Gosh, “mental health” is such a loaded term. Thankfully, it’s something that carries a lot less stigma today than it has for, well, ever. It’s a term our culture is becoming more comfortable talking about and accepting.
I’m not sure why we treated it differently than physical health for so long. Myself included. Like most people, if my friend had a broken leg, I would recommend he see a physician. Obviously. I would not tell him, “You just need to change your thinking.” Or to “shake it off.” Or any of the other stupid things we’ve tended to say to people who were struggling to cope with certain aspects of their lives and how they thought and felt.
Close to home
Full disclosure: I am no expert on any of this stuff and I have no special wisdom to impart. There’s always the risk of Instagramming things, giving an impression online that does not reflect reality. That is not my goal here: I simply want to share our experience. I explained the gist of this article to my wife, and she had some strong words about being real.
I must confess that I may have been stuck with my old mindset if things had been different in my own life. But in recent years we’ve dealt with our share of mental health issues in our home. My wife had a full-fledged panic attack one year that manifested in acute chest pains. 4–5 years later, we can look back at that moment (and the subsequent bouts of anxiety) and be thankful for healing and growth. But it was not easy to go through — and she still struggles with anxiety every day.
After a while, we realized one of our children was struggling with anxiety as well. It manifested differently: through slowly developed, increasingly complex routines for various scenarios. If you know anything about it, you stop making jokes about OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder). Preferring your desk to be set up a certain way is not the same thing. OCD can be severely debilitating to living life, especially for a young child.
And we have another child who suffers from separation anxiety. Thankfully, we were better equipped to help our kids because of what my wife had been through.
While you cannot solve mental health issues with a list of bullet points, I’d love to share a few things that helped us. And again, my wife leads our home in this area — and I’m so thankful for her wisdom and nurturing care.
That’s an obvious statement. But I fear that there is still a stigma about seeking help for mental or emotional issues that make it hard to admit we need help, let alone seek it out (especially for men). So the obvious needs to be stated.
Therapy is not a bad word. It’s a blessing to live in a country where qualified, capable, and caring professionals are available to help people cope with their thoughts, anxieties, and feelings. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can be a beautiful thing!
You wouldn’t hesitate to see your doctor if you developed chest pains. And you would see a physiotherapist regularly if it meant you could keep playing your favorite sport. So don’t be fearful of seeing a therapist for emotional or mental issues — and be quick to recommend it to your friends and family before a problem gets worse.
Last, if you have someone in your life who has a mental health issue, getting help isn’t just for them. It’s for you as well. Taking the time to learn about the illness and how to cope shows a willingness to work together with those you love. This is one are I need to improve myself.
One of the biggest challenges people face when dealing with their mental health is feeling alone in their suffering. When you take the time to educate yourself and become familiar with how people can cope (and hopefully recover), you’re showing your love in action.
I say this not because it comes naturally to me — it doesn’t. But it does for my wife, and she leads our family in this way. I’m inspired by how she ensures she knows as much as possible about an issue our children face. Without her, I’d be ill-equipped to help my children in any way.
Talk about it
Related to the last point, talking about mental health is vital. When you’re willing to talk about your issues, you’ll quickly discover other people in your life will be struggling with the same types of things. But when you’re sick, it is so easy to feel as if you’re the only person on the planet who is going through whatever you’re facing. And that you’re the only one who can’t “get it together”.
The more open we are, the more we normalize the reality that we all struggle with our thoughts and feelings. That's the biggest reason I wanted to write about this, even at the risk of giving a false impression.
For those of us who claim a faith of any type, be sure that you’re not minimizing someone else’s struggles. It’s easy to make things worse.
Of course, a healthy spiritual life can help us deal struggles of all types. But that cannot be forced by one human onto another. Be loving, but encourage your loved ones to seek help from professionals rather than handing out your own advice.
Ask yourself some pointed questions
Last, make sure you’re taking the time to ask yourself hard questions. Do these make you uncomfortable?
Why do we think about injuries to our mind differently than we think about injuries to our body?
Why do we have compassion for someone who struggles with chronic back pain, but feel like someone who struggles with alcohol addiction just needs to “get it together”?
In this matter, being a good spouse, parent, child, friend, or neighbour looks the same as a lot of things. Listen well. Be available. Love in action.
Again, I’m not an expert in this stuff. But our home is like any other — we have struggles to get through. And the ones we’re experiencing have taught me a lot about how to think about mental health.
You’ve likely seen this article already, but it’s worth revisiting a few times. I enjoyed Cal Newport’s comparison of the social internet and social media, but this specific post hit home more for me.
Not only does he offer some practical ways to embrace the social internet, but one of those tips is dear to me: own your own domain. He sums it up well:
I can tell you from experience that this approach is harder than simply setting up a Twitter handle and letting the clever hashtags fly, but it’s immensely more satisfying to produce things when you’re not a data point in some Silicon Valley revenue report.
When you run your own site, reality is harsher. If people don’t truly care about what you have to say, or don’t truly care about you, they’re not going to stick around. You have to earn their attention. Which can be really, really hard.
Add to that, he quotes Alan Jacobs a couple of times. Alan is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers and happens to own his own domain as well.
I hear this sentiment a lot, but I think this is the wrong way to approach scheduling (and, sorry David Sparks, I just hate the term hyper-scheduling). If your week is full of work blocks in your calendar, then it’s up to you to add blocks for play. In fact, if I don’t schedule fun things in my life, they never happen. Blank spaces on my calendar tend to make me revert to the couch, or worse, the couch + Twitter.
Schedule date nights, field trips with your kids, vacations, meditation time, photography hikes, real rest, or whatever defines play for you. Make them repeating entries so you don’t have to think about scheduling them in the future. These appointments are more important than work and should be treated at least as seriously on your calendar.
I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, we’re both right. His approach works for him, but not for me. Different personalities will approach their calendars in different ways. This rigid approach where all the slots are filled does lead me to a feeling of burnout after some time. Recurring calendar entries become like recurring tasks: something to ignore, eventually. I plan the things that are most important in my week on the calendar, but relish the freedom of leaving empty spots to fill as I see fit in the moment.
I do not have to schedule fun things: just the opposite. I have to schedule the hard work, the things that need focus. I naturally seek out the fun things.
Second, he’s actually not talking about scheduling. I thought he was at first, but once he mentions recurring calendar entries, I realized what he’s describing is more of a weekly routine. A rhythm to his days. It’s a lot like what Matt Perman advocates in What’s Best Next (he gets into this idea here, but fleshes it out more fully in his book)
Last, I should have prefaced my thoughts on The Sweet Setup with the comment that this hyper-scheduling will be the wrong approach for some people. But it will work fine for others.
Anyway, a conversation of this sort is what makes blogging great.
John Piper pens a good reminder for us regarding our task lists, our “systems”, and what they mean in the big picture.
By all means, make your list of to-dos for the day. By all means, get as good at that as you can get. Prioritize the list. Get first things first. Make your plan. Do the very best you can. Go ahead and read a book about it.
Then walk in the peace and freedom that, when it shatters on the rocks of reality, which it will most days, remember, you’re not being measured by God by how much you get done. You’re being measured by whether you trust the goodness and the wisdom and the sovereignty of God to work this new mess of inefficiency for his glory and the good of everyone involved, even when you can’t see how.
Somehow, this relates to my recent thoughts above regarding hyper-scheduling. My system should serve me, not the other way around. It has to enable me to do good works. When I start to feel a slave to the routine, then I know it’s time for a break and a reset.
How I Journal
After last week’s focus on using pen & paper alongside digital tools, I had a few people ask me questions about how I journal. Rather than repeat myself over several emails, I thought I’d answer those here.
Vikas Navani asks,
I would love to know more about your Journaling process. Do you journal in a notebook? Is it everyday? What time during the day do you journal? What’s the format of your journaling?
And my friend and co-worker Rian asks,
Do you use a template?
There have been other people asking questions, but they mostly fall under the categories listed in the questions here.
First of all, I do all my journalling in Day One. I love my pen and paper, but I do not love the activity of writing by hand. My notebook usage tends to be purposeful layouts (i.e. my habit tracker), regular templates (i.e. my weekly plan), and quickly scribbled lists. I enjoy tracking things on paper, but not writing.
So journalling happens in Day One.
Do I journal every day? Yes, and no. Yes, something goes into Day One every day. But no, I do not sit down and record the thoughts or events of each and every day. My perception that when most people think of journalling, they think of a diary type of resource where the activity is recording your feelings, thoughts, events of life, and plans for the future. I only use my journal in this way occasionally.
How I use Day One is evident in the five journals I have included there (you can have more than one). They are:
Bible Study: this is where I track my devotional time each day. I’ll note what passages I read, the things I prayed for, plus paste in a verse(s) that I was meditating on and my thoughts on it. This one does get filled in almost every single day and is even an item I include in my habit tracker
Personal: This is the type of journal I refer to above, the common way of thinking of journalling. Here I include my thoughts on life, plans I’m considering, pictures of our kids and records of the memorable events in their lives, my weekly reviews, and completed home maintenance tasks.
Reading: Day One is also a commonplace book for me as well as a place to track my thoughts and feelings. I’ve written about this for The Sweet Setup, but in short I have various IFTTT recipes that grab information from other sources and add entries to Day One.
A good example is my highlights from Instapaper: when I highlight a passage in an article there, it gets automatically saved as a new entry in my reading journal. When I sit down to write an issue of this newsletter, I review that journal to find a quote of the week.
Reports: This one is something I’m considering of removing. I have more IFTTT recipes that grab entries from RescueTime and Strava and add them as an entry in this journal. But I do not find myself valuing these entries and am considering deleting this entirely. Or focusing on my runs and removing the rest.
Wildbit: Last, I track my work activities here. This is one journal that is regular: I have a daily recurring task called Complete Shutdown Routine. A big part of that is recording what I accomplished through the day. I don’t get to it every single workday, but it’s pretty consistent.
These entries are not long — just one or two lines to summarize the day, then a bulleted list of what I did. Occasionally, I’ll add thoughts on why I did something so I can later recall the thinking that led to a decision.
Again, my entries for the Personal journal are irregular and I do not use templates. In this area, I journal spontaneously when the notion strikes. However, it is something I would prefer to do more regularly. And so it’s also one of the items I include on my monthly habit tracker.
But the Bible Study and Wildbit journals receive regular entries. The Reading and Runs journals receive updates automatically when I have time to read or run (or when I’m not dealing with an injury). So there is some automation, some entries are almost exclusively added on macOS (Wildbit entries), and some almost exclusively on iOS (Bible Study).
However, reviewing and reading entries happens almost completely on iOS. I have a couple of recurring tasks to review certain things in Day One quarterly. And one of my favourite aspects of Day One is “On this day”. Once per day, the iOS version of the app shows a banner that takes me to all the entries that were created on a specific day.
One last thought. Rian asked about templates, and I mentioned I do not use them. However, my notebook and weekly plan are a similar use case. Every week I list out one piece of Scripture to focus on, my goals, but also my wins, lessons learned, and things I’m thankful for over the previous week. Once completed, I snap a picture of this page and add it to an entry in my Personal journal.
That is a bit of the more traditional journaling people think of. Just in a different format. And that’s what is great about the habit — we have a lot of amazing tools that give us flexibility.
Austin Kleon posted this last year and it’s worth revisiting. He shared what led him back to writing more regularly, then the results. It was a success and he lists multiple reasons why. This one resonates with me:
I had forgotten how wonderful blogging is as a mode of thinking. Blogging is, for me, more about discovering what I have to say, and tweeting more about having a thought, then saying it the right way. It’s also great to be able to go as long or as short as you want to go.
This kind of post gets me excited about still running my own site.