Struggling Is Not a Sign of Spiritual Neglect

Have you ever felt “off” and not known why? Do you tend to go out of your way to make others feel better so that you feel a little better, even if it’s a temporary relief? Dr. Shannan Crawford, licensed psychologist and 4word woman, walks through what could be triggering you to feel like this and how you can get yourself in a healthier place.

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Tell us a little about yourself!

Shannan: I am a licensed psychologist, leadership consultant, adjunct professor, and a speaker. I’m a California native with a passion for being outdoors, living adventurously, and prioritizing my family and friends. I am a total extrovert, rejuvenated by quality time with loved ones. I serve at my church in several capacities, one of which is leading a young professionals community group to help empower leaders within the church.

I earned my bachelors from Azusa Pacific University, and Masters and Doctoral degrees from Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. I am a licensed psychologist and the CEO of Dr. Crawford & Associates in Dallas/Ft. Worth Texas. As a psychologist, I cherish getting to educate, empower, and equip clients to overcome anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, adjustment and transition issues, insecurities and self-confidence issues in order to boldly embrace their life and relationships.

My life mission is to help people identify and resolve internal blocks in order to cultivate a healthy internal world, from which, they can build an abundant life, with meaningful relationships, and thrive in fulfilling their life purpose!

What causes mental illness?

Shannan: After 20 years of studying psychology and over 12 years as a psychotherapist, my fundamental belief is that people are not crazy and are not broken. I believe every human is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. We just need insight into the psychological, biological, relational, and spiritual dynamics that can get out of alignment. This premise helps me remain hopeful and creative in identifying imbalances and root issues that are producing symptomology.

Most people struggle to understand how they can have normal happy lives but find themselves drowning in anxiety and/or depression. Many are frustrated that all of their self-help reading and willpower efforts have been insufficient to reduce their anxious and depressive mood symptoms. This is because we are far more complex than we realize. As an analogy, many of us treat our internal world like a bicycle, in that, if we just try harder and peddle faster, using more willpower, we will feel better. In reality, we are far more like an exotic Maserati sports car. We are exquisite and multifaceted with several interrelated systems composing our highly sophisticated internal world.  

Diathesis-Stress is a model illuminating how we can have a genetic predisposition toward a certain mood disorder, and yet, the gene remain dormant, until we go through a stressor that activates the expression of that gene or imbalance. Did you know that worrying about something activates the same stress response as if it’s actually happening? Every thought we have releases neurochemicals that are both chemical and electrical impulses traveling along neural pathways in our brain that release emotion into our bodies. This means every thought we have has a corresponding emotion attached to it.

This is important because the types of thoughts we have determine how we feel. This is partly due to the fact that our brains do not know that much of a difference between reality and imagination. When we worry about the future—thinking of all the worst-case scenarios—we are activating the stress response in which the body releases neurochemicals, hormones, and emotions as if those events are actually happening. Which means, the thoughts we have, directly impact our physical and psychological health.

There are countless variables that can combine to produce mood disorders. Everything from genetics, unprocessed trauma, gut health, biological imbalances, thyroid imbalances, disappointments, family of origin dynamics, trapped emotions, learned helplessness, thinking errors, poor self-care, lack of social support, lack of meaning and purpose, lack of joy and creativity, etc.

Psychologists have found that the enduring impact of trauma is less about the actual trauma/stress that we go through, and more about how our internal world structures itself as a result of going through stressful/painful event(s).  Jesus said, “in this life you will have heartache” (John 16:33). There is no escaping it. In one way or another, we will all experience trouble and heartache. It rains on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:45). After being hurt, embarrassed, or rejected etc., our instinct is to shut down access to our heart, put up walls, and self-protect. While this is a normal reaction, we are inadvertently locking the pain inside ourselves. While our walls feel safe and they keep us from consciously being aware of the pain and vulnerability locked inside, they divide and fragment our internal world.

Whenever we think things like, “Why did I just act like that?” Or, “Why am I feeling like this?” or “My life is great and yet I feel depressed and can’t motivate myself to do anything.” Or, “Where do these thoughts keep coming from?”, these are classic examples of someone whose internal world is walled off. In this state, we can talk about painful events while being completely disconnected from the emotions attached to those events. When we fragment our internal world with walls, everything we burry will eventually resurface.

Everyone talks about triggers. Did you know that a trigger response is actually real emotions, attached to real events that were not properly processed at the time of the event, and thus have remained dormant in the body? When we go through something painful, shock/denial is the first stage of grief, activating immediately to protect us from being aware of how hurt we are. This protective bubble is adaptive at the time of the event. However, it tricks us into thinking that we were not as affected as we actually are. Meaning, we move on without realizing there is unprocessed grief suppressed behind walls in our soul. When we wall off our emotions, we leave a landmine of strong emotions that can trigger at any time.

What should the first step be when you think you may be dealing with mental illness?

Shannan: As we talk about mental health, whether if it is you or someone you care for, it is imperative that we reduce stigma and reduce shame surrounding it. I want you to hear that mental illness does not mean you are broken. Shame is a dangerous saboteur because shame causes us to think of our symptoms as evidence that we are broken and past repair. When we allow symptoms and diagnosis to become a label, helplessness and hopelessness exacerbate symptoms. Research reveals that thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness are largely correlated with depression. If you believe that you are depressed and that is just how you’re wired and that no matter what you do, it won’t change, then the next natural thought is apathy of “why bother?” Apathy creates a glass ceiling hindering our potential for growth from that point on.

In college I tried going to a counselor. In the first appointment she asked about my childhood. I confided that I didn’t remember it. She rolled her eyes asserting, “come back when you’re not being resistant.” I was bewildered by her response because I genuinely couldn’t remember it. I think one thing that most people do not understand is that there are vastly different psychotherapy approaches and there are various innovative approaches that are tailored to meet different needs.

With the counselor I first went to, her approach and training did not equip her to understand the neurological and psychological impacts of repressed childhood trauma. I tried several more therapists until I finally found what worked best for me. If what you try first does not work, just keep trying different approaches until you find what works for you. There are hundreds of theoretical approaches. Here is a short list of a few options that may help: group therapy, family therapy, couples therapy, psychodynamic therapy, trauma based therapies including EMDR, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Biofeedback, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, addiction counseling, animal-based therapy, various types of art therapy, etc. One approach is not better than another, but they are nuanced in their specialty, so I highly recommend researching the approaches to determine which may be a good fit for your therapeutic journey.

Is having a mental illness a sign of spiritual neglect or a lack of relationship with God?

Shannan: In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth! I believe God made the world, and Adam and Eve perfect. When sin entered the world however, the world and our bodies have been gradually deteriorating with every generation as chromosome mutations produce physiological and psychological vulnerably toward mental illness. Furthermore, transmission of family issues imprint each successive generation with a mixed bag of adaptive and maladaptive dynamics that may also produce vulnerability toward mental health struggles.

Struggling is not a sign of spiritual neglect but a natural byproduct of living in a falling world full of pain and brokenness. As mentioned above, we are able to survive traumatic events without realizing at the time how much they impacted us. Over time, our defense mechanisms wall-off these wounds, hindering us from being aware that they are there. It is often the symptoms and struggles themselves that alert us that something needs to be addressed.

Like the nerve endings in our hand, God gave us pain signals to help us recognize that we need to move our hand from being burned. Similarly, our symptoms and struggles are there to alert us that something inside us, or around us, needs to be addressed. Many people perceive their struggles as weakness instead of as an invitation into intimacy; an opportunity to slow down and take our hearts to the lover of our soul in order for Him to tenderly care for our hearts.

Growing up trying to be perfect, I unconsciously perceived God as being disappointed in my weaknesses. I felt like a failure if I struggled with anything. I used to tell God, “Don’t worry Lord, I won’t do that again.” As if I was a burden and my problems a hassle for Him. And yet as I allowed scripture to transform my view of God, I began to see the warm nurturing nature of our Heavenly Father, the passionate pursuit of Jesus and the tender comfort of the Holy Spirit. Jesus came, not as a pampered king, but as a man, acquainted with suffering, who can identify with my struggles and suffering. He did not come for the healthy, He came for those of us who are aware that we need a savior. And I believe, it is in our struggling that we recognize our need. When we press in to Jesus out of our need, we encounter great spiritual intimacy.

How can (and should) the church be a support to someone dealing with mental illness?

Shannan: The church stands in a perfect position to invite people to lower their walls and let go of their performance, perfectionism, and compartmentalizing in order to show that it is safe to be authentic and vulnerable. We get to bask in the countercultural unconditional love of a Father who knows all of our struggles and issues and yet unconditionally accepts and loves us right in the middle of our issues.

I love that Jesus said, “It’s better that I go away so the Holy Spirit can come.” The Holy Spirit, described as “the paraclete”, the helper, the comforter, the counselor, is the indwelling presence of God residing in our hearts. Jesus promises that He will never leave us nor forsake us. There is such security and rest in this relationship. As the church, we get to invite people to taste and see that The Lord is good and that they can trust Him and invite Him into their healing journey.

Speaking of support, what advice would you give to someone who is part of the support system for someone dealing with mental illness?

Shannan: Relationships can be messy and difficult in general but to add mental illness as a dynamic can add various challenges and opportunities.

Challenges, because it is so easy to develop maladaptive dynamics including, enabling, unvocalized frustration, burn-out when there are poor boundaries, chronic conflicts, and inequality in which one partner may be carrying more weight and responsibility than the other.

Opportunities, because there is great opportunity for both partners to love, give, and serve without expectation which matures us into the nature of Christ. And as the one offering unconditional love to someone struggling with mental illness, you have the opportunity to provide a corrective experience of providing a template of God’s radical unconditional unmerited love for them.

First, create a schedule in which you block out time to prioritize your needs.

If you are in a supportive role for someone, pray about your needs and what makes you come alive so you can be your best self. Spend time being intentional to set structure around your time to ensure you are getting enough time-blocks in your week for you to be rejuvenated. If you don’t protect your “you” time to get a relaxing bath or massage, and read a good book or go on a walk in nature or get coffee with friends or a girls night with your besties or time journaling, then the tyranny of the urgent will steal your replenishing. When we are not replenished we give out of fumes which quickly turns into resentment.

My encouragement is to not carry blame or shame or false responsibility for your loved one’s struggles. Take time to get your needs met before giving to others. Like when there is turbulence on an airplane, you’re directed to place the oxygen mask on yourself to make sure your needs are met prior to trying to offer anything to someone else. Our first and primary need is to be filled up by the presence of The Lord so we are full and overflowing with His love instead of trying to give out of empty wells.

Secondly, set boundaries by offering choices.

I highly encourage reading books on Boundaries and Keep Your Love On for married couples and Loving Our Kids on Purpose and Love and Logic for parents. You’ll want to get comfortable setting realistic expectations of what you can and cannot offer. Be realistic; you are not God or a savior so don’t allow those expectations to be placed on you. So many people come to resent their loved ones and vice versa because they are unconsciously taking on a role of being their Holy Spirit, parent, or savior, none of which is fruitful in either person’s life. Offer choices to empower them to take ownership of their life.

Third, watch your own thinking errors.

When trying to offer help, an analogy may be, that our loved one in a boat in the middle of the worst storm of their life and we are standing safe and on the shore. As we stand on the shore, we are not triggered, emotional, or feeling helpless, so our voice and body language and even suggestions are not attuned with the crisis and tumult the person is in. We yell smart advice from shore but it falls on deaf ears as they are just trying to keep their head above water.

Christ didn’t stand in Heaven telling us what to do. He put skin on and swam out to our boat. He got in the storm with us, empathizing and offering presence. Like Christ, it is more helpful if we swim to the person’s boat to sit with them, to offer presence as they are in the storm. And as our presence and empathy calms them, the storm inside them begins to calm. It is through this empathic attunement that we earn the right to speak into their lives.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Shannan: Be aware that a great amount of depression, anxiety, low motivation, poor concentration, and sleep problems are often related to latent grief that has not been properly processed and thus that unprocessed affect is sitting, like a wet blanket, upon your heart, weighing you down. This is where many addictions come in.

Whether an unhealthy relationship with food, or exercise, or substances, or workaholism, or perfectionism, or porn or romance novels, or zoning out in front of TV, movies or social media, or shopping, or gambling, or romantic relationships, or reckless behaviors etc. each of these can become unconscious coping mechanisms used to numb the pain and emptiness by self-medicating with something that activates the reward pathway to temporarily elevate our neurochemistry.

When we look to something outside of us to make us happy, the underlying issues remain unresolved, so once the temporary elevation wears off, our internal world continues to register heaviness, sadness, loneliness, emptiness, anger, frustration etc. These heavy feelings drive us to work harder, exercise longer, constrict our calories even more etc., to temporarily alleviate the heaviness. This is called chasing the high. What once helped numb the emptiness and produced a temporary feeling of “high” and “happiness” wears off leaving you having to chase the next high but we habituate meaning we need even more the next time in order to obtain the same amount of pleasure as the time before.

What once helped numb the emptiness and produced a temporary feeling of “high” and “happiness” wears off leaving you having to chase the next high but we habituate meaning we need even more the next time in order to obtain the same amount of pleasure as the time before.

We all self-medicate in different ways and it is helpful to recognize when you’re doing it. Instead of turning to the temporary high, invite the Lord and a trusted counselor to help you explore the unconscious burdens that have been weighing your heart down. It is much more direct and efficient to metaphorically pop the hood of the car to address the engine, rather than continuing to drive the car with the check engine light on and end up blowing the engine.

You only have one of you, so prioritize taking care of you! If any part of your system is out of alignment, all of you will be affected. You are worth taking the time to stop and pop the hood to take care of your internal world so you can continue to love, serve, and lead with joy and longevity.

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Dr. Shannan Crawford is a licensed clinical psychologist, conference speaker, adjunct professor, and innovator-expert in restoring self-cohesion (RSC). Her life mission is to educate individuals, couples, families, and organizations on how to identify and remove self-sabotaging blocks that hinder them from achieving their ideal life.

Dr. Crawford also trains mental health professionals on how to produce enduring change by cultivating and restoring cohesion to the internal world of the patient.

Whether speaking at a large conference, facilitating an intimate executive retreat, or working with clients one-on-one, Dr. Crawford’s dynamic approach and engaging style, equips, encourages, and empowers people to move toward positive action and positive growth.

Dr. Crawford speaks to diverse audiences, including women’s organizations, business leaders, faith-based groups, and mental health professionals. She is a sought-after expert in Restoring Self-Cohesion (RSC). Moreover, she has developed a multitude of presentations and keynotes to help improve individuals’ God-Image and identity; overcome depression, anxiety, and self-sabotage, cultivate relational intimacy; and develop leadership skills using research on positive psychology and emotional intelligence.

If you are dealing with a mental health crisis and need help, please don’t hesitate to reach out for assistance. The Mental Health America website has many resources to help you begin to find peace.

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