Working through the mental health recovery process is not for the faint hearted.
Most of my life, I have chosen negative coping methods: binge-watching TV, comfort-food eating, poor sleeping habits, self harm, anything to distract myself from the pain of dealing with old wounds and a negative self-image. As a result, my perspective of the world (and especially of myself) is neither healthy nor accurate. Now as I work toward recovery, I have to address these deep places of pain. And… I’d rather not… because it just hurts so much!
So how do I find courage to process the emotional pain? How do I find resilience enough to explore those places I’m afraid to go? Here are five tips I’ve used.
Tip #1: You need Jesus.
There might be several different reactions to that statement. Regardless of what you believe, whether you love or hate the church, whatever experiences you’ve had in the past, God is good. People are messy and may have hurt us, but God is good. And Jesus is the only reason I’ve made it this far. He has been my constant friend, source of purpose, and bringer of hope. Jesus is bigger than any obstacle we face and He helps us carry our burdens. That doesn’t necessarily mean our burdens go away, but it means we have a Helper. Jesus is my Shepherd and He will guide me through the recovery process. I trust myself with Him more than with anyone else, including myself.
Tip #2: You need community.
On a bad day, I really don’t want to see or talk to anyone. They’ll ask me how I’m doing. On the inside, I scream, I’m dying! I’m doing terribly! I need help! Please help me! But on the outside, I smile and happily reply, “Oh, I’m doing great! How ’bout you?” Because if I share the truth, who knows how they’ll respond or if they’ll even get it. I’d rather isolate myself than deal with the risk… but isolation isn’t what we were made for.
When God made light, He called it good. When He made water, He also called it good. Plants? Good. Man? Good. But then He said, “It is not good that man should be alone.”
People bring with them various perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses. We were meant to work together, helping one another and growing as a community. Inviting trustworthy people into my process invites fresh perspective and new resources to help me get through the hard days.
Tip #3: In seeking community, it’s ok to start small.
When I changed lifegroups about a year ago, I didn’t tell anyone about my struggles with depression, anxiety, and OCD. There’s normally this underlying fear of how people will respond. Once I finally worked up the courage to share, I still didn’t tell the whole lifegroup. I started by sharing with just two people that I trusted. I invited them over to my home, treated them to coffee, and then shared with both of them at the same time. Super efficient!
At first, I was deeply anxious about the prospect of sharing my struggles. But as I shared with these two friends of mine, something interesting happened. One of them confessed that she was dealing with the exact same thing. I wasn’t alone! It’s interesting that when we share our struggles, it somehow releases other people to share their struggles.
They say about 18.5% of the population struggles from some kind of mental illness. That means theoretically you’d only need to share with about five people before you found someone else who was also experiencing a mental illness. You are not alone, and building community, even if it’s small, can help immensely.
You don’t have to share with everyone, but do share with at least someone, because there are times we all need somebody outside of ourselves to help us process life’s difficulties.
Tip #4: Know when it’s ok to distract yourself and when it’s necessary to address the pain.
I will say it again: working through the mental health recovery process is not for the faint hearted. There are so many days I’d rather just avoid the challenges of working through my emotional pain. I’d rather zone out on Netflix or stay in bed until 2pm or really do anything else except struggle toward healthier thinking patterns and sort through all of the memories, cycles, and triggers. That work sucks! Pardon my language, but I hate it! Especially on a bad day.
So… when do I veg out, and when do I wear my big-girl shoes and address things? When my symptoms rear their ugly head, it’s not always helpful to try dealing with the pain right away. Depending on the situation, that might just aggravate my symptoms even more. But that doesn’t mean I should just turn on Netflix and eat junk food. Here are some things I’ve chosen to do instead:
- Go outside and take a walk. Get some fresh air, vitamin D, and exercise. Many times, once I’m done with the walk, my racing thoughts have calmed down enough that I can now address the triggers with a fresh perspective.
- Clean, clean, clean! Well, sometimes cleaning feels like a chore and just drives me crazy, but other times, it’s exactly what I need to distract myself. And if I’m going to distract myself with something, why not choose a productive distraction? I’m also a huge believer in “clean house, clean mind.” Some minimalists believe that having a clean home helps calm your mind down. Each object in your home comes with thoughts attached to it. When there’s stuff everywhere, then everywhere you look, thoughts are crowding into your mind. For some people, myself included, that can be quite overwhelming. So when my home is clean, I feel much calmer and on top of things.
- Snuggle with my dog. For all of you animal lovers, you know there is something incredibly calming about snuggling with your favorite pooch! Dogs love us unconditionally, and there’s just something reassuring about their consistent affection.
- Play Sudoku. Yep, I too have given into the cultural phenomenon of Sudoku! But really any puzzle is great for helping my mind relax. I can fully engulf myself into the mental pursuit of arranging the numbers 1-9 into a bunch of tiny, little boxes. It moves my brain activity from the amygdala into the frontal lobe, which helps get me out of the fear center and back into the reasoning center.
But once I’m done calming down, it’s time to explore those areas of pain. Some people say we shouldn’t get too caught up in introspection, but I think there are also many benefits to self awareness. As I explore the places of wounding, I find myself growing as an individual, discovering healthier thinking habits, and growing more resilient.
Here are a few resources to help with processing the emotional pain:
- How to Manage Emotions More Effectively
- Seven Practical Strategies to Overcome Emotional Pain
- Tending Your Heart PDF download ( a journey with Jesus through your emotions and thought-life)
Tip #5: Don’t give up.
Y’all, I’m so tired…. tired of feeling like crap, tired of the pain and discomfort. I’d rather just ignore it all, but to do so would be giving up. I’d be condemning myself to long nights of endless Netflix or Final Fantasy, little to no interaction with Jesus, and a zombie existence at work as I battle fatigue through five cups of coffee and then stay up even later the next night, distracting myself with other peoples’ stories until I fall asleep from shear exhaustion and thereby successfully avoid addressing the tumult of my own story.
It’s the endless black hole into oblivion, and to do so would wreck my life. I wouldn’t notice it at first, but the realization would slowly set in. Once I start to notice, I’d stuff it, trying to ignore the growing discontent, until it would bubble up and explode, leaving me lying on the floor in a crumpled mess of snot and tears. I can’t live that way.
But the other option is to open up to community, spend time with Jesus, and seek healing from those places of deep-seated pain…. It’s hard work and the prospect scares the crap out of me! Is it worth it?
That’s a question I need to answer for myself now, if I am to keep moving forward. Is it worth it?
I think that’s a question many of us need to ask ourselves. In John 16:33, Jesus said, “In this world, you will have troubles….” So there it is: life’s not easy. But then Jesus also said, “…take heart, for I have overcome the world.” That verse always brings me great comfort!
So yeah, it takes courage to process those places of emotional pain. But I’ve noticed that the more I want to ignore the pain, chances are the more I need to bring that pain to Jesus. So I take a moment to calm my spirit (tip #4 above) and then I ask Jesus, “What is Your truth in the midst of this situation? And how do You want to release hope into my life right now?”
What helps you?
I’m still a work in progress. I’d love to learn from you as well. If you’ve found a particularly good coping method, please comment below! And let me know the ways you’ve learned to find courage in your recovery process.
All the best!