I sat across from a pastor who had come through a very traumatic experience, a deep depression, and a sense of ‘aloneness.’ He had recovered significantly at the time of our conversation. In our discussion, he made this startling comment, “I have discovered that the only person responsible for guarding my mental health is me.” It is wonderful that so many mental health supports are available to us in the twenty-first century. However, the ultimate solution to our mental wellness lies in his comment. The responsibility to affect the solution rests with us. Here are some pointers to help us with that application.
Our True Value –Humility is not self-deprecation. Many leaders berate and belittle themselves and think that it is a noble spiritual posture. Rather, we need to anchor ourselves to our true identity in Christ. He loves us for who we are and not for how we perform. He knew our future before He called us, and still entrusted us with the ministry. Our enemy continually tries to erode and undermine our God-declared value. The Scripture is filled with affirmations firmly establishing God’s non-failing and eternal acceptance of us. We are well served to feed on those affirmations and base our ‘self-talk’ and ‘thinking thoughts’ on the authority of Scripture rather than our present feelings. Believing that we are a disappointment to God, that we are unworthy of His grace, that we are a failure in ministry, are common untruths that we sometimes embrace, especially when we are mentally and physically exhausted. The Word of God can help correct and settle those errant thoughts.
Our Body: God’s Temple – We do not idolize our physical body, but we honour the God who has chosen to make it His temple. We do that by caring for it. To live in indolence or dissipation is an insult and affront to the One who created us to be His dwelling place. Our emotional and mental wellbeing is directly associated with our physical state. Even when we are afflicted with an unavoidable illness, it is important to continue to do all we can to remain strong. It is a proven fact that those who exercise to the extent they are able, sleep well, and eat well-balanced meals, remain far more emotionally stable and mentally alert than those who do not, even into their senior years.
Our Support Network – While we are called to be the ‘friend to all,’ it is important that we are most influenced by voices speaking positive, affirming truth into our life. We need those trusted individuals who can help bring our perspective back into balance. We do not need platitudes or trite advice when we are emotionally taxed. Neither are we benefited by the constant bombardment of mostly negative media. The present COVID dilemma has pushed many people into emotional exhaustion. This weariness is intensified by our fascination with social media platforms. Much of the content available to us in the cyberworld is neither emotionally nourishing nor personally affirming. Spending untoward amounts of time living in a world of broiling, negative controversy drains us. The things to which we constantly expose our minds will eventually shape our personality and temperament.
Even a Cup of Cold Water – Carl Jung, the brilliant Swiss psychiatrist, did much of the initial study into understanding depression and other mood disorders. The following quote, while somewhat heady, provides an interesting window into one of his fundamental conclusions. “If I had to live in a foreign country, I would seek out one or two persons who seemed amiable and would make myself useful to them, so that libido came to me from outside though in a somewhat primitive form, say of a dog wagging its tail. I would raise animals and plants and find joy in their thriving.” When it appears we have no emotional energy left, Jung suggests that we garner what little we have and expend it in an act of helping someone else. In the very exercise of providing useful assistance to another, we are replenished. It is a rather glib and overused statement, but worthy of mention here: “Scripture does not subscribe to the idea that we think less of ourselves, only that we think of ourselves less.” The practice of thinking of ‘ourselves less’, is best accomplished by thinking of others more. Having personally lived in the depths of depression, I know the debilitating effects of anger, fear, and sorrow that are turned inward. It’s unhealthy and potentially lethal introversion. Deliberately seeking to engage in helpful acts to assist others, breaks this compulsive, self-destructive pattern. Even when we are emotionally or mentally unwell, we will discover that it is still more blessed to give than to receive.
Discover Stress Triggers and Employ Guided Missiles – During ‘Desert Storm’ I was fascinated to see the accuracy of the American guided missile program. Commanders were able to pinpoint targets and deploy missiles to strike within inches. This was all done from a ship’s computer hundreds of kilometres away. Each of us has triggers that, when deployed, produce unhealthy levels of stress. Many of us have either not identified those triggers or have ignored them. It is vital to know what creates debilitating stress in our life. It is just as vital to have the ammunition available to reduce their capacity to control us. We cannot avoid stress, but we can successfully manage it. Managing stress in our life begins with understanding what triggers it. If we are unable to personally identify stress triggers or struggle to find ways to deal with them, we should seek counsel. A counsellor is trained to assist us in that very exercise. Unresolved or deferred stress leads to a physical, mental, and spiritual crisis.
Come to the Garden Alone – The old hymn, rarely sung, contains words that provide the missing ingredient for many people who are suffering from mental exhaustion or burnout. Hagar, the young maidservant of Sarah found herself pregnant, abandoned and discouraged. In that moment of forced solitude in a desert place, she met God as ‘El Roi,’ the God who always sees. We need that same epiphany, and His presence is the place to receive it. I may come to the garden of His presence alone, but I am not left alone. As I quiet my soul, God walks with me and talks with me and reminds me that I belong to Him and that He has my best interest at the centre of His loving heart. When we are facing mental exhaustion, we often run from the source of our greatest help. In our shame and self-recrimination, we shut ourselves away from the presence of God very much as Adam and Eve did. We theoretically know that in His presence, according to His own Word, there is fulness of joy, but, it is difficult amidst personal meltdown to access that joy. I am certain I have never experienced the ‘fulness’ of joy, as it was initially intended in Eden, and will not until I enter His immediate presence. However, against my own inclinations to hide away when I have been mentally unwell, I have discovered that when I have deliberately calmed myself in His presence, He has given me assurance of His leadership in my life. In those ‘Garden’ moments, I have been able to extract enough joy to settle the immediate suffering, and gain sustenance for the next leg of the journey.
We Are Not Super-Persons – We all love action heroes because of their extraordinary powers. We would all like to emulate them. Large corporations feed on this yearning. “Facebook “is currently creating an alternate universe called the ‘metaverse’ where we can enter a virtual life and be the heroes we want to be. However, in the real world, it has been proven that even Superman was not ‘super.’ It is a good thing to have goals that stretch our faith, things that cannot be accomplished unless God Himself comes to our aid. However, it is important to ensure that those goals are God-inspired and not driven by our own ambition to succeed. There is within us a drive to prove ourselves to ourselves, to others, and even to God. When that becomes our motivation, our efforts exhaust us. We will never be satisfied with the results. We will continually set the bar for our performance higher until it is impossible to reach. There are occasions when we need to own the fact that the tasks that stress us to the point of collapse are self-imposed. They were conceived in the womb of our own desire to succeed and not in the heart of God. If the burden is too heavy and the yoke is not easy during the hardest seasons of plowing, perhaps we are wearing the wrong yoke and carrying the wrong burden. Continuing to forge ahead if that is the case, will break our body, soul and spirit. It is never wrong for us to return to the beginnings of any pursuit and honestly question our motives. God’s goals for our life will be humanly impossible, but not unrealistic. If they are truly commissioned by God, He will give us a generous dispensation of faith, a sufficient degree of wisdom, a divine strategy and the strength needed to accomplish them.
We Are Not Robots – Some wise person once coined the phrase ‘variety is the spice of life.’ There is a great deal of truth in that maxim. I cannot imagine the drudgery of an assembly line occupation, repeating the same task, every day, day after day. Yet we often fall into the routine of plodding through ministerial duties in a ‘robotic’ fashion. We perform well, because we have learned the routine, but little remains of the excitement or enthusiasm for the task. Nothing can drain our emotional capital faster than losing our ability to think and act creatively. It is essential that we have variety in our life, an assortment of things that stimulate our imagination and give expression to our personal giftedness. During the present COVID crisis, with the accompanying necessity to live online and onscreen, I have had difficulty in maintaining concentration for long periods of time. I have had to interject frequent changes of pace and activity to keep my mind fresh. I have had to release myself to alternating activities throughout the day, without accepting the self-censure that can easily come in so doing. It is important that we function as thinking, feeling, creative persons and not machines simply accomplishing assigned tasks. Even ministry becomes monotonous when it is performed in a vacuum devoid of creativity or imagination. A mind that has fallen into an uncreative routine is more susceptible to mental health maladies.
Recognize and Intercept Addictive Behaviour – Addictions can develop in multiple ways in our life, but they are always counterproductive to our mental wellness. An addiction is defined as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.” While some people are more predisposed to addictive behaviour than others, none of us is immune to its possibility and its consequences in our life. I have dealt frequently with addictions in the life of leaders. They vary from sexual addictions, substance abuse, gambling compulsion, eating disorders, retreat into fantasy through gaming, reading or movie choices. Most recently, we are witnessing strong, unhealthy addictions to social media. We tend to want to categorize addictions into those which are less or more harmful. It is important to understand that all addictive behaviour is ultimately destructive. An addiction of any sort will gradually erode a feeling of self-worth, precipitate guilt, and contribute to mental, physical, and spiritual breakdown. If we find ourselves falling into addictive patterns, in any area of our life, we should seek professional help at once to break the cycle. The sooner these destructive patterns are addressed the quicker we arrive back at a healthy place.
We Are Not Islands – John Donne in his famous essay captured forever the interconnectedness of humanity: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” Donne’s words should be even more cogent within the faith community. Paul states it this way in 1 Corinthians 12, “So God has put the body together such that extra honour and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honoured, all the parts are glad.” James offers this prescription: “Confess your faults to one another that you might be healed.” (James 5:17) When we are emotionally and mentally fatigued, the tendency is to ‘turtle’ and isolate ourselves like a wounded animal might. In doing so we deprive ourselves of the help we desperately need. I have often faced potentially calamitous situations which were embarrassing and seemed unsolvable. My first inclination has been to ‘secret’ it within my own mind. However, when I have fought that urge, I have found clarity in the vulnerable sharing of those issues with trusted others. In the articulating of the frustrating, we often neglect to receive the help and healing we require.
Guarding my mental health has been a daily challenge for me but with God’s grace and putting these practical steps into action in my life, I have been able to overcome them.
Your ongoing mental health is our concern. Please feel free to email me and we can set up a chat.