Join me in imagining for a moment if you will...
Imagine that you (or perhaps a close family member) have a health issue that could present challenges in different areas of your life. Let’s say that the issue is one that is quite common and treatable, but you may need to see a specialist periodically. You are experiencing this health issue by no fault of your own...some people just have it. Maybe it’s asthma, diabetes, or perhaps an autoimmune syndrome or an allergy? Maybe you suffered a traumatic injury of some sort? Would you share this issue with others in your circle? Would you seek treatment to improve your quality of life? I’m guessing that for most of us the answer sounds something like “Well of course I would!”
Now, consider the exact same scenario, but instead of the health concern being any of the things named above, imagine that it’s a mental health issue. Would you still share with those around you? Would you still seek treatment to improve your quality of life?
If you answered that you would not, there are likely a number of reasons. But, I would venture to guess that some part of your hesitancy would be due to the stigma associated with mental health in our culture. The conversation about mental health is becoming more prevalent (as is evidenced by the work that Woodland is doing….Way to go, Woodland!). But overall, as a culture, and as Christians, we still have a lot of work to do. In any given year, 1 in every 5 adults, and 1 in 6 children/adolescents experience a mental health issue. In the time of COVID, these statistics are likely much higher.
Stigma refers to stereotypes, or negative views, that are attributed to a person/group whose experiences, characteristics or behaviors are seen as different from the norm. Stigma is often rooted in misinformation and fear. Over time, stigma is internalized and can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, or inadequacy. Those affected may feel tainted in their identity in some way.
But we must ask ourselves...what does the Bible say about our identity? It tells us that we are created in God’s image and that we are his masterpiece. He saw our unformed body and has ordained all of our days. He knows of our challenges and suffering, and he has plans for us. His word assures us that his plans give us a future and hope! (Genesis 1:27; Ephesians 2:10; Psalm 139:16; Jeremiah 29:11).
So, as Christians, how can we work to destigmatize mental illness? Here are a few thoughts:
We know that God provides comfort to the suffering and meets the needs of the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18; Psalm 145:18), and we must trust him on our journey. However, this trust doesn’t always mean waiting out a situation of suffering. Rather, it may look like taking a faith-filled step to harness resources that God has placed in your path, whether that be a counselor, friend, support group, or medication. Friends, please don’t suffer alone. Reaching out does not indicate weakness or lack of faith. Rather, getting help may provide you with healing and clarity that will allow you to experience God’s presence in your life more fully.
So many of us have experienced so much loss during this pandemic. Loss can take many forms, and along with loss comes grief. There are several different types of grief and loss, but for the purposes of this article we will focus on Pauline Boss’s concept of ambiguous grief. Though there are so many people who have experienced the death of a loved one during this pandemic, even more prevalent are those that have experienced losses of relationships, events, or even dreams of what should be. This is ambiguous loss meaning that there is not a concrete person or thing that we have lost, but something not able to be seen. Ambiguous grief happens as the result of a lost relationship with someone who is still living or the loss of something that is very important to us. Some examples of this might be when a loved one begins to slip away due to mental illness, a divorce, losing a friendship, infertility, losing a career, or the loss of opportunities.
Most of us have experienced some kind of ambiguous grief since the pandemic. Children and teens are missing out on life experiences that they will never be able to get back like birthday parties, school events, or even just the everyday fun of getting together with their friends. Adults are missing out on in person social connections with family and friends, impromptu social connections out in the community, and even career opportunities. I have heard several stories related with deep sadness about missing out on the Christmas celebrations that are held so dear. One client told me that she so deeply misses giving people hugs and feels a profound loss in her life at the loss of this form of social connection that is so dear to her. We can even feel grief over the loss of our “normal” way of living such as being able to go out in our communities without putting our health in jeopardy. However you are experiencing it, ambiguous grief is becoming more and more of a problem as this pandemic wears on.
When we look at the experience of grief in the Bible there is no shortage of examples. One of the most inspiring examples of grief, for me, is the story of Job. Job experiences so many losses in a short amount of time from the deaths of his children to the loss of all his material possessions. The thing I find so inspiring about Job is that he does not sugar coat his grief. He says, “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it.” (Job 3:3-4). He embraces it and voices it and allows it to wash over him completely. Though he tenaciously holds on to his faith in God in the face of intense struggle he does not hesitate to be angry at God, lash out at God, and even question God in his grief. I find that many people of faith today that encounter grief hesitate to really fully experience and feel it. This may be because it hurts, and we tend to avoid pain whenever we can. I think others avoid fully experiencing their grief because it is scary to question God, and we may fear that in questioning God we will lose his favor. Whatever the reason, avoiding grief can lead to many psychological and physical problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, or physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, and muscle tension. We have seen an influx of grief related symptoms in the mental health field since the pandemic, and all this unexperienced grief is causing so many to experience more mental health symptoms than normal.
So, what does it look like to experience our grief? That is not really a question that has one single answer. I often encounter clients who think that they are not “doing grief right”, but there is not a right or wrong way to experience it. The most important thing to remember when experiencing grief is to not hold it back or try to limit it. This could be allowing yourself time to cry or reflect or just feel whatever it is that you feel (sadness, anger, betrayal, hurt, fear, anything). Another way to experience grief might be spending time in prayer or meditation or even spending time in nature. Walking or sitting in nature can really allow for some deep reflection. For some of us the grief can be too much to hold on our own, so I encourage you to reach out to a trusted friend or family member, a pastor, or even a counselor to help you navigate this process. Grief is an important part of life and it should not be ignored or avoided, and like our friend Job, grief may be intense for a while but there is hope on the other side of it. Our lives will probably never be the same, but there is hope on the other side of this pandemic. For now, we can grieve our losses and wait for the day when we can be reunited in whatever way that is possible.
As I sit down to write this, the world is counting down the days (or even hours and minutes!) until we say goodbye to the year 2020. Perhaps many of us are actually saying “good riddance” to a year that has seen so many challenges?
Wherever you find yourself, a new year typically brings about the sense of a fresh start, or perhaps renewed purpose. But, what about the year 2021? Are things really going to feel that different once the ball in Times Square has dropped and we officially turn the page in our calendars? It’s a tricky question. There is hope and encouragement in the fight against COVID with the vaccine being approved and distribution happening. But let’s face it, we are bringing some serious baggage with us from 2020 and we may not feel “up” for setting resolutions, goals, or intentions as perhaps we normally would. Here’s the thing....if this is you, it’s okay! And, dare I say, to be expected. We have, collectively, spent the last 10 months surviving a global pandemic after all.
When humans experience significant stress, we go into “survival mode”. When this happens, our brain sends a signal to our body to produce stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. God gifted us these stress hormones as a protection. When we encounter a danger, the release of stress hormones in our body enacts the fight or flight response, which allows us to effectively respond to the situation at hand. But what about the chronic stress we’ve experienced in a year like 2020? No...the smoke alarm hasn’t been going off for 10 straight months, but we have existed at a heightened state of awareness and arousal for an extended period of time now. We are weary. Those stress hormones aren’t going to just go away because there is a new date on the calendar.
So, as we enter the new year and you ponder where to focus your energy, I challenge you to consider the following. This may not be the time to set lofty expectations for yourself, or others around you. Maybe you will run a big race, make big gains in business, or finally break that habit. Maybe you will excel in school or on your sports team. And, if those things happen, that is wonderful and to be celebrated! But, if those things don’t happen, that’s okay. Just getting through the days right now in a physically and emotionally healthy place is a really big win! Perhaps the dawn of 2021 is a time to slow down, embrace the hope of a new beginning, and focus on recovering from the stress of this past year.
Don’t go it alone in 2021. Even though we cannot be physically close to one another yet, we can still be present for one another in many other ways. One of my favorite quotes by Shannon Adler says, When “I” is replaced by “We”, Illness becomes Wellness. Reach out, connect, simplify, get outside, rest, pray, create, read, seek counsel, dig into the Word. Remember the Sabbath. Send the note, make the call, take a walk, cook a meal, put down the phone, dial back your media exposure. Get back to basics in 2021. Connect with God, your own health, and with one another in the ways that you safely can. The rest will come with time. Right now, focus on how you can be kind to yourself and others as we move toward recovery with the hope of brighter days ahead.
But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. -Romans 8:25
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. -2 Corinthians 4: 16-18
During the holidays, many look forward to the festivities and traditions associated with the season. But for a lot of us, it is a complicated and difficult time of the year. Stress, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, post traumatic stress, and a range of other mental health needs tend to intensify during the holiday season. There are different reasons for this: the often unrealistic expectations that we set for ourselves and others, financial strain, burdens on our time, confronting difficult relationships with family, and feelings of grief and loneliness as we feel the absence of loved ones. Let’s face it…it’s pretty rare that life actually ends up looking like it does on the Hallmark movies! This may be especially true this year as we collectively cope with the ongoing impact of the global pandemic. Wherever you find yourself this season, it is okay.
This year has certainly been one of uncertainty. You may wonder if you are going to be able to hold traditions or see loved ones for Christmas? Perhaps a loved one is sick, or maybe you have experienced a loss this year (whether COVID related or otherwise). How have your work and finances been impacted? Is your tank empty from teaching and caring for children who are at home around the clock? Are you a teenager, sad and frustrated that your school and social life can’t be “normal”? Is your marriage under strain? Do you just simply miss your church family?
Advent is a season of waiting. But this year, the idea of waiting takes on a different meaning. Yes, we wait for the birth of the King. But, we also anxiously await a return to a more “normal” way of life. Dr. Richard A. Swenson defines margin as: the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.
In other words, margin is knowing your limits and creating space for you.
Here are a few thoughts about what giving yourself margin might look like this season:
Establishing margin in your life will help you as you try to wait well. Give this gift to yourself. Self care is not selfish. Self care is a way that you can honor God and be a witness to others by caring for the body, mind and spirit that he has given you.
Merry Christmas! We wish you peace and margin this year as we await the birth of the king and a more normal way of life.
Laura Dempsey is a licensed social worker and therapist with nearly 20 years of experience counseling children and families.