“UNDERSTAND the origin, motive, and history of my sin…”
Our families influence us in two ways: the genes we inherit and the values-lifestyles we have as our “default life setting.” In this section, we will look at the latter; we will also consider how the personal experience of trauma can contribute to anxiety-depression. In the next section, we will examine biological influences.
Before we examine how one’s family history contributes to your experience of depression-anxiety, let’s consider how to think about this influence. We should want to know what to do and what not to do with the assessments we’re making. Read the quote below twice. First, read it as it is written. Second, read it replacing the phrase “peer pressure” with “hunger” changing the latter adjectives to fit the context (e.g. “accepted” to “full;” “liked” to “tasty”).
“Peer pressure comes from within you. You want to be accepted and liked. It’s more about what you want than what other people actually say, do, or think (p. 14).” Ed Welch in What Do You Think of Me? Why Do I Care?
“Hunger comes from within you. You want to be full and eat tasty food…”
This parallel works if we’re combatting gluttony. Gluttony does come from within you and your inordinate cravings would reveal moral-character problems. However, the parallel would not work if it were speaking to a poverty context. Hunger would still come from within, but an exaggerated focus on food would not be a moral-character deficiency.
As you examine your family influences, this is a distinction you will need to assess. Yes, depression-anxiety comes from within you. Yes, your family likely influenced you in ways we’ll detail below. What you need to assess is whether that influence was the equivalent of poverty, abuse, or neglect? If so, it is better to deal with your struggle in the suffering paradigm compliment to this study. If not, then the insight you gain in this section will help you see more clearly what you will be assessing in the third section of this chapter.
Values / Expectations
One of the first things we learn from our families are values and expectations; even when we disagree with them, it can be very difficult to shake the way our home of origin’s sense of “should” impacts our emotions. This difficulty accounts for why so many who shake their family’s values do so in extreme ways; the emotional force required for this kind of change does not easily allow for minor shifts. Ask yourself, “How do/did my family’s values and expectations influence my experience of depression-anxiety?”
- Comparative Thinking: Much of our unnecessary emotional wear-and-tear comes from comparing ourselves to others. For many people this habit began because their parents deeply cared about how their child “ranked” to his/her peers, i.e., academically, athletically, popularity, appearance, etc. Whether the parents’ love was conditional or not, the frequency of verbal reference reinforces a pattern of comparative thinking that carries significant emotional weight. To begin combatting this contributor to depression-anxiety, embrace these truths, “God made everyone with strengths and weaknesses. In God’s eyes we are not competing with one another, but stewarding the lives he gave us. God designed us to fulfill the purpose for which he made us, so none of our weaknesses will impair our ability to live out his will, which is the essence of a fulfilling life.”
- Busyness or Passivity: As we grow up we acclimate to a level of activity that feels “normal” to us. This can be healthy or unhealthy. On the unhealthy side, you can be comfortable being too busy and fill your life with stress, or be comfortable being too passive and perpetually feel like “life asks too much.” Expect any adjustments in this arena to feel like a form of culture shock. To begin combatting this effect, ask yourself these questions, “What are the basic responsibilities I must fulfill to function well? What pace of life best fits my aptitudes and personality? What ‘extra’ activities are most important to me in this season of life?” Use your answers to determine your schedule and provide contentment towards the absence of those things that don’t make the cut.
- Entitlement: A family has an attitude about the things they have (i.e., either earned or graced), the things they do not have (i.e., deserved or content), and the things others have (i.e., either jealous or pleased). These attitudes towards the blessings of life will either be an emotional net-gain (i.e., peace and hope) or emotional net-loss (i.e., anxiety-depression) whether our circumstances are good or bad. To begin combatting these attitudes meditate on the following passages: Job 2:9-10, Matthew 5:45-48, and James 1:16-18. Begin to thank God for every blessing that you see in the life of someone else (1 Thess. 5:18). If this is difficult, do not stop out of fear of hypocrisy but ask God to make you grateful even for his grace expressed in the life of others.
Read 1 Corinthians 13:11-13. We often only think of this passage romantically and, therefore, have a tendency to think it only applies to marriage. But a discussion of the power of love is highly relevant to family life. Why do families influence us so much? Because they are, or at least should be, a context of love. Notice Paul’s application in this passage. It is about putting away childish thinking patterns. Adults identify problems and change them; children merely imitate actions and passively adopt values. Paul allows for childish thinking when we’re children. But as adults he calls us to see our life more clearly and change, as needed, by the grace of God.
Lifestyle / Coping Skills
Values and expectations take on behavioral expressions; lifestyles and coping skills (which may or may not be healthy). We tend to focus on our emotions more than the lifestyles that provoke them. Ask yourself, “What are the ways that I respond to life’s challenges that make them worse or delay progress?”
- Worry / Grumbling: At any given moment we are going to think about something. And we’re not smart enough to have new, fresh thoughts every moment. This means we are either going to rehearse the blessings or challenges of life. God calls us to rehearse our blessings (Psalm 103:2) for our protection as much as his praise. Rehearsal is a universal thinking pattern; it is the content of what is rehearsed that is unique between different people. To begin combatting a tendency to worry and grumbling realize that your objective is not to “stop thinking.” Creating a cognitive void – emptying your mind of all thought – is not the same thing as peace and hope. Identify things you enjoy thinking about. Unless it is a time when you can correct a stressful life circumstance focus your attention on the things you enjoy.
- Self-Pity: What is self-pity? It’s a word that is often used poorly. Self-pity is when we wallow in our unpleasant circumstances believing we are powerless to affect positive change. Often when we feel like we cannot directly change “what is most important to us” we mistake this to mean that we cannot change “anything.” Self-pity becomes a way for people to soothe their own conscience for not doing the things they could be doing to better their circumstances.“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.” John Gardner To begin combatting self-pity, do not try to combat self-pity. That is like the fly that uses another leg to push against the sticky fly trap and only gets another foot stuck. Instead, pick a suggestion from another section of this material that is relevant to your struggle and begin doing that.
- Avoiding Unpleasant Emotions: This is the passive side of “If it feels good do it.” Many families teach this model of addressing life’s challenges. Initially, as children, we dislike this approach because it meant when things upset us our parent-protectors were more concerned with quelling the emotions than caring for us. But as adults we now perpetuate the approach because choose not to address unpleasant experiences; now the cure (e.g., focusing on the struggle in order to resolve it) scares us more than the problem afflicts us.You are already combating this pattern by working through this material. Be encouraged and don’t stop!
Read Ephesians 5:15-16. We begin to realize how important and uncomfortable Paul’s instruction to “look carefully then how you walk” really is. Unless we examine our life this way, we will live “as unwise” people; following the unhealthy patterns we have learned. We must examine how we use our time; not just productivity levels, but our cognitive-emotional hygiene habits as well. The momentum of our internal nature (our flesh) and external surroundings (the world) will not naturally move us towards what is healthy and holy.
Trauma / Triggers
In this section we want to identify when anxiety-depression is rooted in a traumatic experience(s) or its subsequent triggering experiences. The suffering-based compliment to this study will provide some guidance on processing and recovering from these experiences. But, the more intense the trauma, the more you would need to identify a resource or counselor to address your emotional-social struggle from a post-traumatic perspective.
The evaluation in chapter one should have helped you identify the symptoms of post-traumatic stress; specifically questions 51-60. These are indicators that your present anxiety-depression is the result of the way that present triggers (i.e., sights, sounds, experiences, etc.) draw back these emotions – not unlike an aroma or song can call back a memory.
Part of this process will entail developing a robust practical theology of suffering and God’s care for sufferers. But it will also involve identifying the times when your responses are heightened, the types of associations your triggers have developed, and how to relax your body and free your emotions after these heightened responses.
In this series: