Mental health and Spiritual integration

Some people skip through life, some people get dragged through it. I often feel I do both. At the same time! A psychologist colleague tells me that mental hygiene is a lot like dental hygiene in that staying content and mentally/emotionally well doesn’t just happen, you have to put conscious time and effort into it. I agree, although I would venture that some people have to spend a lot more time than others doing mental ‘gargling and flossing’ to keep the rot at bay.

If you are a Christian who has suffered with depression or anxiety, people may have suggested to you that greater faith would solve those issues or that more prayer would help ‘cure’ you. Have you ever wondered that yourself? I have, and in particular I have wondered whether the vast amount of depression and anxiety seen in this country could be due to the decline in the knowledge of God and His love and purposes for people. And yet, anxiety and depression touch many people within the church as well as without. How much could secular psychological therapies teach me and others?

It was partly to explore these questions that I took up a trainee post as a ‘psychological wellbeing practitioner’ (PWP) for the newly founded, Government-funded Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service. Over the last 3 years I have worked with nearly 300 people using short, forward-looking treatment techniques in a form of guided self-help, as recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE). Helping others through difficult times and encouraging them to work on their mental hygiene routines has been a steep learning curve for me too. I certainly don’t believe that feeling content and happy is simply down to an individual and their attitude. However, there are some things that I am learning can make a big difference:

• The way a person interprets and thinks about something is much more likely to cause their feelings about it than the thing itself. Two people can go through the same experience and feel very differently at the end. The difference is in how they thought about the experience. Thoughts do not automatically have to be accepted as true.
• There are many common thinking patterns and styles that make people feel worse. We all do them but we each have our favourites! They include ‘shoulding and musting’, which is quite a demanding way of thinking that can lead to a lot of anger, self-downing (which des what it says on the tin!), telling yourself ‘I can’t stand this’, and catastrophising, loosely translated as ‘this is absolutely awful! It’s going to be a disaster!’ My other favourite is mind-reading, in other words, assuming you know what others are thinking and feeling. With practice it is possible to change your thinking style.
• You don’t have to do things the same way all your life or be exactly the same person. It may feel fake and strange at first, but experimenting can be good. If you don’t normally go to that kind of event then try it. If you don’t normally wear that style of clothing because you think you’d look stupid, give it a go! If you’re not an out-door person, are you sure? Or is that belief simply down to PE lessons 20 years ago?
• The only way to get through fear is to face it. Reassuring yourself nothing bad will happen doesn’t help. It might. But it’s usually unlikely and you can cope if it does, so gradually take small steps to repeatedly expose yourself to what you fear. It can actually be quite liberating!
• A lot of worry is a way of trying to gain certainty or control over an uncertain situation. It feels like taking responsibility and doing something to help. But just worrying never made any difference to the outcome of a situation. Life is full of endless uncertainties. Therefore, becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and resting in it, is a key way to overcome excessive worrying. There are techniques you can learn to help you do this.
• Being assertive is not about being pushy and selfish. It is rather about honestly saying what you really think and feel in a considerate way. Not expressing ourselves might save conflict in the short-term but usually leads to a buildup of resentment, an erosion of self confidence and seemingly out-of- the-blue blow-ups with people we care about, which surprise them. They have not had a chance to know the real ‘us’.
• Believe it or not, just learning to breathe correctly can eliminate many unexplained, unpleasant symptoms and greatly reduce anxiety.

I still believe very much that faith in God and His power to work in us can greatly reduce anxiety and depression. I am sure at times he can instantly banish fear. But we are not robots whom God wants to control. Just as the Holy Spirit within us doesn’t instantly make us perfect but empowers us to make choices and gradually form our character, so He can work alongside us to help us manage our mood and learn in the process. The bible tells us (with His help) to ‘take our thoughts captive’ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to ‘be transformed by the renewing of our minds’ ( Romans 12:2).

I also feel very strongly that a tendency towards anxiety and/or depression often comes with particular personality types. These personalities have many positive sides to them that would be lost without the other side of the coin. They can produce some of the most insightful, compassionate, creative, original and profound qualities in people, not to mention masterpieces through them. God loves these personality types but is able to prompt us when their extremes are causing problems.

Finally, there really is a redemptive quality to suffering that I don’t pretend to fully understand. Nothing is likely to cause you to care for others who are suffering than to have known the same suffering yourself. Often, doing the right thing is not the pain-free road. And nothing creates humility as quickly as being acquainted with your own weaknesses!

Ultimately, the benefit we have as Christians is knowing a God of self-sacrificial love who understands suffering, has a special care for the oppressed and works with us. He is able to show us what gradually needs to change (sometimes perhaps with the help of a prayer counsellor) and then provide us the courage, power, head-, and ultimately heart-knowledge, to make those changes at a deep level. We are not left in our own strength.

God Bless you,
Heidi - a Christian Psychologist, 20/09/2011