Mental Health and Spiritual Freedom: Seeking Clarity to Live for the Lord
People know me by my laugh. As the one who when she isn’t smiling, is doing something goofy or a little bit strange. Who gets overly excited about games or films or a person walking into a room. I should hope that they know me to be a Christian. They know me to be organized. They know me to be outgoing. I have my quirks, I’ll admit, but on the whole people know me to be “normal.” What most people don’t know about me, is that despite how well I function on any given day, I struggle with mental illness.
I have generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, which are often accompanied by onsets of depression and some obsessive-compulsive behavior. Some days are worse than others; the symptoms can come and go on a spectrum. But these symptoms have a way of intertwining with my temperament. I suffer frequent panic attacks, which vary in their manifestation but are generally debilitating as they drain my physical and emotional energy. I am generally indecisive and cautious, able to produce a number of worst case scenarios in a matter of seconds (which is almost impressive to be honest). I don’t do well with change, crowds, or over-stimulation. I can be easily frustrated. My thoughts are constantly moving, usually with a steady drumming of stress and adrenaline in the back of my mind. Because of the nature of any mental illness, it can be difficult to determine what is real and what is not. And sometimes even when we recognize the irrational nature of our thoughts or worries, they and their physical counterparts persist. The frustration of being trapped in your mind and the lies of the Devil is a real and terrifying experience. In my heart, I know that Jesus is Lord over all and that I need not fear, but the nature of my mind makes that difficult to live out, and it is not always my direct choice to fall into despair. Over the past few years my anxiety has directly affected my life in many ways, and I have been able to learn a lot about how to not only cope, but to fully live out the will that the Lord has set before me. While the disorders I struggle with are very turbulent and are fueled by the unknown, untrue, and uncontrollable, I have identified certain truths from the Lord that bring aid and comfort to me, and when put into practice bring others to the Kingdom and glory to the Lord. These are truths that apply not only to my anxiety, but also to all who suffer with these and any other mental illnesses.
My identity is in God, my father. I am not my diagnosis; I am a daughter of God. Anxiety is not something that I am; rather it is something that I have. For the most part, the effects of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses are temporary. The Lord is not – He is steadfast and eternal. On days where my anxiety is oppressive, I use the mantra “My strength is in the Lord who created the heavens and the earth.” The God who created all that is also designed and made me for a purpose. That fact alone holds significantly more power in my life than my trials ever will, for it is the very reason I have life at all. (1 John 3:1-3, Jeremiah 29:11-13)
Mental illness is not a punishment, is not a choice, is not a sin. In both Christian and secular circles, there is a stigma around mental illness. This often stems from the fact that people don’t understand the causes and treatments for these types of illnesses. Because they don’t understand mental illness, they are made to be uncomfortable and the necessary conversations simply do not happen. In medical fields, mental illness is thought to be caused by some combination of hereditary and environmental factors. For some, mental illness runs in the family. For others, it is brought on by some traumatic experience. Others still may develop over time due to environmental stressors, circumstances, or substances. These are limited examples, but no matter the causes and no matter the severity, mental illness needs to be taken seriously. This isn’t just a bad attitude or phase. This isn’t fixed by “thinking happy thoughts” or remembering “that other people have it worse off than you”. This isn’t just attacks from the Evil One. This is brain chemistry that is not a choice. The choice we do have is how we respond.
You need to take care of your mind, just as you would take care of your body. It is important that we take care of our bodies, as they are gifts from the Lord that He chooses to dwell in Himself. When you have a physical illness or injury, it is expected that you seek medical counsel and treatment. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, OCD, addictions, and many more are real medical ailments and need to be treated as such. The symptoms we face may not be visible, but they are valid. To better serve the Lord in this life, we cannot and should not ignore the importance of addressing these issues. There are a lot of treatments options, from prescription drugs to cognitive behavioral therapy to support groups – none of which are something to be ashamed of. For a long time, I fought getting help for my anxiety. I struggled through all of high school, didn’t tell my parents what I was experiencing, and was too ashamed to even name the problem. The words “mental illness” terrified me, and I participated in the very stigma that was inhibiting me from getting the help that I needed. Even after my parents found out, and I was encouraged to see a doctor, and was facing significant change in my life, I resisted having the conversations that I needed to have. On my own, I had figured out what triggers me, some helpful techniques in maintaining calm, how to function “normally,” but bottling things up was only prolonging the negative effects. While on my GAP year in Glasgow, Scotland (a year of full time service), I was encouraged and I believe led by the Spirit to finally receive real advice from a healthcare professional. I spoke with a woman in the Christian community in Glasgow that I was a part of who is a doctor and she was able to speak wisdom into this area. Understanding what my disorder actually is, and why the effects happen the way that they do, and what can be done to help, gave me a lot of peace and even the courage to receive a diagnosis. I saw another doctor within a few weeks and he affirmed my theoretical diagnosis and prescribed a medication that keeps some of the more intrusive symptoms in check. This all made it very real, but it was a step toward healing. Since then, I’ve had to make adjustments to my personal care routine, but paired with prayer, I have seen improvements that have given me clarity to choose for the Lord. (1 Corinthians 3:16)
You are never alone. Due to the paranoid nature of these types of illnesses, vulnerability and opening up to others goes against your instincts. But community is a tool that can be used for healing. It was difficult thing to do, but over the course of the past two years, I have chosen to confide in some of my sisters and older women in my life with more wisdom about my fight. As I have done this, I have been met with nothing but love. These women have supported me in prayer and in practical ways. My roommate on my GAP year took note of the physical signs of my oncoming panic attacks and would drop whatever she was doing to get me water, see what I needed, and sit with me until it passed. If I text or call my sister needing to talk or be distracted, she is there for me. God’s gift of community has blessed me immensely in this area and He is constantly at work through the people in our lives. (1 Peter 5: 6-9)
Your illness may limit you – and that is okay. Just as people with physical restrictions cannot do everything, people with mental illness are going to have their limits. It is important to learn what these are, but not to let them cripple you or to use them as an excuse. Along with that though, it is good to have the strength and humility to say “no” to things when you need it. There was a point in my GAP year where my whole being was overwhelmed. After a long week, the schedule for my busy Friday ended with back-to-back planning meetings in different locations for two of my biggest service projects of the year. Getting ready to leave for the first one, something tipped the scale and I shut down completely, spiraling into one of my worst panic attacks of the year. I was worried about letting down my teams, but some women that were looking out for me spoke reason into the situation. In my state, I wouldn’t be useful in the meetings. The priority needed to be for me to rest and be well. The Lord in his power restored me and was my strength to finish the job when I was well. (Philippians 4:13)
Jesus took on our humanity... and thus knows the pain we experience. While on a retreat, I cried out to the Lord. I asked Him why I hadn’t been healed when I had prayed time and time again. I told him that I felt alone and that I was frustrated and I didn’t want to carry this burden anymore. But then, I felt his presence and his understanding gaze and heard him say, “I know. I know it hurts. I’ve been there and you are never alone in this.” I opened my Bible to the gospel, where Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane before he is betrayed and later crucified. I read of Jesus’s physical, emotional, and spiritual pain and it all felt familiar. Our Lord knows the pain in this world, and chose to suffer willingly out of His great love for us so that we can be redeemed. (Matthew 6:36-46)
Gaining control of your mental health and giving all of it – including that which you can’t control – to the Lord brings you closer to spiritual freedom. Praying to be free of resentment but rather to accept my circumstances, I learned through my study, service, and relationships on my GAP year the role that mental illness plays in my life and how it affects me as a disciple. This illness was and is a part of my cross to bear. In accepting that fact, I began the process of discerning what areas of discipleship I needed to approach differently from my brothers and sisters and how I can bring this part of my life before the Lord for Him to redeem and use for His glory. Service played a huge role in my healing. In putting my energy into the needs and comfort of other, my focus was naturally turned away from myself, my preferences, and my pain. I found that the more I looked on others with the eyes of Jesus, the more peaceful I became. Choosing to dwell on the Lord instead of my worries made the difference between being enslaved by my anxiety and having true freedom in the will of the Lord. (Luke 10:27)
Bringing your struggles before the Lord allows you to see the blessings amidst the trials and his redeeming work. Even with all the progress I have made over the last few years, I still have dark days. Sometimes I don’t think I have the energy to get out of bed. Sometimes I don’t think I can mentally handle fellowship. Sometimes my focus is terrible and my prayer times suffer for it. In times like these, before I even address my earthly remedies, it is crucial to bring my trials before the Lord. He Loves me more than I will ever be able to comprehend. If I were the only person on this earth, He still would have gone to the cross, died for my sins, and rose from the dead for my salvation. In that infinite Love is also infinite power to redeem all things. Using this lens to reflect on my trials, I can see where the Lord has met me at my worst, and transformed the situations and my heart for His glory. He used my hyper-awareness to small details and temperaments and blessed me with the gift of compassion and love to go with that. When joined together, I can connect well with others and see their needs and how I can better love them. The Lord took my negative experiences and used them to help me connect with younger sisters who experience similar problems. Without my suffering, I wouldn’t have been able to understand what they were going through and wouldn’t have been able to speak the Lord’s hope and love into the situation. In my healing the Lord blessed me with a love of service. He even has even redeemed my obsessive compulsive list-making and used my organization for outreach events. Through everything that I have faced because of my anxiety, there has been one constant. The Lord is steadfast. He alone has the power to conquer all. Next to Him, even my scariest days and my sleepless nights look small. He is the true light that illuminates the darkness and enlightens our hearts. (John 1:5) (Psalm 27:1)
In the thick of anxiety and other mental illness, these things can often be difficult to bring to mind. Healing is a process, and because of our human nature, it will have ups and downs just like in our relationships with others and our walk with the Lord. This is why we cling to God, offering Him our all on both the good and the bad days. The firmer our foundation, the less likely we are to crumble when the temporary trials of life come our way. Seeking right relationship with the Lord, leaning on those around you, having the difficult conversations, and seeking the medical care that you need, we can press onward toward healing. As the Lord lights our way to mental health, he is also giving us the grace for spiritual freedom.
*The information provided here is for general informational and testimony-sharing purposes and should not be construed as medical advice. You should seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional for specific questions regarding your particular situation.*
My name is Rachel and I love stories. Mine started in Pittsburgh, PA, where I was born and raised in a Christian community called the People of God Community. So far it has included an amazing family, the opportunity to perform on many different stages, a quest for the perfect college major, a GAP year in Glasgow, and the pure joy of encountering the Lord in so many people, places, and experiences. My current chapter, titled “Year 20” has me back in my hometown, working at a meeting and event planning company, leading my community’s youth group, and living a never-boring and blessed life with UCO Pittsburgh. Some things that make my story beautiful include: the perfect cup of tea, quality contemporary Christian music, films, metaphors, cats, to-do lists, winged eyeliner, and Bananagrams. Praise be to the Lord, the Author of Life! He's really talented.