Thursday, August 23, 2018

Anxiety Part 7: Mission to Moscow

Part 7 of the mental health series - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6

In November of last year, I signed up for a half marathon.

It was kind of on a whim.

For a long time, I'd done next to no physical activity in a day. I'm a pastor, and most of my week is spent either writing sermons, or writing emails, or in meetings, or visiting with people in their homes or in the hospital. All of these activities involve sitting. Then I'd get home in the evening, sit down to eat dinner, and finish out the day by watching TV on the couch.

I was sitting down. All day, every day.

I wanted to stop being such a lazy piece of garbage.

I used to run in high school, but more or less stopped running after that (with the occasional 1-2 month effort to get myself exercising again...those always failed as well).
High school ended 16 years ago.
I stopped running roughly half my life ago.

I decided one night that I wanted to start running again. However, I know myself, and I know that I'm not too terribly self-motivated. So in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I signed up for a half marathon.
It cost fifty bucks.
And I wrote about it on social media, so that all of my friends would know, and I'd have some public shame if I didn't go through with it.
Paying money and the possibility of shame are good motivators for me.

Months went by, February came, and I ran the race. I didn't really want to stop running, though, because I was healthier and feeling better about myself. So I signed up for another race.

And then another.

Physical health wasn't the primary reason that I kept running, though. There was a much bigger reason.

I noticed that on days when I ran, my mental health would be better, and on days when I didn't run, I was in a much worse head space.

I normally run on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. I noticed that whenever I'd skip a day, that day and the days following would be terrible.

For example, if I ever skip running on Tuesday, I tend to have a panic attack on Tuesday night or Wednesday. I'll also feel incredibly low and depressed until Thursday, when I run again. I don't know exactly why this is, but it's been proven true repeatedly.

I'm no expert, but I'd imagine that different amounts of exercise are probably good for different people. However, I personally find that without around 4 good runs per week, my mental health becomes much, much worse.

Exercise has been shown to improve mental health in people, so it makes sense that I'd have worse days when I don't run.

I started running because I wanted to stop being lazy, but that's not why I kept doing it. I kept running because it was making me feel better. It was helping me cope with other things in my life. It was allowing me space from other, more difficult, parts of my life four days a week.

So I keep doing it.

I don't always love it. In fact, just the thought of going on a six mile run bums me out most of the time. But it's helping me, so I keep doing it.

If you're someone who suffers from mental health problems, I'd encourage some sort of exercise. I don't know all of the science to back up this recommendation. I just know that it's helped me.

I don't have many tips for how to get going (the first month is by far the worst). But here's some things that have helped me:

  • Sign up for an event. Specifically, if you're wanting to start running, sign up for a race. There's nothing like dropping 50-60 bucks to get you moving. You're never going to get the money back, so you dang well better have a shirt and medal to show for it.
  • Start putting your running clothes on immediately when you think about it. I read an article a couple of years ago, and I can no longer find it (if any readers find it, send it to me and I'll link it here). The article said that whenever we are deciding whether or not to do something, we have a 20 second window of time to get started. If we begin the activity within that 20 seconds, we'll almost certainly do it. If we don't get started within the 20 seconds, we won't. So if you're sitting on the couch, wondering whether or not to go running, stand up immediately. Start putting on socks. Make sure you get started within the 20 seconds, or you're not going to do it.
  • Finishing is the point. This one's really just for me. A friend recently saw my time from a race and said to me "I thought you'd be faster. You used to run cross country in high school." Personally, I don't run competitively. For me, finishing is the point. Getting to the end is the goal. I don't worry too much about time. There are going to be days I run faster, and days I run slower, and those things aren't what's important. The important thing is doing it. Finishing is the point.
  • Run in a loop. When I run around the park close to my house, I'm constantly thinking about the fact that I can quit and go home at anytime. When I run to the corner of Portsmouth and Willamette, I'm 3 miles from my house. I either have to circle back or con someone into driving me home. When you run in a large loop, you have to keep going.
  • I like to listen to podcasts when I run. Most people seem to have a playlist of workout music that they listen to when they exercise, and that's great (pro-tip: if you do have one of these playlists, Disconnected by Face to Face. You're welcome). For me, though, music just reminds me how long I've been running. If I listen to 30 songs, it feels longer than when I listen to 2 podcasts. I'd rather listen to 2 things than 30 things. Also, podcasts let me zone out and think about something completely unrelated to my actual life for an hour. I listen to podcasts that make me laugh and have nothing to do with my normal life. Better than podcasts, though...
  • Run with friends. If you can find someone who will run with you, it's so much better. Most of the time I don't have anyone to run with, because most people seem to work out in the morning, and I run in the afternoon/evening. But when I do have the chance to run with friends, the time goes by much faster, and I don't get nearly as tired. It's easier when all of us are suffering together.
So that's it. Running has helped my mental health greatly. Other than therapy, it's been by far the most helpful practice for me.

I'm fighting my anxiety and depression with endorphins.

Side note: This whole "name your numbered blog posts after the same numbered movie in a series" idea was not a smart one. Very few movie series run past 2 or 3 sequels. I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, and I still have six more posts to go...

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Anxiety Part 6: Fallout

Part 6 of the mental health series - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

A short follow up to last week's question: How do you "love your neighbor as yourself" if you don't really love yourself?

First, it is absolutely possible to love other people when you don't love yourself.*** 
Nobody feels great about themselves every single day. We all have bad days. But on those bad days, we can still show love to someone else, even though we may not feel good about the person we are. Everybody has bad days where they still want to help and show love to other people.

However, we generally don't have a lot of love to pour into others if we constantly and consistently feel down on ourselves.

I do a lot of self-care practices, meditation, etc., to try and make sure that I'm emotionally filled before I try to show love to other people.
However, lately my therapist and spiritual director have both been encouraging me to do something else. They are pushing me to focus more on the positive things that happen in my life and the positive interactions that I have with people, and to focus less on my negative thoughts and interactions.
This is unnatural for me.
I don't like to hide from my problems and troubles. "Focusing on the positive" feels to me like ignoring reality. 
It feels like pretending.
I don't like to shy away from the unhappy or terrible or painful parts of life. Those parts of life are real.
I don't like to pretend.

But I've been told to do so. Evidently, trying to focus more on the positive things in your life than the negative is not pretending. Rather, it can be beneficial for your mental health.
It can be a way to love yourself, so that you're emotionally available to show love to other people.

So I'm working on it.
I'm still kind of skeptical.
At the very least, though, it can't hurt to focus on the positive things in my life.


***One small bit of language in the video. If you don't want to hear it, you can mute at 1:51. Or just don't watch it at all. Whatever. You do you.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Anxiety Part 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales

This is part 5 of the mental health series. Click for part 1234.

How do you "love your neighbor as yourself" if you don't love yourself?

A scribe approaches Jesus and asks which commandment is most important. Jesus answers, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Churchgoers have heard this passage approximately 4,205,607 times in their lifetime. Many churches (including mine) use these commandments as the basis for their mission statement. For example:
"Loving God, Loving People, Meeting Needs"
"Love God, Love People, Nothing Else Matters"
"Love God, Love People, Serve Joyfully"
The common (and correct) interpretation of these commandments is that we should love and follow God with our whole lives, and to love those around us--friends, enemies, everyone.

However, recently I've heard a couple of people discuss the command to "love your neighbor as yourself," and mention that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you need to love yourself.
But what if you dislike almost everything about yourself? Wouldn't that mean that thinking of your neighbor in the same way means disliking your neighbor?

Over the past year or two, I've noticed that more and more often I hate things about myself. Things I've said, things I've done, things about my personality, etc.
I wake up between 2 and 3 AM almost every morning and remain awake for a couple of hours. It's super annoying. During that time I obsess over things I've said and done that I regret. I think about things I've said recently, things I said when I was five, and everywhere in between.
I've tried a bunch of ways to distract myself when I awaken and have these thoughts: moving to a different room, reading, watching crummy tv until I can't possibly stay awake any longer, journaling...and for the most part these things don't work. I continue to fixate on things I hate about myself.

As I said, though, this has only been going on for a couple of years. In general, throughout my life I've felt pretty good about myself. Sure, like everyone, I often compare myself unfavorably with others, but I also realize that I have a lot of gifts and a lot to offer the world.

But lately, any rumination on something I've said or done leads me down a mental path that ends with me feeling completely and utterly worthless. Whenever I think about something dumb that I've done, I almost immediately despise everything else about myself.

It makes no sense.

Objectively I know that there's a lot to like about me. When my therapist has me do one of those "talk about everything great about yourself" practices, I have a lot to say. I know I have value, I know I have a lot of gifts. Yet my mind keeps these thoughts of worthlessness at the forefront. It does not make a bit of sense.

The other thing (and this is the weirdest part of all of this), the thoughts that cause me to hate myself are often incredibly stupid. Really, they are.
I co-host a podcast, and recently I was trying to say something on the podcast and flubbed a line. It wasn't bad. Honestly, I listened back, and it's hardly even noticeable. It's not even like I said something offensive--I just tried to close off the podcast a certain way, but didn't say the words in the order that I planned. It was fine, and most likely nobody noticed. This shouldn't have upset me.
Also, it's an incredibly laid-back show, and we flub lines all the time. That's actually part of the appeal of the show.
However, this single flub has gone through my head about four thousand times over the past few weeks. And every single time I think about it, I start to feel completely and utterly worthless.
Every time I think about this flub, I almost immediately begin thinking that every single choice and thought and decision that I've ever made has been terrible, and that I have no value at all as a person.

All because I flubbed a line.


Which again has me thinking: if the second most important command in the bible is to "love your neighbor as yourself, how do I do that when I repeatedly and consistently find myself feeling worthless and without value?

And how does a person who has spent his life following a God loves all of his children and sees value and worth in them find himself despising everything about himself on a pretty consistent basis?

If my mental health problems cause me to hate myself--a person created, valued, and loved by God--does that mean I don't trust that I'm the person that God made me to be?
Does this aspect of my mental illness mean that I have a weak faith?
And why do I no longer see the person that I know myself to be, and the person that God sees in me: a person with many gifts, many good qualities, value, and worth, when I previously saw great value in myself?

I've walked with a bunch of people of faith over the years who struggle with mental illness. Many of them seemed to constantly feel like failures, and never appeared to be able to see the person that God sees in them. I'd always remind them of their worth and their value, but every time we'd meet, they would be in the exact same state of mind--hating themselves and feeling like failures. Sometimes I'd think, "Why do they not see the wonderful person that they are?"

There's this situation that a lot of Christians with mental illnesses deal with: other well-meaning Christians will tell them that if they "just had more faith," God would make them better.
Looking back, I feel like that's what I used to do with these folks. I'd tell them to "see what God sees in you," but I'd internally criticize them when they didn't.

But I get it now. Objectively, I can see all of my great qualities, but most of the time I'm blinded by the things I dislike about myself.
And it's only recently that this started.
Trying to remember the beloved, valued person that God sees in me sometimes helps, but only for a short while.

So how do I live as a follower of God? If I have this much trouble loving myself, am I really able to love my neighbor?

I'm going to try to unpack these ideas a little more over the next couple of weeks.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Anxiety and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

This is part 4 in the mental health series: Click for part 123

Therapy is great, but it's weird at first.

No, "weird" is the wrong word.

It's strange and uncomfortable and bizarre and upsetting and painful and the exact opposite of everything that we learn in life.

As we grow up, we learn that some people are unsafe. Some people are not trustworthy. Many of us have friends that we will entrust with our deepest, darkest secrets. There are other people who we wouldn't trust with anything, ever.

We learn these lessons when we trust someone with a piece of our lives, and that person betrays our trust. When that happens, not only is a friendship ruined, but we are less likely to open up in future friendships.

By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have a hard time opening up to anyone at all.

This is why therapy is so strange. You meet a person for the first time, shake their hand, step into their office, and then are expected to open yourself up entirely. Sure, it's not forced out of you, but when they ask, "So, what's going on?," you can't just say, "Oh, nothing much," because the therapist knows that that's a lie. You wouldn't have sought out therapy if there was 'nothing much' going on.

Life teaches us to remain closed off to others until we've spent at least a few months as friends. "Don't tell intimate details about yourself to others, because they may tell other people, or may use that information against you."

When I sat down in my therapist's office for the first time, I didn't really know what to do. I'd spent decades learning to avoid telling strangers too much about myself. Now this lady sitting across from me was expecting me to do exactly that.

Here's the thing: I knew it was safe in the room. I knew my therapist was safe. I knew that she would keep my confidence. I knew that she could and would try to help me improve. Still, it felt wrong. I'd lost so much trust in strangers over the years that it took every ounce of energy to begin unloading my problems onto this person.

It gets easier. I wish there was a better way to say it, but there's really not. You have to go through the weirdness for a while. I did, at least. My first few sessions were so uncomfortable, because I'd spent years putting up walls and barriers around certain parts of my life and my thought processes. But the more sessions that went by, the easier it was to share pieces of me that I don't talk about with many other people.

So it was strange at first, and then it became easier.

And then it got waaaaaaaayyyyyy more difficult.

We started probing into some things that I wasn't prepared to address/deal with/work on. Things I didn't even realize were a part of my life.

It's been healing, but healing often hurts first.

This tweet sums it up pretty well.