Staying Out of the Pit

The post below first appeared at Cycle Guy’s Spin as part of a series on depression with the focus of helping those who have loved ones struggling with depression but who have never themselves personally struggled with it. The depression series stemmed from my second chance story, which was part of a series on 2nd Chances on Cycle Guy’s Spin.

With depression coming even more to our attentions with the death of Robin Williams recently, I decided to repost the depression series here on Struggle to Victory.

pit

Staying Out of the Pit

What you read on Struggle to Victory covers my main approach to keep from falling back into the pit of depression. I get into the details of topics I am struggling with, find out what Scripture says about them, and process them by writing about them. Doing this helps tremendously in capturing thoughts and not letting them hold me captive, which is what happened when I didn’t know how process feelings. At some point, I just determined not to let my thinking exist without boundaries and structure anymore, and writing gives me a way to establish the boundaries and structure I need to keep well away from the pit.

But writing isn’t all I do. I’ve discovered that one thing rarely does exactly what you need in any area, at least not for very long. Writing simply provides an outlet for my very busy inner life. Being an introvert, my inner life is as busy as the outer life of most extroverts. Writing gives me a way to order that world and to deal with it in a healthy way.

In addition to, or rather alongside and within writing, there are various ways I keep from going in the direction of pit dwelling. First and most importantly, I maintain a daily, consistent relationship with God through Bible study and prayer. I’m not saying this as a high and mighty “look how spiritual I am” statement; instead, it’s meant to simply say that I know I am completely and utterly unable to stay out of the pit of depression without Him. Without the Holy Spirit working in my life, and without God’s mighty power active in and through me, I would not be alive today.

I also make staying physically healthy a priority by eating healthy, exercising and getting plenty of adequate rest. I’m willing to try different approaches to health and wellness because I’ve learned that limiting yourself to the approach of traditional, Western medicine only limits and may even inhibit your ability to overcome depression and become healthy. My approach is along the lines of integrative medicine.

Staying aware of personal triggers is important too. I know the signs of my getting overwhelmed (digestion issues, sleep problems, anxiety & general grumpiness, for example), and I make adjustments as soon as I realize what’s happening to prevent any more veering off into bumpy territory.

While I need routine and structure to some extent, I must balance them with flexibility and variety. Otherwise, I get into a rut of boredom that also leads to depression. Fortunately, my husband and sons help tremendously with this area not just with their busy schedules but also with their zest for discovery and adventure.

Knowing what to avoid is also key (examples for me include sugar, romance novels, and television shows in general). One area of thought that I need to be extra careful with is absolutes. Saying “I never…” or “I can’t…” or “I always…” usually takes me down a very narrow and precarious path. I’ve learned to leave the absolutes up to God who has the capacity to follow through with them simply because He doesn’t change and I do.

As you can see, I have a variety of ways I keep from falling back into the pit. All of them are negotiable except my reliance on God.

sooner quoteIn Retrospect

Some ask what I would have done differently now that I am able to look back on depression with some objectivity. Let me simply say that I just would have done all of this sooner. I would have taken the small steps needed to get out of the pit sooner. I would have asked God to help me sooner. I would have let others help sooner. I would have let my pride go sooner. Nothing really done differently since all were necessary parts of the journey. They just all could have happened sooner.

So much (most really) of what caused my depression was outside of my control, so I don’t think I personally could have prevented it. I could have just taken the steps to get out of it sooner. That’s all on me.

DISCUSSION: How can someone not suffering from depression help those who do struggle stay out of the pit?

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Children & Stress

stress boysJonathan, an independent worker, gets easily frustrated, struggles with change, tends to over-analyze, and operates with a lot of “What if…” scenarios. Richard, a very social person, procrastinates, rushes through work, sacrifices quality for completion, and struggles focusing.

At least, when overwhelmed or not managing stress well, these descriptions fit my boys aptly. But when they manage their stress and keep balanced, they are very productive and positive.

I often forget to consider my kids’ stress. They are “just kids” and seem to handle stress way better than I do, after all. But when I see the signs and do nothing, I miss out on a valuable parenting opportunity.

Biblical Parenting_scriptureSpecific Kid-Sources of Stress

Based on the lives of my two boys (age 15 & 13), both their own stress as well as what they describe as stress in their friends’ lives, the top areas of stress for kids include: School (grades, homework, tests, etc.); peer pressure; sports; parent pressures (chores, behavior, attitude, etc.); consequences of stupid choices; wanting to relax; thinking about the future; and divorced parents.

An Immediate Response

Realizing that most kids, and many adults for that matter, tend to react to stress without first thinking, a stress-management approach for kids must be sort of programmed into their brains (in the spirit of Deuteronomy 6:7). Keeping this in mind, I always ask them the following questions when they struggle with a stressful situation:

What can you do about it?
What can’t you do about it?
Who/what can you control/not control?
Who/what can you change/not change?

We also usually address the “fairness” issue, since kids often dwell here. They need to know that life isn’t always fair.

In addition to getting our boys to realize they can only control themselves and their reactions, we also try to provide stress-relieving activities or approaches for managing stress. Those include giving them a venue to talk out what’s on their minds and making sure they have enough physical activity and leisure time. We also make sure to have lots of family time as well as to provide structure that suits the child. And of course, consistency blankets all of these.

A Biblical ResponseTitus 2

Advice on teaching our kids anything lies incomplete and ineffective without integrating what Scripture says about  preventing, managing and eliminating stress for our kids. With that in mind, lets make a somewhat unique application of some very familiar parenting verses.

  1. Don’t exasperate & discourage them. (Colossians 3:21) So often, my kids’ stress comes from or is made worse by my own poor stress management.
  2. Give them skills to deal with their feelings. (Proverbs 1:8-9) Be available to listen & to talk.
  3. Teach them ways to relieve stress. (Proverbs 22:6) Include them in your own stress relievers when possible.
  4. Tell them why managing stress is important. (1 Peter 5:3) Use yourself as an example.
  5. Model positive stress management. (Titus 2:7-8) Make sure what you say matches what you do.

I want my kids to realize that stress is not always bad. In fact, we need stress to grow and thrive. Take the amoeba – the most basic of life forms – for example. Scientists introduced it into a completely stress-free environment in a petri dish. What happened? The amoeba died. But when placed in a “normal” environment with all its challenges, the amoeba multiplied and thrived.

The same happens, essentially, with us. Without stress, we fail to thrive and grow. Plus, a stress-free life isn’t possible anyway.

Doesn’t good parenting, then, involve teaching our kids how to prevent, manage and relieve stress? Aren’t we living out what Scripture says when we train our kids to handle the inevitable in life to allow them to truly be not only productive and positive but to do so in a way that honors God and points others to Him?

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

dead fishCulture simultaneously challenges us to break free from comfort zones while also providing for their longevity. With the constant offering of pleasures anew each day along with the comfort found in instant gratification, we live in a confusing and uncomfortable culture that promotes personal comfort. One that says,

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Does it really? This quote by Neale Donald Walsch made me question whether or not I needed to totally discard comfort in order to truly live life? Or maybe, I wonder, does comfort allow for the uncomfortable to flourish?

Perhaps living too much in one or the other – comfort or discomfort – is really where true living gets stifled. Maybe having the structure created by some level of safe, secure and familiar provides the security that allows for the regular experience of discomfort in a successful way.

Having an organized, comfortable home gives my kids the security they need to go on adventures and meet new people because they have a comfortable sanctuary for rest and recuperation waiting for them at home.

Knowing I can produce a lot of volume pretty quickly as a writer gives me the confidence to venture into the scary and challenging world of book writing. I find comfort knowing that the act of writing (and this in no way speaks to quality, just volume) comes easily, which inspires me to try new styles and genres that might not come naturally.

Dressing comfortably helps me be more social, which is uncomfortable for my shy and introverted self, because I’m just braver mentally when I’m comfortable physically.

Let’s spiritualize this a bit. Being comfortable with God, knowing He goes before me and with me (Deuteronomy 31:8) creates an inner comfort that makes me want to be brave and tell others about Him. Having this comfort zone with God compels me to make my life a transparent example of His grace and mercy.

So yes, “life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” but your comfort zone can also provide a structure for bravely venturing into the uncomfortable areas of life.

DISCUSSION: As my friend Joann often says, “What say ye?”

Creating Structure

Summer 2013 (2)As discussed in The Importance of Structure, we humans need appropriate structure for productivity and to help keep negative habits from running rampant. This holds true in a variety of settings from businesses to families to classrooms. In fact, creating structure where none exists often serves to undo long-standing poor behavior.

My youngest son (now 12) provides a perfect example of this truth. For 8 years of his life, he had no structure. He moved from house to house (and often hotel to hotel), always around different people except for his older half-sister. School was optional. At some point, as his birth mother became increasingly absent, his behavior went from undisciplined to unruly.

Yet, over the past almost four years, as we applied the advice of a wise adoption case worker to provide consistency, our son is now a responsible young man who loves to serve at church and cares about his grades. He now reads above his grade level, and he is no longer classified as a special education student.

The advice to be consistent with our son really revolved around providing structure. For starters, he simply needed to know that the basics of life would stay the say from having enough food to eat to where and when to sleep.

Essential Elements of Structure

While many elements exist for solid structure, several essential elements seem to rise to the top. From business success to raising godly kids to helping students achieve learning success, the essential elements of solid structure seem to always include consistency, organization and discipline.

Consistency provides security and safety that encourages stretching and trying new things. Organization gives a better chance of not only completing but finishing strong. And discipline, while usually resisted at the time, provides the learning necessary for growth.

When creating and maintaining structure, though, we must remember that too much structure can stifle. Overdoing structure results in attitude problems leading to disobedience and disrespect. Working to constantly maintain a balance within structure, changing with the seasons of life, is crucial for structure to produce positive results.

Results of Appropriate StructureMattawan (8)

Like the essential elements of structure that rise to the top, there also seems to be certain positive results that consistently show up as well. To begin with, confidence comes when individuals overcome self-defeating habits in the safe environment of positive structure.

Security also results from solid structure because children, students and employees alike know what’s expected of them as well as what to expect from their performance.

Growth physically, mentally, spiritually and socially also takes place as confidence grows within a consistent and organized structure. Without this type of structure, we get stuck in ruts and negative habits simply because they are comfortable and change isn’t.

Structure for Sanity

I wish I could say that our focus on structure with our son came purely from a desire to simply do what was best for him. It did not. In fact, a large part of my motivation stemmed from wanting to stay sane. I needed the structure to keep my frustration from venturing into really unhealthy levels (well, staying there anyway… it got there plenty of times). I needed it to have a game plan that I desperately hoped would pay off.

Even though born out of self-serving motivations, my desire to create solid structure eventually turned into truly believing in its foundational ability to create consistently positive results.

DISCUSSION: Discuss your experience with structure. Also, what application regarding structure can you make to/with God’s Word?

For a slightly different take on the importance of structure, check out Does a Book Need Structure to Be Published? at The Write Practice. You may also be interested in reading Thinking About Structure, which sort of started this recent focus of mine on structure.

The Importance of Structure

body-paragraph-structureWhen I taught developmental writing years ago at a community college, the first lessons revolved around structure. Good paragraphs require topic sentences plus 3-5 supporting sentences plus concluding sentences. All the sentences within a paragraph focuses on a single topic clearly stated in the topic sentence. Later, as students’ abilities grew, we moved on to the structure of good essays, building on what we learned about paragraphs.

When students came to class the first day, they lacked confidence not just in their writing abilities but in their ability to even learn to write well. After all, those entering a developmental writing class in college typically either failed miserably in high school writing class or had not seen the inside of a classroom for over 20 years.

Right away, I encouraged students to trust the process. If they did, they would learn to write and communicate more clearly, a great benefit in whatever career paths they chose. I focused on teaching structure in writing that transferred easily to whatever situation their future jobs presented.

As I encouraged students to trust the process of learning to write, I also worked to provide a consistent classroom structure to help them feel safe while building trust. I believed this structure would go a long way in not only developing them as writers but also in preparing them as individuals for life in the “real world.”

shutterstock_106489583Little did I know that years later this same approach would also provide much-needed structure for my own kids both in their schoolwork and as individuals. The idea of consistent structure proved immensely helpful for my youngest son who,  until we adopted him at age 9, knew nothing of structure.

In addition to experience in the classroom, years working in business services and from watching my husband climb the corporate ladder illustrated the necessity of structure for business success. Then, when my kids started playing organized sports, the need for consistent structure once again proved itself important.

Scripture also supports the need for structure. The Old Testament law attempted to provide structure to keep the Israelites from losing focus on God. Paul provides structure for speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:27. Several scriptures, Old and New Testament, provide structure for making decisions about tithing & giving (Numbers 18:25-29; Deuteronomy 26:1-10; Malachi 3:6-17; & 2 Corinthians 8-9). Even details about end-time events (Daniel & Revelation), while still quite mysterious, provide structure helping to identify the unfolding events leading to Jesus’ return.

Whether in the classroom, the corporate world, the baseball team, or a home, structure provides a safe arena for growth. In fact, structure is so important that God’s Word exists to provide us with a guide around which we can structure our living.

Perhaps the best way to understand the need for structure, though, exists in considering its absence. Over this past summer, I lost some sense of structure partially because of travel and partially because of summer vacation from school but largely because I failed to adapt to the changing season. As a result, my youngest son’s behavior became inconsistent, and he began to struggle in ways similar to when he first came to us. I even noticed the affects of lost structure in myself as well, realizing that my productivity both physically and mentally depended on consistent structure.

adler quote

Humans need structure. We need the comfort of what to expect in order to be willing to experience the discomfort of growth. Some people need more structure than others, and needs vary by situation. Some people need others to establish structure, and some do well establishing their own. No one’s needs for structure are exactly the same, but everyone needs it to some extent.

The upcoming post “Creating Structure” looks at the essential elements of structure, the results that can be expected with appropriate structure, and why, even though we need it, we sometimes tend to resist structure.

DISCUSSION: How has the existence and/or absence of structure impacted your life?

Thinking About Structure

hamburger_001

Structure in clothing accentuates positives and gives negatives less impact.

Structure with shoes prevents pain and discomfort from immobilizing and stealing energy.

Structure in writing brings clarity and makes ideas more appealing and accessible.

Structure at church provides a comfort level that allows acceptance of some discomfort.

Structure in a home brings the consistency needed to feel safe.

Structure in sports strengthens individuals and teams.

Structure means having a system, a form or a configuration for navigating life.

Structure involves the relationship or organization of component parts of a whole.

Structure arranges individuals parts in an organized fashion.

Structure allows for knowing what to expect and to depend upon, which allows for stability to navigate the unknown and unexpected.

Structure plus simplicity equals a powerful combination for productivity & impact.

Structure, or lack thereof, in a person’s thought life impacts all other areas of life.

sf_lordsPrayer_04

Structure in thinking leads to captive thoughts and renewing of the mind. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

Structure grows and changes and needs periodically assessed in order to prevent a chronically overwhelmed life.

Structure provides an avenue for good ideas to flourish.

Structure helps confidence flourish.

Structure needs vary from person to person and situation to situation.

Structure for talking to God, though not required, can revive a person’s prayer life. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Structure keeps productivity alive when mood & feelings might otherwise kill it.

DISCUSSION:

Structure needs to exist, but how do we create & maintain it?

What struggles do you have with structure? What about successes?

What advice do you have for those struggling with structure (that’s all of us from time to time)?

How to… Have the Best Summer Break Yet

After adopting our youngest son two years ago, we discovered the need to create more structure in our summers than we’d had previously. (Our oldest is very independent and keeps occupied easily.) The tips below are the result of what has worked well for us over the past two years and that look to make this third summer with him the best one yet!

  1. Know Your Priorities. Many parents save vacation time or adopt a modified work schedule for the summer months. Do this if at all possible. The challenge of summer break is only for a season, and parents whose kids are no longer at home stress the importance of making the most of every opportunity while the kids are still young as a top priority. If a changing work schedule isn’t an option, do what you can to make evenings and weekends as focused on family time as possible.
  2. Create Goals. Have goals to help motivate and focus you and your kids. Set reading goals summer, such as a certain number of books or completing a certain series. Set physical goals such as training for a 5k or exercising so many times a week. Set academic goals too, such as memorizing multiplication facts or completing a summer bridge workbook. Having goals gives kids a “go to” activity when boredom strikes. And, of course, have rewards for reaching goals too!
  3. Have Balanced Structure. Partly because my youngest needs structure and largely because I like sanity, we create a daily and weekly schedule. We allow for alone time, time together, and time out. We schedule TV and electronics time, and we schedule projects and activities such as cooking new foods, visiting interesting places, and playing with friends. We don’t schedule to the point of exhaustion but enough to avoid boredom.
  4. Be Flexible. Yes, we have a schedule, but we’re not fanatics about it. We allow for the spontaneous and unexpected such as weather changes, friends calling and those joyful moments when the kids come up with something to do together all on their own. We keep a list of summer activities to help create our schedule but remain flexible.
  5. Set Boundaries. Many kids would play video games and watch television all summer if they could. To avoid this, schedule media time into the day. Also, even though kids are at home, I still have work to complete. So, the office door closed means I need some time to write without disruption. The office door open means they can sit and talk to me while I work.  Also, they stay in their rooms until 8AM every morning and let me have time to exercise, pray and do devotions until 10AM. Setting these types of boundaries goes a long way in maintaining balanced structure.
  6. Get Input. Toward the end of the school year and when school first gets out, my boys and I spend time creating a list of summer activities. They usually have terrific ideas, and giving input creates excitement for the summer ahead.
  7. Include Mental Stimulation.  Tell kids they need to do schoolwork all summer to keep from losing what they learned during the school year, and they’ll look at you like you’re insane. But include mentally stimulating activities such as summer camps and going to the library or museums, and kids get excited. Get creative, but find ways to stimulate your kids’ minds.

Whether parents are home with their kids or not for summer break, the above suggestions provide ways to help make this summer break the best one yet. Take time within the next couple of days to go through these suggestions and create a plan of action. Oh yeah, be sure to write down what you come up with. My kids love looking at the schedule and list of activities to find out what’s coming up.

DISCUSSION: What suggestions do you plan on trying? What suggestions can you add?

Additional Resource: The article Keep Your Summer Organized by Simple Mom has some terrific suggestions that go well with today’s post. Check them out and let Tsh at Simple Mom know how great her ideas are!

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