Sometimes students come to my office to talk about depression and anxiety, and they ask the same question: Why are you so happy?
It wasn’t always this way! Oh, if you only knew the dark places and the long years of feeling estranged from myself, of wanting to die, and of feeling hopeless despair! If you only knew! But let me help you on the journey!
I love talking to students about mental health and my own long journey to take care of my mind and body. I tell everyone that I’m not an expert in mental health, but I am an expert in my own story. Sometimes just knowing that folks exist who live normal adult lives—who finally wake up joyful after battling depression—encourages their hearts.
As I think about best practices for mental health, I note these seven practices based on research:
- Begin daily writing in a journal (or blog!) about joyful, beautiful, curious, funny, hopeful, or kind things. Keep a “Gratitude Journal” and even write thank-you notes to people expressing gratitude. To learn more about the research linking gratitude to happiness, you can read “In Praise of Gratitude” from Harvard Health. If you remember, my own blog often recorded five things a day that I loved or was thankful to God for. After a few years, I couldn’t believe how I woke up with anticipation on most days.
- Recalibrate toxic relationships. When relationships make you feel bad about yourself, or if you feel controlled or steamrolled, you can distance yourself from these relationships in loving ways to preserve your mental health. Codependent or enmeshed relationships lead to depression, and finding ways to relate in healthy ways is the next step on the journey of healing. For more information about how codependency leads to depression, you can read more here.
- Build your identity in Christ. My entire life changed when I started to truly believe and apply God’s word–especially through the book of Ephesians–about who I was. Rather than living in sadness, regret, or a sense that I was living the wrong life, God enabled me to see the “real me” through reading the Bible. My books on being Seated, Guarded, and Included document how I have, over the last few years, strengthened my identity in Jesus. As I read the Bible and prayed for years, I experienced increasing peace and joy in my heart.
- Seek out professional help. My therapist, primary care physician, and endocrinologist saved my life back at the University of Michigan. Finding a team of people to care for you makes all the difference. My counselor helped me with great coping mechanisms, spiritual practices, and tools to understand sources of depression, while my doctor found problems in my blood work including the wrong levels of thyroid stimulating hormone and low vitamin D. My endocrinologist helped me understand how my body was working and why anxiety and depression were happening to me. For two years, we worked together to find a good medication for anxiety and the right thyroid medication. After those two years, I never needed medication again for anxiety and depression, but I still take medication for my thyroid every day.
- Take a walk and eat foods that aid mental health. If you’re like me, you don’t have the luxury of doing nothing to help your brain work better. We can’t! We have to support our mental health more rigorously! Exercise, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and plenty of water work to make you feel your best. I also take a multivitamin with all the Vitamin B’s.
- Focus on other people, pets, or even plants. Sometimes, depression and anxiety turn us inward on ourselves, and we forget the biblical joy (Isaiah 58:8) of serving others. Volunteering at a shelter, teaching the youth group kids in Sunday school, making meals for neighbors, or joining an organization to serve others is part of a happy life. Pets, according to scientific research, do increase happiness (I have three cats!). I also find great delight in gardening and watching plants grow.
- Think about cultivating all the areas of your life–relational, spiritual, physical, and mental. Think about what’s missing or what’s out of balance. For me, learning new skills makes it hard for me to feel depressed in that moment. I also try to do things with my hands, like bake or clean the house, because so much of my life is mental activity like teaching, writing, and speaking.
On your journey towards mental health, I pray God gives you insight and understanding that will aid your path to joy. In the meantime, you’re not alone.