Some church people believe you can pray away depression, anxiety and mental health issues.
No, that’s not a thing. Full stop.
Yes, prayer can help us in any state of being. It helps us locate ourselves in an energy bigger than ourselves. It can bring peace, wisdom and a sense of well being in difficult times. Talking and listening with God is a beautiful thing.
But it is not a replacement for therapy, counseling, medicine, and many other tools to support our mental and emotional health. I recently had an incident that stirred up my anxiety in a powerful way. I tried several of my tools that have helped in the past but nothing could get me out of fight or flight for very long. My body was on high alert and I felt powerless to calm it down. It’s a miserable feeling.
After a couple conversations with trusted loved ones, I texted my therapist to see if she had an opening. I have access to an Employee Assistance Program that offers eight free counseling visits each calendar year. I’ve only used one visit so far this year so I’m excited to have seven to use as I see fit. I knew it was time for another one. We set up an appointment for next Monday. Then I offhandedly texted and asked if anyone cancelled, I would take a same day appointment. Twenty minutes later, my phone dinged with an invitation to come in that day at 3:30. Yes! I’ll take it.
When I arrived at the appointment, we chatted for a minute about the weather and our summers. Then we jumped right in. I shared that my son had some kind of reaction the day before to something outside. His eyes swelled up quickly, he rubbed them furiously, they were red and there was discharge as the day went on. My husband got him Benadryl and within 24 hours, his eyes were mostly back to normal. We called our doctor’s office and they talked us through home treatment. He would be fine.
However, I was not fine. I felt permanently stuck in fight or flight mode. Constant cortisol rushing through my system. I know enough about myself to know it was probably about something else going on in my life. This incident simply got my attention to other potential stress or feelings I was ignoring. I happened to mention it may have some connection to my daughter’s anaphylactic reaction six years earlier. My therapist keyed into that comment right away. “Would you be willing to explore that?” I’m enough of an authority follower that I said yes, even though I was very apprehensive. I’ve avoided thinking about that experience for a long time.
She led me in a couple practices to calm down the fight or flight in my system. It worked well. I felt more calm and ready to share. She invited me to create a timeline of my daughter’s situation. Our goal was to help my body locate that event in my past. To know the original event was over. My first bell went off: Oh that makes sense! I’m still repeating the past event because my brain thinks it’s still happening! Fascinating.
So I told her everything. How I gave my 18 month old daughter peanut butter at home in our kitchen. How she started rubbing her eyes furiously. A rash showed up on her face. She started to swell up in her face a little bit. I told her about throwing my daughter in a car seat and driving as fast as I could across Anchorage to the hospital. I remembered her becoming increasingly unresponsive. I cried as I spoke of running into the Emergency Room shouting that my daughter ate peanuts and was reacting. I shook as I remembered my husband arriving and us holding our daughter for hours as they gave her medicine and watched her body calm down. I remembered the terror as we waited for something else to happen.
Then she invited me to share how it felt when we left, what happened that night, the next week, the years after. I named how many people have helped to protect our daughter from peanuts. I shared how hard it is to ask everyone what ingredients are in all the food every time we eat out or go to someone’s home or eat at a church gathering. I felt the pain and fear of everything it means to be an allergy parent.
That was the first time through the outline. I cried like a baby. And it felt good, even while it felt terrible.
Then she said, “Let’s do it again.” Ugh. Okay. I listened as she repeated the story back to me. I cried even more. How were there more tears in there?!
She began again a third time. Immediately something shifted. She started the story and I was not in the middle of the emotion this time. I was an observer in that kitchen. I watched my younger self and my daughter. A new feeling emerged. I felt proud of my younger self. I had done the best I could. I didn’t know she would react. It was the second time she had peanut butter. I protected my daughter. I fought for her. I did everything right that I could. That was a very new sensation to this story. Interesting.
My therapist continued through the story a fourth and a fifth time. She checked in with me and I said the tension had decreased in my throat and shoulders. There was still some emotion so she said, “let’s go through it one more time so we can metabolize the feelings.” Okay. By the time we got to the end, I said, “This is boring. It feels like a story you’re telling me about someone else and I’m bored by it now.”
In the span of 20 minutes, I had gone from feeling so wrapped up in the emotion of a traumatic day that I couldn’t locate it in the past. It felt like it was still happening. By the end, I could locate it as an event that happened six years ago. I did the best I could. I’ve worked hard to protect my daughter ever since. That’s what I can do.
My therapist shared that with unresolved trauma, our body doesn’t know it happened in the past. It keeps happening as it gets triggered by something similar. So when my son started furiously rubbing his eyes, my body went to work trying to protect him and myself from what it thought was about to happen. She said, “Jenny, you weren’t waiting for your son to be okay. You were waiting for your daughter to be okay.”
Wow. Yes. True.
Friends, I share this because we’ve all got unresolved trauma of some kind. It might be a big thing or something you consider relatively small. If you notice that your reactions to something current seems extra big, it’s worth considering what happened earlier in your life that’s asking for some healing. Some resolution. It’s worth the money and the hour in someone’s office to start to dig into how our brain and emotions work. It’s holy and freeing. It’s the work of being human and putting our parts back together. It’s what is asked of us when we say yes to following Jesus. Dying to the parts of ourselves that feel like death so something new can emerge. It’s becoming whole. And wow, it feels SO good.
I gave my kids big hugs that night and looked at them differently. I thanked God for their current states of being and felt proud of myself for protecting my kids when it was needed. I thanked God for therapists who help us get unstuck and loved ones who listen when we panic.
Here’s to all the healing we do with this one life we get. It’s hard and holy work.