Thursday, July 9, 2009

Slaying the Dragons - Nature vs. Nurture / Physical vs. Mental

We all look at the world through the lens of what we believe. I acknowledge the fact that my thoughts about all these dragons are biased by what I believe to be true.

1. I believe that God is in control. He is the great Physician, and every means we use for healing, needs to acknowledge Him as such.

2. I believe that God created our bodies to heal themselves. A cut closes up and grows new skin, cold germs are eventually conquered, a bone will knit itself back together, even things like diabetes and cancer have been known to reverse themselves with proper nutrition. The means of healing that acknowledge and work with or enhance that natural God given tendency, usually work best with the fewest negative side effects.

3. I believe that our natural tendency as sinful human beings is to want to live life our own way without consequences and not only that, but with perfection. We want to eat as much refined sugar as we want without acknowledging the connection to cavities and diabetes, and at the same time, have a body that looks like we work out at the gym 5 days a week. We want to smoke a pack a day and blame the tobacco company when we get lung cancer. We want to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die - but without the dying part. And when cavities, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and other chronic health problems become a part of our lives, we want a magic potion to take it all away. Poof! I am as guilty of this as anyone, as a simple trip to the bathroom scale would tell you.

4. I believe that our society finds it less and less acceptable to have variations of normal. Everyone must be at the same level of happiness and health, or something is considered wrong. It is already at the point where we are told that we "deserve" to live a life free of sadness, pain, fear, and anger. Why live through it and fight it for years when we can get a pill that will "fix" it now? The next step is the idea that those who don't pursuit medical treatment for their emotional dragons are in some sense neglecting and abusing themselves and those around them. We see this already happening in cases where people wish to use something other than the accepted treatment for certain health issues. There is such a need in our society to assign blame, it is not far fetched to foresee a day when doctors *require* their patients to take mind altering drugs, simply to cover themselves against lawsuits.

I realize that this worldview colors and shapes my view of things like mood disorders and mental illness. This doesn't mean that I don't see the possibility of a physical component to things like anxiety, depression, and anger. First of all, genetics probably do play a part in ones tendency to certain dragons. We have depression all through my family on both sides. I remember however a conversation I had with a doctor about vaccines and autism. She said that new studies had proved that the vaccines and their mercury did not cause autism. The genetic tendency to autism was already there. The vaccine just triggered it. Somehow she thought this argument removed any fault from the vaccine. To my way of thinking, it did just the opposite. The genetic tendency may have been there, but without the vaccine to trigger it, it would likely have either stayed dormant or been much less severe. The same is true with mental illnesses. The genetic tendency is there, but without the constant nurturing of those feelings, it would not have the same amount of power to control.

Second, mental things affect the physical. There may well be a chemical imbalance - too little serotonin, too much adrenaline, etc. Our dwelt upon thoughts and feelings can literally *cause* more or less of certain chemicals to be made. Those chemicals can then make us more susceptible to those thoughts and feelings, which then cause more of those chemical imbalances. That's why anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs seem to work. But, like taking an aspirin for a headache that is caused by caffeine withdrawal, taking mood medications do nothing for the underlying cause.

Third, physical things do affect the mental. Things like poor diet or lack of exercise, a lack of sunlight or a lack of time in God's word can all affect our moods. Too much potassium can make us feel irritable. A deficiency of B vitamins can cause a lack of energy and depression. Certain medications can affect certain people badly, such as the panic attack reactions I've had to the epinephrine in the numbing shot at the dentist's. And then, there are hormones - hormones that are affected by diet, pregnancy, nursing, puberty, pre-menopause, menopause, physical illness, abuse, and grief. When depression, fear, or anger come crashing down upon us out of the blue, seemingly swallowing us up before we even have a thought to try to take captive, I think probably 99% of those cases are hormonal in nature. In those times, I've found what works best for me is either to choose to wait and rest in God, clinging to the knowledge that what I am feeling isn't real and it will pass eventually, and/or I can prayerfully study out what might be causing my hormonal imbalances and choose supportive foods and herbs that may work with my body to help even out the hormones that are out of whack.

I do have one caveat. A person may live a lifetime eating poorly and find out that he has diabetes. That person may well be in such trouble physically that he has no choice but to take insulin to treat his diabetes. Simply working to fix his problem nutritionally takes longer and he may die before it works. He then must prayerfully make his choice to either go on living his life however he wants to - letting the medication "take care of it", or to change his lifestyle with the goal of eventually healing his body and being able to live without the insulin shots. The question is, do you see it as a magic cure or as a cast holding a broken bone in place until it can heal? I can see the possibility of coming to the same point with a mental illness. It would take an awful lot to get to that point for myself as too many of the cases I've seen and those I've heard about have had serious personality changes, a dulling of both the emotions and seemingly of the soul itself, addiction, and / or what I've heard described as the brain turning to mush. Personally, I find the cure more scary than the disease. :)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Slaying the Dragons - The Blue Dragon

Next in line is the blue dragon - Depression. It is amazing just how many many people struggle with depression these days. It seems the harder we as human beings try to be happy, the worse off we end up. I just recently read an article that stated that the women's movement has been largely successful in giving women the choices and freedoms that they wanted, but that *more* women are unhappy now.

Like the other dragons, Depression usually starts out as a little egg in selfish poor-me thinking. I remember even as a child, turning everything around to being my fault in my head and spending a great deal of time feeling sorry for myself. I grew up with a mom who spoke negatively about herself much of the time too so in some ways I suppose I came by it naturally, but that doesn't make it alright. I remember reading in the Bible that we should "love our neighbor as ourself" and wondering how that could be a good thing when I hated myself. Every thought I spoke toward myself was critical. Considering this pattern started by the time I was 6 or 7 years old, it's no wonder that it had grown to be in control of me by the time I hit puberty. And then the hormones came in and compounded everything. Life became nothing but darkness and pain. I'd lay on my bed, listening to the radio and just thinking - seldom good thoughts. I prayed over and over for God to take me Home to Heaven. I thought about how much better off everyone would be without me around. And eventually, after listening to those lies long enough, my thinking became so deluded that I actually believed it was God's will for me to kill myself. Looking back, I'm amazed that my logic could be so completely messed up, but there, in my 18 year old brain that I'd filled for years with lies and darkness - yes, *I* did it to myself - it made pefect sense. I am so ashamed at what I put the people who loved me through - at how truly selfish I was.

As I lay in a hospital bed wondering why God had not let me die, I came to see that He had a purpose for my life. It didn't get all better right away. There were years of fighting that dragon still to come, but the journey was begun and I am so thankful for it!

As with the other dragons, thanking and praising God, letting Him live through us, and taking thoughts captive is key. No matter what dragon you face in your life, those things will be crucial to be able to slay it, but there are times when it seems impossible to even do those things. Sometimes the canyon of wrong thinking has grown so deep that from the bottom, there seems to be no way up. It seems useless to even try. Here are some things that have helped me start climbing - simply putting one foot in front of the other in spite of the seeming futility of it all - until one day, I could look back and see progress!

First - get busy! I've often wondered why it is that more people suffer from depression now than say 100 years ago. I've come to believe that a lot of it may be simply more time to think. When great grandmother spent her days from before sun-up to after sun-down chasing toddlers, cleaning so much more and better than I do today, scrubbing the laundry by hand and hanging it to dry, taking care of animals and gardens, canning, making the soap and the candles, cooking everything from scratch, sewing all of their clothes, she went to bed tired but satisfied with all she had accomplished and content to have a life filled with purpose. Everything she did contributed to her family's survival. Today, we may rush around more, keeping ourselves busy with activity after activity, but at the end of the day, the brain is still way too active, leaving ourselves time to think upon our *selves*. Too much introspection is not a good thing. There may be times when we don't *feel* like doing anything and we have to force ourselves to just try. Sometimes simply going for a walk in the sunshine (or just the fresh air on days when the sun isn't shining) can be enough to get us started. Sometimes depression can be worsened by a lack of sunlight and a lack of exercise, so a walk can help both of those things. Even if it's just a little bit, it is a start, and it gives your brain something to think about besides your feelings.

Second, stop believing lies. When you tell yourself, "I'm an idiot" or "I never do anything right", you are telling yourself a lie. And we all know who the father of lies is. The truth is that you are special, dear, precious, loved, a wonderful child of God. When you tell yourself those negative things, what you are really saying is, "God made me garbage." "He doesn't really care about me." We are lying not just about ourselves, but about God too! We have spent so many days of our lives telling ourselves these wrong things. We need to acknowledge them as wrong and start laying down the paths that are right. It will take many days, months, even years of right thinking to dig out of those canyons, but it is not hopeless. We need to immerse ourselves in the truth. Turning on Christian music, spending time in Bible reading, reading other Christian books are all ways of doing this. One of the books that I found helpful was called Come Away My Beloved by Frances J. Roberts. Adding one section of that book a day to my time of Bible reading helped bring God's words to a personal level. I started to understand and truly believe that God loves ME! What an incredible revelation this is! And when I realized how much He loves me and is personally involved in my life, I began to literally fall in love with Him. This falling in love, brings thoughts of Him rather than thoughts of *self* to the forefront of our minds.

Which brings us to the third action - take JOY! I'm sure you've heard the acronym before - Jesus, Others, Yourself. Often we limit this to meaning what's most important in our lives, and this is true. But it's easy to say, Jesus is more important to me than myself, while still acting like I am more important. It was a huge leap in understanding for me to see that all those critical thoughts toward myself were just as selfish and wrong as too many self-loving and arrogant thoughts. In truth, self hating, poor-me, sorry for myself thoughts are just another form of self love. Because, what we love most is what we think about most. The Bible tells us in Philippians 4:8 "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." What is more true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy than a dear, wonderful, almighty yet personable God? Proverbs 23:7 says, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." The things we think about most are the kind of person we become! So our thoughts need to be so much more on God first, others second, and ourselves least.

This simply thinking of others is another great way to combat our dragons and make it easier to take our thoughts captive. There are so many needs around us that we can pray about and give and do where and what we can. Getting outside ourselves is a huge help in this battle of the mind. In the turning channels to take our thoughts captive, the channel of petition for others is another one of the more powerful channels to turn to.

All these things are not the answer in themselves, they are merely tools. There was apparently a study recently that said that "positive thinking" doesn't help depression. If our "positive" thoughts are not based in the Biblically true, right, and good things and in our personal relationship with our Lord and Savior, they are not going to be much help. And as we said with the yellow dragon, if our positive thoughts are trying to take those negative thoughts and switch them, while still really holding onto the negatives, they can't do much good then either. But as these tools bring us into a closer relationship with our wonderful Heavenly Father, He works in our hearts and changes us from the inside out. Over the years of fellowshipping with my Lord, my heart has literally been changed from a heart of darkness and stone, to one that is soft and open to the joy and peace God wants me to have. I did not do this. My right thinking did not do this. My thinking of others did not do this. God did. Just being in His presence changes us slowly but surely. In the same way that in spending lots of time with another person, we pick up their mannerisms and figures of speech. As God fills our hearts with Himself, He helps to fill in the canyons of Depression and lay down the pathways of Joy.