Thursday, July 12, 2018

Anxiety Part 1: The Phantom Menace

Let's talk anxiety.

I'm a pastor, and I suffer from anxiety. Before this year, I never would have called it by that name. I never would have said that I had a mental illness.

In my mind, other people had mental illnesses. I did not have a mental illness. I may have low self-esteem, or difficulty with high amounts of stress, or problems with general overthinking and extreme worry at times and in certain situations, but I don't have a mental illness.

Except I do.

Two years ago, I started having physical and mental shutdowns, usually after I had a difficult conversation with a friend (I wrote about this more here). It affected my work, my home life, and my friendships. After all, it's hard to be an available pastor, a good husband/dad, or a devoted friend, when you often have mental and physical shutdowns that can last over an hour. It's hard to function as a dad when you have a panic attack while playing hide and seek with your kids. It's hard to help people with their struggles when you're simply trying to keep your head above water, day after day.

I started going to therapy, and my therapist explained anxiety to me. She helped me understand how normal all of my body's responses were, despite how abnormal they felt. As I continued therapy and worked through some of my mental health issues, I also started talking and writing about it. I didn't feel like I had a lot to say; after all, I'm in no way a mental health professional. I didn't really have an agenda when I started sharing these things, either. I wasn't trying to start a conversation about mental health or anything. I just decided one day that I wanted to share this part of my life with people.

What surprised me after I started opening up about my anxiety was the response I received from other pastors. A number of people reached out to me and told me about their own mental health problems, and said that they don't know how to talk with anybody else about them.
One pastor said that if a pastor talks about his or her own mental illness, it can be career suicide. To that person (and anyone else who feels that way) I would say: if your church doesn't want you because of your mental illness, that's probably not a church for you.
Honestly, a church that doesn't want you because of your mental illness doesn't seem like much of a church to me.
Rant over.

All of these responses got me thinking that maybe if I talk more about my own mental illness, other people may feel less stigma about their mental health problems.

So that's what I'm going to do. I think I'll do about 13 of these-probably one per week (I say "probably" because I'm not the most consistent blogger...I'll do my best).

To start this series off, I'll give a couple of false thoughts that I often have about my own anxiety, and then mention a couple of ways in which the church can do better at helping those who have mental health problems.

First: False ideas I have about my own anxiety:

1. I just need to be stronger. Tough it out. Power through. This is all in my head. I'm just being weak, and can overpower this.

It's not that simple. I've never been able to overcome my anxiety on my own. In order to overpower my mental illness, I have to fight my brain. But the thing I use to fight my brain is my brain. I have to fight my mind with my mind. The mind, the brain, is the problem itself, so it's impossible to fight it.
Do you see the difficulty?
In my first therapy session, my therapist pointed out that powering forward only gets me stuck more. Catastrophic thinking usually leads to more catastrophic thinking. That's where meditation practices and such can help divert my mind and attention away from the destructive, catastrophic cycle in which I so often find myself.

2. I'm weak. I'm not normal.

In one sense, sure, this is a weakness, just like a broken leg is a weakness. But it is not at all abnormal. Mental illness is actually incredibly common. However, there is such a stigma around mental illness that it makes people who suffer feel like they're alone, or abnormal. I actually haven't been able to call my anxiety a mental illness until this week, because admitting that I suffer from a mental illness made me feel like a mess and a failure.

Finally, how can the church do better at helping those with mental illness?

1. If you suffer from mental illness, be honest about it. The stigma around mental health will always remain in society and in the church until those of us who suffer become comfortable speaking freely about our own experiences.

2. Be present. Often in the church, folks will see each other once a week. We'll ask those who we know are having a rough time, "Are you feeling better?" Any care and concern that people show one another is a good thing, but what the church really needs is those who will listen to and support those who suffer from mental illness-more than just on Sunday mornings.
We need people who we know won't pull away from us or abandon us because the things we're going through seem awkward or weird or different or uncomfortable. Personally, I constantly feel like my mental health problems are abnormal and uncomfortable and wrong.
It's difficult to talk about our own mental health if we fear rejection or abandonment from others. We can only experience true Christian community when we know we won't be rejected.

That's it for this week. Again, I'm not a mental health professional. All I have are my experiences, and the hope that maybe by talking about them, it will free some of you to talk about your own.

Is there anything related to mental health y'all want me to talk about? Leave a comment or shoot me an email and let me know.

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