Believers not immune to mental, emotional ailments

“Psychiatrist? No way. I was not nuts. (Just depressed),” said Liz Traylor in recalling a time in her life when she had done all she knew to do to fight off depression, but was losing ground in her battle.

Traylor, a former Texan and wife of Pastor Ted Traylor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., openly shares her story with ministry wives and other women to help them understand there is no shame in seeking help for mental or emotional struggles.

Traylor first experienced an episode with what she describes as burnout in the early 1990s, after years of trying to be the “best pastor’s wife God ever created.” To recover from that, Traylor sought help from a Christian counselor, and for two weeks backed out of all of her church duties and activities to rest.

“It was a blow to my self-righteousness, but the church got along just fine without me. A counselor said I accomplished six months of counseling in six weeks.”

For 14 years Traylor maintained a more balanced lifestyle, including making time with God each day her priority. But in 2004, a string of stressful events began battering away at Traylor’s fortitude, “none of my own making,” she said. Traylor had endured back surgery and underwent physical therapy, their children were leaving home and making life-altering decisions, Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola, their daughter’s roof was ripped off and she had to move home, several health crises occurred with family members, and relationships among some extended family members were tense.

Chronic fatigue, an inability to think or decide, four near-fainting spells and rapid weight loss sent Traylor to the medical doctors for blood work, an EKG, and an MRI, none of which provided answers.

Weeping in desperation in another doctor’s office, the doctor asked her, “Are you depressed?”

“No,” she replied. But then she remembered having that day asking God for an answer to her woes. She asked her doctor, “How would I know?”

The doctor listed nine signs of depression and told her that if even three were true for her for a continuous amount of time, she might be suffering depression. Of the nine signs, Traylor had seven of them: inability to concentrate, disinterest in activities, a change in appetite or weight, restlessness, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or excessive guilt, and a change in sleep patterns.

The only two she didn’t have were low self-esteem and thoughts of death or suicide.

“The doctor said this had nothing to do with my strength or my spiritual life. This was a chemical imbalance caused by intense, prolonged stress. Then he asked if I would consider medication. “Well, yes! This was not normal. Fix me!” she recounted.

Though reason would say that Christians should be immune to many kinds of mental or emotional illness, David Henderson, the Hope for the Heart Chair of the Criswell College counseling department, believes it is possible for anyone in the ministry to develop any kind of mental illness.

“Our mind and brain are subject to trauma just like the rest of our bodies. From a spiritual standpoint, we are susceptible to the effects of sin?not just our own, but the sin of others also,” he explained.

As an example, Henderson said, “For pastors, there is a tendency to have very driven, type ‘A’ personalities, which is great because they are able to get a lot accomplished. But without a healthy balance, these same highly effective people can develop OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], an overdeveloped, yet ineffective drive for perfection.”

Henderson knows of ministers who have developed a type of OCD called “scrupulosity,” which is an obsession with acts of spiritual discipline, such as praying “enough” or praying “correctly.” In other instances, he has seen missionaries return home with extreme psychotic disorders, brought on by the intensity of their work and various other traumatic events?”what we have classically called ‘a nervous breakdown.'”

Henderson described how to recognize the difference between a normal amount of stress and an unhealthy amount of stress. Stress, he said, happens when the body alerts an individual to the need for a response to something looming on the horizon. When the stress is reasonable, we are able to move to action.

“When it rises to unhealthy levels, it paralyzes us and we can’t respond to day to day issues,” Henderson explained.
He compared stress to weightlifting. In weightlifting, the muscle fibers experience microscopic tears. If the tears have time to heal between workouts, the muscle fibers become stronger. If however, the same muscle is worked every day without time to relax and heal, the weightlifting becomes harmful to the muscle. “I think stress, from the standpoint of the brain, can be viewed in the same way. We need to reboot and regroup to keep stress from consuming us,” Henderson said.

When evaluating an individual’s susceptibility to unhealthy stress levels, Henderson noted four P’s that counselors consider:

  • Predisposing factors that can “set us up” for mental illness, such as genetics, family history, traumatic upbringing, or substance abuse.
  • Precipitating factors such as life-changing or life-threatening events that block the ability to function normally.
  • Perpetuating factors such as how long trauma has been occurring. “Sometimes people can’t get a break. Stressful things happen again and again, and individuals do not have access to resources that can help provide relief,” Henderson noted.
  • The presence (or lack) of protective factors such as faith, a strong family, a supportive church, and avoiding destructive habits like drug or alcohol abuse.

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