Start somewhere. This is probably the best advice I ever have to offer, and it seems like the best place to “get back on the horse” with the blog.
I know I’m not alone as a person who gets overwhelmed by all the things that end up on my to-do list. Sometimes that’s a self-inflicted wound because I take on too much. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle against perfectionism and depression.
When things feel too big to even be possible, I just start somewhere. There’s the old saying that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, or the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Pick your favorite metaphor, and just start small.
The elephant I’m probably struggling with the most right now is decluttering, so I’ve been applying the “start somewhere” motto to it. It’s not fast work for me, but every time I walk into a mess, I just pick a spot and start working from there. If that even feels too big, I set a timer for 15 minutes and give myself permission to take a break if I work through the timer.
Whatever elephant you’re trying to eat, I have no shortcuts for the actual work. But I do know that the only way to tackle it is to start somewhere and just work through each step as it comes. I know that makes it sound very simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. Sometimes simple is ridiculously hard, and that’s okay. Most of the time the hardest part of the work is just getting started.
I have been planning for months to get myself together and start writing and posting here on the blog again in the New Year. I was all set to start tomorrow, but I feel like it would be tone deaf to today’s events to carry on like that mess in the Capitol didn’t happen. I also feel like I have nothing to add to the conversation at large that will be helpful and not just add to the cacophony.
I do feel like I can say no matter who you voted for, violently storming Congress is not the best way to be heard as anything but a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. I think a lot of hypocrisies have been exposed (again) in the powers that be that cannot be unseen and need to be examined. I think the true character of many politicians was on display, and I firmly believe that when people show you who they are, you should believe them. I think our country is resilient, but I know we have a lot of uncomfortable truths to stare down and hard conversations to have. I also know that no matter what happens on the national and international stages, I have the most impact in the communities I’m involved with, and I am to love my neighbor. That command is unconditional and irrevocable. Nations rise and fall, but the love of God and the word of God do not change.
When chaos comes calling, that’s the first thing I cling to: I have eternal hope, and I have a rock to build my life on that is unfazed by riots and party politics and pandemics. When the chaos feels overwhelming, I try to limit my exposure to news of the craziness, and then I try to do something productive. For the last month, that’s been baking bread.
We already tried and failed at the quarantine sourdough starter; no one at my house was eating the sourdough bread, and the same black thumb tendencies that kill most plants that come under my care eventually killed off the starter. But bread baking with yeast turns out to be far simpler than I remember it being, and we all like just plain-old-not-sour bread. (At least no one is complaining and refusing to eat it, so I’m going to carry on assuming everyone likes it as much as I do…)
Baking fresh bread is deeply satisfying on a lot of levels, so I’m not surprised it’s been a go-to comfort activity in the pandemic. Kneading dough is pretty physical, so it’s almost a “heavy work” activity that tends to calm our bodies and minds. Punching dough after the first rise turns out to be one of our favorite family activities – even my husband grinned when it was his turn to punch a bowl of dough. If you’re a tactile person, feeling good sandwich bread dough in your hands is pretty wonderful. I hate slime, and my daughter is obsessed with it, so there’s a metric ton of it gumming up my house, but bread dough feels like a therapeutic thing of beauty (it’s almost good enough to make me forget that slime exists).
There’s also something warm and boosting to your self-efficacy about making kitchen staples like bread – not to mention the heavenly smell of baking bread. When I made French toast with my bread, I was extremely proud that it was a meal made completely from scratch, down to the bread slices. I didn’t brag out loud then, so I’m doing it now.
Over the last month I have tweaked the recipes I started with until I found a reliable, not too crumbly, not too mushy loaf. I’m an okay cook (never expect me to pan fry anything without charring it and/or catching it on fire, and if it’s complicated or involves separating eggs, I’m probably going to fail), but I am a pretty darn good baker. And it turns out, I’m getting pretty darn good at baking bread.
After watching the news today, baking bread tonight was good for my soul. It was a little (literal) slice of normal in the midst of chaos. I got to knead and punch, and I’m currently smelling the wonder of fresh baking bread.
When the headlines and life feel overwhelming and terrible, find something good and simple and true to remind you that the chaos isn’t forever, that nothing is too big for God to handle, and that butter on hot bread is one of the greatest treasures in the world. If you’re in need of some bread and butter therapy, come on over, and I’ll bake a you fresh loaf. You can even punch the dough.
I am a naturally empathetic person. It’s one of my INFJ personality type superpowers. Empathy makes me a great listener, a good friend, a compassionate leader, a solid writer, a generous giver…
But it’s also my kryptonite. I internalize the mood of the space I’m in, the people I’m around, the news I hear and read. All of it goes straight to my heart. When I’m not my healthiest spiritually and/or mentally, I have to create buffers between my soul and the ”real world,” or I can’t watch the news without crying over how broken the world is – how the pandemic is affecting the entire world – how heavy the losses are for families affected by the crime and poverty being reported – how divisive and angry our politics are – how even the good news stories are often colored with shades of loss or hardship, even if it’s a story about a loss restored.
It’s all so oppressive that joy, even the deep and abiding joy of living in Christ, is hard to muster. I tend to retreat, to build so many buffers that I can hide in comfort food and craft projects. Sometimes I volunteer too much as a way to compensate and keep my brain too busy with stuff to do to be able to focus on how I feel. It’s a really dumb way to handle all the feels, but it typically happens on such a subconscious level that I don’t realize it until I’ve taken on too much work to handle and there are abandoned crochet projects all over the house (and the house is a wreck).
As I grow, I get better at spotting the cycle. I’m certainly better at recognizing the moments when I’m feeling all the feelings, and even knowing when they’re not mine.
But the letting go part, that’s not my strong suit.
I’m great at planning my way out of mess and thinking I can generate just the right to-do list that will fix all my perceived problems. Overweight and out of shape? Yes, but if I follow this diet plan and this exercise regimen EXACTLY, then I’ll be at my goal weight and peak physical conditioning in less than a year. Behind on my quest to be a “real author?” Absolutely, but if I write this many minutes per day on each writing project, and I send out this many book proposals in the next two weeks, THEN I’ll be on my way.
It’s all malarkey. Not that I shouldn’t make plans and set goals, but I am still learning the lesson that I’m setting insane goal paces as a way to avoid some of my feelings. The irony, of course, is that setting unattainable goal deadlines sets me up to disappoint myself and kick off a whole new wave of uncomfortable disappointed feelings.
I’ve been aiming instead to feel the feeling for a bit, and then I have to move on. Stress is definitely the hardest for me to let go of, and it’s probably the most indicative of where my faith is in any given moment. It’s also been the most common feeling of the last few weeks.
I’m not a super strict schedule person, because even when I try to be strict, something blows up and pushes all my meticulous plans aside. To go from a loose schedule to something new entirely with a child home from school who’s definitely used to a routine has turned my brain onto permanent “AAAAGGGHHHH” mode. It’s not that I have a lot more to do – it’s the same amount of work, although I’m doing more consistent housekeeping and actually clearing out some clutter – but there’s a lot more emotional and mental and spiritual work to do to keep my empathy superpower from killing me. The unknown and nebulous menace of dealing with a pandemic is also adding a layer of stress that’s harder to identify.
I know that I feel stress less acutely when I am consistently spending time praying and studying the Bible. I use a prayer app to keep track of requests, and it also has a meditation and preparation prompt that uses Bible verses and devotional writings to direct your time before you begin praying through requests. Some days, that’s as far as I can get (and very honestly, some days I don’t make it to an intentional time of prayer, and it’s just scattered bits when I remember something or start to lose my mind). On my best days, I also spend time reading the Bible and taking notes. You don’t have to take notes to study the Bible, but it’s very much how my brain processes information, so I hand write notes when I’m really studying. It’s also good to just read without the expectation that I need to do anything deeper.
I know that my diet and water intake will also have a huge effect on how I handle stress, though that knowledge doesn’t always translate into the wisdom of action. Same story with exercise. That’s on my list to work on this week.
You may wonder why I started with prayer and Bible study as the best stress buster in my toolbox and spent so much space talking about it. There are two reasons I think it’s the most effective tool. First, focusing on God in a way that seeks to learn more about his character and channels my prayers towards others shifts my focus entirely away from myself and towards an infinitely larger subject. My worries fade in comparison, and I lose the weight of my stress in that time of meditation. Second, meditation is a highly recommended cognitive behavioral therapy tool because it teaches us to calm our thoughts and shift our perspectives and thought patterns. Prayer and Bible study is my mode of meditation.
Managing stress and learning how to let go if it is one huge feeling we can practice the “feel the feelings and then let them go” mantra on that we’re all experiencing to some degree right now. Sometimes just managing stress makes managing other emotions much easier. When that’s not enough, how do we let go of other feelings that want to linger, like anger and sadness? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I have model.
Feel the feeling. Acknowledge that it’s there and know that whatever the feeling is, it’s okay to experience it and that you are not defined by your emotions. If you’re in a safe and appropriate setting, vent it. Cry or shake your fist with rage or write down what you’re feeling. If you’re not in a space that’s conducive to expressing the feeling, note it, and let yourself come back to it when you can. Realize that expressing emotion doesn’t mean you have a free pass to act any way you want without consequence, so think before you act. If an emotion is so strong that you’re not going to behave well, give yourself some time and space.
Once you acknowledge the feeling, examine it. What exactly was the emotion? What triggered it? How did you react? What foundational beliefs affected your reaction? Was your reaction appropriate to the situation? What information would change the intensity level of the emotion you experienced? How could you react differently if you have the same experience again?
Most of the time, taking a moment to examine the feeling lets us take a step back and look more impartially at the situation, and we find that our emotional reaction is less intense than it was in the heat of the moment. Downgrading the emotional intensity is a big step in letting go.
If you’ve examined the emotion, and nothing seems to take away the edge, decide if it’s a situation you can change or not. If you can, make some changes. If you can’t change the situation, you need to change your thought pattern. Whenever the lingering negative feeling pops up, actively counter it with a positive thought or action. For example, with depression, I tend to get cranky when I’m not in healthy condition. When I realize the anger is creeping up, I try to actively avoid confrontations that I know will end ugly, and I remind myself to breathe slowly and remember that whatever it is, it will be okay. Find something to redirect in a positive way the negative thought/emotion pattern that works for you. It takes a lot of practice, and it feels a little silly when you first start, but it’s a game changer.
Even with this model and a ton of head knowledge about what I need to put into action to let go of things and feel better, sometimes I suck great wind. But good mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. As long as you’re moving forward, or at least not wallowing too long when you fall down, you’re building the endurance you need to be healthy.
“My art is largely made up of my pain; re-framed, redesigned and re-purposed. It’s a mutually beneficial experience for both the creator and the beholder. Transformative healing is a beautiful process.”
― Jaeda DeWalt
Over and over the last few weeks, the tiny human and I have both been dealing with frustrations and quick tempers. This morning, one of the dogs stole her cookie, and she completely fell apart. I grabbed the box of cookies and tried to get her to keep moving to the car. But she couldn’t yet. She was slumped on the top porch step and bawling. I couldn’t sit down to hug and cuddle because I was holding all of the things, and we had to get her to school and me to work.
I try to give her space to feel her feelings and then talk about them so she can learn how to accept the emotions but deal with them in truth rather than let them stand as truth. I also recognize that there is a time and a place for everything, so we both need resiliency to be able to handle some emotional moments quickly in order to deal with the task at hand. In this morning’s example, I had already provided a replacement cookie. (Breakfast of champions – some days we eat a healthy morning meal, some days we skip it, and some days a cookie is acceptable if it gets us out the door. You may be a responsible adult with all your crap together, but this is reality in my life: some days you have it together, and some days you can’t find it with GPS and a homing beacon.) I had already expressed empathy and solidarity that dogs should not steal cookies, but she was still crushed.
I responded as any mature adult would and continued down the stairs to put everything in the car, preparing to forcibly lift the tiny human and put her in the car if it came to that, muttering under my breath the whole way and questioning why God would let this happen on a morning that had otherwise been smooth sailing. This day had tight parameters on time and things that needed to get accomplished, and I was watching it explode before it even got moving.
My counseling work of late has been about framing problems and things I want to improve in statements that are positive. “I am stressed about work” becomes “Take a deep breath, focus, and work on the task at hand.” I am always telling the tiny human when she gets angry and frustrated by failing to do something in her first try to slow down, take a few breaths, and try again; you have to try at least three times before you can quit.
This morning, as I finished loading the car, she stood up and started down the stairs, still crying, but moving. I told her that it’s fine to be mad at the dog, but she’d miss out on the replacement cookie – worse, she’d choke on it – if she kept up the dramatic crying (it was no longer real despair, and I call her out on fake crying). I told her we needed to rethink the problem with the dog stealing her food so we could solve the problem, and we could talk about it after school.
“But we can’t solve the problem – she already stole my cookie and ate it!” The tiny human was still stuck. How many times have I refused to reevaluate an issue because the situation has already spun out of control or because I don’t want to accept the facts on the ground not matching up with my expectations.
“You’re right. We can’t fix that, but we can replace the lost cookie and then make a plan to keep the dog from stealing your food again. We can solve the problem by making sure it doesn’t happen again.” And then God pointed at that spot in my brain that gets stuck on past failures and said, “You see it, right?”
I’m trying to teach my child resiliency that I don’t always have a grasp on. I’m doing the work, and I’m getting better at it, too, but I’d be a hypocrite of the worst order to tell you “this is how it’s done” after I stomped and muttered and railed at God over the tiny human’s railing at a lost cookie unless I admit that I am a work in progress.
Some days depression brain wins, some days I’m healthy and firing on all cylinders, and most days I’m somewhere in between, arguing with both truth and depression brain. I have the most success when I reframe my thoughts. The brilliant pattern in only using positive statements is they leave no room for the negative thought.
You are actively replacing the potential guilt/shame spiral with an affirmative. You push out the negative by filling the space in your head with a positive action plan.
This is not the same thing as avoidance; you don’t avoid the emotional response to your circumstances. You acknowledge the feelings, and then you apply truth and use the emotion as a cue to implement your reframing tool. It takes repetition and practice (and SOOOOO much prayer) to make this tool a habit. But it can become a habit and a powerful weapon in our arsenals to defeat depression brain when we keep practicing.
Another beautiful thing about reframing is that it perfectly exemplifies God’s grace. Of course we have failed (and will continue to fail as long as we are human), but grace is forgiveness and the opportunity to try again. Grace is room to grow.
Reframe those doubts and the thoughts of despair. What does God really say to us about them? Don’t settle for what the serpent would whisper in your ear and find some truth in the Bible. Reframe the lies with his perfect love. Reframe the pain into something beautiful.
“This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT
In the Mabbat Facebook group, I’ve been posting a Bible study guide each week, and right now, we’re in Colossians chapter 2. (Here’s the link if you want to check that out: https://www.facebook.com/groups/773975689656609/?ref=bookmarks It’s going up in weekly installments in the Facebook group, and then I’ll post it as an e-book after we’ve completed it in the group – more on that to come next month!) Each week, there are a few notes, and then there’s space on the page for you to do some creative assignments to deepen your study of God’s word. I’ve discovered as I write the Bible study prompts that there are some things I would love to add but don’t really have the room for if I stay focused. So I decided to share those here on the blog.
Oftentimes as I’m reading the Bible, I find ideas that correlate with things I’ve learned in therapy. I don’t know why that surprises me, because I firmly believe that God gave us the Bible as a blueprint for living the best lives we can.
In Colossians 2:2, Paul expresses a desire for the church members to be “knit together by strong ties of love” before he expresses his desire for them “to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan.” As a lifelong church member, this felt backwards to me until I spent time thinking through it. Aren’t we supposed to have Jesus first and only? Isn’t he sufficient for all our needs? Yes, but… Our standard church answers leave a lot unexamined. Jesus gives us the tools we need, and he will faithfully meet our needs, but we aren’t absolved from investing a little elbow grease in the process.
Paul wanted the church at Colossae to be bound together in love to provide an environment that fosters learning, trust, and care for one another – an environment that will encourage confidence in the knowledge of God. As I breathed in that verse, I understood that we can’t see Christ’s love unless we are expressing it and receiving it, and that is the primary function of the church – to be a network of Jesus’s love and grace.
How does this fit in with depression coping skills? I’m glad you asked. Strong relationships are key in combatting depression. There are plenty of scientific studies (as well as every therapist I’ve seen) that tell us the more connected we are to other people, the lower our risk of depression and substance abuse. If you have depression, think about your symptoms. Do you find that you pull away from people and, however unintentionally, isolate yourself? Do you drop out of activities with other people that you enjoy? Do you back out of engagements with family and friends?
Paul knew it was vital for the church to have strong, loving relationships to understand the fullness of God’s love, and it’s vital for our daily lives, too. Especially if you battle depression.
So how do you do this when you are in the throes of grief and depression? First, let someone in. Find at least one friend that you can trust, and open the door. Share with them, and listen when they need to share. Then add another friend. Then join a group – maybe go to a class you enjoy and start meeting the class members, or go to your local church and join a small group or Bible study class. Slowly expand your circle and invest in those relationships. In my experience, the more connected I am to my family, to my circle of friends, and to my church, the better I feel and the easier it is to get out of a funk when I fall into one.
Another verse that grabbed me in Colossians 2 is verse 7. It’s a beautiful image to think about: “Let your roots grow down into him…” It’s also a solid way to build a foundation for faith. First, establish roots, then build, then grow, and then overflow.
That’s not just a solid way to develop faith, but it’s also a solid way to build mental health.
You need roots – some basic skills to recognize depression in your life and some basic skills to combat your symptoms (a treatment and/or maintenance plan). Once you have that, then you can start building up your coping skills and work towards a “new normal” as your symptoms stabilize. Then you will grow stronger, and then you’ll be able to share and help others. The thing about this setup is that you can never neglect any of the stages; they’re all continual and build on each other. As soon as you skip a step (ignore your roots, say), the entire thing (your mental health) comes crashing down.
This may be less dire for episodic depression and acute grief that will pass once the circumstances shift, but if you struggle with depression as an ongoing issue, you know you need to keep your eye on the ball and not ignore the things that keep you healthy. I have recently been able to stop my antidepressant medication, but I can feel it when I let stress build up and skip the things that make me feel sane, like exercise, eating well, writing, and art. When I see my cues – a short temper, complete lack of motivation, and a desire to eat all of the chocolate in the world – I know it’s time to evaluate and get back to basics of self-care. Sometimes, I know it’s time to check in with my therapist.
What does your root structure look like? Do you have a solid foundation of self-care and coping skills? What does your life look like when you are “overflow” stage? If you’re not there, what will it take for you to get on the right track?
*I am not a professional therapist or counselor, so I don’t offer this as a replacement for professional care. If you are dealing with depression, please talk to your doctor and make a plan to begin healing. I believe that Jesus can heal us, but I also know that he gave us tools like doctors and psychologists to help us when we need it. If you are not getting better through prayer and healthy habits, please seek professional help. I hope if nothing else, I hope my example can help remove the stigma that so often shadows mental health issues in our churches. If you don’t know where to start, contact me, and I’ll be happy to help you locate resources in your area.