Why do so many wonderful Saints pray so hard, and yet remain so sick? In what ways can God still deliver those seeking to follow Him, even as illness expands around us? I believe further light and knowledge is being given for exactly that – and it’s time to celebrate that.
Brief summary: Jesus was an amazing teacher. But he did more than teach. He healed people. In Jerusalem. And in Bountiful. How about here – and now? Why do so many wonderful Saints pray so hard, and yet remain so sick? For many years, people have been told that depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions were inherently life-long. Rather than seeing their healing gradually expand, many have been taught the best they can hope for is to “cope” and “manage” a chronic condition. But with exciting research over recent decades, it’s not hard to recognize the emergence of “further light and knowledge” about mental health. What does that mean for us today – especially those among us hurting the most? This presentation will focus on exploring reasons for fresh hope in the possibility of more sustainable healing from mental health conditions, in particular – and consider practical steps that families can take to create sanctuaries of healing in their own home that more effectively counteract the accelerating risk factors for emotional distress swirling all around us.
One of the most beautiful moments in our Lord’s ministry is where he, sadly enough, made people the angriest. He came home to share a message in Nazareth that could have been one of the most comforting things these people could possibly hear – saying to the people that, essentially, I’m the one who has been “anointed…to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives…to set at liberty them that are bruised. To announce (as another translation says) that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”
Unfortunately, the idea this was happening nowwas just too much for these people .…so much easier to say, “sure, the Messiah will come one day…but you healing us here and now? That’s crazy talk. Really dangerous.”
Jesus must have known this was coming. But it still had to be a deeply painful moment for him. “This is who I really am! I can free you. I can heal you. You don’t have to keep suffering like this.”
The response: “Wait a minute…isn’t this Joseph’s son?” As Isaiah predicted, he was “despised and rejected of men” and they “esteemed him not.”
How about us today? Do we esteem this same Jesus as the one who can free us from these twin American epidemics of spiraling animosity and devastating health problems all around us? Or is that idea slightly offensive to us as well?
Our dear President Nelson is doing everything he can to prepare us for when the “earth receives her king.” We can be excited at that coming day – when, yes, “yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” But in the meanwhile, what about today? For those of us facing difficult mental, emotional and physical problems, does God expect us to simply endure debilitating things year, after year?
Clearly, the answer is yes, at times – with some hopes deferred to another world. But I was at a Christian mental health conference years ago where a speaker suggested that our hopes for healing mental illness will need to await “one day in the resurrection.” That’s when the suffering would end. Although this individual was trying to share hope, I felt sick to my stomach.
Something was missing – namely, confidence in God’s healing power in our lives today. Here and now.
If that power is still active, why does healing not come? Not always. Not quickly. Sometimes, not ever?
Clearly, miracles are happening more often than we realize. We hear them expressed in ward meetings and passing conversations now and then. Yet so many good and faithful people continue to grapple over the same confused prayer of Joseph long ago, “Oh God, where art thou?”
The ache of unresolved pain. I’ve been drawn to the Book of Jeremiah recently, partly because he lived in an angry time like ours. Among everything else he could have said about his nation in decay, notice what this mighty, persecuted prophet highlights early in his ministry: “Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people…: Is not the Lord in Zion? Is not her king in her?”
The Lord responds: “For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt.” (Another translation says, “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am crushed. I mourn; I am overcome with grief.”)
That’s when Jeremiah famously asks God, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (emphasis my own).
This is a difficult question – one I take up tenderly today…knowing how personal it is for so many. For those just trying to survive another day, this is no “interesting armchair philosophy curiosity.” Even more than the classic golden questions of missionary work, I’m convinced this is the platinum question weighing almost universally on the hearts and homes of our human family: How can I hurt less? How am I going to make it another day?
Amidst her cancer battle, my mother used to love Mary Anne Radmacher’s statement, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that simply says, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’”
It’s easy to forget that some of the thrilling healings in scripture had some very long back-stories, like the woman with an issue of blood who “had suffered [for 12 years] many things of many physicians and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse.” We also witness the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda who John says had suffered “thirty and eight years of infirmity” – depicted visually as “hudd[ing] on the floor in the shadows, exhausted and demoralized after suffering” so long.
In our day, we likewise see people enduring painful infirmities for many years. I’ve never seen anyone hurt like my sister-in-law did, across 14 years of suffering from depression and anxiety and the many treatments she tried until her death. Maybe some of you are facing similarly agonizing emotional burdens…if not, you surely know someone who is.
Other health conditions can be similarly long-term and draining. After a third member of our family was afflicted with cancer, leaving our family feeling a little like a leper colony, I remember my Dad reading about the Savior’s visit to the traumatized Nephites – who had just endured gruesome destruction and witnessed mass casualties – and inviting “all them that were afflicted in any manner” to come forth, where he did “heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him.” In a passage screaming so much hope, my great father of mighty faith wept. Why not us?
There is a lot that could be said about this – and which has been said, by people much holier than I. Prophet leaders remind us of the purpose of mortality, the role of adversity, and the way all these things will give us experience and will – one day – be made right….in what my family sometimes calls, the Plan of Eventual Happiness.
But still, the question lingers and nags: Why so delayed? There are no supply chain issues with the grace and healing power of our Savior, which is available now. So, is there anything else getting in the way of us receiving it?
My wife and I have been thinking a lot about this in our family lately, watching our sweet baby girl with brain injury living without the hoped for healing we have sincerely anticipated. One evening this week, Emma was up most of the night; each time she would get calm enough to almost fall asleep, she would be shaken awake by some agitation inside. It was torturous to watch. After taking my turn in the early morning hours so Monique could finally get some sleep, I pulled out a small volume of writings about the atonement of Christ – finding some new peace and comfort as I read about this ancient episode of awful pain in someone so innocent.
“Surely, he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53)
Many of you reading this also know in your own families what it’s like to witness suffering in someone pure and innocent suffering. Whenever any of us – or our children, loved ones, or brothers and sisters anywhere in the world – endures such suffering, I wonder if we’re not bearing witness in some small way of this awful moment long ago in Gethsemane?
To the many testimonies that have been given of our awesome God, I would add mine today – in specific response to this most vexing of questions I keep repeating. Why are we still hurting so bad?
One clue from Nauvoo. For me, one meaningful answer to that question comes from our experience in Nauvoo as a people. In 1839, the Saints got sick. Really sick. And not because they didn’t have faith. They were viciously driven from their homes in winter – arriving in a state of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion, soon to experience “excessively warm” weather in Nauvoo’s early swampland with disease-carrying mosquitos all around them.
The death rate among these noble, faithful Saints was “well above” the national average at the time according to one analysis. Those sad losses included many children, including the 14-month-old baby boy of Joseph and Emma, Don Carlos.
We rightly celebrate the demonstration of God’s priesthood power in that Nauvoo period to heal many. But notice what the Lord did not do. He did not just “make things better.” After all, He could have said, “hey, these are my people – no way am I going to let malaria take them out…” Or, he could have come to Joseph Smith and said: “Psst, mosquitos…” in a way that could have delivered them more quickly.
Eventually, of course, this is precisely what the Saints felt guided to do. They drained the swampland and became immediately less vulnerable. But it took many years for things like improved sanitation, better water, and safer food, to become generalized in society in a way that helped to eradicate diseases like malaria, and cholera. [In fact, in the next 50 years – exactly parallel with the restored gospel expanding over the earth – I find it fascinating that common epidemics of cholera, smallpox, malaria and typhoid were virtually eliminated, thanks to these kinds of improvements in living conditions: handwashing, refrigeration of foods, purification of water, sewage systems, etc].
This is the story that has burned in me when I’ve tried to make sense of the emotional burdens of depression and anxiety that have burdened even our own people in recent decades (although not as much as the rest of the world). Like the earlier Saints, we simply haven’t been aware of everything contributing to disease – or facilitating its healing. In both cases, God had not revealed yet all that would have delivered our people out of so much of the pain.
The early Saints were in the middle of nearly impossible circumstances. And we are too. But this time, it’s not mosquitos, lack of food, and angry mobs. It’s a spiritual and emotional assault beyond what anyone has experienced before. Listen to what John the Revelator says about our day: the dragon “was [enraged] at the [church] and declared war against…all who keep God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” And then in the next chapter he says about “the beast was permitted to wage war with the Saints and to overcome them.” Six hundred years earlier, the prophet Daniel foresaw in vision a fantastic entity that “spake very great things” (and sure sounds a lot like media’s modern day megaphone) and “made war with the saints, and prevailed against them.”
Whatever part of that is still in the future, don’t we all feel that starting to happen today – with the numbers among us succumbing to addiction, despair, family dissolution, etc.?
Maybe this is why President Nelson has been pleading – over and over (and over) for us to receive divine power – to “stretch” like we’ve never stretched before to receive personal revelation, to “reach up for the Lord’s power in [our lives] with the same intensity that a drowning person has when grasping and gasping for air,” and “to implement extraordinary measures – perhaps measures we have never taken before – to strengthen our personal spiritual foundations [in these] unprecedented times.”
That’s not what you say when you see smooth sailing ahead. Our prophet sees what’s coming.
Could it be that some of the increased power and foundation-strengthening the Lord wants to see in our lives is for greater emotional healing and resilience to come into our homes? If that is true for you, I bear witness of further light and knowledge our God has revealed to help us find just that – just as he did with physical disease in previous eras.
Further light and knowledge. What I’ll be reviewing below isn’t just my ideas or philosophy. There are literally tens of thousands of studies backing up what I’m about to say.
Dr. Neil Nedley was a primary care physician in Oklahoma helping people facing depression, but his patients were overwhelmed. And he was noticing the medical support he was giving them wasn’t often helping people get to a better place. So, he took a leave from his practice, and spent months reviewing the published medical literature – searching for anything shown to contribute to a vulnerability to depression. What he found blew him away, with thousands of peer-reviewed studies confirming hundreds of factors that can set up someone up for depression and anxiety. If you, for instance, don’t move your body around a lot, don’t get much sunshine, eat and drink like a normal American, consume media like a normal American, stress out like a normal American, experience trauma in the past that still hangs on your back, become sleep deficient, feel distance and isolation like a normal American…guess what? If that’s how your life goes, you should be depressed. Your brain would be working right – not wrong.
That’s what the research suggests. After the brain gets hit by enough of these things, it shifts into a different, depressed state. One researcher at the University of Kansas has said, “Our brains just weren’t designed to handle the sedentary, socially isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, poorly nourished, stressed-out pace of twenty-first-century life.” Researchers at the University of Washington have argued that we are living in a “depressogenic society” making its members “more prone to depression on a number of levels” – almost like a petri dish where depression is being incubated.
That may sound like bad news. But it’s not. Because if we know that – if we recognize the hundreds of contributors to depression and anxiety – we can actually do something about them, even in our own homes.
I’ll never forget a depression recovery class I was teaching when a woman came up to me after taking a survey we gave everyone showing the wide spectrum of possible factors influencing her depression (click here to review that survey for yourself or for a child). She said, “I have nine risk factors for depression!” with clear excitement. But why? Because for the first time in her life – after 15 years of being resigned to having to simply endure a life-long brain disorder, she understood clearly that there was a lot more she could do about this. And rather than just “managing” that disorder for the rest of her life, those choices could start to literally change her brain in positive ways. Listen to these summaries of what brain scientists today believe:
- “The brain [has an] astonishing power to learn and unlearn, to adapt and change, to carry with it the inscriptions of our experiences. (Dr. Schwartz OCD expert at UCLA)
- “The structure of the brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience….and can refine and retune itself every day of our lives.” (Science journalist Gary Marcus)
Compare that with how you hear most people saying about mental illness these days. Like when I asked one woman, “How would you define depression?” And she told me, “It’s that little glitch in my brain that doesn’t produce the chemical that let’s me be happy and content.” If that’s what you believe, it’s going to be pretty hard to have much hope in any healing, let alone believe that your own choices could make a real difference.
Now let me be very clear – we’re not talking here about realizing you can just “choose to be happy.” No, that’s not the choice for many. The choice they have is what to do with everything else in their life beyond just their immediate mood. It’s what you do between depressive episodes or anxiety attacks – what you do between struggles with an addictive pattern – that will largely determine whether you will move towards deeper healing (or not).
Dr. Nedley, who I mentioned earlier, took all this information and started teaching it to his patients with depression. What he found is that if he could reduce people’s overall depression vulnerability from 8 or 9 or 12 risk factors, down to 4 or 5 – they would inevitably start to feel better. That’s not just an anecdote. In a study of 4200 people, his research team found that over 90% of people facing both depression and anxiety found some significant improvement – with 85% having a response rate of at least 50% reduction in symptoms.
That’s pretty remarkable, but it isn’t the first time someone has taken this approach, by the way. One of my friends, Dave Larsen, has dedicated his life to exploring a similar approach with Alzheimer’s – where a “healthful diet, physical and mental activity” have been shown to help “reduce risk of Alzheimer’s dementia by 60%.” And it’s not just prevention. One study found 9 out of 10 people having symptoms reverse when they make incremental changes number of lifestyle area. (You can learn more about this here or in Dave’s Ensign article last August or by contacting him directly, David@abcbrain.org). As a second quick example, Dr. Stephen Aldana studied a very similar “therapeutic lifestyle approach” to heart disease in hundreds of people. Basically, he helped encourage them to exercise 25% more, while dramatically improving their daily intake of fruit, vegetable, whole grains – and was stunned to learn that health risks could improve dramatically in as little as six weeks, with benefits maintained even up to 18 months after this program began.
Okay, so is that kind of lasting, sustainable healing even possible for depression?
Check this out: Dr. Stephen Ilardi at the University of Kansas tried the same thing as that Oklahoma doctor I’ve been telling you about – bringing depressed people into their clinic, and then giving them coaching to make 6 or 7 major lifestyle changes. And here’s what Dr. Ilardi’s team found: “We’ve yet to see someone put the entire protocol into practice without experiencing significant improvement.” Every patient who put the full program into practice got better” (defined as experiencing at least a 50% reduction in depression symptoms) – including people who didn’t experience improvements from other approaches. These improvements were maintained at a 6-month follow-up – with no significant relapse after completion of the program.
So, why am I quoting statistics like this in a religiously oriented essay? Because this is an approach bringing people lasting healing from depression and anxiety – rather than just coping, and managing, and enduring year after year after year. And I believe it represents some of the further light and knowledge the Lord is making available to us today.
These results are so unbelievable that few professionals even believe they’re possible. That’s why you likely haven’t heard about it. How to introduce this to more people has become my life’s work – and why I’m working at a tech company making apps that help people adopt a “therapeutic lifestyle approach” in seeking deeper healing and freedom from depression and anxiety (Lift), chemical dependency (Turn) and pornography addiction (Fortify).
Is healing even possible for me? Sometimes I wish I could put on a nametag and go door to door asking – “do you have someone facing depression or anxiety, ADHD or schizophrenia? I have some good news for you.” Once again, sadly enough, most people – professionals and normal folks – have given up on the idea that lasting healing is even possible for these conditions.
Fifteen years ago during my dissertation research, I asked a woman I was interviewing, “Do you ever talk about getting better from depression?” She responded, “I don’t think that’s possible. I want it to, but a couple years ago, I just faced it that I’m always gonna have to have something.”
I asked her, “Who told you that you don’t get better?” She responded, “Well my initial diagnosis – they said this is something permanent. This isn’t something that you’ll ever not have.”
This isn’t an exception or an anomaly. I’ve come to recognize it’s what almost everyone – on every condition, including seizures, including cancer, and perhaps especially with mental and emotional disorders – are being told. And what an added weight that creates! We take someone already burdened with something like depression, then tell them a depressing story about depression that would bum anyone out! One woman I interviewed told me that her suicidal thoughts started “the same day” her doctor told her that her depression was “life-long.”
If science confirmed that depression was life-long, then we should be telling people that. But it hasn’t. Not only is that message fundamentally at odds with the best research out there (and the recent history of depression too) – it’s also profoundly at odds with the Christian message itself, which is all about mighty changes and transformation and restorations and a God “making all things new.”
Okay, you might be thinking…so maybe this kind of deeper healing is possible for minor depression and people without chemical imbalances and biological issues. But for people with serious mental illness – none of this applies, right?
Except that it does. Even people with severe mental illness – locked in the hospital – have found remarkable healing. I’ve been collecting their stories. So, don’t let anyone tell you that “some people can recover,” but you or your child have “something different.”
I’m not saying you will get better soon. I’m saying there is a way. So, don’t give up on it. Maybe just leave the future possibilities open. As one woman told me, “Never predict the recovery of another person.”
Positive patterns of healing. Okay, let’s get more practical. What exactly can we do to bring additional emotional healing into our own homes? I’ve always been fascinated by that – but especially after learning about Dr. Kelly Turner, who interviewed many people who weren’t supposed to get better from cancer. She identified a wide variety of patterns, with nine specific themes showing up in virtually every story of healing. (Interestingly, only two themes involved physical changes – such as major dietary shifts – with all other themes centered on emotional, relational and spiritual improvements). I started to wonder, what more could we learn if we applied the same approach to depression and anxiety – bringing more focused attention to understanding the experiences of those who find deeper healing from depression and anxiety? That’s what I’ve been doing, with the help of a small research team. I’m going to read through the ten themes that have stood out so far in the stories of those who find lasting healing from depression and anxiety:
1. Retaining hope in the possibility of deeper healing
2. Making small and large life adjustments
3. Prioritizing the big three – nutrition, physical activity and sleep
4. Adjusting mental diet, mental activity and mental rest
5. Pursuing forgiveness and healing from past trauma
6. Working with thoughts and emotions in a new way
7. Increasing emotional connection with trusted people around us
8. Seeing yourself and life as having true worth, meaning and purpose
9. Deepening spiritual connection
10. Growing freedom from substances and behaviors on which you have been emotionally dependent
I gave a longer presentation on these ten themes at the Association of Latter-day Saint Counselors meeting this October (click here for slides walking through examples from each of these 10 categories). I’ll only comment on a few of them here.
First of all, notice the importance of holding onto hope. In interviews with other recovered individuals, another researcher concludes, “Over and over again, we heard, ‘I needed someone to believe in me.’”
I’ve also been struck that virtually every story of healing has involved people learning new things and growing in new ways – sometimes big, sometimes small. One person said, “I came to realize that I had additional hurts, habits, and hang-ups to deal with in my heart. Within me there was selfishness, control, anger…and much more I had been blind to.” Another person spoke of the impact of finding a little more stillness in his life: “I get up early enough to not have to rush in the morning. I take in the sunlight by standing at the window for a few minutes,” before sitting down to have a “slow, warm and quiet breakfast” – without interference from his phone.
Let me ask you this: If it’s true that lasting healing involves learning new things and making gradual changes in our lives, what if someone was able to convince you that there was a way to get feeling better without any changes?
Look around in society today, right? One of our friends years ago went to the doctor with severe back pain. He was quite overweight – and came back to us to share the three options: (1) steroid shots on a regular basis (2) surgery or (3) some new kind of medication that could help alleviate the pain. I was joking with him, so….the doctor didn’t have any other ideas?
Now clearly, there are lots of doctors that would say more than that. But we’re often invited to direct our attention away from changes in our own lives that could make a measurable difference. Indeed, for two decades now, parents with mentally ill children have also been told “oh, this has nothing to do with you.”
That’s just not true – not for our kids and not for ourselves. None of this means, of course, we should introduce blame and shame into the conversation. This is just about seeing clearly what’s actually going on. Unfortunately, we have long misunderstood mental and emotional problems – casting them as sheerly biological phenomena…having nothing to do with how we’re living and choices we’re making…nothing to do with our spiritual connection or God, etc.
As a result of this way we talk about mental health, I fear that sometimes we beg and plead for God’s help – giving priesthood blessings…and then go and do what essentially everyone else does in the larger world to try and make things better – relying exclusively on secular approaches, without considering the many kinds of life adjustments we’re exploring tonight.
Three more examples of healing changes to consider:
Don’t ignore the past. It’s also easy to overlook ways that painful things in our past influence us today – ranging from early abuse as a child to trauma that can occur within later relationships. That led one woman who had experienced emotional healing, Eleanor Longden, to suggest “instead of asking people what’s wrong with them, let’s ask them what’s happened to you.”
If there is something in your past that keeps coming up and interfering with your life? Please take it seriously – and don’t ignore it. Talking about it more with people you trust might actually help you escape its intrusions on your present. Speaking of painful emotions, Thomas McConkie once said: “If we don’t address them, if we shove them in the cellar, it’s not like they go away.”
This might involve working through all sorts of difficult feelings. But recognize that Jesus knows how to help you get beyond them. Listen to this story from a woman with a history of some difficult abuse, who recollects being “fully prepared” to kill herself – kneeling in her daughter’s room as she napped in her crib, where she “desperately prayed once more,” asking “What do you want me to know today, God? Because I am going to do it.” Then she said, “I closed my eyes. That’s when the vision began.”
I am tied to a cross. No nails are used. There is an eerie darkness everywhere. I am outside in a barren landscape. There are no buildings; there are no trees, no vegetation of any sort. There is no sun, no moon, no stars, no clouds, no color of any kind….I am dirty and filthy, and I feel disgusting. I have a sense that I am two to three hours from death and I just want to be over with. I am past anger, past fear, past caring. Whatever it is I have done, I know I am deserving of this fate.
In the distance, I notice a man dressed in a clean white tunic walking among the crucified. I know instinctively that this man is Jesus. Soon he is coming toward me, an ethereal light surrounding him, and I am suddenly filled with dread and self-loathing before the most holy of persons. I feel shame in every fiber of my being. I am tortured in my nakedness and vulnerability, and, as he comes toward me, looking right at me, I am terrified. What will he do? Will he rebuke me?…He nears me, speaking not a word. The time has finally come. The judgment is upon me.
And then Jesus placed a step stool in front of my cross and raised himself up to where he could reach my arms. With scissors, he cut the ropes from around my wrists and body and I fell into his arms, onto his body, even more ashamed now of my filthy condition. Then he carried me a short distance from the cross and laid me down on a pure white blanket, where he began bathing my naked body, lovingly and tenderly, as if every part of me was precious, just as I had washed my daughter when she’d been ill as a baby. The water he bathed me in glowed with light.”
All the while, Jesus looked into my eyes with a deep knowing and an incredible depth of love and compassion. When he was finished, he cradled my head and offered me food for strength, and something to drink in a crystal chalice. I ate of the food…then he dressed me in a clean, white robe with a gold sash. All the while, he never said a word.
Seeing truthfully what’s happening inside. What if you have thoughts or feelings inside that scare you?
What most people do is just take this as further evidence of how sick, deficient, and defective they are – emotionally, physically in their brain. Don’t do that.
Try this instead: Learning to push back on your thoughts and learn to relate to them like weather patterns overheard. Some days, that internal weather might be clear and sunny – other days stormy. This sounds weird, but it’s something you can learn (check out the Mindweather class at the bottom). One man spoke of how shocking it was to learn that he doesn’t have to believe everything he thinks – and that he can push back on thoughts and just observe them. As he put it, “What was previously experienced as this kind of torture, being enslaved by the thought process, I was able to push back from that and just notice it as something a lot more innocuous, kind of like lying down on the bank of a river, just watching the stream float by.”
In this way, you can learn to rest in a place inside yourself that is deeper than thoughts, emotions, sensations – a place some people call “awareness” and that Christians would call “spirit.”
Does this apply to threatening emotions? I’ve had a panic attack before – and have helped people facing panic. What normally happens when a painful emotion like that comes – is we understandably go “not okay!” We get agitated about it – and panic about panic. But what if we could learn to somehow observe the panic arising…without just freaking out?
One of my mentors was on the way home from a mindfulness retreat on the Golden Gate bridge – and a panic attack struck. So she goes, “okay – I’ll try it.” And she basically meditates – focusing on her breath – and lets the panic do what the panic does. And what happens? The panic comes…and goes. Like a wave. It exhausts its energy – and dissipates. For the first time in her life, she realizes that there’s something she can do to help the panic pass sooner! (You can hear Vicki share her story here in our free Mindweather class – which says a lot more about working through painful thoughts and feelings in a skillful, calm way).
This is definitely not what she had been told – and not what any of us are told, right? What we’re told is that something needs to be done TO you to control it. You’re not supposed to feel that kind of discomfort, so let’s do something to ‘make it stop!’
That kind of attempt to control our emotions almost always backfires. That’s true of all the difficult emotions – anger, sorrow, craving. My sweetheart Monique sometimes gets mad at herself for being mad. But instead, what if you let the anger come – swell up, crescendo inside…and then burn away?
We can do the same for craving that come through the body – letting it move through us and pass away, in something called “urge surfing” (learn about that here for cravings for substances and here for pornography urges).
Decreasing emotional dependance. One clear pattern in those who find lasting healing from depression is they don’t stay centrally dependent on any substance long-term. Not a supplement. Not drugs and alcohol. Not CBD. And not Prozac.
If you currently feel dependent on some kind of substance, join the club! It’s almost a universal human experience for most of us. If what you’re leaning on is really critical to your well-being right now, of course, keep doing whatever you need.
But realize that last year during the pandemic, supply chains got disrupted to the point that some psychiatric drugs weren’t available. It’s not hard to imagine that happening more in the future. To prepare for that, I’m working with several other experts on an emergency prep guide for people forced to stop a medical treatment suddenly. That is not ideal, of course, because the gold standard is very, very, very gradual titrations back – for those who have the luxury and prompting to do so.
Most people, of course, have never even known that was possible or advisable. That’s a personal decision between you, family members and anyone else you trust, including professionals. But it’s important to know that if you feel that prompting, there is a way to do it gradually, gently, wisely – hopefully with support and supervision (check out the Withdrawal Project for a lot more good information on how to do this, this this profile of a woman who successfully tapered and this interview I did with Robert Whitaker for discussions of relevant science).
Other changes. Okay, so these are examples of some of the more serious changes people can pursue. There’s a lot of other smaller adjustments that make a difference – to our sleep, physical activity, sunlight, diet.
The cool thing is each individual adjustment can make a real, incremental difference emotionally. One study found that people who changed their diets (and nothing more) made significant improvements with depression compared with a control group. As the author, Dr. Felice Jacka, said, “Eating a salad is not going to cure depression. But there’s a lot you can do to lift your mood and improve your mental health, and it can be as simple as increasing your intake of plants and healthy foods.” And researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and Harvard have also found that getting to sleep one hour earlier “corresponds with a 23% lower risk of major depressive disorder.”
You’ll know best what you need and feel able to do. But what’s most exciting is what happens when some of these small and big changes start to add up.
A new momentum of healing. One man facing depression and anxiety describes how he experimented with being “choosier about what [media] I watched, and who I hung out with because I had a really clear sense of how it was affecting me. And that influenced my sleeping cycle. And I started to rest more; and I realized I felt really good when I exercised. And I noticed what foods made me feel good and what foods made me feel sick.” He described his story as a “domino effect… that cascaded into other fortunate turnarounds.”
Neuroscientist Alex Korb argues that these kinds of “upward spirals” are central to “reversing” the course of depression “one small change at a time.” As he explains it, “In complex systems like the brain, even a little shift can change the resonance of the whole system”:
For example, exercise changes the electrical activity in your brain during sleep, which then reduces anxiety, improves mood, and gives you more energy to exercise [and interact with others]. Similarly, expressing gratitude activates serotonin production, which improves your mood and allows you to overcome bad habits, giving you more to be grateful for. Any tiny change can be just the push your brain needs to start spiraling upward.
I worked with this teenager struggling with depression. We looked at all the different things contributing, and he was like “there’s no way I’m going to make changes to my diet – but…I could get outside more. So, he and his dad would play basketball or go on a hike each day. I came by his house 2 weeks later and he was feeling a little bit better. So, he said, “okay, I’ll try experimenting with my diet. So, I gave him this mindful eating challenge: “eat whatever you want this week – but pay close attention to how you feel after. I want to know which 3 foods lift your mood the most – and which make your mood tank.” I came back 2 weeks later, and he was mad at me, because he found out that those florescent Doritos (that look like they survived a nuclear incident) actually tanked his mood.
As you can see, this is not about “changing everything” in dramatic fashion. Even small adjustments – in “small and simple” ways – can correspond to more dramatic improvements in mood.
Healing at home. The best news of all is we don’t have to go somewhere else to find this – some clinic across the country. Just as we can make our home “true sanctuaries of faith” as President Nelson has taught, we can take steps in our own lives and families to counteract these forces around us – and follow the inspiration of the Spirit in making our homes sanctuaries of healing, both physically and emotionally.
That’s not a new idea. In the 19th Century, a Quaker religious community in York, England tried an experiment to help loved ones ailing emotionally. What would happen if we take these, our brethren and sisters who are hurting, and surround them with soft music, uplifting reading, good food, warm company and beautiful gardens?
The answer surprised them: people started to get better – really better. The outcomes of these ancient experiments remain some of the most encouraging ever to be documented in the treatment of serious mental/emotional conditions. I believe it’s time for these to become more than ancient experiments – in your own home! And in our own local communities.
A reflection of the gospel itself. None of this, as a reminder, is something “extra” from the gospel – like some “new-fangled approach” you’re getting sold on. Going back to that list of patterns in people who find more lasting healing from depression, ask yourself how many of these we’re encouraged towards in the Church of Jesus Christ: Retaining hope…Making small and large life adjustments…Prioritizing nutrition…Pursuing forgiveness…increased connection… Seeing yourself and life as having true worth, meaning and purpose, etc.
The Church of Christ on the earth is a remarkably sophisticated and incredibly comprehensive prevention and intervention approach for our emotional and physical health. If you haven’t fully tapped into that power, don’t give up!
One suggestion: Please don’t relate to this gospel as a big ole’ list to get through and be busy about – instead, let yourself enjoy it as an excuse to step away from the madness around us, to be still – and know God and His ways.
He really is the way. You might notice how different this is from how we sometimes talk about mental health and spirituality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people minimize the gospel – “Sure, the gospel is great and can help…especially with some mild issues…But let’s not get carried away! It’s not like scriptures and prayer are going to help much when it comes to more serious issues like depression…”
Translation: the gospel is irrelevant to these “serious” emotional issues. Yet most of us nod our heads – not realizing how we are recasting God and his intercession as an inadequate, disappointing remedy.
Dear brothers and sisters, the message and covenants of our Lord are not a secondary support for depression and anxiety. God is central to any lasting deliverance. Just like with addiction.
You may not be aware that some of the folks who started the 12-steps for alcohol found so much freedom that they started applying it to these emotional areas. Some couples whose marriages were in trouble said “hey, we’re stuck in our marriage – just like we were hopelessly stuck in alcohol.” (That’s the first step). But then they would say, “we do believe there is a power greater than ourselves that can restore our marriage to sweetness and intimacy” – and we are going to give our lives and our marriage into his hands wholly…to lead us forward (see Recovering Couples Anonymous).
I also used to facilitate an Emotions Anonymous group that applied all of this to depression, saying – “look, I’m stuck emotionally” – “I really don’t know how to get out of this,” before coming “to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore you to emotional wellness” – and then, the biggest step, “making a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God.”
We know how to do this as believers when it comes to sin – but not always so much with healing. “Sure, Jesus – he’s great for sin. But depression? Come on. That’s not his thing, is it?”
Have you ever heard anyone say something like:
- “My anguish is so great that I feel as if I’m dying…”
- “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me…”
- “My soul is overwhelmed [and crushed] with sorrow to the point of death.”
Those are several other translations of Matthew’s record of what Jesus said in the garden. The Lord knows what it means to hurt emotionally – and be “acquainted with grief.” Author of Believing Christ, Stephen Robinson, who also faced depression in his life, wrote:
All the negative aspects of human existence…Jesus Christ absorbed into himself. He experienced vicariously in Gethsemane all the private griefs and heartaches, all the physical pains and handicaps, all the emotional burdens and depressions of the human family. He knows the anguish of parents whose children go wrong. He knows the private hell of the abused child or spouse. He knows all these things personally and intimately because he lived them in the Gethsemane experience. …[where] he lived a billion lifetimes of sin, pain, disease, and sorrow.
Grief. Sorrow. Sickness. Pains. Afflictions. Infirmities. These are also Jesus’s specialty. And what He was sent to free us from. But he doesn’t just snap is finger to change things. As Stephen Robinson adds:
God uses no magic wand to simply wave bad things into nonexistence. The sins that he remits, he remits by making them his own and suffering them. The pain and heartaches that he relieves, he relieves by suffering them himself. These things can be shared and absorbed, but they cannot be simply wished or waved away. They must be suffered. Thus we owe him not only for our spiritual cleansing from sin, but for our physical, mental and emotional healings as well, for he has borne these infirmities for us also. All that the Fall put wrong, the Savior in his atonement puts right. It is all part of his infinite sacrifice – of his infinite gift.
I believe it’s time to celebrate the healing power of the Lord – yes, right here in a day when disease abounds – and will likely increase. As one Christian leader, Francis Chan, said last year in the middle of the pandemic, “I’ve never appreciated and loved being a follower of Christ more right now – just to know I can be secure in him, just to know that He really did conquer the grave so I don’t need to be afraid of death. That doesn’t mean I go out and do stupid things, but I’m just not fearful.”
We don’t have to be either. He wants to heal us, dear brothers and sisters – and prepare us to be mighty instruments for Him in the days ahead. If the Christians are angry, sad, scared, and lonely – who is going to share hope with the world? We need to be the people sharing hope, peace and joy with the world
That might be hard to hear if you’re still hurting in agonizing ways today. But don’t forget, that’s Jesus’ specialty – even and especially if we’re feeling desperate and lost.
His pain and our pain. Truly, “He knows our pain – to our weakness is no stranger.” Sometimes, though, I think we take a wrong lesson from His anguish. It’s true that the Lord told Joseph Smith, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” which we can sometimes take to mean, “oh come on – Jesus suffered even worse than you. Why are you complaining?”
To that, we might say – so what if His pain was worse? My baby is still hurting! My friend is still on the edge of hurting himself. My co-worker is still having terrifying panic attacks.
What does a comparison with that pain long ago really mean for all this suffering today? As we’ve been discussing, that pain long ago means everything when it comes to reducing our suffering now.
Pardon another family story. During a time when my little brother was sick going through cancer treatment in the hospital, my other brother – like all of us – hated seeing him suffer and wished he could take away the pain. So, he prayed one night, asking the Lord to let him take away Daniel’s pain at least a little. He described to me how the most awful feeling came over him for a few minutes – leaving him in agony – then it passed.
The difference, of course, between Sam’s prayer and the Savior’s intercession, is that Christ has power and authority Sam didn’t have. Our Lord brings a super heroic power to our redemption that, like we tell our boys, make the power of spiderman and superman pale in comparison.
Standing in His place. The rest of us don’t have the fullness of that power or love described earlier, but we do have an opportunity to take whatever portion of these we have and minster in his place as President Nelson has encouraged – acting and speaking as he would.
Easier than it sounds. And harder than it looks, right? I’ll never forget trying to minister to a woman in our singles ward who was battling sharp depression. I was joking with her – trying to distract her a little– and she interrupted me, “stop Jacob. I just need you to be here…with me.”
The term compassion comes from the Latin com-passion or “to suffer with.” That’s what the Lord asked of his own apostles in Gethsemane. They couldn’t take away the pain he would face. They couldn’t fix that. But at least they could make sure he wasn’t alone in it, right? He seemed to have that hope. So, he said, “Tarry ye here, and watch with me” – meaning, “just stay close…don’t leave me alone….Stay awake…please.”
Writer Henri Nouwen admits this kind of watching and attention is “hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are wea, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.” Our natural tendency, by comparison, is to “do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it…And so, we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellow [brothers and sisters], not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart.”
One of my favorite stories about this kind of ministry comes from author Parker Palmer went through a period of severe depression and describes friends saying, ‘Gosh, why are you sitting here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside” – things sometimes we say with the best of intentions. But then he says:
There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today,” or farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race. What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but …it made a huge difference.
We’ve felt that same kind of tangible presence in our own family this last year. Whatever burden Monique and I have had to carry for our hurting baby girl, it’s been abundantly clear that many other neighbors mourn with us – and carry some of the load.
I’ve come away from the whole experience feeling how sweet the love in Zion is. It makes me think of how many people are going through hard things without this support right now!
I can’t resist one more awesome story of ministry from our own history. Listen to this experience from that summer of sickness in 1839, where John Lyman Smith recalled the prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum visiting and administering to them since their father was “delirious from the effects of the fever.” As he recalls:
Their words comforted us greatly, as they said in the name of the Lord you all shall be well again. Upon leaving the hovel Joseph placed his slippers upon my mother’s feet and sprang upon his horse from the doorway and rode home barefoot. The next day Joseph removed father to his own house and nursed him until he recovered.
It’s true we’re not always sure we can do this. I had a woman tell me once, “but I’m not a therapist – I’m just a mother!” Professionals can do some special things to help. But the reality is we don’t need professional training to be there in powerful ways for someone in distress. We know all believers are called to teach and testify as part of the “harvest” of the last days. But Elder Holland once taught that this harvest also “surely” includes “a call to heal one another as well” going on to ask us “to be a healer, be a helper, be someone who joins in the work of Christ in lifting burdens, in making the load lighter, in making things better.”
Closing. Maybe that’s what you need right now: something or someone to just make your own heavy load a little lighter. Brothers and sisters, however confusing your situations is, I testify God is not confused! And He can guide you in exactly what you need to do.
Instead of trying to figure everything out, just take the next right step.
That’s not something many even consider, because they don’t think there is any healing to be found in this life. If nothing else, I hope this has helped dislodge that belief.
Let’s do this together. You’re surrounded by awesome neighbors – every one of which has a capacity to minister. There are professionals available for especially tough situations. I would also be happy to help, not as a therapist, but just as a brother of faith (I’m serious – firstname.lastname@example.org).
I pray this upcoming Christmas season may be for you a time not of winter doldrums only, but of fresh hope and finding more of the “joy to the world” Jesus brings – and not just when He comes in the flesh. As ancient King Benjamin taught, “whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy, even as though he had already come among them.”
Imagine how awesome his real presence will be – “Ris’n with healing in his wings…. good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
That would be great, yes, but what if we could find that – not in some glorious future day – but right…now? “The hopes and fears of all the years met in [Him] tonight.”
We began speaking of a brother and sister whose lives were changed anciently by one encounter with a Healer who saw the full truth about what they faced – and possessed the power to make them “whole.”
In his presence. With His perfect, personalized help.
I believe the same Lord who healed this woman and this man – the very same – stands ready to heal and deliver us, His people.
Yes, some of that will await the coming day of His return and our resurrection. But not all.
There is more He can do. Right here. And now.
For us. For you and your family. For our baby girl.
“O God, Where Art Thou?”
He’s here…right here.
My prayer is that we can find him – all of us – and therefore receive the full scope of healing He wants us to find.
I’ve gathered some additional resources below:
- The Mindful Way Through Depression (Mark Williams, et al.)
- To Depressed, Anxious Saints Everywhere
- Letter to a Desperately Depressed Human Being
- Our Depressing Story about Depression
- Hopeful Science Proving That Deep, Lasting Healing from Serious Mental Illness is Possible
- “Your Urge to Die, is Really an Urge to Live Differently”: Laura’s Story
- If More Treatment Is the Answer, Why Haven’t the Numbers Gone Down?
- Why Have Suicides Increased Even After Enormous Efforts to Reduce Them?
- “Is There a Getting Better From This, or Not?” Examining the Meaning and Possibility of Recovery from Mental Disorder?
And here is the free online class I created: Mindweather 101: An Online Course Exploring Creative Ways to Work with Intense Thoughts & Emotions
As one way to help broaden the mental health conversation, I worked over several years with wonderful partners and supporters to create a free, mindfulness-oriented online class that individuals and families facing mental health distress could watch. [To see the full class, go to Mindweather.org and you can check out the Introduction & Background of the class here). Or you can click in and view individual segments of the class below]:
Part 1 Making Sense of the Problem
Lesson 5 Just being there: Insights for family and friends (Part I, Part II)
Part 2 Responding to the Problem
Part 3 Working with Difficult Thoughts
Part 4 Broadening the Conversation