The topic of mental health has become a popular one in recent years, and for good reason. Since we are just as much our emotional & motivational states as we are our physical bodies, it’s crucial that we work to understand our minds and to share our findings with our brothers and sisters. Most people outside of my closest friends and family don’t know this, but from 2016-2018 the joy in my life was totally eclipsed by a plummet into darkness. Partly due to the confusion of a religious deconstruction, partly due to a higher resolution awareness of my shortcomings and sins from my past, and partly due to unseen forces, I found myself oscillating back and forth between terror and hopelessness. For someone who was always easy going & firmly anchored to an optimistic worldview, watching my identity shatter into fragments that I was unable to piece back together was like a nightmare. I began having panic attacks on a regular basis, one of which landed me in the emergency room. I tried medication. I tried to pray it away. For the first time in my life, I began to contemplate suicide. I felt like my existence was a burden to those around me & could only recall the ways that I had hurt other people. But this grim story doesn’t end in tragedy. Not only have I climbed out of that hell with my sanity intact, but I’m more confident than ever in the power of love and the commitment to the truth.
I was recently contacted by a friend of mine who’s going through some similar stuff. I tried my best to outline some of the steps that I took & paradigm shifts that I made to find the pathway forward. I’ve copied my emails from our correspondence and pasted them below & made the recipient anonymous. He and I both hope that this may be of help to others going who are suffering from mental health issues.
Now, a disclosure: this is written from the perspective of a Jesus follower, but even if you’re not religious, I tried to unpack the things I learned from a psychological & philosophical view as well. I’m a firm believer that God is not to be sanctioned off into a religious box where He can only be known through church services and bible studies, but that His presence spills over into the domain of rational thought and science as well. I hope that there’s something here that speaks to you. If you’re currently wandering through the darkness, just know you’re not alone & there really is hope.
April 5th, 2019
I’ll be frank, anxiety and depression are no joke. For almost a year my worldview was colored by the hopelessness and terror that I was oscillating back and forth between. My depression and anxiety was so consuming that I felt like my identity itself was beginning to fragment. I felt like I had lost my faith. Analyzing my past made me fearful of myself and what I might do in the present. I lost all confidence in myself & was questioning everything that I ever valued.
The way I conceptualized my emotional state was this: it was as if I was treading water in the ocean with a towering wave in front of me. I could either swim away from the wave and end up further away from my healing, or I could dive forward into the wave trusting that there would be calmer waters and maybe even dry land on the other side. Now, that wave analogy is a personal one that resonated with me, but the extracted principal is this: the cure for pain is in the pain. The path back to courage is nested within all that anxiety. The green, lively country side of peace is through on the other side of that depression. St. Francis illustrated this with: “when Brother Grief knocks on your door, invite him in for a drink, for He is the gateway to your joy”. To look at your negative emotions as transitory states instead of objects of permanence is crucial for maintaining hope.
One of the ways that I coped while I was in the “thick of it” was doing my absolute best to create a routine. Even when I felt like I had no control over my emotions, I could still force my body to climb out of bed, to read for 30 minutes, to eat healthy, to exercise, to listen to uplifting music, to spend time with friends, even though internally I didn’t want to do any of those things. Muscles slowly begin to atrophy the longer they aren’t used; in a similar way, our souls begin to lose their color and grow stale when we keep ourselves from human interaction.
Now, with that context established, I’m happy to share how I actually found my way out of that mania. One of the first things that helped was recognizing that human despair, “the dark night of the soul”, anxiety, depression: these phenomena were not exclusive to me. There are, of course, those lucky enough to have never experienced it to such a painful degree, but life is unrelenting and at some point we all have to make contact with those emotional states. This recognition made me feel less alone, -which is really important since loneliness is a primary feature of anxiety and depression.
The second thing that helped me was actually developing a personal philosophy predicated on truth. In the modern world we live in, our culture tells us “truth is relative to each individual person” which lies in diametric opposition to the classical idea of an objective truth that we can all unite around. This relativism made my anxiety and depression deeper because I felt unmoored; I didn’t know what to hold onto as I drifted into existential dread. I asked myself, “would God leave us in a meaningless world without a pathway forward? Does He even love us?”
The personal philosophy that helped me reconcile those questions dawned on me when I realized that thoughts impact our minds similarly to the way that food impacts our bodies. It seemed so obvious. People that eat a steady diet of junk food often feel lethargic and irritable. People who eat fresh out of a garden feel invigorated and healthy. People who swallow poison get sick and often die. It’s the exact same with our thoughts. You can determine the quality (or validity) of the thoughts that enter your mind by the way they impacts you emotional states and actions. Once I realized this for myself, it allowed me to sift through the influx of ideas that were popping in my head (reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s call to “taking every thought captive”). When a thought wafted into my mind that affected me negatively (thoughts of self harm, thoughts of despair, thoughts of resentment), I was able to say to determine that the quality of the thought was out of alignment with the kind of truth that I was created to experience, and thus allowed me to dispose of it before it sunk its tendrils in. When a thought welled up that brought clarity, hope & reconciliation, I was able to qualify it as “true” and worth keeping. This daily therapeutic meditation took a LOT of focus and commitment, but it essentially brought me out of a postmodern nihilism & retooled me with a truth that I could count on to lead me onward into an equilibrated and healthy state of mind.
This philosophical development translated into a theological paradigm shift as well. My introduction to Christianity was predicated on an idea that “becoming a Christian” meant stepping over some kind of metaphysical line by saying a prayer and “accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior”. This one-and-done interpretation of the scripture left me looking back years later after my conversion wondering why I wasn’t feeling the spiritual butterflies any longer. Through my deconstruction I adopted the notion that “salvation” is actually a gift we’re given every day. And it’s not an after-life hell that we’re being saved from (though it might be that as well), but it’s the hell of anxiety, despair, depression, lust, greed, bitterness and malevolence that haunts us every day. To follow Jesus, even when it's into a storm, is to be led every day into the truth and into the light.
April 6th, 2019
I think you're wise to try tackling this without medication for now. But remember, there’s no shame in medication. I’m no fan of "Big Pharma", but statistically: fully committing to an antidepressant for 6-8 weeks has over a 60% success rate in re-regulating folks with depression disorders. But to your point, I do believe that holding faith & forcing yourself to be around people that love you is crucial in regaining the territory of mental health. Trust me, I totally get the hypochondriac tendency of constant self-evaluation, the same thing happened to me when I was battling. I even ended up in the hospital because of a panic attack that I mistook for a heart attack. However, I’ve discovered that not only is the body incredibly resilient, but our immune system regulates at its best when we’re not pumping cortisol into our body (the chemical that’s released when we feel stressed and anxious). You know how it’s impossible to fall asleep when you’re thinking about how you can’t fall asleep? Same thing with anxiety. Every minute that you pull your attention away from your internal affairs and focus on the task at hand in the exterior world is a minute of peace that you’ve won back.
Remember, you’re not only going to find your way back to mental stability: you’re going to exit this trial stronger, wiser & with a gift to bring to other people who are suffering. It’s through God’s grace that we realize (often in hindsight) that our pain has a purpose. In regards to your final question “How to sift through negative thoughts?”, well anxiety isn’t just a troubling emotion. It’s in charge of “predator detection”, -a tool for survival. Modern people don’t face the same types of predators that our neolithic ancestors did, but that psychological faculty remains dormant in our psyches until a perceived threat rears up its head. With that being said, a good way to kind of trick yourself out of the anxiety/depression pathology is to adopt a genuine posture of curiosity. If your reaction is to freak out (which is often what I did to varying degrees) whenever the negative feelings occur, you may create a feedback loop: you get anxious so you freak out, then the fact that you’re so freaked out validates the initial anxiety making you even more concerned and so on and so forth. But when you choose to ask yourself, “what is it that’s making me anxious? Why does this specific thought make me fearful? Is it a valid fear or an irrational fear?”, this curiosity can really help to localize your problems. I’ve learned that people with anxiety disorders or depression often times are just suffering from a complexity management issue. Life has no shortage of burdens to place upon our shoulders. 10 problems is okay- you can solve 10 problems. 100 problems is often just registered as a fog of negative emotion. Allowing yourself to be curious instead of threatened helps you confront the problem which, over time, will shrink the dragon down to lizard size.
The last bit of advice is I can give to initiate an incremental process back to a thriving mental state is to imagine the future you that you most long to be. What are the traits that you want most to embody? Once you’ve clearly defined what that version of yourself looks like, you can use it at as a tool. When life hands you an opportunity that makes you anxious, instead of shying away from it, stop and ask yourself: “How would that ideal future version of me respond to this challenge?” Whatever future you would do is exactly what you should do. In a sense, this practice makes a case for destiny. It’s as if the universe is conspiring to give you the challenges necessary to become the you that your heart longs for. I went from an agoraphobic mess that couldn’t leave the house without having a mental breakdown, to going on a cross-country tour as a music photographer, officiating a wedding for some friends in front of a crowd of 80 people & moving to a new country to be with my fiance. The secret to accomplishing all of these things came from consulting my conscience every time an opportunity presented itself and asking myself, “what would the ideal future version of me do?” Instantly the answer would shine forth and would give me the courage to say “yes” to all of those things that intimidated me & made me anxious. Turns out there’s more all of us than we think there is.
Hope some of this resonates and is helpful,