Let's talk about mental health for a minute. After all...it is pretty important...
Yesterday was a bit of a mess for me. I had decided to film worship at home for a number or reasons. My intern is recording at home so it looks more consistent when I also do. The theme for this Sunday is more "homey" than many. It is a communion Sunday which has been most effective when filmed sitting at a table. That said, the process is a bit more complicated than the already complicated process of filming at church...and everything went sideways like it always does. .
I couldn't get anything right. It took over an hour to get the lights, cameras and mics up. It took another hour to get thing positioned properly for shooting. There was the added stress of using my cell phone camera (for the best picture) and a different recording device for sound. My iPad--and therefore my sermon--froze twice. Then uploading was a nightmare.
So I took some time out of my day to have a meltdown. I was frustrated about everything. I felt bad because my film editor--a beloved former youth grouper who does this sort of thing for work--will now have to do extra editing. I was annoyed with myself for looking at my notes so much during recording (still am). Everything required waiting and I hate waiting. It was a day with other work plans that just didn't get done. Furthermore, everyone around me was frustrated, too. My wife was conducting her therapy sessions over zoom. My sons were in Virtual High School and Virtual University for most of the day. Here was Dad...stomping around.
Now...we made it. I was able to lean on my family and they were able to lean on each other and on me. However, it reminded me of the stress we can and do feel. After all, mental health is something we talked about in the before times. Add in the stressors of "the Holidays" and of the pandemic and we can expect plenty of strain. There will be abundant opportunities for yelling, tears, complete overwhelmed inaction, and more besides in the weeks and months to come. Lucky us.
To be clear, I am generally a moody person even in the best of times. Holiday anxiety and depression, therefore, have often gotten the best of me. I expect it to be worse this year. I also expect that some folks who are of a cheerier disposition and usually make it through this time relatively unscathed will find themselves in darker territory than what they are used to. This is a major concern not just for me, but for the church and for society in general. Already among the pandemics we are dealing with right now is a mental health one. I don't foresee this getting better for some time.
Yeah, the vaccine is just a few months away...sometime in the spring and summer for most of us...but that doesn't change our right now. It also doesn't alter the internal disconnect of our time. The "Dark Winter" is here and we are expected to be...festive? We need to be mindful of our feelings.
Anyway, as I write this I realize--as I have many times before--my own inadequacy in addressing the many dimensions of the challenge of maintaining mental health. That said...I can try...right? With that in mind, here are the things that I try to do in order to maintain my own mental health. These are practices for non-holiday/non-pandemic times, too. However, I also attempt to be more intentional about them during the holidays. I am not an expert and I mess up constantly so if they help, great. If not, ignore me.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that physical and mental health are connected. I don't really know the "how's" and "why's" of it, but I know it works for me. In fact, one of the biggest mental health challenges I have right now is that I am still recovering from back surgery and cannot engage in nearly the number of activities that I used to. I have written about this elsewhere but suffice it to say that the struggle is still real. Last year I ran a 5k on Thanksgiving. This year I managed a walk. In fact, I seem to have injured myself yesterday doing what I think of as the base activity in my exercise regimen--literally the least I can do. I used to be capable of so much more.
OK...whine time over. While I have had to scale down a bit, this doesn't mean that you should. A healthy body sends positive signals to our ol' brains. The exercise, itself, takes up time and gives us something to focus on. These are good things! If you are a competitive person and the possibility of comparison stresses you out, start exercising by yourself. Go walking or running and stop when you want to without regard for distance or speed. If you already exercise, I suggest re-committing now rather than waiting for the new year. Do something physical as regularly as you can...unless you strain something. Then you need to take a break and see what else you can do to fight the blues...
2) Food and Drink:
Obviously this is a companion piece to the one above and we all know what we are supposed to do...don't gorge ourselves. In the past this is where we would warn about overeating and overdrinking at parties. Now, we warn people about even attending parties! The fact is, though, many of us eat more and less healthily when we are stressed. We--most of us and certainly me--are gaining weight right now. That is not what I am talking about! I am concerned, instead, with behaviors and addictions that could derail us mentally and socially. Therefore, the most important thing is not some internal food lecture, but instead kindness.
First, be gentle with yourself. There is a pandemic going on. We are talking about awareness more than anything else. People are very judgey about food and we judge ourselves pretty darn harshly much of the time. Let's just not do that this year OK? Second, we still need to be aware of what we are putting in our stomachs. Balancing out that food might just help both body and brain.
Also, let's talk about alcohol. This is the big challenge for many of us. I don't need to tell you why. Regulating our emotions in this way is rarely a good idea. Right now it is pretty darn risky. For this, I have a recommendation. During my back crisis I couldn't drink alcohol and I got into non-alcoholic (NA) beers in a big way. It is an industry that has come a long way from O'Douls and if you--like me--enjoy the tradition, taste, and atmosphere around "having a beer", I recommend you take a look at Athletic Brewing Company and Bravus Brewing Company.
I have a standing monthly subscription with Athletic Brewing which I augment with Bravus (whose stouts I like better). NA beers have less than half a percentage point of alcohol and (bonus) substantially fewer calories. Athletic is particularly low-cal...hence the name. I still drink regular beer but the vast bulk of the beer I drink now is NA and I don't really miss my old habits. Also this has become one of my "Nerd Things" so reading and researching the topic is one of the ways I stay happy. If you need any advice or guidance, let me know!
3) Nerd Things
Yeah...you knew it was coming. Really this is the linch-pin for my holiday survival and my general survival of life itself. I just wanted to get #1 and #2 out of the way because they are obvious.
There are things I am into and I make sure that I get into one or more of them every day. That's right...every day. One of the ways to keep ourselves in balance is to make sure that there are positive-to-us activities and interests that we engage with daily. In times of stress we can stop doing those things because we think they are frivolous and less important precisely because they make us happy. What is that about?! We need to make sure we see the importance of these things in our lives and pursue them.
Now some of my nerd things I actually have to do regularly. I am into religion, which is a big part of my job. I also have commitments with people to play role-playing games. I play the mandolin and ukulele and sing both in private and in church. If any of these nerd things interest you, I encourage you to check out this very web page. I write about them--complete with their own headings--because the web page is also a nerd thing for me.
Most likely, though, you will want your own weird obsession. That is the point. Don't delve into my stuff. Just ask yourself what would make you happy. The key thing to get going, though, is making some sort of commitment. If you are the sort of person who does well making a commitment just to yourself, more power to you. I am not. I need accountability. I need a "band" (which is harder to do right now) and I need a gaming group (which is easier to do thanks to technology). You might need responsibility to others to make time for yourself, too. One way might be to leverage the season a bit. Are you crafty? Make presents. Spoiler alert: My wife is making a bunch of scarves for immediate family.
Otherwise I suggest trying to recruit people who are interested in the same things to egg you on. You can also join a group. It doesn't need to be an intense one. My NA beer FB group falls into that category. I only know a few people on it personally, but I would I have never gotten into it in the way I have otherwise.
4) Not Doing Stuff:
Ok...this one is important and often overlooked. We can remind ourselves to take walks, watch our diet, stop drinking so much, and do things we like. The rubber meets the road when we try to NOT do things. It is important--unless the thing is truly pressing--to take a pause and wait for the spirit to move you.
For example, this year--as a culture--we are all about the decorating. We believe it will make us happier and for many people it will! However, it could also become just another task. On my porch are two Christmas wreaths that we bought days ago. They aren't up yet. They just sit there. We also haven't gotten our tree yet in "the year of getting our tree early". Maybe the wreaths and the tree will go up today...or maybe not. It is not important. They definitely fall into the category of "small stuff" we shouldn't sweat.
This principle, frankly, can be applied to many things...even bigger stuff. "For everything there is a season," right? We need to wait for the "season" (in the theological/biblical sense) and not force things. I urge you to take the time over the next few months to think about the seasons of your activity. Give your self a break! When the "Great Unpleasantness" is all over, we still need to be functional. In fact, we need to thrive. Think of the stuff you don't have to do right now and...don't do that stuff.
5) Ignore the Negative Voices
I promise this is the last one for today. In our society there are all kinds of expectations. some of these are public and out loud. Some of them are quietly thought or whispered. Sometimes other people judge us. Often we judge ourselves. Let's find a way to turn that crap off. No, you don't have to do more than you are able. No, you don't have to be cheerful. You can do less. In fact...you should! I do not know anyone who isn't busting their butts to get through the day right now. You are not lazy. You are worthy. Shut those negative voices down. Their values don't have to be yours.
Also, don't compare! You may feel like you don't have it together like everyone else. My bet is that you are doing about as fine as anyone. If you were hanging out with me yesterday you would certainly think you were in better shape than the parsonage folks. It takes intention to do this. Make it your Advent exercise. Then fill the silence formerly occupied by negative voices with positive ones. Heck, throw a few positive words out into the universe for others to hear. That way we will ALL get through this.
8) Oh Yeah...Find Support
This one is implied in the other headings. However, maybe it should be said explicitly. Reach out when and where you can. For me, my family and my church are big helps. So are the people I game with, play music with, hang out (mostly online these days) with and so on. It can be a challenge, though, can't it? Please let me know if I can be of assistance. This is a tough time. We all need to reach out to each other in whatever way we can.
7) Watch this Video from the Before Times...or not...Whatever Works for You
I didn't make it, but one of my nerd things is YouTube hiking vids and one of the people I watch made this a couple years ago so...