Christian Strategies for Maintaining Mental Wellness in Challenging Times

By Dr. Michelle Foster

You think you’re doing OK when out of the blue it hits: a vague uneasiness—a nagging awareness that something isn’t right. You’re waking up in the middle of the night or you’re snapping at your spouse and children. You miss people, but you don’t call them. Fear, loneliness, uncertainty, or some other aspect of the public health pandemic—and the changes you’ve had to make—is getting to you.

You’re not alone.

There is a field called disaster psychiatry, and the COVID-19 pandemic falls within its purview. 9/11 is an example of another event that affected the mental health of many people and fits in this category. But unlike 9/11, the pandemic directly affects everyone’s lives and, for some, the threat feels even greater because there is no clear end in sight, and the trauma is compounded by financial stresses, cases of social injustice and ongoing political divisions. All of this is really having a profound mental health effect on the population.

In May, the U.S. Census Bureau released data revealing that one-third of Americans reported showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression. The data was based on a survey conducted in a one-week period that drew 42,000 respondents.

Doctors say that even if you are feeling fine in general, self-monitoring is very important. We need to check our emotional health every day by asking, ‘How am I feeling? How is my mood? How is my energy? What can I do about it?’”

In the midst of it all, I am thankful for God’s many assurances, like the ones in Isaiah 41:10

Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness (Isaiah 41:10). Look at all the assurances in this single verse…

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. In fact, childhood experiences can impact our functioning as adults.

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). For example:

  • experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
  • witnessing violence in the home or community
  • having a family member attempt or die by suicide

Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding such as growing up in a household with:

  • substance misuse
  • mental health problems
  • instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison

ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education and job opportunities. ACEs can predict how we respond in challenging times. However, ACEs can be prevented.

But we need not fear because:

  1. God is with us.
  2. God has established a relationship with us.
  3. God gives us assurances of his strength, help, and victory over sin and death.

So, as we live through all the pandemics (COVID-19, economic instability, racial reckoning), what can we do to manage emotions? What can we do to manage our mental health? I am glad you asked.

What may be a surprising bit of advice on preventing long-term mental health issues is to allow yourself to fully experience your uncomfortable emotions, overwhelming as they may feel. It’s important to remain aware of your situation and—if you feel frightened—give yourself permission to feel that. These are human emotions. You can allow yourself to sit with uncomfortable feelings of being anxious, lonely, and fearful, and be compassionate to yourself in that moment. And remember….

Fear not [there is nothing to fear], for I am with you; do not look around you in terror and be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen and harden you to difficulties, yes, I will help you; yes, I will hold you up and retain you with My [victorious] right hand of rightness and justice. (Isaiah 41:10 AMP)

I will now share some strategies and the biblical context, that are good for both body and mind to help to lay a foundation that can make it easier to manage your mental health and wellness:

1. Pray

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us (1 John 5:14).

Prayer should always be our first approach to any problem. Before we set out to face our inner demons, it helps to take a moment and return our hearts to God. Scripture tells us that the Lord hears our prayers and will walk with us through any trial (Psalm 102:17), so we shouldn’t worry about standing alone.

Prayer isn’t a ritual that depends on closing our eyes and putting on holy faces. We don’t always have to kneel or sit. We can pray while walking, driving, or working. God responds to a two-word cry for help in the middle of a busy afternoon, just like He does to a focused prayer time after reading Scripture in the morning. Praying doesn’t have to be complicated. God delights in any simple words we offer Him.

Our God is omniscient. He knows our fears, he knows our suffering, and he loves us through it all. That knowledge alone can be very encouraging.

So, take a moment and present your troubles to God. Tell him about your anger, your sadness, and your fear. Don’t be ashamed, because he wants to hear your worries. Who knows? By the end, you may discover your burden has grown a little lighter.

2. Practice mindfulness.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Romans 12:2).

This can be as simple as a 3- to 5-minute meditation each morning. Mindfulness meditation early in the day can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which fuels the fight-or-flight instinct) when it is most elevated. Mindfulness quiets down those areas of the brain that are overly active and constantly firing over time.

Mindfulness is really about being in the moment, observing what’s coming at you from the outside and what’s coming up inside—taking it in and observing, and not reacting to it. With extended practice, you can begin to let go of what’s coming at you. There are even free mindfulness apps on your phone that you can utilize.

3. Control your exposure to the news.

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2).

Set a limited time each day for checking the news. If you are steeped in all this stuff and you’re ruminating on it, you have to ask yourself where the line is between watching events and not being able to pull yourself away. It may be impossible to avoid some negative news every day, but you can restrict your sources to objective news outlets that don’t sensationalize what’s happening.

4. Exercise to strengthen the brain

Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Never underestimate the value of physical exercise. The endorphins from a good run or brisk walk can work wonders on your mental health, and the feeling of accomplishment after a solid workout, is hard to duplicate. Staying active helps your body guard against anxiety and depression. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise either, since as Christians we know God designed our bodies to run, jump, swim, climb, and do any number of physical feats.

Any physical exercise helps, whether it’s yoga, walking, or something else, as long as you do it each day. They are lots of free workout videos on YouTube and Amazon Prime. Check them out.

The quantity is not nearly as important as the routine of doing it. Doctors advise creating a routine, and possibly adding other elements to strengthen its effects. A great benefit of exercise is mood regulation. If you combine it with meditation, it’s a very powerful cocktail.

5. Keep a daily journal.

On that night the king could not sleep. And he gave orders to bring the book of memorable deeds, the chronicles, and they were read before the king (Esther 6:1).

Writing down the events of the day helps you to process them. Find a place where there are minimal distractions and write as little or as much as you want, without judgment, ideally on a daily basis.

Putting pen to paper can often help liberate your inner feelings. Don’t worry about grammar or neatness, simply sit down and write. You may find it cathartic to write about their anxieties, while others gain encouragement by reliving old adventures. Either way, the act of journaling can serve to nourish and satisfy the mind.

You don’t have to create the next American classic, just take a moment and put your thoughts to paper.

6. Find ways to be social.

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

Visit people when you can maintain a safe social distance, make phone calls, or schedule Zoom visits. Send cards and emails. Look for a safe way to volunteer your time or help someone in your community (volunteer organizations may have precautions in place). See if you can find someone to be with in a “buddy system” and check in regularly with that person.

Remember the family altar with family and friends near and far. The connectedness will help your mental health.

7. Rest.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work (Genesis 2:2).

Sticking to a sleep schedule helps reset the body’s clock and supports falling and staying asleep. Consistent bedtime routines increase predictability and control. Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed and focus on positive/calming thoughts before bed.

Resting may be the hardest entry for Christians to accept. Our modern society moves at a blinding speed, and we’re constantly told to work longer, achieve higher, and contribute more often. Even on the weekends, our schedules overflow with tasks like doing laundry, cleaning the house, fixing the car, or shuffling the kids off to sports practice. We have effectively forgotten how to rest.

True relaxation is necessary for a healthy mind. If even God was willing to take a break, so should you! Spend some time reading a fun book, do a puzzle, take a nap, get a pedicure, or grab a massage. Self-care isn’t necessarily selfish; it just ensures you’re not burning yourself out. So, take some time and treat yourself.

8. Eat Well

Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags (Proverbs 23:20-21).

This may sound strange, but what you eat can have a profound effect on how you think! The Bible has plenty of warnings against gluttony, and its words are practical advice for anyone wrestling with their mental health. When we overindulge in sugary drinks or deep-fried foods, we’re more likely to become overweight, incur physical problems like diabetes and heart disease, and see a drop in our overall self-esteem. Tempting as it may be to sooth our troubles with comfort food, we must learn to practice self-control.

Instead of snacking on candy, why not try a bowl of fresh fruit? Incorporate leafy-green vegetables into your diet, and cook up a nice piece of fish for dinner rather than a greasy burger. It may not seem as appetizing now, but you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel in the long run.

I struggle with eating for comfort…at the beginning of the lockdown, I found my self trying all these new recipes, baking all this stuff, making fudge and all these delicacies from my childhood. Yes, I was eating my fruits and KISRA veggies, but the desire for comfort food kept surfacing.

The struggle is real, ya’ll!

9. Read Your Bible.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).

This one should be a no-brainer for us Christians. Scripture is filled with multiple, encouraging passages for anyone going through a rough period. For starters, it helps to know several Biblical figures also struggled with depression and anxiety. Job was so miserable he cursed the day of his birth (Job 3:1). A dejected Elijah actually went into the wilderness and begged God to kill him (1 Kings 19:4). Even Jesus knew how it felt to suffer mental anguish (Luke 22:44). If you’re feeling depressed, just know you’re in good company.

Thankfully, the message doesn’t stop there. The Bible teaches us that God will give us strength (Isaiah 40:31): But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

The Bible also tells us that God will provide shelter (Nahum 1:7): The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.

The Bible also tells us that God will walk with us through these dark times (Psalm 23:4): Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

His message is one of hope, grace, and ultimately, joy. Whatever this world may throw at you, remember that Christ will see you through.

10. Practice Gratitude

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

It is easy to be thankful when God blesses us with a new car or a new house or a job promotion.  But can we be thankful when our marriage falls a part?  Can we be thankful when we get laid off?  Can we be thankful when our son gets thrown in jail?  Can we be thankful when we receive a life-threatening report from the doctor?  It’s hard to be thankful during these seasons in our lives!

But it will help if we look at the context in which this word is used in the text.  The word thankful here means to be grateful, that is to be grateful to God as an act of worship…WORSHIP!  We worship God not for what he has done, not for our current situation, not for his material blessings.  We worship God for who he is.  So regardless of what state we find ourselves in, God is still God and our chief aim in life is to worship Him.

Practicing gratitude is one of the most effective ways of staving off bitterness and depression. It might even be worthwhile to combine this strategy with #5, and create a journal of gratitude to revisit when you’re feeling low.

11. See a Doctor

For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers (Proverbs 11:14).

For the most part, these strategies have focused on battling the common, day-to-day struggles of mental health, but sometimes emotional problems can turn deadly. If you’ve reached the point where self-harm is being considered, it is absolutely vital you go see a doctor right away. Regular appointments with a psychologist or licensed therapist can help with these feelings, and there’s no shame in speaking with a professional about them. To put this in perspective, a Christian speaker once compared therapy to getting routine car maintenance, “There’s nothing wrong with seeing a mechanic to make sure everything’s alright, why do we think any differently about counseling?”

God loves his children more than we could ever know (John 3:16), and he would never, ever want us to stay in a place where we would actively hurt ourselves. If you’re in a dark place, please reach out and ask for help. God put you on this world for a reason, because it’s a better place with you in it.

Fear not [there is nothing to fear], for I am with you; do not look around you in terror and be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen and harden you to difficulties, yes, I will help you; yes, I will hold you up and retain you with My [victorious] right hand of rightness and justice. (Isaiah 41:10 AMP)

Mental wellness will take work. However, we should be motivated by the fact that positive mental health allows us to:

  • Realize our full potential
  • Cope with the stresses of life
  • Work productively
  • Make meaningful contributions to our community

These are challenging times in which we live. Nevertheless, it is possible for us to manage our mental health so that we can cope and thrive in the midst of it all.

I pray that this practical message (Christian Strategies for Maintaining Mental Wellness in Challenging Times) has blessed you today and that you will go forth boldly to see what the end is going to be.

  1. Pray
  2. Practice Mindfulness
  3. Control your exposure to the news
  4. Exercise to strengthen the brain
  5. Keep a daily journal
  6. Find ways to be social
  7. Rest
  8. Eat well
  9. Read your Bible
  10. Practice gratitude
  11. See a doctor if none of the above is helping and you’re are thinking about harming yourself

It’s not over until God says its over. Follow these strategies and leave everything else up to our omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God who is with us and knows exactly what we are going through.

This is the word of God for the people of God.

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