Coping with the Coronavirus

I have been going to therapy on an almost-weekly basis since August 2018. During that time I have been able to assemble a host of coping skills to help me battle my depression and anxiety. Given that we now all find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, socially distancing ourselves and seeing the world turned upside down, I thought it might be helpful to share some things that keep me grounded when my feelings seem out of control.

  1. Keep your hands busy. The more anxious I am, the more fidgety I get, and it really helps me to have something to manipulate with my hands. I have this therapy dough in the “Spa” scent that I love to play with. It may seem silly to play with something that is very much like play dough, but trust me on this: having something in your hands can be a great distraction. And if you want to go a cheaper route, Silly Putty also works great for this.
  2. Try mindfulness activities. Mindfulness activities are meant to help keep you grounded in the present moment, and they are a great way to take your focus out of your chaotic thoughts and into the current reality. A few I like: try writing the alphabet with your non-dominant hand; pick a color and make a list of things that are that color; pick a color and find objects of that color in the room you are in; write a description of the room you are in, focusing on as many details as possible; play 5-4-3-2-1 (pick 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can touch).
  3. Go for a walk. Physical activity is a great weapon against depression and anxiety, and it’s something that we are still able to do while social distancing. Being outside not only feels good, but if your walk is strenuous enough, your body will release endorphins and give your mood a boost.
  4. Create positive experiences for yourself. Find little ways to inject pleasure into your days. Are there flowers for sale at the grocery store? Grab some while you’re making your grocery run and brighten up a room. Is there music that calms you? Spend 5 minutes and listen to it. Feeling stressed? Take a soothing bubble bath. Small, simple gestures like these can go a long way in making the day more pleasurable.
  5. Practice deep breathing. This is one of my favorite calming techniques, and it’s super easy. All you do is focus on your breath, taking in slow, deep breaths through your nose, holding for a few seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth. The slower your breaths, the calmer you feel.
  6. Journal. Keep a journal of your experience during this very unique, crazy time we are living. It will not only help you process all that you are thinking in feeling, but it will be an interesting document to revisit after this has all passed.
  7. Reach out to friends. Stay connected through calls, texts, emails, Marco Polos, etc. Any way that you can maintain relationships during this time of social isolation will help boost your mood and decrease anxiety. We are all in this together, and we can fight it best together.
  8. Memorize Scripture. Pick some of your favorite passages and work on setting them to memory. Hang them up around your house in places where you will see them frequently. God’s Word is the best antidote to anxiety and depression.
  9. Color. I really enjoy coloring, and it is a great way to focus on the present moment and relieve stress. Coloring isn’t just for kids! There are a lot of great coloring books for adults.
  10. Practice gratitude. Gratitude is essential. Without it, it is easy to become lost in all of the negative things happening. But there is always something to be grateful for, so spend some time each day making a list of simple blessings.

This is just a sampling of things you can try to lower stress and anxiety. Get creative and be intentional, and if you really want to dive deep, here’s a list of 99 coping skills you can try! I recognize that these things will not change our current reality, but it is my hope that by practicing these coping skills, you might feel better equipped to face these uncertain times.

What is your favorite coping skill?

Deliverance

Last year on this very date I wrote:

“If ever I felt like a bruised reed—like one struggling to stand against the wind, wilted and wounded —it is now. I have wondered if God cares and questioned whether He hears my prayers since He is not answering them like I want. Not only that, but there are many people besides me praying for God to lift the depression that has haunted me since the summer. If He won’t answer my prayers, why won’t He at least answer the cries of others on my behalf? He would receive glory from that, so why doesn’t He do it? I cannot understand, and my lack of understanding has led to doubts I have never felt before.”

I cringed inwardly when I read these words again, for to me now they sound whiny and entitled, but I also gave thanks when I read them. I am not the same person who wrote those words a year ago; I have changed, and the biggest change of all is that I am not in the same depressed state I was in for a solid 18 months. That’s right, friend, the cloud is lifting. Every day I feel like I catch more glimpses of the sun. Every day I feel like I am both being restored and also being made new. Every day I wake up feeling as though I have been given a new life, and it is a glorious gift.

When I think of what has contributed to this healing–even now my breath catches a little in my throat to write that word “healing,” for at one time it seemed impossible–I cannot pinpoint exactly what started it or why it has continued. I only know that for once everything seems to be working in tandem: the meds, the therapy, the exercise, the prayers, the Word of God. I do not know why it took so long for things to change, but because I believe and trust in a sovereign God I know that things have happened at exactly the time He wanted. And I know that I could wake up tomorrow and find that everything has gone gray again.

Perhaps that is why I have been quiet in this space; I have wanted to tell you of all that has happened the past few months, but I also have been holding onto a good bit of fear that I will wake up one day and find that the healing has disappeared and the dream is over. But I cannot speak my depression into or out of existence, and being silent has only caused my deliverance to go untold. So I will speak of what I do know, and what I know is this: in December I went to a psychiatric hospital for the third time because I had planned to take my life, and now it has been over a month since I have had any suicidal thoughts. In December I was hopeless, and now I have hope. In December life was pointless, and now life has meaning again. In December God seemed far away, and now I know He has been nothing but oh-so near.

I have spent hundreds of words writing about my depression,  and it gives me great joy now to spend those words writing about my deliverance. For I have been delivered from the darkness of my own mind, and even if I wake up tomorrow with depression hanging over me yet again, it doesn’t make my current freedom any less true or real. So I will praise God for His steadfast love and faithfulness and know that no matter what tomorrow holds, He will be with me when I face it.

Come and hear, all you who fear God;
let me tell you what he has done for me.
I cried out to him with my mouth;
his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened
and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God,
who has not rejected my prayer
or withheld his love from me!

Psalm 66:16-20

woman stands on mountain over field under cloudy sky at sunrise

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Whatever Is True

Last week in therapy, the very first question my therapist asked me caught me off guard: “What is something good that happened this week?” I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me far longer to come up with something than it should have (and then what I did come up with is the fact that I am changing medications for what seems like the 800th time. Hooray for progress?). I was not prepared to immediately think of something positive, and this fact just emphasizes the reality that I’m prone to think negatively about my life. Had my therapist asked me to name the worst thing that happened this week, I could have responded quickly, and with a number of things. The brief respite I enjoyed from depression appears to be over, and I have found myself treading in deep waters of sorrow once again (which is why I have been pretty quiet in this space). When my inner world is so gray and cloudy, is it any wonder that I perceive everything around me through the same dark lens? Is it any wonder that, a few months ago when my therapist tasked me with making a list of 100 good things in my life, it took me almost a month to do so?

There must be a better way. And we find that better way in Scripture. Paul, in Philippians 4, encourages believers to fix their minds on certain things, recognizing that what the mind fixates on, it will become. He says in verses 8 and 9, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Notice what it says in the last part of this passage: “the God of peace will be with you.” Paul isn’t just promising that we will have peace when we focus on things that are true and honorable and lovely, etc; he promises that we will have the truest and most honorable and lovely thing of all: God Himself. When we train our minds to think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, we shouldn’t be surprised when the object of our thoughts becomes the One who exhibits all of these traits with perfection. The more I turn my thoughts to Christ, the greater my love for Him and the smaller my problems. Does this mean I can just think away my depression? How I wish it were so! But what it does mean is that I have control over my thoughts. I can take my thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ. If I’m honest, I spend more time wallowing in my misery than taking my thoughts captive. And when I don’t take them captive, my thoughts don’t turn naturally to positive things; instead they turn to lies and despair, my old familiar companions.

When I was at Timberline Knolls, I went to a few group therapy sessions that were specifically designed for Christians. One particular group talked about using Scripture, worship music, and journal writing as ways to cope with our difficult life circumstances. One day during this group we were instructed to list lies we believed about ourselves. “Well, this should be easy,” I thought to myself, and it was. I was able to easily identify a long list of lies I frequently tell myself. Even knowing they were lies apparently didn’t stop me from repeating them to myself over and over as if they were the truth. Here are some of the lies I wrote down:

  1. I am unlovable.
  2. I am not enough.
  3. I have to earn God’s love.
  4. Being needy is a weakness.
  5. My depression is impossible to overcome.
  6. I can’t be at peace.
  7. Things will never get better.

Of course the therapist didn’t have us stop with identifying lies. She then instructed us to come up with truths to counter the lies. This took considerably longer than coming up with the lies, but when I realized that I could turn the lies on their head, it was easier. Here are some of the truths I wrote down:

  1. I am loved with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) that will never separate me from God (Romans 8:38-39).
  2. I am called and chosen and valued by God (Isaiah 43:1).
  3. I can do nothing to earn God’s love and grace. It is a free gift (Ephesians 2:4-8).
  4. Christ’s power is at work in my need and weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
  5. With God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26), and in Him I am more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37).
  6. Christ is my peace (Ephesians 2:14).
  7. My pain is temporary and will one day be replaced by eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).

At a time when my mind is prone to believing the lies that come often and without warning, I need the truths of Scripture more than ever. Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving, and I had to fight to be grateful, in spite of the fact that I was surrounded by a beautiful family who loves me. But the truth about gratitude is that so often it, like love, is a choice. Even when I may not feel grateful, even when my thoughts tell me my life is not worth living, I can choose to drown out the lies with the truth and give thanks  for the blessings God has given me. I can seek the Lord and ask Him to help me be grateful and give thanks that He hears me and loves me, even at my lowest.

achievement confident free freedom

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Far from Home, Part 3: The Wounds I Carried

This is part 3 in a series describing my time spent at Timberline Knolls receiving treatment for depression. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.

As I mentioned in my last post, my days were filled with activity. Group therapy took up the largest chunk of the day, and some groups resonated with me more than others, but all of them had something that I could use if I looked hard enough. Here’s a list of some of the groups I attended on a weekly basis:

DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) Skills: DBT is the theoretical framework out of which everything at TK operates. Several groups were dedicated to various aspects of DBT. The goal behind DBT is to create a meaningful life, and DBT teaches people how to do this through a variety of practices.
Body Image
Self Image
Mood/Trauma
Art
Family Dynamics
Soul Making
Mood Regulation
Process of Addiction
Process Group
Reflective Journaling

One group I attended was called “Grief and Loss,” and after hearing part of my story, my therapist assured me it would be a good group for me. I didn’t know why she said that since I have not experienced the loss of a loved one. I felt like an intruder just being in the room, since I knew that several of the women present had experienced deep loss. We started the group by listening to this TED talk by a woman named Nora McInerny. In it she talks about losing her husband and that she doesn’t think you “move on” from grief but instead “move forward” with it. It’s a very moving, poignant talk that I highly recommend listening to. As I was listening to the talk, I found myself becoming emotional. Tears sprung to my eyes, and I was hit with the hard truth that had I made different choices, I would be putting my husband and family and friends through the very grief that Nora talked about. Depression and suicidal ideation is a thief and a liar, and it almost cost me everything. The reality of that thought struck me with an almost palpable force in that group therapy room. After the video, several women shared their stories of loss, including two who lost parents from suicide, and it was an incredibly intense but important session.

After that group, I met with my individual therapist. One advantage of attending TK was being able to take part in their Christian track of therapeutic programming. This basically entailed attending certain groups specifically geared towards believers and being provided with a therapist who is a Christian. I was assigned to a therapist named Cynthia. Cynthia and I hit it off pretty much immediately, which was fortunate since I met with her 3 times a week the whole time I was there. Initially, it was daunting once again having to start all over with someone and fill her in on all that had been going on, but she was an excellent listener and had good recall, and I was instantly put at ease when sharing with her.

That day after the grief and loss group I found myself essentially sobbing through the entire session. Not only did I realize the gravity of the situation in which I found myself, but I also saw with clear eyes how much I have lost over the years. The losses for me haven’t been people but instead have been related primarily to my health: being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis; being sick for 3 years before getting to remission; not getting to run my 2nd half marathon due to chronic hip pain; giving myself shots on a biweekly basis; being told I needed to be in remission for a year before getting pregnant; gaining weight on prednisone; having hip surgeries and being on crutches; enduring weeks of physical therapy; continuing to have pain; eventually gaining back all of the 90 pounds I once had worked so hard to lose; having an unplanned C-section and a child in the NICU, etc. I cried for the pain of all of the unmet expectations, dreams, hopes, and desires those losses represented. I cried for the pain of having endured all of those things. I cried for the pain of having hoped that I had “done my time” with suffering and wouldn’t have to suffer like I presently was. I cried, and my therapist listened kindly while I somehow managed to express all of this to her. I cried, and I felt heard and seen, not just by Cynthia, but by God. I knew He had been there with me through all of those trials, and He was with me in that therapy room while I opened a door of my heart that I had stubbornly kept locked.

For the first time in a long time I allowed myself to admit that all of those experiences had wounded me, and I allowed myself the space to grieve what might have been. For the first time in a long time I didn’t minimize my struggles by saying, “It could have been worse,” or “Other people have suffered more.” I just let myself grieve, and it was freeing in a way I can’t express. For too long I have not let myself feel sad about the sad things that have happened to me because I have compared my pain with that of others and felt like mine was lacking in significance. But what Cynthia helped me see is that pain is pain and pain is painful, no matter how it comes, no matter the degree it is felt or experienced. All of the times I had pushed my pain aside resulted in me absorbing the message that my pain was not important, that I was not important, and so instead of making the wounds smaller, this denial just made them deeper and larger. I was hurt and hurting, and it was acceptable to admit that. Not only was it acceptable to admit it, but it was necessary so that I could move forward. 

I wish I could say I have moved past all of the painful experiences I have had, but I’m still a work in progress. That’s what therapy is for–to continue to heal the wounds that I let fester unseen for too long. If there are things in your life that were painful but that you swept aside out of fear that they were too insignificant, I encourage you to bring those wounds into the light and let the healing begin.