Imagine walking into church and in the lobby, you see a sign-up area for getting a tooth extracted or a root canal. You go up to the counter to learn more and the pastor of Family Ministry says “Hi! Want to sign up to get your dental work done right here at church?!” You might be somewhat excited about this because you hate going to the dentist’s office so you ask more questions. The pastor assures you that even though a licensed dentist will not be actually performing your procedures, the church has a real dentist on staff. He has done training classes for some of the pastoral staff and a core group of peer leaders on how to take out teeth and perform other dentistry functions so have faith that you are in good hands. What?! Are they serious? Your interest in receiving dental care at church might be waning at this point. We could even exchange the dental service at church with cancer treatment. Instead of a dentist on staff teaching pastors and peer leaders to pull teeth, the oncologist that is employed by the church is showing people how to mix just the right chemical cocktails to treat a few well known cancers. This way, the church can positively impact more people “for God” and hold a group class where everyone who has cancer can come, each get hooked up to a medication drip and the church is serving a great function, right? What could possibly be wrong with this picture? It’s actually very scary isn’t it?
Do these scenarios sound outrageous? They shouldn’t at all because this is precisely what is happening in churches regarding mental health. Open up some church bulletins and you might see classes offered such as “Freedom From Depression,” “Inner Healing From Anxiety” or “Learning to Stabilize Your Moods.” You see friend, there are church leaders across the country who have no formal training in mental health or how to recognize risks, and yet they are offering to treat mental illness. Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are not just some fad words that should be taken lightly. I would imagine that the recent death of a beloved actor and comedian might have served as a spotlight for the general public that depression has at times very serious risk factors associated with it. Those of us who have made assessing, treating, diagnosing and evaluating mental health as our profession are reminded every day that depression can be dangerous.
Churches need to be taking mental health issues as serious as they would take physical health issues and stop advertising that they are equipped to treat these conditions.
In a church setting, where does the responsibility and liability fall when a dental extraction, chemo session or depression treatment goes badly? I can guarantee you that for those churches who are advertising that they treat mental health conditions, if something goes wrong, church leadership will be very quick to point out that they are not in fact licensed professional counselors. Back away, back away, back away. That’s what happens in churches when they overreach their skill set by offering to treat mental health issues and bad things happen. That’s just wrong. As licensed professional counselors, we can’t just wash our hands of a “mistake.”
With my own ears I have heard church staff members literally say “Why do people call the church office like we are some suicide hotline?!” Yep. My mouth dropped open too. Well, when churches advertise that they treat mental health issues, people are going to assume they treat mental health issues! It’s pretty simple actually.
What does a church do who genuinely want to help their congregation members live better lives and want to offer group classes in order to reach the most people? Call the classes something like “How To Enjoy Your Life More” or “Changing Thoughts Changes Feelings” or “Learning To Live Stress Free.” See, not one of those titles implies a treatment for a mental illness. Big difference. Churches should be a place for folks to gain Bible based encouragement of how to overcome life’s challenges. The moment church staff start to believe they can treat depression, anxiety or mood disorders, they might as well put up their booth for root canals and cancer treatment because they have gone too far.
What is my point of this blog? People who need help are getting hurt in churches that are trying to treat mental health issues with pastors and peer leaders who have no formal counseling education. It’s unethical.
I have no doubt that I will hear from people who have gone to a Freedom From Depression class or Inner Healing From Anxiety and they will tell me how much it changed their lives. I will not deny that some good truth is being shared in these sort of classes. The bottom line is that no church should be offering to treat depression or anxiety unless the leader of the group is a licensed professional and the group standards are those that meet ethical licensing guidelines.
Through the recent suicide of a famous actor, I hope that there is a collective understanding that mental illness should not be taken lightly. I hope churches across the country will start re-evaluating how they address these issues within their congregations because people are getting hurt by ill-equipped leaders. Those of us in the mental health profession see it on a regular basis. We see how people’s faith is called into question when they are dealing with depression, anxiety or even abuse.
We hear when people are told that if they are grateful enough, they won’t deal with depression.
We also see how inadequately trained leaders are digging through people’s personal history without the skill set to keep that history from imploding in on the person. Many individuals deal with trauma in their life story and untrained church leaders have absolutely no business unraveling hurts they do not know how to therapeutically manage.
We also see that people are advised to not take their medication because God will heal them. We see that spouses in unsafe homes are spiritually abused into staying where it is causing more emotional and physical harm. We are seeing it all because after folks leave a church class or pastor’s office and have been hurt, guess where they go next? Christian counselors who are trained professionals and can help put together the mess that has been created. We are hearing and seeing the aftermath.
Please know it is not escaping our notice.
Have you been hurt in a church setting regarding your own challenges with depression, anxiety, mood disorder or abuse? If so, what helped you move forward and not allow the wounding within the church to affect your relationship with God? Always remember that the works are men (or women) are very different than the grace, unconditional love and hope that are the promises of God.
People often ask me that as a therapist, what “issues” do I specialize in for counseling. My honest answer is that I don’t really specialize in any one topic but rather work with clients who are facing a variety of life experiences; both past and present. Now with that said, I do happen to see a lot of clients who are trying to manage chronic anxiety.
Like all therapists, I have my own beliefs about what works and what doesn’t work in treating the type of anxiety that doesn’t seem to completely go away when life circumstances change. Just about everyone has experienced brief moments or a season where anxiety was present and when the situations were different, the anxiety faded. There are, however, many folks who must learn to manage anxiety as the go-to response their nervous system chooses on a regular basis. To those people I say, you are not alone. Many of us have anxiety as the thorn in our flesh, so to speak, and we must learn to manage it so it doesn’t manage us. Everyone has a portal that stress shows itself and for some people, it’s anxiety. For other people, it might be anger or depression or isolation or a combination of a few. But put a person under prolonged stress and everyone will have an unwanted coping skill that pops out.
For those of us that have anxiety as our mechanism of letting off too much emotional pressure, I have a few suggestions that I think really help to keep our internal rubber-band from getting too stretched and leading to a snap of anxious feelings.
If you find yourself dealing with anxiety on a regular basis, consider whether you are implementing a few of these ideas:
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
It is a must for a chronically anxious person. There are all sorts of good physiological changes that take place during and after exercise that aid in decreasing anxiety symptoms. If you are a science nerd (and nerds are awesome, I consider myself one actually) you can do a simple Google search and find a truck load of research that supports this belief. I have to say though, that exercise to reduce anxiety should be done in a simple, fun and engaging manner. If you hate swimming (which I happen to) then please do not go swim to help with your anxiety. It will only make things worse by creating frustrations. But please do find something that you hate less than some other form of exercise and stick with it! We don’t have to become a gym rat in order to gain the benefits of exercise for our anxiety. A thirty minute walk, three times a week, on a treadmill or elliptical or outside could do wonders for lowering anxiety naturally.
Stay Clear Of Rude, Draining, Selfish or Otherwise Negative People
I know this might be easier said than done, especially if said awful person or people are co-workers or family and you don’t feel you can stay clear of them. But when and where you can disconnect from toxic people, please do so. Spending time with individuals that create drama or just have a negative mindset will cause us more anxiety and our nervous systems just don’t need any additional help in this way. Setting boundaries and letting relationships go can be hard but in the long run, you and I will experience a lowering of annoyance chemicals and that’s always a good thing! Now, for those people we wish we could steer clear of but can’t, we need strategies for how we are going to take care of ourselves so that their issues don’t become ours. There are several great books out there to help on the subject and counseling is also very useful for sorting through the options of setting limits and taking care of ourselves.
See Your Doctor and Get A Physical
There are surprisingly many health issues (and not just the big scary ones) that can cause symptoms of anxiety so it’s super important that we are up-to-date with our physicals and have scheduled blood work drawn. Issues related to thyroid, low/high blood sugars, inner ear issues, allergies, dehydration and a bunch of other treatable medical conditions can make our anxiety symptoms worse or even be the cause of them.
Eat, Sleep and Drink Water
To know me is to know I love coffee. To know me even more, is to know I love Dunkin Donuts coffee. Since my own nervous system likes anxiety, I have learned that I can’t OD on coffee or I feel awful. Same goes for sugar. If I really want to make myself feel miserable, having really high sugar desserts like eating a whole donut or piece of cake will surely give me a lingering sick feeling. What we eat is really what we feel. Eat junk, feel like junk. So those who deal with chronic anxiety, need to understand the cause and effect of diet on our nervous system. Sleep is critically important and a lot of people report an increase in anxiety symptoms after they have been burning the candle at both ends and sometimes in the middle! Dehydration is also a cause of symptoms for some folks so start carrying water and keep yourself hydrated; especially with the summer months approaching.
Be Honest With Yourself and Others
I often say that feelings are like Jello, you can push it down but it will squirt out somewhere. We can deny our feelings and ignore them for only so long before they make an appearance and want to be dealt with and this is especially true for those of us who have experienced chronic anxiety. Now, this doesn’t give us license to be overly blunt or rude in the name of lowering OUR stress levels. But it should encourage us to first be honest with ourselves about our thoughts and feelings. Lying to ourselves is a really dangerous habit to form and we often will employ less than stellar coping skills in order to mask and numb our true feelings. Instead, be brave and be honest within your own thoughts. Then find a trusted friend and confidante to share those thoughts with and release the burden of carrying them alone. Many people I see in the office say they like coming to counseling because it provides a very safe place to say anything and not be judged or told thoughts are “wrong”. We all need that level of authenticity in our lives.
There are probably half a dozen additional suggestions of how to overcome chronic anxiety but I just wanted to share a few today. If you are struggling with anxiety, I hope you will implement some new things now and remember, that doing something one day doesn’t bring about change. It must become a lifestyle shift to truly be free from anxiety.
What do you need to do today to lower your anxiety?
Some of you may remember that several years ago I went on a four day silent retreat and came back raving about how wonderful it was and how everyone should immediately go on a silent retreat themselves. Well, I went again last Thursday through Sunday and I am back once again proclaiming that it’s a must do item on all To-Do lists.
I pondered what I should write about regarding the experience of entering into a silent retreat and what might be helpful information to share. I think the thing that stands out as the most powerful for me during this retreat was the personal journey I went on from the time I arrived Thursday at 5pm until I left Sunday at 11:30am. I will tell you, it was quite the ride.
I originally decided to go on another retreat because, well frankly, I was tired. Yes, even therapists get burning the candle at both ends and we fizzle out just like all other humans. It might even be more embarrassing when a therapist hits the ditch energy wise because we should know better but it happens nonetheless. So I arrived on Thursday late afternoon and during the evening dinner, retreat participants are still allowed to talk and the ladies I sat with were very friendly and very chatty. Both of which I was not feeling at the moment. Ever feel that way? I went on the retreat by myself on purpose. Sure, everyone goes silent after the evening meal on Thursday until lunch on Sunday but I still really needed to be in my own skin so to speak and therefore I went on the retreat without a group of friends. Me, myself and I were it.
Once I made it through the very animated dinner conversation, to which I smiled, nodded a lot and tried to keep my exhausted head down, we all went to the small chapel on the retreat property to start the first of several short discussions that would take place throughout the four days. The chapel was hot, humid and slightly crowded. Add that to my exhaustion and it wasn’t a good combination. Wham!! Full blow anxiety hit me right there and then. What?! I am a therapist, I shouldn’t feel panic attacks! What? I am in CHURCH (well, a small chapel but the same thing) I shouldn’t feel panic! What?! I AM ON RETREAT! I should most definitely not be feeling anxiety. For those of us who know what anxiety and panic attacks feel like, we know what to do when they arrive – unwelcomed. I used all the coping skills I teach clients and sure enough, the wave washed away and the panic was gone. But the disappointment remained. It’s disappointing to realize that our bodies have to shout to get our attention.
After chapel, I made my way to my very small, very simple room that would become my sanctuary for the next few days. I was so revved up from being busy for months straight and the extra adrenaline pumping from the wave of anxiety that I was in no mood to be quiet or just sit and read. Luckily I had packed some technological “contraband” into the retreat in the form a portable DVD player and an Academy Award nominated movie. Snuggled in bed with my headphones (so as to not disturb my other dorm neighbors who were actually being silent) and the movie was really good entertainment. Day one of the retreat in the books and a panic attack added to it.
I awoke on Friday to the sound of the bell being rung outside that is intended to gently awaken the retreat participants. I had slept great and all I wanted to do was eat and sleep, so that’s exactly what I did. I ate breakfast, went back to my room and slept. Got up for lunch and then back for more quality time with my pillow. Got up for dinner and then returned for another great night of sleep. I did attend one of the retreat discussions on Friday but I was still in a sleepy haze so I couldn’t really tell you what was discussed but I am sure it had to do with God and prayer and being silent enough to hear Him. The silent retreat I chose to go to was at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House. I am not Catholic but the staff said it didn’t matter and I had already attended one there before and knew first hand what a wonderful experience it was going to be. We all were there to get quiet enough to listen again.
With Friday being an eating sleeping blur, I didn’t really get much “accomplished” in the way of praying and mediating as I had hoped but I knew until I was more rested, I probably wouldn’t be hearing much in the way of spiritual things anyways.
Awoke Saturday to the pleasant dinging of the bell and as soon as I opened my eyes, I knew I was more rested. There hadn’t really been anything in particular that had drained my energy, other than the normal grind we all do between work and home and hobbies and friends and family and exercise and getting to a never ending To-Do list and so on. My love of reading after the house is all quiet for the evening probably strongly contributed to the level of exhaustion I felt and that habit was something I realized would have to change post-retreat.
So here came Saturday in all its beauty. I started noticing the birds chirping throughout the property, the small little flowers starting to bloom in the early Spring warming air and I felt more like my normal self. Clear headed and ready to get to the business for which I went on the retreat: gaining new insight and wisdom from getting quiet enough to hear again. Saturday was a beautiful day in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and I enjoyed every sun shining moment. I spent a considerable amount of time sitting in front of this fountain on the property.
The sound of the water and watching the fish swim was very peaceful and relaxing.
Slowly I began to pray and mediate on some questions I needed answers to and the solutions began to formulate in my mind. This was exactly what I had hoped the silent retreat would provide me. By Saturday at 5pm, I was back in my room and honestly, getting a little bored. I felt more rested, received a few key nuggets of wisdom and was ready to sleep in my own bed at home again. Oh, here, let me share with you what my dorm accommodations looked like:
Nothing fancy, right? Nope. But the dorms do have private baths and you don’t share with a roommate so I was fine. This small space became a cocoon to help me get away from the hustle of every day life. Back to Saturday at 5pm and I was ready to ditch the silent retreat a day early. Luckily I felt too lazy at that moment to pack all my stuff up and make the hour drive home because it was precisely that evening and Sunday morning that my “breakthrough” happened. If I had left early, I would have totally and completely missed the gift that was mine to be received.
Saturday evening and Sunday morning were times of making decision trees. By this I mean that I was rested enough and had prayed enough and read a fantastic book to help me gain new wisdom and I was ready to make a plan. I wrote out a decision tree for several key areas of my life. If this happened, then my next course of action would be that and so on. Saturday night I devoured the book I was reading and was in a ton of gratitude for the insight I was receiving. I slept great that evening too.
I woke up Sunday to the all now familiar bell awakening the participants. I packed to get ready to venture back out into the real world and wham! No, not another panic attack but my first chance to implement one of my new decision tree items. With a course mapped out before me, my decision was already made. I put it into place and knew it was the right thing. Coincidentally (and I don’t think it was a coincidence at all) I had taken with me three silver necklace pendants that were symbolic of something important to me. After the implementation of my first decision tree item, I walked to the end of the pier, said a simple “Thank you and Goodbye” and threw the three pendants into the lake. It was extremely freeing to watch them disappear into the water.
As I finished packing my car of my weekend belongings and drove off the retreat property, I knew I had left something on the campus. Not only was it the three pendants now in Lake Lewisville, but I left behind more than that; I left my tiredness, and anxiety. I gained sleep, peace of mind, implementation of a decision and excitement about the other decision trees I have yet to put into place but plan on as the right season shows itself.
I highly recommend a time of getting away from the noise of life and our own voices. As a quote I saw recently said “Get quiet enough so that you can really listen.” I wholeheartedly agree. Shhhh…..
Five Things I’ve Learned This Week or Was Reminded Of:
1) Often times we get the “opportunity” to repeat a life lesson we’ve already learned. For example, we figure out how to set boundaries with people who are excessive takers (as opposed to givers) and wouldn’t you know it, here comes another taker so we get to fine tune our boundary skills even better. It may seem annoying but in fact, it’s a blessing to be reminded of how far we have come in our own personal growth. Besides, all excessive takers need to hear no more often.
2) Many kids and teens deal with anxiety and panic attacks. There are ways parents can help their children learn through these experiences so the youth can become more self-contained emotionally. There are also ways parents can hinder their children’s emotional well-being. When in doubt, see a counselor for guidance. Childhood anxiety handled poorly can lead to phobia development that is crippling to the youth’s future.
3) Love that reaches your soul is rare and is to be protected and cherished when it finds you.
4) Just because today may look dark and overwhelming, it doesn’t mean tomorrow will be the same. It is always shocking to me how the emotional conditions can vary from day to day. Hang tight if today is dark and appreciate it if today is bright!
5) Stressed out? Get alone with some good music that is gentle to your spirit. It’s amazing what quiet time will do to change your perspective on things. Life just comes at all of us much too quickly, so getting away for a bit is a must.
What’s on your list?
Five Things I’ve Learned This Week or Was Reminded Of:
1) Anxiety isn’t a sign of a weak mind but rather the nervous system expelling extra stress that wasn’t worked off in the gym or through talking it out. Stress is like a balloon filling with air. The air has to come out or the balloon will pop. The “pop” for humans is often anxiety.
2) Mental exhaustion is worse than physical exhaustion
3) God brings sweet reminders of His presence everyday and hopefully we are not rushing so much that we miss them
4) We should keep doing more of whatever makes us feel happy, relaxed and hopeful
5) Good friends always find their way back to each other, even if a little or a lot of time has passed
What’s on your list?