Strategies for coping with depression and anxiety
Raised a cradle Catholic, I remember being told repeatedly that I am “a child of God, unrepeatable, and so deeply loved and known by him.” Yet this expression always felt dissonant in my own life.
For years, I could never articulate why I felt off, but I knew something just wasn’t right. This feeling would come and go from time to time. The times where I felt the pit of my stomach drop, my heart racing, sweat pouring down my face, nausea, shortness of breath and feeling intense dread, even when I knew that I was safe, I didn’t trust myself to believe it, nor the fact that I was a child of God.
Most of the time I struggled with poor self-image. I simply could not see or accept my gifts and talents, not knowing that I had a worthwhile place in this world. To add further insult to injury, people would say, “Pray about it.” This always felt like a condemnation to me. If I were a better or stronger Christian, I wouldn’t be struggling with anxiety and depression.
Most people did not know that I had been praying about it and asking God to release me from these heavy burdens, from the torments of anxiety and depression and the accompanying dread of inadequacy.
I wrestled with these chains well into adulthood. They remained fastened to me, even at the beginning of my priestly discernment. Fortunately, at both seminaries I attended, counseling was made available at no cost to me.
At first, I was skeptical. Because, well, you know, if you see a shrink, it means you’re kooky or unstable. Certainly, that wasn’t me! Until I noticed that my feelings of low self-worth and anxiety were getting worse. I was tired, and I was tired of all the energy that anxiety was taking from me.
A good friend of mine suggested that I see Dr. M, who had office hours at my college seminary. I distinctly remember walking into the first one-on-one appointment I ever had with him. I sat down, and said, “I don’t know what I am doing here.” He paused and said: “That’s normal. But something brought you here. What is it?”
For a number of reasons, I’d become professional at creating walls to keep people from coming too close to me, fearing they would see my inadequacy and then leave. I thought that the first session was going to be the therapist and I staring at each other for an hour, with my refusal to talk. We didn’t. Everything that happened in my life just poured out. He listened and took notes; so I kept talking.
Near the end of the session, he said: “Our hour is almost over. I want you to know that what you are expressing to me is not uncommon. What is uncommon is your honesty. I am willing to help you, but you have to be willing to do the work.”
By this, he meant a different type of work, which involved laboring toward strategies to calm my anxiety. Not only did the strategies help me manage my anxiety, but I was able to overcome my fear of vulnerability in exploring what was going on within me, which included sharing it with Dr. M.
Leaving Dr. M’s office after that first visit, and the visits following, I felt a range of emotions. At first, I felt peaceful. I was finally able to name what “it” was. The times that I slipped into anxiety attacks I was able to identify what was going on within me.
Dr. M did have to remind me that I was just barely scratching the surface of my anxiety, and the road would be long. Part of the struggle of the road was the pain of people not understanding. Being told by colleagues, “You just have to control yourself if this is going to raise your anxiety,” and then see them go away, saying, “Oh geez, Tim is just being over-dramatic for attention again” eroded what was left of my self-worth. Over time, it caused me to become even more reserved. It made me wonder how and if my life was going to change.
Nevertheless, I persisted in the weekly meetings with Dr. M. Over time, I began to learn strategies like going to my safe place and avoiding letting others get to me. There were times in my own life that I thought the strategies, such as the safe place, were ridiculous. The first time Dr. M suggested it to me, I laughed. As soon as I started laughing, I saw this annoyed look on his face. Sternly, he told me that I needed to identify a geographical place in my mind where I am comfortable, with people I trusted that I knew cared for and about me. Dr. M said this would help me remain calm in difficult situations.
This was particularly true, he said, when I faced triggers, usually before an exam in school or a difficult conversation with a peer — times when I believed my entire self-worth was on the line.
Ridiculous as they seemed to me, these strategies worked. There was one midterm week when my anxiety and depression took over. There was a friend of mine with whom I felt comfortable, so I decided to go and talk to him. He was working on a paper but was willing to take a break and help me.
He asked, “What do you need from me?” I responded and realized I just wanted to sit in silence, and he could keep working. As he worked, I sat there in the silence. I caught my breath and called to mind good memories with good friends, people who I authentically trusted. After a few minutes, I was calmer and able to share what was going on, which helped me return to my own work.
More recently, I shared my experience of anxiety and depression with a trusted family member. This family member also struggles with anxiety and depression and had found hope and peace in taking medication. Because of this conversation, I was able to realize that medicine would help me to heal, and I did not have to allow the remarks and misconceptions of others bother me.
Friends and mentors encouraged me to talk to my doctor about taking medication. They wanted me to lead my best life. About a year-and-a-half ago, in addition to therapy, I began to take a medicine that helps me focus my energy and identify triggers of anxiety and depression. I have noticed the medication allows me to clearly remedy the situation without immense undo worry.
I discovered that sharing my story with others and others sharing their experiences with me are healing. In this process, I learned that anxiety and depression look different for everyone.
When I was at my lowest point with anxiety, I had easily identifiable feelings of anxiety: nauseousness, shortness of breath, unrealistic nervousness about everything and anything. In later years, I have been able to identify the anger that follows with both anxiety and depression. The slightest thing would irritate me, and I would have a deep emotional reaction, either lashing out or allowing myself to believe I had no value. Most often, this agitation would surface before, or after a tough homework assignment or if someone teased me. There were also times where my anxiety and depression worked together. I felt that the walls, ceiling and floor were closing in on me. I was trapped, and there was no way to escape.
One of the more recent panic attacks I suffered from came about two-and-a-half years ago. I was in the middle of an internship at a hospital and was called in to help mediate a difficult situation between family members and medical personnel. As I was getting ready to head into the meeting, out of nowhere I felt like I ran face-first into a brick wall of anxiety and depression.
My heart was racing. I physically felt like I both needed and wanted to get sick. I tried to breathe and go to my safe place, but it did not work. Depression took over instead. In the midst of this, I remembered a comment an acquaintance once said to me — “You’re too fragile to be in ministry full time.” Even though I had come to understand that this was a lie, I believed it, at that moment, and convinced myself that I had ended a career that hadn’t even started.
While this is one of the more extreme moments of anxiety and depression I experienced, more often than not it comes in discrete ways. Sometimes the anxiety surfaces in subtle ways, obsessing about a homework assignment or presentation more than I should, or the fear that something unbeknownst to me would happen while I am traveling.
In these moments, I surrender. I name it — the anxiety and depression — for what it is. I surrender myself to God as his beloved. I am able to recognize that Jesus Christ himself experienced human suffering and can identify with my symptoms.
Of course, relying on God is not magic. This is something I learned through both counseling and spiritual direction. Indeed, there is no magic fix to anxiety and depression, but it is possible to learn strategies. As I continue to learn, I remember the useful strategies and people who love me and are cheering me on.
For those struggling with anxiety and depression, set your fear to the side and reach out. For those who do not suffer from anxiety and depression, be willing to listen, be emotionally present, and ask what you can do to help. These conversations have been beneficial not only for me but for others I have known who struggle with anxiety and depression.
Having worked through my depression and anxiety in recent years, I am able to understand, acknowledge and accept that I am a beloved son of God. As Catholics, we believe that Christ was crucified, died and was buried for our own sake. I have been able to cultivate a spirituality centered upon the crucifixion of Christ, who became like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15).
Viewing a crucifix helps me to visualize the pain and suffering Jesus endured during his earthly life for my sake. He hung upon the cross, was bruised, broken, humiliated, tortured, abandoned and left for dead. It is God’s relentless and infinite love incarnated in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus that comforts me in the storm of anxiety and depression. Placing myself before the Almighty, and receiving him in the Eucharist, it truly is the food that sustains me. I have also come to recognize God’s grace in the act of reaching out to and in the work of counselors and medical doctors who seek to help those suffering from various maladies.
Anxiety and depression are, oddly enough, great gifts I bring to the table of the Lord in my ministry. They enable me to be empathetic and have a greater understanding of people who are suffering. Additionally, it helps me to be more patient with those who are working through their own struggles. Knowing in my own life the patience and love others had, and continue to have for me, is a tremendous gift. From my own lived experience, I know how I have benefitted from it, and I am called to do the same.
A professor of mine once said, “There is a major difference between vulnerability and weakness; to be vulnerable takes courage and strength.”
I encourage you, if you are facing anxiety and depression, to know this: You are not alone, and you are loved. If you aren’t facing depression and anxiety, odds are you know someone who is. Listen. Ask questions. See what they need. Be a voice that calls them out of their darkness, into the blessed light of Christ.
FATHER TIMOTHY DECRANE is a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and parochial vicar at St. Monica Church in Indianapolis.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that
31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives
19.1% of U.S. adults suffered from an anxiety disorder this past year.