mental health challenges, there are ways we can find peace, hope, and restoration in our communities in the midst of the struggle. Here are just five tips I’ve learned through my journey.

1. Savor what allows you to connect with God.

When mental health issues develop, it can seem like God is behind a wall. None of the things that used to allow us to relate with him seem to work. It can be hard to focus on Scripture, or wake up early for devotions. Maybe you can’t feel the same emotions in worship, or you find yourself overwhelmed by all the people, lights, and music at a service. Thankfully, God graciously accepts many kinds of worship. There are dozens of spiritual disciplines that Christians have used across the centuries to connect to God.

As you have the opportunity, try different ways of reading Scripture, praying, worshipping, and reflecting. As you find practices that make sense to you, savor them and work them regularly into your life. When Israel was journeying across the wilderness, God appeared in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night; we find that God shows up in different ways under different circumstances, even as God leads us to the same destination.

2. Know your limits.

All humans, not just those with mental health diagnoses, have limits! During the middle of a hard episode, aspects of church can become difficult to get through. If a loud worship service is overstimulating, give yourself permission to walk out (maybe invite a friend to come with you). Don’t force yourself to sit through a service or small group if you’re having a hard time. God desires mercy over sacrifice.

Instead, give yourself space to breath and ground yourself, and go back in when you are ready. Once you realize you are not trapped in the pews, the tension and anxiety around church can decrease, and worship services become less about performance and more about meeting God with the people of God.

Photo by  KEEM IBARRA  on  Unsplash

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

3. Embrace community.

A great temptation for those of us facing mental health challenges is isolation. Others can have difficulty understanding what you are going through, and a mental health episode can make you feel like you have no energy left for connecting with people. But God has designed us to function best both in faith and in life when we are walking with other people. When we embrace community, we can find people to pray, seek God, and have fun with.

Moreover, being with other people can help take our focus from our own struggles to those of others, allowing us to have a positive impact in the lives of those around us. Whether it’s a small group, a Bible study, or a volunteer group, it’s a great idea to find people to walk with.

4. Set up healthy boundaries.

At the other extreme from isolation, mental health struggles can lead us to rely too heavily on others, whether we find comfort in them solving our problems or us solving theirs. In Galatians 6, Paul balances his command to “Bear one another's’ burdens” with the admonition that “each one should carry their own load.”

We support each other, but at the end of the day, we should be carrying our own load, no more and no less. When we find ourselves beginning to rely on a relationship or person at church to take care of us emotionally, keep tabs on us spiritually, or make decisions for us, it’s time to take responsibility for these things ourselves.

While it can sound scary to limit the amount we rely on a friend, it is actually empowering and freeing to carry what God has given us to carry, as it allows us to trust in an unfailing God to support us rather than another person. In addition, a mental health diagnosis in no way diminishes our worth or value as Christians, and as such we should not be okay with people taking advantage of our struggle, abusing or manipulating us, but we should assert boundaries as the respect that comes with bearing God’s image.

5. Maintain a perspective of grace.

Grace is unmerited favor, and God extends it to us abundantly. In our mental health journey, we will find that at many turns our spiritual lives are difficult, and as humans we often mess up and sin. In the process, there is grace for when we walk imperfectly, and grace to strengthen us as we continue toward the future.

Moreover, there is grace to extend to other people who have difficulty understanding or supporting us in the struggle. For people who don’t experience a mental health challenge, what you’re going through may be totally unfamiliar, and they may say or do things in response that hurt more than help. There is grace for them and for you as you seek healing and restoration. As we hold onto that grace, we will find peace, hope, and love accessible to us along the way.

Wrapping It Up

Jesus invites all people to come to the Father through him, including those who experience mental health challenges. He healed whoever he came in contact with, and he has the power to restore the broken thought patterns, neural connections, and trauma that underlie these issues. As long as we remain in the process of healing, may church be a place where we find the love of God among the people of God, and receive empowerment and encouragement to move toward recovery.

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Lessons from the Bedside: Constipation, Oversharing, and Mental Health

No, not oversharing about constipation. As a nurse, is there ever oversharing about bowel movement woes? There's nothing like the feeling after a really good, healthy poop.

Several months ago, I was talking on the phone to a friend from nursing school and was explaining how it's been a long journey learning to process things with others instead of holing them up inside me like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. 

"Sometimes," I told my friend, "I forget to process things and go back to shoving them deep inside and trying to forget about them. It's so unnatural for me to talk about everything and process it. Every time I go to counseling, I have to relearn to open up. The longer I go without consciously processing things, the harder it is to start again."

My friend graciously agreed, and then the perfect analogy popped into my head.

"It's like I get emotionally and mentally constipated," I decided. "And sometimes it gets so bad it's impacted, and I need an enema to get things going again..."

Too cute. I couldn't resist. ( Stock photo from Adobe)

Too cute. I couldn't resist. (Stock photo from Adobe)

Thank God for nursing friends who, rather than being grossed out, laugh richly and loudly at these kinds of things. In fact, I'm pretty sure she even said she was a big fan of the analogy. Nursing friends. They are wonderful.

Like bowel movements, everything in life flows a little easier when we regularly practice owning and processing emotions, events, and struggles in life. The longer we push the need aside, the tougher it is to begin. When I was a child, I spoke so few words I could remember everything I said to everyone and when I said it. Naturally, I figured everyone else was the same way and wondered why some people would tell me the same stories over and over again. I genuinely believed they were intentionally telling me the story for the fifth time because they thought I needed to hear it five times. I didn't realize until much later it was possible to talk so much you actually forgot what you said and to whom you said it! Though I have since conformed and routinely have more conversations than I can recall, it's still not my natural bent to process life out loud. It's taken a long, long time to develop this habit that's so easy for other.

Of note, conversely, some face the challenge of oversharing and lacking boundaries (the opposite of constipation would be "the runs"). This, as you can imagine, can get really messy, really fast. The nurses who are reading this know what I'm talking about. Sometimes we walk into rooms and have to wonder: "How in the world did they get stool in that spot??"

Sometimes, life gets a little crazy and our ability to process life gets put on hold. Traumas or deaths or major life events alter our habits, and in those times all we can do is lean on each other. We turn to each other the best we can, give supportive care, and clean up the messes as they come. From my own experience, I know we often feel ashamed and judged for our involuntary reactions when life overwhelms us. There was a season after returning from working in a Cambodian hospital I broke down every few hours and breaks between classes were spent in the nursing building's chapel crying. I was embarrassed, but I didn't have to be. Sometimes we lose control. It's temporary, and it's okay.

Unlike bowel movements, learning to share appropriately—enough, regularly, and with boundaries—is a trial and error process. It's one I'm constantly challenged by and one I think we will all continually be adjusting and tweaking throughout our lifetimes.

So I'll keep trying and tweaking. A little daily stool softener like Colace may resemble a phone call to my best friend or a journal entry spilling my thoughts. A little laxative like lactulose or milk of magnesia may take the form of a therapy session. A little antidiarrheal like Imodium may look like the restraint not to tell that person my deepest fears or post a blog about a wound that hasn't yet healed.

The analogies could keep going and going, but the main point is this: we all get a little constipated or have diarrhea mentally and emotionally, and this is okay. Health is the goal, because we all know it's true:

There's nothing like the feeling after a really good, healthy poop.

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Permissions for Life

Over the past couple years "permission" has become very meaningful word to me. It all started when I first came back from spending the summer in Cambodia a couple years ago. I was struggling with reentry to the States and was reading a wonderful blog post by Rocky Reentry that talked about the need to give yourself permission to grieve when you leave a culture.

Permission. In it I find grace and forgiveness. Through it I find freedom. In this season of life, rather than make a list of tasks or goals to complete this year, here are a few things I'm focusing on giving myself permission for.

1. Permission to say things you're not supposed to say

By that I don't mean I'm going to say things like, "That dress looks terrible with those shoes on you" (I'm not the one to consult for fashion advice anyway). I mean saying things like, "Truth be told, sometimes I get scared, and right in this moment I don't want to go to Cambodia." That doesn't mean I won't step on the plane tomorrow anyway (emotions are fickle, anyway, and in 5 minutes I could be pumped about going). It just means fear gets to me sometimes, and it's a very real battle to walk by faith and not by sight.

After growing up inchurch, it can seem un-Christian to be open about our struggles. It's incredibly difficult for me to be vulnerable about fear and faith when it comes to Cambodia—and any change. Yet perhaps admitting our weaknesses and clinging to His grace is the most Christlike thing we can do in these moments.

2. Permission to feel and own emotions

I'm not sure where the idea that emotions—particularly sadness and grief—are weaknesses came from originally. I believed that idea for a very, very long time, but the opposite is true. It takes far more courage to face fear and grief than to run from it.

I've learned the hard way that when we try to numb an uncomfortable emotion, we end up numbing all emotion. For years, I refused to let myself feel emotions because I didn't want to feel grief. A monumental moment for me last year was purchasing a box of tissues. (I know, kind of lame.) But it meant acknowledging tears and grief and in a way, welcoming them. Sometimes we all just need a reminder that it's okay not to be okay. Though it's difficult to sit with my emotions and feel my feelings (I'm not really an ushy gushy type of person), owning, feeling, and sharing emotions is an incredibly healthy practice.

3. Permission to love and take care of myself

This one can also seem downright un-Christian sometimes. What happened to "put others before yourself" and "God first, others second, and yourself last"?

I'm not sure I believe in that mantra anymore. If I'm not taking care of myself, how can I care for others? This is very obvious in the physical realm: if I have a diabetic patient who doesn't take care of his body's nutritional needs, he'll end up with life-threatening blood sugars, wounds that won't heal, hospital stays, etc that will prevent him from physically being able to help those around him. The same—maybe even to a greater extent—can be said for mental, emotional, and spiritual self care. The Lord commanded us to love others as we love ourselves. I think as we learn to love ourselves better, we will learn to love others better too.

4. Permission to ask for what I need

In a way, asking for what I need is part of learning to take care of myself. It's a way of setting boundaries. This is still new to me, so when I put it into practice it feels awkward and like I'm bumbling my way through.

This process is two-step: it requires me to know what I need (self awareness), and then it challenges me to follow through with the action of asking for it. One reason I'm drawn to this practice is that it helps prevent me from blaming others and playing the victim. It's easy to blame people for "not being more sensitive to my needs" or "walking all over me." But in the long run maybe it's better to muster up the courage to clarify boundaries and ask for what I need instead of assuming others will automatically know.

5. Permission to fail often and miserably

This is perhaps the hardest for me to write and accept. The perfectionistic side of me screams that this is heresy. Yet I have found failing often means more growth than success does, and my quality of life soars when I can accept my imperfections.

It's absolutely impossible to move forward in life without failing, without falling flat on my face. So I may as well make a break for it and stumble my way toward living a more full and joyful life.

Perhaps what makes failure so dreadful is not the falling itself or the pain or the slow process of getting back up or even the guarantee that it will all happen again soon. Perhaps the worst thing about it is the shame of knowing others will see me fall. They will see I am a fraud; I am not perfect. I am weak and scraped up and sometimes so broken I seek professional help to get back up. Yet I am encouraged by the wisdom Elizabeth Gilbert received long ago and now shares in her book Big Magic (p. 174):

"'We all spend our twenties and thirties trying so hard to be perfect, because we're so worried about what people will think of us. Then we get into our forties and fifties, and we finally start to be free, because we decide that we don't give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you won't be completely free until you realize this liberating truth—nobody was thinking about you, anyhow.'" —Elizabeth Gilbert

I don't want to wait until I'm sixty to live from that truth.

6. Permission to forgive myself

With #5 comes, in all likelihood, the fact that I will make a fool of myself. And with making a fool of myself comes the challenge of forgiving myself.

A few months ago I was struggling with the concept of mercy, and a friend told me how one of the Hebrew words [checed] in the Bible that's translated "mercy" is also translated "steadfast love." I'm not a Hebrew scholar or anything, but this helped me grasp mercy. It made sense to me. In some cases, mercy and steadfast love are synonymous. This new perspective makes it easier to accept the Lord's mercy and understand how I can show mercy toward myself. To forgive myself, I must love myself. 

I'm still thinking through several other things I would like to give myself permission for, and I have a feeling it'll be a lifelong process to put these into practice. But keeping these in mind helps me keep my inner critic in check, and the liberating thing is there is no time limit—they are lifelong permissions, and they are permissions for a more abundant life.
 

How do you pursue living a more abundant life?

Are there things you would like to give yourself permission for or have learned to give yourself permission for in the past?

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