[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.

Written by Christina Main. Christina leads an eclectic life which includes working as a Psychotherapist, and being on staff at her church as the Director of Student Ministries. In her spare time, Christina enjoys running, birdwatching, and checking the waitlist for when she’ll receive her future Bernedoodle puppy.]

Allow me to be candid: In the summer of 2019, I broke my butt. 

Well actually I injured my piriformis, which is a “band-like muscle” in the buttocks, as I learned from a physiotherapist after I couldn’t walk without pain one day. I had been training vigorously for my first half-marathon. Turns out that if you run poorly and then keep running, you can really hurt yourself. This news forced me to make big changes in my training, after trying to ignore it for some time. My physiotherapist couldn’t even promise that I’d be able to run the full race, but I wanted to try everything in my power to be able to if I could. This wasn’t the way I had anticipated this monumental run going. 

For me, it’s helpful to use the analogy of running when looking at struggles with mental health. To some, the journey through tough mental health seasons can be a brief jaunt. For others it may be a harrowing, lengthy, and slow journey in pursuing wellness. As is the case in any race, there is a goal. To finish. And to finish in one piece. Thankfully, I managed to finish my half marathon––yet it wasn’t without angst, physical pain, and a lot of doubt along the way.

In a race, it is common for runners to battle emotional and mental distress along the way. Many struggle with doubts, discouragement, and a loss of motivation. That’s how life is too, isn’t it? In fact, one in three Canadians will struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives. This means that their mood and distress levels will shift enough to impair their normal functioning.(1)  

This past year has been extra tough. In 2018, a Statistics Canada survey showed that 68% of individuals ages 15 and older self-reported having excellent or very good mental health. Just two years later, in 2020, that same stat dropped to only 54% of people who self-reported having excellent or very good mental health.(2)  More anecdotally, as a psychotherapist I have noted that people this year have experienced greater grief, deeper depression, and extremely high levels of anxiety. However, this is not surprising in the often-coined “unprecedented times” we are in this year. 

Considering all the above, here are four strategies that runners might use in a long-haul race which we can also apply to how we pursue mental health: 

1. Pacers help runners run at a sustainable pace. We too benefit by having others who can help us keep pace.

When the going gets tough, we might find ourselves pulling away from those who care about us. This behaviour is common, as we don’t want others to see us in dark places. But isolation does not help. Having people in our corner cheering us on is crucial in life. Acts 2:42 paints a great grassroots picture of the early church authentically living life and sharing together: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They literally learned together, ate together, and prayed together.

Letting people get close enough that they can see mental health struggles is not easy. However, when we are isolated, it can be easy to get trapped in negative thinking, clouding our reality.Having people actively tuned into our inner thought world can help balance anxiety, validate our experiences, challenge negative thought patterns, and normalize the reality of hard times. These friends can function as pacers along the way. 

If you don’t have a network of people, good places to start might include volunteering in your community, joining a sports league, or getting plugged into a local church small group. Virtual communities have been growing these days too––social media can be a great place to build connections centred around common interests. I recently discovered a local houseplant swapping group. Unbeleafable, eh!?

2. Healthy food and training habits fuel runners for their race––we too need to care for our bodies.

This includes, and is not limited to, eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy level of physical activity. So much of our emotional wellbeing can be linked to our physical body. In the human hierarchy of needs, our physical needs make up the base layer of health, and if those aren’t met, they can impact our emotional and mental wellbeing. Staying hydrated, moving our bodies, and resting can go a long way in combating difficult mental health challenges. Really practically, using phone applications that track mood, food intake, and physical activity can be helpful tools to notice what pattern you may have in your life.(3) 

Staying active can be especially tough in the winter seasons when the natural response is to hibernate and rest (the northern animals have this figured out, eh?). Fortunately, proper rest is also a necessary factor in maintaining emotional health. Don’t discount the power of a good nap! Creating a balance or rhythm that suits you and your lifestyle is important. 

3. Checkpoints allow runners to seek specialized help as needed. Likewise, we too may need to regularly check in with specialized support along the way. 

Finding support in mental health may mean finding a therapist, counsellor, mentor, pastor or spiritual director to journey with you for a season. These specialists have resources and the knowledge to help manage difficult realities. Visiting your family doctor is also essential. In the same way that you’d visit a doctor with a broken bone, our battered hearts need tending.

Many post-secondary schools also provide access for counselling at little to no cost––exploring these options at your school or researching local counselling agencies can be a place to start. Oftentimes, churches have resources available to support, guide, or help in hard times. 

Another practical checkpoint in the race can be to slow down and allow space for us to check in with ourselves in the present moment. Where am I at right now? What’s going on in my body, my mind? Am I settled, grounded, or secure? What do I need? Maybe practising a grounding strategy would help. One of my favourites involves using the senses to check in with the present moment. Naming five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste (I often replace this one with one truth about me). This exercise can help soothe a spike in anxiety or panic when the race feels grueling.

4. Good music inspires runners along the way. We can also be lifted up and inspired by faith.

The melody of faith in one’s life can greatly impact how we walk through difficult seasons of emotional health. Like good music that infiltrates our ears as we run, pursuing God in hard times can bring melodies to the dark caverns of our souls. 

In Romans 8:26, the apostle Paul writes of the Spirit working on our behalf even when we don’t have the words: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” When our minds and thoughts aren’t where they could be, and we haven’t the exact words to pray––God’s Spirit intercedes for us. We still have to show up willing to seek him. The same passage in Romans talks about hoping for what we do not yet have: perfect resurrection bodies. Until that day in eternity, we will continue in the angst of not being perfected, with flawed, failing bodies, and faltering brains, while still being able to seek God now with the help of the Spirit. 

The anticipation of this coming wholeness gives believers courage to seek after God in the depths of despair. Experiencing salvation by his Son welcomes us into his family with our brokenness and all. Holding on to faith means holding hope that God can move in our lives when we can’t see a way out. An ounce of hope and courage goes a long way in running a race, and the same is true when it comes to our mental health. 

In summary, surrounding ourselves with others who can help set the pace, practising healthy care for our bodies, checking in with specialized support when needed, and digging into faith are four ways among many to pursue health in painful times. We are all in the midst of the long race of life. Some intervals in the race will not be glamorous, and there may be times when we fall, and scuff our knees. Some days the getting up may take longer, or require more support. Wherever you are today in the race of life, I hope you know there is hope. As we walk forward in this finite race toward an infinite wholeness, may we find strength to press on.  

Notes: 

1. “Mental Illness in Canada.” Mental Illness in Canada – Data Blog – Public Health Infobase | Public Health Agency of Canada. 08 Oct. 2020. Web. 30 Nov. 2020.

2. Findlay, Leanne, and Rubab Arim. “This Article Examines the Self-perceived Mental and Physical Health of Canadians during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Reports Differences between Women and Men and for Different Age Groups.” 24 Apr. 2020. Web. 30 Nov. 2020.

3. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-health-and-covid-19/information-for-professionals/apps-for-mental-health

Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.

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