For most of my life, I’ve been blessed with good physical and mental health.
I’ve never struggled with depression. And I’ve never struggled with anxiety – until a few years ago. To cut a long story short, I had a panic attack on a small aircraft as it was flying through a storm, bouncing around like a dodgem car. And for a good year after that incident, I felt incredibly anxious whenever I boarded aircraft (especially small ones!).
But I sought help and began the journey of “responding well” to anxiety.
And over time, I learnt how to deal with anxious thoughts and feelings. To the point where a year later, I was able to be on a small aircraft, bouncing through a storm (and feel only mildly anxious).
And so, here are 10 surprising things I learnt over that time about having good mental health.
1. If something makes you anxious without good cause, do more of it (incrementally)
After my panic attack on that small aircraft, part of me didn’t ever want to fly again.
Which, speaking as a former aerospace engineer, is irrational: flying is one of the safest things I could ever do. But with the help of a good psychologist, I was taught the importance of “exposure therapy” – incrementally exposing myself to situations that make me anxious without good reason.1
And so, I boarded many aircraft that year (it helped that my new job involved flying around).
And over time, my anxious feelings decreased, as my body realised there was nothing to be afraid of.
2. Thoughts and feelings are distinct from who we are
During my struggle with aeroplanes and anxiety, I would often feel like escaping off the aircraft soon after sitting in my seat. I felt that I was my anxious feelings, with no way out.
But then I realised that thoughts and feelings don’t necessarily reflect reality.
In fact, they’re distinct from us. That is, the more I could learn to see them from a distance, as it were, the more I could respond appropriately whenever anxious thoughts and feelings reared their heads.
I learnt to acknowledge their existence, but then to go back to what I was doing…
I learnt to acknowledge their existence, but then to go back to what I was doing, knowing that my thoughts and feelings are not who am, but rather how I am.
3. Thoughts and feelings can’t physically hurt you
Having intensely anxious thoughts – even a full-blown panic attack – on a perfectly good aircraft feels uncomfortable (to say the least).
But they’re nothing to be afraid of. Because thoughts and feelings can’t physically hurt me. I learnt that during those episodes nothing bad was happening to me: it was just my body malfunctioning, telling me there was a serious threat when there was none.
(And as per point 1, above, doing more of what made me uncomfortable “reprogrammed” my body to assess threats realistically).
4. Don’t struggle against anxious thoughts and feelings: welcome them instead
Early on in my journey with anxiety and aircraft, I would start to feel anxious about feeling anxious.
Like a wrestler trying to subdue an opponent, I would then try and suppress that anxiety. However, this only made my anxiety worse: it felt like I was wrestling Bruce Banner, who was turning into the incredible Hulk.
Over time (and with help), I learnt that anxious thoughts are nothing to fear (see points 2 and 3).
Sometimes the anxious thoughts still grew more intense, but eventually, they subsided.
And so, I could welcome them, acknowledge them, and just get back to what I was doing. Sometimes the anxious thoughts still grew more intense, but eventually, they subsided. Bruce Banner calmed down, and the Hulk showed up less.
5. We can choose our response to our thoughts and feelings
While I can’t always control when anxious thoughts and feelings come my way (and in some situations, it’s important to feel anxious), I can choose my response to those thoughts and feelings.
I can choose to acknowledge their existence. And if necessary, heed them (e.g. don’t walk down a dark alley at night time). Or alternatively, ignore them (e.g. when sitting in a perfectly good aeroplane).
I can choose to acknowledge their existence. And if necessary, heed them… or alternatively, ignore them.
And as I did this over time, I noticed the anxious thoughts and feelings decreasing in intensity, becoming less frequent, and exerting less control over my life.
6. Understand what you’re responsible for, and what you’re not responsible for
There are things we’re responsible for. And things that we’re not responsible for.2
The key is to focus on the things we are responsible for and leave the rest up to God. And if we focus on the things we’re responsible for (i.e. ourselves: our responses and our actions), we’ll be liberated from the frustration that comes from worrying and carrying burdens about things outside of our control.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7
(And we’ll also respond in a more wise and godly way to life).
7. Our feelings and behaviour are driven more by our interpretation of the events around us, than by the events themselves
In this world, we all suffer.
Even in the loss and sorrow of suffering, we still have a choice in how to respond.
And suffering can hurt us. Sometimes badly. But even in the loss and sorrow of suffering, we still have a choice in how to respond. Depending on how we view our suffering, we can either let it crush us. Or we can see our suffering from God’s perspective, and allow that suffering to be infused with hope and meaning (1 Peter 1:6).
We each have a lens through which we view life, and that, more than our circumstances, determines our response.
8. Eschew the victim mentality at all costs
The victim mentality – seeing yourself as a powerless victim in the face of life’s challenges – is kryptonite to good mental health.
Not only is it false on so many levels (even in the worst of circumstances, we can still choose how we respond to the world), but it distorts our view of ourselves and others.
Seeing yourself as a powerless victim in the face of life’s challenges is kryptonite to good mental health.
9. It’s hard to be mentally healthy without meaning in your life
Without a strong sense of meaning and purpose, our mental health can suffer.
I discovered this personally when I turned 40, and had a mid-life crisis of sorts. In my crisis, I felt the weight of my mortality. I felt the inevitability of death. Which made me ask that confronting question: “what’s it all for?”
Thankfully, I dug deeper into my faith, and especially the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.
And as a result, I feel so much more grounded in my eternal hope in Jesus, which gives a transcendent meaning and purpose that nothing can take away.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. – 1 Peter 1:3-4
10. Being an outwardly calm “non-anxious” presence always trumps getting worked up
Life will always throw situations at us that induce anxiety – sometimes appropriate anxiety, other times inappropriate anxiety.
For example, I’m trying to get my kids out the door in time for them to catch the school bus. The clock is ticking. But then my six-year-old has a meltdown over a tiff with his older brother. And he’s a screaming mess on the floor. He’s not going anywhere.
Our natural reaction in these tense situations is to let our anxiety drive us.
So we get angry. We yell. We threaten.
And how does that end?
Escalation. More crying. More anxiety. It’s a destructive feedback loop.
But when I choose to respond calmly (even though I’m burning with anxiety inside!), I have a better chance of soothing my six-year-old. Which helps him pull himself together. In time to catch that school bus.
Our actions can help to soothe or to escalate. As Christians, I wonder if it’s our responsibility to be a calming presence whenever possible?3
Disclaimer: Some of you will hear my wife Sarah’s voice behind much of the above, and so I’m thankful for her wisdom! However, while this article has been edited by a practising psychologist, it is only intended to be general advice based on my own reflections and experiences. If you are experiencing mental health difficulties, be sure to consult your GP. If you’re a resident of Australia, you can also call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, or Lifeline on 131 114.
For more support, visit our list of Helpful Counselling and Community Services.
Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.
About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.
Feature image: Photo by Talen de St. Croix on Unsplash
1 Of course, there are situations that make us anxious for good reason (e.g. walking alone at night in a dark alley). There is no need to do more of those things!
2 For more on this simple but profound idea, see R. Robert Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019)
3 One of the best parenting books I’ve read on this is by Hal Runkel, ScreamFree Parenting – How To Raise Amazing Adults By Learning to Pause More and React Less