Mental Health in a Time of Coronavirus

So, we are still in this Coronavirus crisis. Even though I work at home, not being able to do things I used to do outside the home has given me opportunity in other ways. This post was a rush job. I have been wanting to start a podcast, and I am using this opportunity to get that ready. I think it will be called The God Wrestler. The first series in it will be about faith in a time of Coronavirus.

There’s my silver lining. But even so, I will admit all these Coronavirus restrictions are a pain in the butt. I’m naturally introverted, so I don’t get out much anyway. But I always liked knowing I could go out if I wanted to. And sometimes, I want to. And since I have made mental illness and depression a focus in my writings, I wanted to say something about how the Coronavirus shutdown can affect people psychologically, and what you can do about it. In addition to all the disruption to the economy and normal way of life for most people, Coronavirus is causing an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression. Some of the reasons cited are.

Isolation.

This is the greatest risk factor for depression and anxiety. Even those of us who are not quarantined can’t get out as much. Most public gatherings are cancelled. Where I live, they haven’t enforced lockdowns where I live yet, but schools are closed. Some businesses have closed voluntarily, and some are limiting themselves to drive-through and delivery. Social distancing also limits our interactions. My parents live in Hawaii. The people there are warm and friendly. You greet friends or family with a hug and sometimes even a kiss on the cheek. They’ve had to retrain themselves for social distancing. My wife and I visited my father-in-law and spoke to him through glass. Not that we think we have it, but just in case one of us picked it up somewhere.

Disruption of routine.

I work from home, so this doesn’t affect me as much as many people. But if you are used to going to work or school every day, and that is taken away—even temporarily—it is disorienting. Since I work from home, it hasn’t hit me that way. They’re recommending teleworking, and all my work is teleworking. But I once had a teaching job. I was overworked and underpaid, but the daily schedule helped provide structure to my time. There were familiar faces I saw and spoke to. I didn’t know that was a comfort until I lost it.

Loss of money or business.

So many businesses are closed or operating at reduced capacity. That means a lot of people are laid off and not earning a paycheck. Or profits. The stock market is down, way down. Losing money is stressful. Sorry for stating the obvious.

Uncertainty.

We don’t know how long it will last. It will get under control at some point. But right now, there is no cure, no vaccine, and no one can tell us when there will be any. Each morning, more people are on lockdown or quarantine. Each morning, a new list of businesses and public services are closed. When will the tide turn and things begin to get back to normal? No one knows, and that is stressful.

And, oh yeah, there is the looming spectre of a deadly, contagious disease that has already infected tens of thousands of people in the US alone, hundreds of thousands all over the world, and the numbers keep going up.

Well, never fear. Your intrepid mental health blogger is here. Okay, I can’t do anything about your job or the stock market or the disease itself. Sorry. I tried praying it away like the preachers I used to watch on TV, but God hasn’t been forthcoming in that manner. Which is why I say the preachers I used to watch. To help with issues of depression, stress and anxiety, here are some tips I gathered from the experts.

Maintain social connections.

You may not be able to visit people as often, but you can still call them or interact on social media. Many experts say social media and technology have contributed to the rise in depression, anxiety, and polarization in our society. I should do a post on that. But this time right now is where technology really can help us maintain connections, so we don’t feel isolated. I’ve used social media the last few years to keep up with family spread out all over the state. You can continue to do that. Get on the phone with them. Smart phones make video phone calls possible with Facetime, Skype, and similar apps. I don’t use that much myself, but it helps when you’re alone to see a friendly and familiar face. You can stay connected and still keep up your social distancing.

Don’t just text. Call them.

This falls under maintaining social connections, of course. I saw this online from someone calling themselves Dartagnan. “I talked to an old friend today on the phone today for about an hour. No texting bullshit, just a real conversation. Best time I’ve spent all week.”

Maintain self-care.

That includes exercise, a proper amount of sleep, nutrition, and proper hygiene. I guess we’re all thinking more about hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19. All the hand washing and sanitizing. Studies have shown that when people stop self-care, it’s both a sign of and a contributor to depression.

Stay informed, but don’t overdo it.

I watch the news in the morning to see the latest progress of the disease. After about half an hour to an hour, I’ve gotten everything I can from them, so I turn it off. It’s important to know what’s happening and what new restrictions are in place. But dwelling on it will not make you better informed. It will more likely just make you anxious. And get your information from good news sources, not social media. Rumors can spread faster than COVID-19, and nothing on SM is fact-checked.

Do something creative.

Have you been wanting to write a book? Or learn a musical instrument? Or another language? Or start some hobby? And you are stuck at home and can’t go anywhere? Hello, here’s an opportunity. I’ve been writing even more since the crisis started. Starting the podcast I told you about is me taking advantage of the extra time I have on my hands.

Prayer, meditation, and mindfulness.

Prayer is connecting or communicating with the divine or your higher power, whatever that means to you. Meditation is focusing on one thing to calm your mind. Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening around you and inside you, mentally and emotionally. All three have been scientifically proven to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.

Help your neighbors if you’re not sick.

Times like these, we really need people to remember to love their neighbors as themselves. One person in Boston left $1000 tip, because they knew it was the waitress’s last night before she was laid off. My relative offered to do grocery shopping for her elderly neighbors, because she knows going to public places is a much greater risk for them than her.

Set a schedule.

I’ll admit I’ve never been good at that. I’ve tried, but I just can’t get up at the same time every morning or go to be the same time every night. I get started writing, and I can just keep going for hours. That is actually good for my mental health. But not so good in other ways, like exercising or maintaining a schedule. But it is one of astronaut Scott Kelly’s recommendations.

Don’t give in to prejudice.

Since the Coronavirus arrived here, there has been an increase in racist incidents towards Chinese and Asian-Americans. That needs to stop. Don’t blame your neighbor for this because of their country of origin, especially when the vast majority of them were here before the Coronavirus.

Remember why you’re going to all this trouble.

Maybe you’re sick of social distancing and staying home except for when you need to get food or medicine. Maybe you don’t care whether you are putting yourself at risk. Maybe you are young and healthy and think if you get it, you probably won’t die. Statistically, you’d be right. But if you don’t practice things like social distancing, you could spread it to someone not so young and healthy. Starting at age sixty, chances of death go up significantly. Would you want anyone spreading it to your parents or grandparents? Or to your brother or sister who is undergoing cancer treatments? Then don’t take a chance on spreading it to someone else.

If you think you need help, here are a few resources you can connect with by phone or online.

Counseling services: https://www.betterhelp.com/

Suicide Hotline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or 1-800-273-8255.

Grace and peace to you.


While you are at home more, you might want something read or podcasts to listen to. I let you know at the beginning of this post I’m working on a podcast. I will share details with you. And I have a book out about my experiences with depression and finding faith in the midst of it. You can get it on Amazon, either in ebook or paperback. If depression is a concern for you or someone you love, I encourage you to check it out. And on this page, I recommend books from other authors that I found very helpful.

References

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hope-resilience/202003/the-new-mental-health-research-coronavirus

https://www.today.com/health/how-survive-coronavirus-anxiety-8-tips-mental-health-experts-t175092

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/10/who-gives-advice-on-handling-mental-health-toll-caused-by-coronavirus.html

https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/3/21/1929880/-Astronaut-Scott-Kelly-s-tips-on-how-to-handle-isolation-are-priceless

My Third Principle for Recovery, Part 2

My third principle for recovery says some kinds of faith are good for recovery and some are bad. In my previous post, I talked about the Word of Faith and why it was bad for my recovery. Here is an example of what I mean.

It Was (Not) All Up to Me

When I was young I had an uncle with a terminal illness. Of course, I prayed for him. But when I got into the Word of Faith, it changed how I prayed, because they taught, “Believe and receive your healing.” Okay, it’s not my healing in this case, but it’s my uncle’s healing. But they had me thinking if my faith is strong enough, or if his faith is strong enough, he can be healed. Even though doctors say, “There is no cure,” I am following the lead of my televangelist preachers who say, “Oh yes, there’s a cure, faith in Jesus Christ.”

I tried telling him, and he didn’t buy into it. I tried telling other family members. They didn’t buy into it. I was the only one who bought into it. So if it was going to happen, it had to happen through my faith.

And so I prayed. I prayed sometimes for hours on end. I fasted and prayed to make it happen at times, and that really freaked my family out. “Wait a minute! You’re going to not eat?” for however long I was going to do it. They really thought I’d gone off the deep end there. And they were a lot closer to the truth than I was at the time, I have to admit now. Not that there’s anything wrong with fasting, but me thinking I could break the power of Satan over my uncle with it? Guess where I learned that. No, it didn’t work.

And so, eventually, when he died, my family—even though they were sad—accepted it as the natural outcome of his disease. Because I thought my faith was supposed to change it, this was a victory of Satan over me. More specifically, it was a victory of Satan over my faith. That was a lot of pressure to live under. Understand, this is all speaking from the perspective of my Word of Faith background. This is the harm that can come from this particular understanding of faith.

Word of Faith vs. Real Faith

If Christian faith is important to you, as it was and still is to me, it’s important to have a sound biblical definition of faith. Those who preach the Word of Faith message claim faith is something you use to receive what you want from God. Whatever you pray for, believe you receive, and you will have it. Mark 11:22-24. And when it comes to sickness and poverty, this is the work of the devil. The devil comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10. Abundant life isn’t sickness and poverty. Abundant life is health and wealth. So you can overcome any sickness and financial struggle with nothing but faith. When I bought into this, I didn’t even know I was living with clinical depression. So when it didn’t work, the depression and feeling of betrayal was probably worse than most because of it.

What saved me was something I first heard from my religion professor in college. She taught that a true biblical understanding of faith is not about trying to convince yourself to believe something you just know is not true. It’s not about believing all the right doctrines. If they respond to normal questions anyone with a brain might ask with, “Just believe,” or “Just take it on faith,” or “That’s faith. You shouldn’t ask questions about that,” or anything like that, that’s a bad faith for recovery.

And faith certainly is not about thinking you can make God do what you want if you believe. The primary understanding of faith throughout most of the Bible is a trusting relationship with God.

Faith Is Trust and Relationship

Those two words are really important, trust and relationship. It’s something you build, over time. One analogy I could make is, when my wife and I were seeing each other, I was the first one to say I love you. It took her some time to say it back to me. And I understood that, because of past experiences, it was difficult for her to trust, not just me, but any man that she would be in a relationship with at the time. It was going to take time in our relationship to build the trust where she could say it.

The same was true when I wanted to propose marriage to her. I brought up the subject, and it’s a good thing I did before buying a ring and presenting it to her, because at the time she just wasn’t ready. It was going to take time in relationship together for her to get her trust to where, if I asked her to marry me, she would be able to say yes. And that really is what faith is like. You are building a relationship with God. You may have difficulty, at first, trusting. And along the way, you are going to experience some doubts. I suppose, maybe you can over time have so much trust that you have no more doubts. Theoretically, I guess it’s possible, even though I haven’t got there myself.

But what is more important in a relationship, having no doubts, or being able to talk about those doubts honestly? You can talk about it with God. In fact, over the years, I’ve learned honesty is much more important to a healthy relationship with God than belief. You can be honest with God. I would also seek out someone who you can talk to about doubts and issues that come up. They’ve probably had the same questions and issues come up on their journey. The most helpful people are usually those who have “been there,” so look for a mentor, someone with genuineness in their relationship with God.

Believe, and You Will Receive (Maybe)

Another thing to notice is if they talk about faith as if you should be able to control everything in your life, that’s a bad faith for recovery. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a certain prayer they’ve made famous, and others have latched on to. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

When I tried to help my uncle “believe and receive” his “promise of healing,” I nearly robbed him of the peace of mind that came from him being reconciled to God and being at peace with himself. Thank God there was a minister in his life who was able to counsel him with wisdom. Because he had the wisdom to know what we could control, and what we could not, my uncle knew serenity in his last days.

He prayed things like, “Lord, we lift up _______ before you and ask that you heal him. However, if it is not within your will to heal his physical illness, then heal him in other ways. Surround him with your presence and comfort him. Grant him the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Give him assurance that you love him. And if this is the sickness unto death, receive him into your eternal kingdom.”

There is a lot of wisdom in the way he prayed. It was the perfect balance of what we can control and what we can’t. He asked God to heal him of his physical illness but did not make any claim that God was somehow obligated to do it because of this or that Bible verse. And I should point out before he used the phrase “sickness unto death,” he had already had conversations about the possibility of death and what it meant to my uncle.

Almost everyone, when they near the end of life, needs more than physical healing. They need to be made whole in their mind, in their soul, in coming to terms with end of their lives in this world. And if they believe in God, they may have questions about the state of that relationship that need to be answered. Like I said, a lot of wisdom, but I did not fully embrace it at the time.

Do Not Pray “If it be thy will”

In the Word of Faith, they tell you not to pray, “If it is Your will” when God has already promised healing in the Bible. So when he prayed that, inwardly, I rebelled. I thought that just guarantees he won’t be healed. 1) If it’s a promise in the Bible, you don’t pray “If it be thy will.” God wouldn’t have promised it if it wasn’t God’s will. 2) You are already expressing doubt in your healing when you say that. So it was up to me to keep praying for him “according to the Word.” I thought the outcome of his illness was under my control, and accepting death was surrendering to Satan.

Hopefully by now, you understand I don’t accept that definition of faith anymore. I’m probably going to have to write a book on all the ways the Word of Faith messed me up. Again, I say, thank God that minister was there to model a truly biblical and Godly faith for my uncle. He was able to die at peace with himself and at peace with God. And even then, I knew that was really more important than curing his disease.

From Faith to Faith

One lesson in this is any kind of faith that tells you, you are supposed to control things you cannot control is bad for recovery. You need to stay away from that. You need the kind of faith that teaches wisdom to know the difference between what you can control, and what you cannot. You need the kind of faith that doesn’t beat you up for not having “enough faith,” whatever that means.

And something I found through all this is when you do read the Bible in context, it teaches a kind of faith that is good for recovery. I’m talking about the kind of faith my professor taught me, the kind my uncle’s minister showed, because it’s good at teaching the wisdom between what you can control, and what you can’t. But again, only when it’s read in context. So that’s what I want to leave you with. Faith that is good for recovery shows itself in serenity, courage, wisdom, and peace. So I invite you to make this prayer a part of your recovery.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know that difference.

-The Serenity Prayer

Grace and peace to you.

Book cover-Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Living with the Depressed Brain by David Anderson

Book Excerpt: Dark Nights of the Soul

Book cover-Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Living with the Depressed Brain by David Anderson
Free on Kindle until July 28

I have published an ebook on Kindle. It is available for free through July 27. Since I am self-publishing, I can show you an excerpt without asking the publisher for permission. I am the publisher, and I give myself permission. The book is called Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. You can use the link to go straight to the page on Amazon to download it.


Depressed Christian, Part 1

There are a lot of misconceptions about depression that prevent people who suffer from getting the help they need. In my own experience, religion sometimes brought healing and comfort when nothing else would, and sometimes it made my depression worse in ways nothing else could. And so I say I am in recovery from two things: depression and bad faith.

The first misconception is thinking depression is only an emotional state. Typically, people say they’re depressed when they are very sad. So depression in this sense is extreme sadness. Anyone can feel depressed after the death of a family member or friend, loss of a job, divorce or breakup, or some tragic event in their lives. This is situational depression.

But depression in the sense I’m talking about is not that kind of sadness. It is a medical condition. It is not something that happens because of life. It is an ongoing condition of the brain. This is clinical depression.

The Depressed Brain

Did you know that your brain processes more than 100,000 chemical reactions every second?[1] Obviously, that is too much to describe in detail here. For most purposes, you just need to know that an important part of this activity involves the production of chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. I will refer to them generally as “happy chemicals.” You have happy chemicals and stress chemicals. The brain processes them, but most of them are actually produced in the gut. This is why people with depression or anxiety often have gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses as well.[2] Regardless of where they come from, when your brain does not get normal levels of happy chemicals, the stress chemicals affect your mood. You live in a constant, underlying, and invisible state of depression–even when there is no reason for you to be sad. This kind of depression is a medical condition, not an emotional state where you can just “cheer up” or pray your way out of it.

I did not know any of this until I was professionally tested. The psychiatrist summed up the results like this: “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”

It was one of those moments when I knew my life would never be the same. How I viewed myself, life, the world, God, and everything changed forever with that one sentence. I only felt mildly depressed, and I still tested high in every possible way? I never thought it could be that bad. Yet, as the psychiatrist explained it, I saw how it was not only possible but explained a lot about my whole life.

Clinical depression is not about how you feel at any given moment. It means you need help in creating a healthy level of happy chemicals. Without that help, I walked around numb, moody, temperamental, irritable, and looking angry even when I was not. I isolated myself and either dreaded or loathed social interaction. I thought all kinds of bad thoughts about myself, friends, enemies, family, strangers, the world, God, and life itself. I suffered from anxieties for no good reason. I thought no one understood me, so there was no point in talking to anyone.

Of course, I did not feel that way 24/7. It would have been easier to recognize if I did. I had ups and downs just like everyone, or so I thought. My emotional/mood spectrum felt normal to me because it was the only thing I had ever known. This is what it’s like to live with clinical depression and not know it.

If any of this sounds familiar, especially if you can’t identify any good reason for your sadness, irritability, apathy, or hopelessness, you may be one of the millions of people living with undiagnosed depression of some kind. How do you know for sure? Since it is a medical condition, it needs to be diagnosed by a medical or psychiatric professional (See Appendix B). But if people close to you think you are depressed, even when you don’t, you should seriously consider getting tested. I only got tested because my mother and sister urged me. If they hadn’t, I would still be undiagnosed, still moody and depressed, and still thinking it was normal.

Bad Faith

Clinical depression is not about feeling sad or anxious. It’s about living with a brain that does not get enough happy chemicals. It is very important you understand this, because when religion gets mixed up in depression without understanding what it really is, it creates more problems than it solves. An article on Beliefnet said it well: “As we consider the causes of depression, those of us in the church must face the ways we might be responsible for creating it.”[3]

I’ve experienced some of those ways that church/religion/faith–whatever you want to call spiritual life and practice–can be responsible for creating it or making it a lot worse. I thank God from the depths of my soul that He led me out of that and into a church, faith, and spiritual practice that helps my recovery and healing, rather than beats me down for not having “enough faith,” whatever that means. Because the only thing worse than living for ten years (in my case) in a faith or religion that will only acknowledge “spiritual” causes of depression is living in that kind of faith for ten years…and one day.

A New Mission

What I say next, I don’t say lightly. I’m not the type of person who goes around saying, “God told me this. God told me that. God has called me to do this.” So many times I have heard people say things like that and thought, I bet if I could hear God as well as you claim to, right now I’d hear God saying, “Leave Me out of this!”

It’s not that I believe God does not talk to people. I believe God talks to us all the time, but hearing God is tricky. I’ve learned from hard experience that I don’t hear nearly as well as I would like to. Probably because it’s being filtered through a clinically depressed brain.

With that disclaimer, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I believe God is calling me to help others who are in the same position I was. People who know they are depressed and are trying to be happy. People who don’t know it but have a sense that something is wrong with them. People who think it’s normal because they have lived with depression all their lives. And especially, depressed people who have been hurt by religion. I believe I am in a position to help point you to what is helpful–and away from most of what is hurtful. I don’t think I will ever say I am healed of depression. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they call themselves recovering alcoholics, not recovered.

Just recently, I have been able to look at my life today and realize I have come a long way on this road of recovery, though I have by no means come to the end. This journey has been a quest for happiness, purpose, and meaning in spite of a brain that is tilted toward depression, and God has been with me through it all. There are some lessons I have had to learn the hard way. I hope to spare you some of that drama. The greatest happiness, purpose, and meaning comes from helping others, so I pray this will in some way help you.

Grace and Peace to you.

P. S. The book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain is available for $0.99 on Kindle for a limited time.


[1] “How Many Chemical Reactions Occur in the Brain Every Second,” Answers.com, http://www.answers.com/Q/How_many_chemical_reactions_occur_in_the_human_brain_every_second

[2] “The Brain Gut Connection,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, retrieved March 14, 2019, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection

[3] “Christians: Take Depression Seriously,” Beliefnet, July 26, 2016,  https://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/emotional-health/christians-take-depression-seriously.aspx

A cover, release date soon

Dark Nights Of The Soul: Reflections On Faith And The Depressed Brain has a cover.  I plan to release it in July.

Book cover-Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Living with the Depressed Brain by David Anderson

The book is the product of wrestling with God, the Bible, and my own demons of depression. (The demons are metaphorical, not literal). It is short, about 25,000 words. I could have made it a lot longer, but I thought people would be more likely to read a relatively short book. At this length, it says enough to make an impact but won’t be intimidating like War and Peace.

Whether you struggle with depression or love someone who does, I pray something from this project will help you through the holidays and beyond. If what I went through helps anyone find happiness and meaning for their lives in spite of being depressed, it will all have been worth it.

Grace and Peace to you.

The Holiday Blues

 

‘Tis that season when you hear “Joy to the World” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” everywhere you go. We think of the holidays as a joyful time, where we get to enjoy our families, food, and gifts. Yet for some, the holidays are a time of stress, sadness, and loneliness. Because of that, I’ve added this chapter on dealing with holiday depression.

Why are the holidays a depressing time for some people? Experts cite a number of reasons.

  • Stress. The parties, the get-togethers, the shopping, the decorating, yes, it’s all fun, but it’s stressful too. Normal irritations can become magnified during the holidays.
  • Pressure to be happy. When you see people around you happily saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and stores are playing holiday music to get people in a shopping mood, you feel out of place if you cannot get into “the holiday spirit.”
  • Unrealistic expectations. Comparisons often lead to depression. If you are comparing this holiday to ones in the past, you’ll feel disappointed if this year does not measure up. If your neighbors appear cheerful and have it all together better than you do, remember at home behind closed doors, they are probably as stressed as you.
  • Doing too much. If just the thought of holidays brings stress and anxiety, it’s probably because you have done too much in the past. Maybe it’s time to scale back.
  • Neglecting self-care. If you meditate and exercise, you might be tempted to put that on hold because you feel pressed for time. You might not be getting enough sleep or taking time during the day to decompress.
  • Family strife. Spending time with family is the most important part of the holidays for most people. However, there might be some family you’d rather avoid.
  • Overindulging. If you have depression, WebMD recommends you avoid food and drink that makes your blood sugar spike. This includes most of the holiday treats we love. Sugar highs and the inevitable crashes afterwards are not a recipe for holiday cheer. And of course overindulging in alcohol will not help.
  • Isolation. Being apart from those you love never feels good. But during the holidays, you miss them even more. For those who have just moved to a new city, especially if they are single, they may not have made any friends where they are. They feel alone because they have no one to celebrate with.
  • Grieving. The first holiday after the loss of your spouse or parents or children can be rough. If most of your best holiday memories are with someone who can no longer be with you, the loss you feel will be magnified during the holidays.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a condition where people become more depressed as the days get shorter. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is timed perfectly for SAD.
  • Post-holiday letdown. You manage to get your fill of holiday cheer in spite of the stress, and then it’s over. Until next year at least. As stressful as it was, some people miss the activity, the busyness, the holiday cheer, and the people who have gone back home.
  • Overspending. Some people use “retail therapy” to cope with depression, and the holidays present every temptation to overspend. Buying those expensive gifts is a big hit with those you give to. Then the credit card bills arrive.

 

 

What you can do

 

  1. Set expectations low. The lower your expectations, the less you can be disappointed. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, and you won’t have a meltdown when it’s not.
  2. Plan ahead and Prioritize. Make a list of all the things you expect to do for the holidays, then prioritize. Schedule time for the most important things. If you don’t have time for everything on the list, some lower priority items have to go. Do you have to go to every party you’re invited to? Can someone else host the family Christmas party this year? Can you enlist friends and family to help with the preparations? Say no to a few things that are not high on the priority list. People will not be nearly as disappointed as you think.
  3. Set a budget. Know how much money you have to spend on each person before you start shopping. Don’t pressure yourself to buy the best and most expensive version. If you don’t trust yourself, bring a friend who will make you stick to your budget. The best gifts don’t have to cost anything. I honestly believe if I gave my wife a “coupon” for a free massage, she would like that better than a diamond necklace. Remember they want your presence more than your presents.
  4. Maintain healthy habits. Enjoy your treats, but remember to eat healthy, get enough sleep, and avoid overindulging. Keep up your exercise and meditation routines. If you don’t meditate, you should start. A few minutes of meditation can do wonders for stress. Whatever you normally do to de-stress, don’t forget to do it during the holidays.
  5. Manage family encounters. If you dread getting together with some family members, here are some options, listed in increasing severity.
  6. Set aside differences. Don’t get baited into those same old debates. If you argue with the same person every year, you already know what they are going to say. Resolve before you go in you will not waste any more time trying to set them straight. If they start, just say Merry Christmas, and talk to someone else. If there is some past slight you are still sore about, what better time to forgive than the holidays?
  7. Seek out the positive people. Instead of fretting over that relative who is always critical, think of the people you enjoy and seek them out. If you are busy with them, that means less time with negative people. You can ask the person arranging the seating to place you next to someone more supportive. Better to say, “Can you sit me next to this cousin?” than “Don’t sit me next to Aunt Martha.”
  8. Make an early exit. You can always make an appearance, and make sure those who need to see you do so. After a decent amount of time, you can say you have to go because of another commitment.
  9. Avoid certain people altogether. It is better for your mental health to forgive than to hold grudges. But if the pain is too raw, or if you know they are going to make you uncomfortable, then don’t go to the party or to their house unless you have to.
  10. Volunteer. Nothing is more in keeping with the season than helping someone in need. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or other community service. Helping others feels good and is often the best antidote for depression. You might even want to make it a new tradition.
  11. Community, Religious, or Social Events. Religious services have always been a part of my holiday tradition. With or without my family, I like being a part of them. If that is not your thing, look for other community and social events open to the public. They present low pressure opportunities to see old friends or meet new people with shared interests.
  12. Call friends and family. One year my sister was working as a missionary in Mexico. We celebrated Christmas as usual—me, my parents, and grandparents. In the afternoon, we used my iPad to call my sister on Skype. My grandparents were thrilled, not only to talk to her but to see her. It is easy these days to set up video chat online. Skype is still popular, though WhatsApp and Viber are more popular now. If you have an iPhone, Facetime is included. Bottom line, for your loved ones who are miles away, if you have a cell phone, tablet, or computer, you can contact them.
  13. Journal your feelings. I started keeping a journal in college. I journaled about things that happened to me, and how I felt about them. During bouts of depression, it was a lifeline for me. Which is why if you read my journals, you would probably think I was a basket case. But studies have shown that journaling your feelings, especially during times of grief or depression, helps people feel less depressed and less anxious. Darlene Mininni, author of The Emotional Toolkit, suggests writing for fifteen minutes three or four days in a row to start. If you don’t know what to write, you can prompt yourself by writing and answering questions like, “Why does this upset me?” or “What do I want to happen now?”
  14. Get counseling. If you can’t shake feelings of sadness, loneliness, or anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help. I’ve listed some websites where you can search for a counselor in your area (Appendix B). But first, you might want to read this guide on what to look for in a therapist. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/how-to-find-therapist#1
  15. Remember to be grateful. The holiday season starts with Thanksgiving. That’s a hint. Begin each day with just a minute or two to think of three things you are grateful for, and the rest of your day is likely to go better.
  16. Plan a post-holiday get-together. This is a way to ease any post-holiday letdown. Set a date to get together with a friend in mid or late January. This will give you something to look forward to after the holidays.

 

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In my post called “The War on Thanksgiving,” I said this. “We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.”

The point I was trying to make is not to let commercialization take over the real meaning of the holidays. Sure, I buy gifts for whoever I’m spending Christmas with. I enjoy getting presents, but I also enjoy seeing their faces when they open a gift I gave them, especially when my niece and nephew are there. They are still young enough to approach Christmas morning with unbridled joy. Isn’t that what we really want from the holidays? To give and receive joy?

So whatever you do, whether it’s decorating, baking, making the holiday dinners, trimming the tree, eating with family and friends, shopping for gifts, making gifts, volunteering, attending religious services, whatever your traditions are, or if you think it’s time to start a new tradition, do it with the intent of spreading joy. That is the surest way I know to have a happy Thanksgiving, happy Chanukah, merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, happy Boxing Day, happy New Year and Dia de los Reyes. And a happy Festivus for the rest of us.

 

References

 

Kerr, M. Medically reviewed by Legg, T. J., Ph.D., PMHNP-BC. Holiday depression. Healthline Newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/holidays#1

Mann, D. Emotional survival guide for the holidays. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/emotional-survival-guide-for-holidays#1

Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544

Minnini, D., PhD, MPH. (2006). The Emotional Toolkit. St. Martin’s Press. Available in libraries or at https://www.overdrive.com/media/1571599/the-emotional-toolkit

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Bhandari, S., MD. “Foods to avoid if you have anxiety or depression.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-avoid-foods-anxiety-depression

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Goldberg, J., MD. “Holiday depression and stress.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/holiday-depression-stress#1

 

The War on Thanksgiving

 

Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music, put up Christmas decorations, and Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store, it was sunny and almost eighty degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

 

Good or bad for business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

 

Why am I talking about this on a blog about faith and depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful, from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: The fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money. Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

 

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

 

Announcement

 

As a multi-passionate writer, I have many projects in the works. One of them is a book called The God Wrestler. Some of my most intense struggles with depression have been over issues of faith and religion. Each time I walked away feeling like Jacob when he wrestled the angel, limping, but I came through it in one piece. The angel pronounced this blessing on him.

 Gen 32:27-28 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Right now it is in the final stages of editing, making a cover, and everything that needs to be done to make it ready for publication. The book is the product of wrestling with God, the Bible, and my own demons of depression. (The demons are metaphorical, not literal). It is short, about 25,000 words. I could have made it a lot longer, but I thought people would be more likely to read a relatively short book. At this length, it says enough to make an impact but won’t be intimidating like War and Peace.

Because the holidays can be depressing to some people, I wanted to offer something to help. So I will post chapters specifically to address depression during the holidays.

Whether you struggle with depression or love someone who does, I pray something from this project will help you through the holidays and beyond. If what I went through helps anyone find happiness and meaning for their lives in spite of being depressed, it will all have been worth it.

Grace and Peace to you.