We’re coming up to the third anniversary of my significant brush with anxiety and depression. It was back in November 2019 that I found myself signed off from work followed by quite a challenging and tumultuous period of time (and all of that before we hit COVID).
I’ve told some of my story here and so I don’t intend to rehearse all the details now but a significant factor for me was that we had found ourselves in the middle of quite an intense conflict. One of the elders at our church described be as often functioning like a lightening rod for challenges and tensions. It seemed that I was in the middle of things even when the dispute wasn’t actually about me. I exacerbated things by trying to function as a kind of mediator.
I’m beginning to notice some patterns and rhythms to life now and whilst to date I’ve not experienced a repeat of 2019, I do sense at times when I am a little more fragile and with that perhaps more on edge. One factor is the particular time of the year and both that sense of being close to an anniversary and the time of year when the nights are drawing in, when its colder and wetter and we find ourselves in doors more do seem to have an impact. I would add to that an awareness that when I pick up on short terse comments on social media and how people often talk to each other in those contexts then in my head it can sound very close to the types of conversations that were happening in real life back at the time I was unwell.
So, I thought it might be helpful to use the opportunity to share a couple of thoughts and tips from my own experience and perhaps these will be helpful to some others. I think it’s helpful to compare something like a severe episode of depression or other forms of mental illness to a physical trauma such as a broken bone. Some people will suffer with chronic depression over many years but not all will. Many will recover from the specific bout of illness and this doesn’t mean that you will definitely have depression again. However, when you’ve injured yourself in the past, you can become aware of a particular weakness and vulnerability in that area going forward so that when the bone or muscle is put under pressure you become aware of its fragility. I think the same is true with our mental health. Many of us will carry a certain fragility going forward.
Ministry for those coming through trauma and mental illness is sometimes described as “leading with a limp” or “serving with a limp.” The term is a reference to Jacob who is described as limping after wrestling with God and even leaning on his staff many years later.
Because of this, I think it’s helpful to think practically about how we pay attention to those pressure points. I would encourage you to be alert to
- The rhythm of seasons. We are obviously aware of SAD as a syndrome during winter months but there are other ways in which we can become more alert to mental health vulnerabilities through the year.
- Specific anniversaries that trigger particularly difficult emotions.
- How you react to conversations, tones of voice, mannerisms etc. Note, this does not mean that others are specifically at fault -it’s just the way you hear and feel them.
- Pressure that comes from particular tasks and events including moving house, changing jobs, getting married, having children, grieving.
- How your own physical health can affect your emotional health.
As I said above, there may be ways in which we struggle to interact with particular people that is nothing to do with them and we may respond in surprising ways to innocuous situations. I find it helpful to remember that the body itself often keeps score and remembers things even after the mind has forgotten. This means that our nervous systems and bodies may be triggered into responding to the memories of past events. There can be a connection between anxiety/depression and PTSD.
What all of this means is first that it is important for us to look out for each other. Keep an eye on friends and colleagues to make sure they are doing okay but also reach out to others if you are struggling. Secondly, you may find it helpful to adjust plans and schedules. Is a particular decision/action going to involve a lot of tension? If so, does it need to happen now? Do you need to spend less time engaging some people in certain contexts? Should you take a break from other things? Can you adjust your routine in order to allow more time for rest, exercise, relaxation? Do you need to adjust your physical and your spiritual diet (which books of the bible are you spending time in, what are you singing, how is your prayer life?)? You may also want to talk to your GP about medication for specific periods of time. Is it about changing short term routines now whilst you are particularly aware of your own mental health struggles or is it about looking at your long-term life patterns in order to be better equipped for the seasons when the darkness seems to descend?
I’ve written this article with a more general audience in mind but if you are in pastoral ministry/leadership and have faced a struggle with your mental health, I’d also encourage you to connect with Grace in the Depths.