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How to Have Your Best Holiday Season Yet

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The holiday season sometimes comes with an emotional punch that can knock over even the healthiest of us. But, with a little bit of preparation, we can set ourselves up to enjoy our best holiday season yet! The basics of self-care around the holidays are vital to our well-being, so first we’ll take a look at these foundational basics before finishing by learning about healing the deeper roots of emotional baggage which we might be unknowingly carrying so that we can find more emotional freedom and joy this holiday season.

Minding The Basics: Holiday Self-Care 101

  1. Mind your food, beverages and medications. What we take in affects our mood and overall wellness. Give yourself a leg up by keeping the blood sugar stable by eating regularly, keeping sugary foods to a minimum, taking any prescribed medications on-schedule, and by moderating your intake of alcoholic beverages.
  2. Mind your movement. Exercise is extremely helpful when it comes to managing stress, with cardio having great stress reducing, anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects.
  3. Mind your time. The holidays can be packed full of time with friends and family. While this can be wonderful for the extrovert, it can cause overwhelm or irritability for the introvert. Do your best to maintain a healthy balance of time according to your personality style and needs regarding personal time. Remember, it’s okay to say “no” if that’s what you need!
  4. Mind your sleep. Few things can drag a person down physically or emotionally like oversleeping or undersleeping. Consistent sleep quality and routine sleep and wake times can help you weather the holidays like a champ.
  5. Mind your joy. When our schedule gets full, we can neglect what we love most and what fills our metaphorical cup. Make time to engage in self-care, whether that be with something as simple as a hot bath, coffee with a trusted friend, prayer or a favorite hobby.
  6. Mind your connection. If the holidays are tough, we might find ourselves isolating from the people who are actually life-giving to us or even hanging around people who aren’t. Find a supportive friend with whom you can mutually provide support during the stressful season or make other plans for staying healthfully connected. Conversely, make sure to hold your personal boundaries with those for whom you may consider to be toxic or unsafe people.

Beyond the Basics: Leave the Landmines Behind

There are several common “landmines” which we can find ourselves navigating during the holidays. Let’s talk about the points to reflect upon so that we might be prepared internally for this wonderful time of year.

I invite you to grab some paper or your journal and use it to tackle one of these landmines today. If for some reason you find that the journaling is becoming emotionally overwhelming, take a break, allow yourself some deep breaths, and try a different task for the time being. Also, choosing to work through a landmine with a trusted friend, mentor or therapist can be a great opportunity for growth and connection.

Landmine #1: The holiday season can bring up memories and emotions from the past which you would rather not experience.

Perhaps the holidays are hard because they have almost always been a stressful time for you in the past, often full of upsetting memories and disappointments. Emotions are high and family drama can be amplified during this time of year.  We will often keep pushing forward, not wanting to dwell on the past, but these old feelings can linger and pull us down during the holidays; while our minds might be “over it”, our hearts still aren’t.
Journaling Exercise #1: Pick one memory from a past holiday time that still brings up some internal distress. Describe what happened as objectively as you can. What was your part in this, if any? How did what occurred make you feel at the time? Did you feel alone at the time or have other loved ones with whom to share this difficult experience?

Reflect for a moment on God’s presence there, that he saw it all and he knows your heart and every emotion felt. What feelings are coming up for you now as you reflect on this? Take a few minutes to tell God whatever you might like him to know. This could range from anger at him for not stopping what happened to gratitude for him never leaving you and being compassionately connected and present in a difficult time, anything in between. There is no right or wrong answer here.

You have permission to feel whatever it is you feel; take some deep breaths if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. If you are willing, consider if there is anyone that you might be ready to forgive (yourself and God included) so that you may be enabled to heal and move on. Remember that forgiveness is a deliberate decision to let go of bitterness, resentment or vengeance towards a person, whether or not it makes sense or whether or not the person deserves it. It does not necessarily mean that what they did is okay, that you must “forget it” or that you need to re-engage in a relationship with them. It will take discernment to determine how to move forward in relationship with anyone involved, and you may certainly choose to examine these ideas at a later time.

Landmine #2: The holidays remind you that your loved ones are gone.

This one can be so impactful and often catches us off our guard. Each friend or family member occupies a unique role in our lives: encourager, peacemaker, jokester, father, nurturer, etc., and each has contributed something unique to our holiday experience, and our life in general. If that person is gone from our life for any reason, the longing for that person and the role he or she played can be deeply felt this time of year.
Being prepared ahead of time that the holidays can bring up a sense of loss or longing for that person can help us be emotionally ready for this time of year and allow us to honor this person’s meaning in our lives as well as nurture ourselves through those difficult feelings when they arise. While we often feel the loss of someone whom we’ve lost this year, we often may find ourselves grieving other loved ones from the past as well due to the dynamic nature of grief.

Journaling Exercise #2: Notice what emotions may be coming up for you as you answer these questions and try to be present with them as they rise and fall in intensity.  Who won’t be here during the holidays this year? What role did he or she play in your life, or what do you miss about them? What role did this person play among your family or friends, and how might the season look differently without them? How were they supportive or life-giving to you? Had you felt wronged by them or vice versa, and how? Do you need to forgive him or her for anything or release anything to God that you have been holding onto in relation to them?

You might consider taking some time at the end of this exercise and thank God for this person’s role in your life or for how God has worked through this relationship in some positive way, even if it is as a result of challenges this person created in your life that you overcame. Finally, you may consider doing something special during a holiday gathering as a memorial and take time to reflect upon what this person has meant in your lives as a family or group of friends.

Landmine #3: Your unacknowledged, underlying expectations for the season aren’t met.

This can be one of the trickier landmines because it can be so subtle and is often experienced as an overarching sense of disappointment or sadness during this time of the year that is hard for one to put their finger on. I believe this is because we are actually in grief, either longing for the holidays of years past or some dream of what we ideally would like the holidays to be like. For example, it could be something as overt as feeling disappointed because you’re used to having a big family gathering full of laughter and connection but this year you won’t be able to get home because you have to work. Or it could be something more subtle like finding yourself still unmarried and not having the partner and family you thought you would by now with whom to celebrate the holidays.
Journaling Exercise #3: By working to bring these expectations to our conscious mind, we can give ourselves the time and space to grieve the loss of things past, as well as what we wish for our current lives so that we can fully live in the present moment and embrace all that there is to offer now, free of the weighty emotional baggage.To help discern what some of these unacknowledged underlying expectations or hopes might be, consider these questions.  If a miracle occurred and you had the perfect holiday season, what would you be doing on the days leading up to and including Christmas and New Year’s (think holiday traditions, decorations, meals, etc.) and with whom would you be doing these things? What would the quality of the relationship be like? How would those interactions feel to you? Notice how you feel as you think of this ideal scenario.

Now answer the same questions as above while you anticipate your holiday season based on what you know of your family dynamics and past holiday experiences. Notice how you feel thinking about the scenario that is perhaps closer to the reality of your current holiday season.

Take a look at each scenario and notice how they are similar and different. To the extent that these two scenarios are the same, take time to thank God for all of the ways he has blessed you in this time of year. To the extent that they are different, give yourself time and space to journal about the sense of grief or loss of not being where you wished you were, not having the community you wished you had, or not having the relationship with your family you’d like, for example. You may invite God into the feelings that arise, finding comfort in the truth that the God who loves you and pursues your heart knows and cares about your feelings and has a good plan for you.

I truly hope that you are able to spend some time working on each of these landmines to prepare your heart and mind for the holidays so that you can have your best one yet! Blessings and Merry Christmas to you!

The Verdict of Mental Health

Posted by | blog, Brandon Appelhans | No Comments

This week James Holmes was sentenced to a prison cell for the rest of his life instead of receiving the death penalty. On July 20th 2012, he opened fire inside a theater in Aurora Colorado, leaving a dozen dead and 70 wounded. Now he has been convicted and sentenced.

As the trial went on, 2 sides began to emerge. On one side were those who wanted to see Mr. Holmes punished for his crimes. After the deaths of 12 people, this side argued that Holmes had to pay for all the pain and suffering that came at his hand. They wanted justice, meaning punishing Mr. Holmes to the maximum extent of the law. On the other side were advocates, who asked for mercy because of the mental condition that plagued Mr. Holmes’ mind. Was he sane when he committed the crime? Was he aware of his actions? Was this because of James Holmes or because of mental illness? They argued for mercy on behalf of Holmes’ mental illness.

As a man with bipolar disorder, both sides of this argument sting. The 12 people killed in the theater shootings will never come back. This Thanksgiving, the families will celebrate their 3rd thanksgiving with empty chairs that used to be filed with life and laughter. This Christmas will mark the 3rd time a stocking hung on the mantle to remember the life of a loved one who will never see what is inside. Whether James Holmes was guilty or not because of his mental state, nothing will ever bring any of these people back. His actions, regardless of his mental state, left empty chairs, empty stockings, and shattered people’s lives. I have never killed anyone, fired a weapon in the direction of another person, or committed a violent crime. But this trial has asked me one very important question: what am I responsible for when I’m not stable?

Before I was stable, I never tried to hurt anyone, but I said immensely hurtful things to my family and friends. My words sliced the people I care about to pieces. I was angry, spiteful, and cruel at times. Am I responsible for that? It was the bipolar, right? Regardless of whether or not I meant to cut my family and friends down, they were cut down. The James Holmes case reminds me that regardless of whether or not I felt like I was in control of my actions, they happened, and what happened hurt people.

James Holmes was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Whether you view that as right or wrong, the ruling tells all people with mental illness one thing: get help now.

I never want to sit in court and hear about the things I did and have to reckon how I could have done them. I never want to hear about how badly I hurt my wife. I never want to sit alone because I wounded all of my friends, and they left. Regardless of whether or not these things are legally my fault, I never want them to happen.

My dad always said to leave the world a better place than it was when you came into it. Over the last number of years I have learned I am a valuable person because of the love of God. I have learned a depth of love for other people that I had never known before because I can freely give and receive love like I never could before. I know my life matters and impacts the people around me. When I think of the end of my life, I don’t want it to end with a verdict based on an insanity plea. I want it to end with the conviction that my life left a fingerprint of love on the people around me. That they knew, even for a moment, that they were valuable, because I think they are.

This last week reminded me of all the ways I have hurt people, but also reminded me of the ways that I have experienced healing and hope. It also reminded me that it is not too late to get help.

If you are scared to be diagnosed with something, because it might make you into a monster, I can tell you that a diagnosis does not make you a monster. It does not make make you less than anyone else. It does not mean that you are going to do terrible things. It means that you have the opportunity to work on healing. It does not have to hurt those around you.

If you have already hurt the people around you, and you feel ashamed of what you have done, I understand. I have walked through that too. But you are not defective, broken, or useless, and your life is not over. I have seen more healing in my own soul, and in my own relationships than I ever would have hoped for. You can get better, there is a future, and it is worth all of the pain you feel now. I know it does not feel like it, but from experience, I know it is.

If you know someone who is going through mental anguish, they do not need you to fix them, but they may need to know that when all of this clears, regardless of how badly they hurt you, you hope to be standing with them. They may need help getting the resources they need, they may need a ride to a therapist of appointment, they may need a reminder that they are worth the pain, and they may need your help to remember their meds. But more than anything, they need a friend who believes they are worth fighting for. And if you feel like they do not appreciate it, they might not, but someday they will understand exactly what it is that you gave them.

In light of the James Holmes case, the verdict more than anything tells us to get the help we need now. Instead of looking back at everything that has happened and feeling guilty, I hope you can look back in the years to come at the decisions you’ve made, and even though it was hard and painful, you can look back and be thankful for the decisions you made, about the person you became, and about how your mental illness may have been an obstacle, but it did not rule your life.

Learning from Depression

Posted by | blog, David Lalka | No Comments

I am a survivor. I owe my life to the grace of our Lord, and to the wisdom of a pastoral counselor, who knew what to do for me when my crisis exceeded his expertise. I live daily as a “recovering depressive.” That is not a sentence; it is a reality that shapes mindfulness about meds, exercise, sleep, and the like.

We are survivors; we have stared in the face of depression and suicide and chosen life. That choice is enabled by our faith, by the support of family, and friends, and by the community of others walking this way, helping each other over the hard places.

Mental disorders—clinical depression in my case—teaches us many things, and if I may, I would like to share several of my lessons.

• I am not perfect. I do not have to be perfect. The quest for perfection and my desire to impose my view of perfection on myself and others is counter-productive.

• Approval addiction is a dangerous, real narcotic. Over the years leading to my collapse, I became so starved for approval that I often manipulated people to gain their compliments and approval. I learned that I am worthy just because I am—created in the image of God.

• Adrenaline addiction is another dangerous addiction. Adrenaline addiction often forced me to live on raw energy derived solely from body chemistry not from health or ability.

• Emotional energy is not infinite. I have learned to choose wisely how and in whom to invest my finite emotional energy.

• Self-love is not evil. Before I became stable, I did not even like myself, nor did I understand how anyone else could actually love me. Self-love is not self-absorption or narcissism. It is an honest, full, free acceptance of who and what I am.

• Guarding my mind and heart is necessary for mindful well-being. That sense of well-being—that I had “grown whole in the world, at peace and in place”—was so long absent that I forgot what it was. Mindful well-being is the sense of wholeness and health as a constant companion.

• God accepts me as I am for who I am. Though his transforming work is ongoing, he is the one who made me and knows me like no other.

• Investing in family and friends has enduring value. Nurturing primary relationships is a way to have support throughout life and especially in times of difficulty.

• Clinical depression is not a death-sentence. Medications, talk therapy, and spiritual nurture allow me to live a mentally healthy life.

• Endeavoring to please others all the time is deadly. I cannot please everybody all the time. If I try to do this, I will please nobody any of the time—and I will make myself sick. I must strive to do my best in all situations, and allow the results to speak for themselves.

• When others are upset with me, I do not have to feel guilty. Yes, I do things that are thoughtless, and maybe even stupid. At times people are not pleased with me. But, their displeasure has nothing to do with me, but more to do with them.

The learning never ends. Certainly, I have learned other lessons along the way, but these form a foundation which I hope helps others.

World Suicide Prevention Day 2014

Posted by | blog, Brandon Appelhans | No Comments

Growing up, I always wanted to do things that seemed impossible. I spent hours in the backyard taking batting practice trying to become the next Ken Griffey Junior. I spent hours tooling around with my Swiss Army Knife to become the next MacGyver. I wanted to be an astrophysicist, a paleontologist, a race car driver, an engineer, a baseball player, a Corvette owner, and more.

All those times I wanted something: I wanted to live.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Today is a day when we remember that everyday, thousands of people take their own lives. Today is the day we remember that, for many, life is no longer about the dreams of doing something or being someone. Those dreams have faded away. Pain has blotted them out.

Suicide is a statement that life just hurts too much.

Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I spent two years falling into the grey where hopes and dreams go to die. It is the space where nothing is good, nothing is bad, everything is pain. My family and I did everything we could to keep me from dying. I only now understand the time, energy, emotion, money, and commitment my parents sacrificed. But my parents and I did not fight to keep me from dying.

We fought so that, some glorious day, I could live.

For 2 years, all of the appointments, medications, therapy sessions, failures, brokenness, depression, and hopelessness were all put in context by one thing: one day the pain would not define my life. One day I would experience something beyond all of the pain, loneliness and sorrow. Some day, I would truly live.

World Suicide Prevention Day is about hope that we will all live.

I am never going to be Ken Griffey Junior, MacGyver, an astrophysicist, a paleontologist, a race car driver,or an engineer. But I am me, and today I live. Today I will work, seeing friends and family. I will go home and see my beautiful wife. I will go to sleep tonight without fearing the darkness because it does not dominate my life anymore.

Today I dream of helping people experience the hope of knowing that mental illnesses are not going to rule their lives forever, of helping people know their own value and worth, seeing them realize that fully, and discovering the love of God even when all they feel is pain.

If today hurts so bad that you cannot see anything past the pain, I understand. I have been there too. If today you watch your loved ones and fear going to sleep because you know that the worst could happen, I understand, I have been there too. If you feel like tomorrows are only an endless repetition of the hell that was today, I have news: This season hurts, but keep working and hoping and you will have the ability to truly live.

Remembering Robin Williams

Posted by | blog, Brandon Appelhans | No Comments

Last night Robin Williams died.

This morning I find myself mourning differently than I had thought. I want to remember a man who made me (and most people) laugh. I want to remember his successes and greatness. I want to remember Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, and Patch Adams. I want to remember him in a good light.

Today, I have seen post after post, and tweet after tweet celebrating the life of Robin Williams. Looking around, everyone was celebrating the life that Robin Williams lived, and I found myself mourning the life Robin Williams could have lived.

What would his life have looked like if there had not been a tortured soul underneath the smiles and the laughs? What would his life have looked like if beneath all of the love on the outside, was an inside unwrecked by depression? What would his life have looked like if he was free from the terror in his own mind?

With Robin Williams passing, I find myself hoping that many others can use his life as a signal. Robin was the American dream. He was witty, quick, wealthy, charming, and loved. He was also depressed, and today he is gone.

It is not enough to have everything together on the outside. It is not enough to have everything that people around you think you need to have: to have the right car, the right house, the right spouse, and the right paycheck. It is not enough to be everything that people around you want to be: to be funny, witty, lovable, and charming. If it hurts inside when you are alone, it is not enough.

The last 15 years I have spent working to heal the terror I feel inside. After years with a psychiatrist, my brain is stable enough that it no longer hurts incessantly. It actually feels fine. After more years with my counselor, I have come to know my worth because of who God made me to be, and who he knows me to be. I can experience joy and peace now because I have accepted that God made me worthy of them.

I have shared something with Robin: depression. I have learned how to deal with mine, and continue to work on myself all the time to continue to experience life more freely and deeply.

I wish that yesterday, Robin had experienced belovedness because he is good enough. I wish he would have experienced hope and joy instead of depression and sadness. I wish he had been free to be the amazing man he was without all of the pain.

Today I pray that his death is a reminder that depression does not play favorites. It sometimes consumes the most amazing and compassionate people we know. It plagues the class clowns, the preps, the jocks, the intellectuals, the hipsters, the musicians, the poets, the construction workers, the CEOs, and everything in between.

To all of the people who suffer, depression asks “will you let me help you suffer invisibly, every day?” To those who suffer, I have to say that I have made it through my darkest days. I have discovered love in a sea of self hatred. I have discovered life in the middle of what felt like death, and hope in the middle of a space that defined hopelessness. I am not alone. You can experience life and love too.

Thank you Robin for a life filled with laughs and love. I pray that we remember the laughs and the love you brought to the screen, and the dread and the darkness too, because sometimes all of us need help.