Anxiety and depression are plaguing our world, especially in North America. I have my theories as to why that’s the case, but chances are if you or someone you know is in darkness right now, you don’t want theories. You want something that’ll help. And, frankly, I want to help each one of you pursue a holistic mental health. Not just for your own wellbeing, but also so that you can serve God and love others well.
I can relate to experiencing dark moments and seasons. In those times I see a tendency to overthink and often get stuck inside myself, not knowing how to get out. So, I’ve put together 10 actionable tips that can help you fight anxiety and depression – or even help prevent them. They are particularly crafted with my brothers-in-Christ in mind, but the ladies can surely benefit.
Gentlemen, here are a few things you can use to punch what Ed Welch calls “the stubborn darkness” right in the mouth.
1. Don’t hide from aggression; channel it
Some say that the Bible’s exhortations to be “meek” or “kind” rule out any kind of aggression. I don’t think that’s the case. Paul himself uses analogies of fighting when it comes to his faith. Concerning self-discipline and sin, he says he “pummels his body” into submission (1 Cor. 9:27). When it comes to righteousness, Jesus expects us to be strong and courageous; and aggressively so.
Paul also, inspired by the Holy Spirit, told the Corinthian congregation to “act like men. Be strong.” Yet at the same time, all that they did was to be done in love (1 Cor. 15:17). So there is a great tension to be held in the Christian life, and the Christian man need not feel as though he must hide his strength or aggression. Rather, he must discipline it and keep it properly channelled. The only way to do that is to embrace it as a positive thing.
2. Kill sin (especially sexual sin)
When Christian men sin, and they know it, their conscience bears witness and disappointment follows. There is a dissonance in what they say they believe publicly and what they are practicing privately. Only the gospel cures and motivates us to continue the pursuit of purity, to act as the true righteous man who never gives up (Proverbs 24:16).
Each time a man does something he knows he shouldn’t, he’s going to affect his mood and his mental health, even if slightly. He’s going to have a harder time believing the truths of Scripture about who he is, and who God is. He may even spiral into helplessness and despair.
This includes but is not limited to habitual masturbation and pornography use. The effects of porn, by the way, are only beginning to be understood – and results are disturbing. A man who is constantly giving in to sexual sin is likely to be down in the dumps. Eventually, he’ll feel like he can’t get out, and we can imagine the helplessness of depression is just around the corner.
If we want to take every thought captive to Christ and yield control of our minds and hearts to him and not let our flesh, Satan, and the world get the best of us, we must fight and fight hard. We require the power of the Holy Spirit, and a conscience bathed in the security offered by the gospel.
My life feels a lot better when I am living consistently with my desire to honour God, and when I experience some healthy control over my body and life. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about killing sin.
3. Work out
My undergrad university degree is in Kinesiology, and one thing we talked about in basically every class was how exercise is like a miracle drug. Name an issue, especially a modern mental health concern, and you will find evidence that vigorous exercise helps treat and prevent it.
We’re not sure of the mechanisms—could be clearing up inflammation, could be yielding a sense of accomplishment, could be increasing testosterone levels—but the one thing we are sure of? It helps. Combine that with the fact that the ladies like a man who keeps his body in good shape, and exercise is a no brainer.
I know time is usually the big factor here, but consider that your physical and mental health are far too important not to invest in them for an hour or two a day at most (3-4 times a week at least). Also, consider that exercise will probably improve your mental capacities… so while you’ll be tempted to neglect gym time for study time, you may actually make study time more effective by working out. We all need breaks. All that to say, there’s really no excuse gents!
4. Pursue discipline
Yes, there’s some stress to getting disciplined. But perhaps it’s eustress and not distress. We need eustress—good stress—in order to keep from getting weak mentally and physically. Our climate-controlled, materialistic lives are making weakness the norm. Why are we surprised when we are so easily made anxious?
Does it suck to get up in the morning at the same time every day? Man up and do it anyway. Is it painful to push your body (not too far) at the gym a few times a week, or go for that run? Maybe that’s just what you need: physically and mentally giving yourself some good stress.
Expand your capacities for difficulty and stressors will seem less and less stressful. In fact, since we’re having a more masculine talk, you might consider that weight training can actually increase your testosterone, which seems tied to better mood and lower stress.
Furthermore, routine is a mental health must. Your body and your brain will thank you for it, since it means less work for them. Go to bed at the same time every night, and get up at the same time every morning. Develop nighttime and morning routines to book-end your day with minimal chaos.
5. Do hard things
I’ve heard it said somewhere that, “the more uncomfortable you make yourself, the more comfortable you’ll be.” Paul writes that our comfort is ultimately from God, which is absolutely true (2 Corinthians 1). But remember Paul’s context: He was constantly being challenged by things that would terrify you and me in our climate-controlled existence.
What does it mean to do hard things? It could mean trying the other things mentioned in this article. It could mean taking some risks: ask that attractive girl out, try that new thing that scares you a bit, post that article you’ve been wanting to write.
It could just mean finding ways to challenge yourself. Stop taking the shortcut. Work your butt off to establish that healthy habit you’ve been thinking about. Whatever it is, do it, then keep doing it while moving on to the next hard thing.
I’m fully convinced that a lot of mental health issues are tied to weak minds and lonely souls. We were meant for challenge; we were wired to take on new obstacles. Yet in our world of Western comforts our courage and strength atrophy.
Sometimes we are lonely because we take the easy way out. We text instead of call. We relate more on social media than in real life. But these easy ways make us weak and lonely.
I remember reading Henry Cloud’s book Changes That Heal and coming to this shocking revelation: it is not enough for someone to say to a person suffering from anxiety or depression, “You need more God/bible/prayer.” In context, he was speaking against a simplistic approach to dealing with mental health concerns.
His point? These spiritual disciplines, while essential in one’s life, don’t negate the second part of the Great Commandment: to love your neighbour as yourself. The reality is, if you don’t have any friends, you aren’t loving your neighbour. Love necessitates relationship.
Most of us would react, “well of course I have friends!” Sure we do. But are we regularly talking with our friends, enjoying them, laughing with them, sharing with them, listening to them and helping them?
Even though I have spent my life surrounded by people at work and church, I eventually realized something: when it came to close relationships and even good old fun, my life was quite lacking. I was lonely. It’s easier to get to this lonely place than I thought. It’s almost a norm. In our social media bent world, we tend to hide behind screens and neglect the raw and risky face-to-face relationships that we were meant for.
And let’s be honest, even as tough as relationships can be, they’re fun. And laughter is good for the soul (Prov. 17:22).
7. Find love, and learn to love sacrificially
Two falsehoods deter us men from pursuing women. First, we give into the enticing false intimacy of porn and hold onto unhealthy or unattainable images of physical beauty.
Second, we are tempted to substitute real relationships for the feelings of pseudo friendship in social media. As men give themselves increasingly to porn and social media, more men in our Christian subculture seem unwilling to pursue women.
Most men still express a desire that they want to get married (and have sex), but many are unwilling to give up porn or social media as their primary ways of relating to women. They are not willing to go through the difficulties and pay the price to get there. To be honest, I’ve been one of them at times, and I understand the complexities and difficulties of it all.
But the plain fact is that sometimes we are paralyzed simply by fear of rejection or the aforementioned unbiblical views. The only acceptable response here is repentance. Consider the huge positive mental and physical (and, not unrelated, social and financial and other) benefits that come from marriage, especially for men.
A good, albeit imperfect, marriage choice can improve a man’s life and mental health vastly. It can also force to the surface other sin and health issues that, while difficult to go through, may prove healthy in the long run. Once more, difficulty may prove beneficial to your mental health and toughness.
Consider this an encouragement to pursue marriage, assuming you are not gifted by God for singleness. Start with baby steps: volunteer or join social groups where you’ll meet women of faith. Don’t feel immediate pressure to date; start with just getting to know godly women and learning how to relate to them.
8. Know that you are in good company
Many great men have come before you and battled the “black dog” that is depression. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and even great spiritual leaders like protestant reformer Martin Luther and British preacher Charles Spurgeon all went toe to toe with the stubborn darkness.
They journeyed with God through dark seasons and depression, and they came out on top. God used them to change the world, to the glory of God. Without making any promises, I encourage you to think about how God might not only help you overcome your issues but even grow through them and be used to better the lives of others.
I’ll also say this. Every guy needs a few brothers that will stick with him through thick and thin. If you’ve got that, you’re in a good space. Yet our world tends to isolate men as they get older, meaning that the Pauls and Timothys, the Davids and Jonathans, aren’t always enabled to flourish. So while there’s value to intergender community, there’s just something special about brotherhood. I imagine it would help any man’s mental health. So find a way to cultivate brotherhood in your life.
9. Know that God is with you
This is no cliche—it is a fact of Scripture. Jesus was no stranger to sorrows and perhaps even some sort of non-sinful physiological experience of anxiety. Jesus is with you, always, and sympathizes with your weaknesses (Heb. 4). And, one way or another, he can use even your depression or other mental illness for good (Rom. 8:28). So get up, and consider how you might make the most of whatever is plaguing you, because you’re not alone. God goes with you and before you in the battle.
Consider also how “walking with God” necessitates being in his word. Scripture is not only full of the real experiences of believers; it is also a guidebook for lamenting and dealing with suffering. Are you disoriented? Allow God’s Spirit, who wrote Scripture, to guide you through expressing your confusion to God and being real with him. Meditate on the promises of God and allow them to steep the water of your soul. Memorize important Scriptures so that you can recall them when need be.
God is not only with you in an abstract, personal and spiritual sense. He’s speaking through Scripture, which is alive, active. It will change our lives, if only we will listen.
10. Don’t be afraid of counselling
When it comes to mental health, there appear to be two competing ways of thinking.
Some argue that the key is actually facing one’s feelings about a particular event or experience. Others argue that the key is not thinking about said issues—distraction heals. The fact that men and women tend to approach mental health differently might give some validity to the distraction concept, while there’s clear evidence that some level of counselling helps.
As is often the case, the reality is perhaps somewhere in between. Anecdotally, this seems true in my own life, so I would recommend a mix. Counselling is incredibly valuable and has greatly helped me deal with my own depressive symptoms. Sometimes it’s helped just to have language for something I’m going through.
At the same time, you can’t keep talking about something forever, or it maintains its power over you. It becomes powerless when you just move on, and feel the freedom to let it go and entrust it to God. Counselling or general processing of this issue (especially reframing it) helps insofar as it enables you to put an issue in its place and move past it.
I began this article by addressing you with “dear brothers.” I hope you know that you are loved and that you have many brothers that suffer in the same ways as you. I’ll leave you with Peter’s words:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood around the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 5:6-11
“Gender differences in rumination: A meta-analysis.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3786159/
“Sex Differences in Anxiety and Depression: Role of Testosterone.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3946856/
“Testosterone, cortisol and anxiety in elite field hockey players.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031938413001856