[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series, we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.]
“Rolf, you are depressed.”
When I heard those words, I felt humiliated but also surprisingly free. I knew many others who struggled with mental health challenges, but deep down, I arrogantly believed I was different. It is somehow easier to be in the helping position than to admit I need help. I thought, “Others might get depressed, but not me. I am on top of things. I am strong.”
That is what made the diagnosis so hard to accept: it meant that perhaps I wasn’t as strong and whole as I thought. I had already been seeing a therapist who had me doing the BDI (Beck Depression Index) questionnaire every month or so. When the test affirmed that I was definitely in the range of depression, my first response was denial. I wanted to change my responses, thinking, “I must have been too sensitive in answering.” I couldn’t believe the results since I was still functioning fine, without crying or moping in bed all day. I had a lot of wrong assumptions about depression––like associating depression with personal failure.
Yet, admitting I was depressed also gave some glimmers of freedom. I began to realize that God was giving me a chance to heal, to grow, and to make some changes in my life. It gave me hope, hearing that the symptoms I was experiencing (like discouragement, a judgmental attitude, indecision, and lesser joy) were potentially indicative of a chemical imbalance––and this imbalance could be rebalanced.
Before accepting my diagnosis of depression, I didn’t really see any potential for change. Life was hard, and I thought I just needed to grit my teeth and bear it. But now I had permission to stop pushing myself. I finally had a good reason to make some real changes.
But what could change look like? At first, I thought I should change my job from working directly with people to something more practical. I mean, swinging a hammer is fun, so why not give carpentry a try? Thankfully, as I started talking to a few trusted friends and a counsellor, they encouraged me to focus first on getting better emotionally and mentally, before making any major life changes. The process of opening up and being honest helped me surface some of my underlying issues and beliefs. I realized I needed to sort out how I got to the place of being depressed.
As I worked through my journey, I started to see a trauma therapist. It wasn’t always comfortable, but she was committed to challenging my assumptions so I could heal. The word “trauma” (like “depression”) really threw me off at first. In my view, I had a great childhood and a family who loved me. But I’m now slowly realizing how nearly all of us experience some sort of trauma. Trauma can look dramatic, like verbal or physical assault, or verbal, emotional, spiritual, or physical abuse. It can also be subtle, like neglect, or weak or confused relational attachment to safe adults as a child.
I am thankful to have great parents, but like all parents, intention isn’t the same as impact. My mom was the youngest of eight children who grew up in the midst of war––and that trauma shaped her powerfully. My dad’s mom was orphaned as a child and sent to a different country to be adopted, so although she was strong, her history forced on her a deep need for control. Although my parents never intended to impact me negatively, they were influenced by their own brokenness and that of their own parents. The impact of trauma is felt for generations. As I began to process my own trauma in my childhood, I needed to undo some of my habits in my adulthood that actually have their roots in previous generations.
My healing journey has involved a few specific practices. In one of them, I pause at different points in the day to regulate my body through slow deep breathing (3x/minute for 5 minutes), which then helps regulate my emotions and my thoughts. While I’m breathing, I use my imagination to visualize a safe space, allowing Jesus to meet me. I close my eyes and picture myself on a trail in the forest where I like to jog. Then I imagine Jesus approaching. He is stronger, bigger, and tougher than me, and yet his eyes look at me with care and compassion. He lifts me up playfully, way up high in his arms, just like I do with my little kids––but this time I am the kid.
This one seemingly simple exercise, to stop and breathe slowly and meditate on the presence of Jesus, was so hard for me at first. But over time, my muscles are relaxing, my thinking is clearing, and my senses are even becoming heightened. I am becoming more aware of my body, and I hear sounds around me I never noticed before. It is as if I am coming more fully alive.
Once I am physically regulated through deep breathing, I am in a better position to accept, respect, and validate my emotions. Naturally, emotional awareness is hard for me––first, to even realize I have emotions, then second, to grasp how some of my emotional eruptions are connected to my childhood history. Yet over time as I explored my emotions, connections started to click. For example, I easily get angry when others are on their phone and only half-listening to me. It brings me back to longing for undivided, undistracted attention when I was young.
When my physical body is at rest and my emotions are felt, understood, and validated, then I’m able to use my mind to challenge some of my self-hating beliefs. I’m learning that I need to actively identify and confront my faulty beliefs and self-loathing talk. I have even made lists of truths to combat the lies of my trauma. For example, the lie that “I am alone and others can’t be relied on” needs to be replaced with truths like “I am part of the church and, as only a part of the body, I can rely on others (1 Cor 12); I am yoked alongside Jesus (Mt 11:28-30); like a sheep, I need and have a Shepherd (Ps 23).”
It is all helping, but it requires consistent ongoing effort to move towards flourishing mental health. By God’s grace and in his power, I calm my body, settle my emotions, and then utilize sound biblical reasoning to find healing.
I was asked recently, “Does improving your mental health help you connect better with Jesus, or does connecting with Jesus help you improve your mental health?” Thinking it through, I’d have to say yes and yes. As I use therapy tools like self-regulation, my heart and mind are opened to actually see and meet with the Jesus who has been knocking on the door of my heart all along. And as I approach Jesus with my fear, hurt, and brokenness, he meets me in prayer. When I read the Bible, Jesus gives me life-giving truths that I can use in my therapy journey. My faith and therapy work hand-in-hand. I have found my faith in Christ and the foundation of the Bible to be a tremendous advantage to help move me out of languishing mental health towards greater vibrancy and flourishing.
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.