The Brain:  Anxiety, Depression and Self-Care


Understanding some of the basics
How the brain functions
 Layers of life
Upward spiral – practical points that bring it all together
Practical Tools (with clickable links)

Link to recommended booklist

       Understanding depression

Some contributors to depression:  

  • Grief
  • Stress
  • Body chemistry
  • Difficult relationships
  • Abuse (many kinds....physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual, mental...)
  • Trauma
  • Lack of rest/exhaustion
  • Unresolved Anger
  • Genetic predisposition

If you suspect you may be clinically depressed, you can take an online screening.  This is not a diagnosis by any means, but can help you to know if you should seek help.
Here is one example of an online depression screen you can take for free.

I also mentioned the life stressor scale. Here is a link to a good article about the top life stressors and their effects,  how it can relate to illness, as well as a discussion about the difference between chronic stress and episodic stress.
Top 10 Most Stressful Life Events: The Holmes And Rahe Stress Scale |

Whatever level of depression you may be experiencing (bad days, bad seasons, or severe clinicial depression) some of the same things can help.   And understanding what is contributing to your depression is one of the biggest helps.

Our body needs several "happy chemicals" in order to have a feeling of well-being.

One example is Serotonin.  SSRI medication helps the body to use and "recycle" the Seratonin that it has.    Most of our Seratonin is made in the gut, but it cannot cross the blood/brain barrier, so any Seratonin made in the brain has to be used in the brain.  So recycling Serotonin with a medication, is a great idea!
Medications are only one option.  But sometimes they really are a good option.  They can act as "water wings" to help hold our heads above water while we learn to swim again.

Safety/suicide:  Take suicide ideation seriously!
Particular danger signal:  Knowing Where, When and How suicide would be done.

Understanding LABELS

Labels are just tools - Don't freak out about them!  Sometimes we fail to deal with the cluster of symptoms we are having because we are afraid of the possible labels.

You don’t take an antibiotic for a cold – it does more damage.

A cluster of symptoms can often equal a diagnoses.  This cluster of symptoms helps us to know what to pursue in order to get better.  It's that simple.

Use labels for what they are.  Whoopty-ding about Mental illness. 

This whole "mental illness" stigma thing ends here.  With you and me and the people we touch.

If you go to someone and they tell you you're struggling because you just need to "trust Jesus,"  you have my permission to hug their neck and go find someone else to talk to.  

Of course it is true that a sinful and uncommitted life has many consequences that can contribute to anxiety and depression.  But that does NOT mean that your anxiety and depression mean that you are not committed to Christ or trusting Jesus.  

The chemicals involved with anxiety and depression are just as physical as a cold or allergies!

Jesus is VERY interested in helping you through your story of depression or mental illness or whatever.  But He usually does not simply "cure" anxiety or depression in a trip to the altar any more than he does that when you have the flu!

Come come my friends, come come. Let's be sensible.

Understanding Anxiety

Everyone has it!  If you don’t have any, you are not functioning properly. It is a God-designed gift to keep us safe.

The Amygdala – 2 almond-shaped sections of the brain that are the stress and danger response center.

When triggered, it sends oxygen to the limbs – shuts down or slows down certain body functions like digestion, raises blood sugar, dilates the pupils, gets us ready to fight or flee or freeze.

The amygdala is designed to remember fear, so that it can be clear on what is safe and what isn't.  But because it takes charge when it is activated, it keeps the prefontal cortex from sending messages of safety.

Front of the brain (prefrontal cortex) – This is thinking part of the brain, and helps you process and file your experiences.  This is the part of your brain that brings you back to reality when your amygdala has signaled a false alarm.  You see a shadow, you feel instant fear and a cold feeling in your stomach.  But quickly, the prefontal cortex kicks in and reassures your body that it was just a shadow and you are safe.

But sometimes, the amygdala "hijacks" the brain, tunes out the practical advice of the prefrontal cortex, and stays in charge much more than it should.

When we have "amygdala hijack" - we have to learn to create time-space so that the prefontal cortex (thinking part) can regain control.  Breathing, counseling, mindfulness, and understanding are just a few tools.  I have seen people learn to do this simply by being aware of what is happening when they start to panic, and talking their way through their reaction.
Base of the brain  - deals with the automatic functions (like body temperature).  This part of the brain holds the automatic functions of the body, but it also stores emotion, especially associated with trauma.  Sometimes traumatic experienced don't get filed properly, and get stuck in the base of the brain.  This can happen when a child is pre-verbal and has no words yet to label and file an experience, or fearful experiences in which the person has no way of escape.  Or deeply traumatic experiences like a car wreck or being on the battlefield.

The thing is, you can't think your way to the base of the brain to reason with those traumatic experiences.  Try to think about your body temperature and raise it or lower it by thinking.  It doesn't work.  But if you get up and do jumping jacks, you could raise it!  Things stored in the base of the brain are similar.  You have to know how to access them in order to refile them - you can't just "think" your way out of it.  That's why you may be reacting in ways you don't even understand.  And you might need someone to help you figure out how to access and refile those experiences.

Sometimes we need counseling help to sort through what the anxiety is coming from.  There are some awesome ways to help your brain get it out of there so the front of your brain can file it away in the right place.

Anxiety is a messenger, similar to pain.  We have to learn how to interpret the message by becoming a curious listener.

Learn to listen to the message your anxiety is telling you.  Perhaps:

  • You're doing too much.
  • You need rest.
  • You have something to grieve.  (We grieve lots of things, not just deaths.)
  • Your body needs healing or nutrition or balance or exercise
  • You need to deal with the emotionally unsafe people in your life.
  • You need help to refile some things in your brain 
  • You need help to make sense of your story
  • It would be helpful to learn to see some things through a new lens.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one way that a counselor will help you to think better so you can act better.  Together, you will refile things and reframe things that have become distorted or troublesome in your brain.  When you make sense of your story, you can react in a healthy way.

But also:  Remember that some things we just have to ride through.  There isn't always a pain-free way to fly over the issue.  Sometimes we have to hold someone's hand, put on our armor, and just walk through it.

Breathing is one of the best ways to stimulate the brain stem.  It also calms the nervous system, sends oxygen to your brain, and lots of other nifty things. Remember to focus more on the exhale than the inhale.  And don't hold your breath!  Simply pause at the top and bottom of the circle.  Counting to 4 on each section is a good way to get control of the brain.

Brain Breaks (very helpful for teachers!)


Neuroplasticity is the ability to change our brains.

There are around 86 billion neurons in your brain!!   Think of each neuron as connecting an activity, action, or thought pattern.

As you think thoughts, a myelin sheath coats that neurological pathway and  makes it thicker and stronger.

It's like digging ditches in our brains.  The brain takes the path of least resistance.

This shows up big time in music practice.  If you practice a measure the right way over and over, your brain has a strong pathway to follow automatically.  But if you practice the measure wrong multiple times, you never know what your muscles will do when it gets to that measure because you haven't given it a strong, automatic pathway (muscle memory).

 How to use neuroplasticity every day:

Dr. Caroline Leaf – A Christian neuroscientist who teaches how to biblically "renew the mind."

Switch On Your Brain

21 Day Brain Detox   Thoughts are neurological "trees."  You can kill neurons by ignoring them.  And grow new ones by feeding them.

 Feed the good thoughts, starve the bad thoughts.

“Switch” app  (Based on the 21 Day Brain Detox by Dr. Caroline Leaf).

You can't just say: "Stop thinking about your big nose."  It just reinforces the whole nose connection even more. You must replace the thought you are trying to kill with a thought (truth) you want to feed. (Like another postive feature you may have. 😊)

Principle of replacement:  Matthew 12.  The guy who is delivered from a demon does not fill his house with good things.  He leaves it empty, so the demon brings along 7 friends and says..."he made room!"

We must replace the bad with something good.  On purpose.  Every day.

“Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right … Think about all you can thank God for and be glad about" (Philippians 4:8 TLB).

Put off the old/put on the new.  If we aren't purposeful about putting on the new thought habits, trying NOT to think the old thoughts is actually counter-productive.

Each morning, decide one thought you are going to starve, and decide what Truth you will feed in its place.  Get ready for the day.  Put on your armor so it is ready when you need it!! Get out the Sword, polish it up, practice a little, and put it right next to your heart where you can get to it when you need it.

For me, if I don't prepare in the morning for the mental battle, I am often buried before I even get out my sword.  Making the decision how to fight back - ahead of time - is crucial.

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.  Hebrews 4:12
You may not even understand yourself, but God’s Word does!! 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:1

Garden a beautiful brain, one tree at a time.

My damaging thought is often:   “I’m not good enough”   
I'm not a good enough mom, wife, daughter, pastor’s wife, musician, house cleaner…

My response?  "I have everything I need!"  because....

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  2 Peter 1:3  

Your thought responses become automatic because:
What fires together, wires together.  

(Like pickles and saliva : )  

Make your mental thought habits good ones!! Apply the Truth.
Sometimes when I am struggling and confused or tired, I have trouble finding the Truth I need to fight back.  I go to friends who get it and say.  "I'm struggling.  Help me find Truth to apply to this situation."

Life Layers

When we are struggling with depression or anxiety on any level, there are usually multiple layers of life involved.  

My layers included:
Many kinds of exhaustion, Sleep Apnea, Hormone Imbalance, Carpel Tunnel leading to lack of sleep, Low seratonin, Life stressors, Emotional/mental habits that needed rewired, Relational misunderstandings, Brain stuff that needed refiled, etc.

Someone can become depressed from one of these layers.  Grief would be an example of this.  But usually, when we are buried, there are multiple layers of life piled on us at once, feeding into the swirl of struggle and making it hard to get our head above water.

The first step is simply to make a first step.  Here is what that looks like for me:

The Upward Spiral   

Living this life is like climbing a mountain or climbing wall.  Over time, as we engage our story, we develop hand holds to help us climb.  Some are small, some are bigger. 

Some of them are like solid ledges of Truth or help that give us more we can rest on. 

When I “crash,” it is like a mud slide – I can usually feel it coming.

There are many ugly things at the bottom of a mud slide.   “ I’m worthless.  I mess everything up.  People would be better off without me. I’m fat and ugly.”  It is NOT a pretty place.

But as we learn what our handholds are,  we get pretty good at climbing back up!  And we keep learning new handholds/tools along the way.

Small steps add up.  This is called the upward spiral.

Do one thing every day.  Get a backpack full of handholds and footholds and ledges

Wondering where to start?  If you are currently in a dark place and aren't sure where to start:  

Make a list of ideas – pick the thing you have the energy to do today.   Maybe get more sleep.  Maybe experiment with vitamins.  Maybe schedule an appointment somewhere.  Definitely find someone safe to walk with you.  If you try to talk to someone and it isn't safe or they don't seem to understand or care or know how to help, find someone else!  People who have been through it and learned how to survive and thrive are usually happy to talk with someone else about it!  Don't give up.

I promise, there is hope.  The best views come after the toughest climbs.


“God shattered my plate glass life.  Then he took the pieces and built windchimes.”

Kintsugi:  God can take our shattered pieces and glue them back together with the golden glue of Himself.  Then we are stronger and more beautiful.  Our cracks show the story of His redemption.

Maybe you are you have such a tight grip on life because you subconsciously know that if you let go, you might fall apart.  That’s ok.  Release the pieces to Him.  Sometimes (usually) it gets worse before it gets better.  But then you don’t have to hold on so tight, because He is holding you together.

Possible Tools/Handholds

Many counseling centers accept all types of insurance.  Others provided a discounted rate based on your income.  The investment is so worth it!  If you don't know where to go, ask a friend who has been to counseling, contact your local Bible College, or go to Focus on the Family for their list of approved Christian counselors in your area.

You absolutely must find someone safe to talk and walk with you.  This step is not optional.

B Complex & Magnesium  are key vitamins for me.  Do some exploring and find out what your body needs!

Medical Issues
Tell your doctor/nurse practitioner/natural health person what is going on with your emotions, ask for a full blood workup, including vitamin deficiencies.  If they say no, get another doctor!!

This goes under the medical category, but I cannot stress it enough.  Find out if your hormone levels are normal.  Get a Dr. who will help you explore.  This is one of those waves that you can't overcome on your own.  It will knock you over every month if things are out of whack.  It's worth looking into it.

You should just google it. Or read a book about it.   Sleep is absolutely essential for well-being.  Set a schedule.  Go to bed.  Get off your phone!  Put your phone in another room if you don't have the discipline to turn it off.  Take a sleep aid.  Get a weighted blanket.  Do something, anything, to make sure you are getting adequate sleep.

Create margin
Schedule/create/leave space in your days to breathe and think and rest.  Living without margin is a recipe for depression.

This can have a powerful effect on some of us.   Make a playlist of happy tunes, tunes that lift you, tunes that give you courage.  Use it as a tool.  Plan ahead, so that when you feel a dark day coming you can respond quickly.  (GraceStory has a playlist on Spotify!)

It takes quite a lot to get my brain quiet. But that is when Abba sorts things out for me.  It is a discipline that is life-changing.

Apps that I love!!!
Yes, I use all of these apps linked below.  Some of them have paid versions, but use up alll the free stuff they offer first.  If you love it and use the free part of the app a lot, it will help you to know which one you want to purchase.  When you find the right app to help you get quiet and think Truth, it is worth the investment.

Soultime  This has been a huge blessing in my life.  Soul-searching devotions in sortof a meditative format that help me get quiet with God.  The Holy Spirit has spoken to me through this app many, many times.

ThinkUP.  This is an amazing way to replace bad thoughts with Truth.  You can record your own statements in your own voice.  This can be Scripture verses, or truth like:  "God loves me exactly as I am."  "I am excepted and loved."  "I have everything I need."  "My abuse was not my fault."  or whatever Truth you need.  The app will play them back to you with gentle music behind.  Speaking Truth out loud is absolutely powerful, and this is one of the best ways I have found to do it.  When my brain is especially muddled, it helps me to have my own voice recorded to speak Truth to me.

Anxiety Release App. This is based on EMDR.  You may want to find a counselor who specializes in this powerful way to access things stored in the base of the brain. It has been incredibly healing for me.  If you have had trauma, you will want to wait until you have learned about EMDR with the help of a counselor before you use this app.

A New Liturgy  This is created by the husband of Shauna Neiquist, author of Present Over Perfect.  It is worship and scripture sequences that help to get my brain in the right place. You can listen online to a lot of it without purchasing.

Headspace.  I have used the paid version (the sleep music is amazing).  But right now I just use the free basic 10 sessions.  It is literally just guided breathing.  It helps me get my brain to shut up before my quiet time.  It helps me settle down when I'm wound up.

Abide - Stories from the Bible, quiet music, Guides from scripture for working through tough situations, topical meditations.  Lots here.

Contemplative at Home.  This is actually a podcast.  It is based on the practice of Lectio Divina.  A Scripture is read several times slowly and quietly, giving you time and space to dwell and hear the Holy Spirit.  Powerful application of Truth!

Here are the headphones I use. There is something about headphones that helps me to block out the environment and focus.

Get Outside.  It's free.  It's easy.  It's fast.

Read/educate yourself! 
When you understand better what is going on, just the knowledge itself can help to diffuse the situation.  You know how to respond in a healthy way, and sometimes can refocus your energy from trying to figure out what is wrong with you to using healthy tools each day.  Learning the terms that correspond with your experiences can help you to react better, just because of the knowledge.  For instance, there is a term "flooding."  This means a person gets overwhelmed with emotion to the point of not being to communicate or react well.  Since I know this, I can recognize when I am getting flooded and put space before my reactions.

Exercise is said to help with happy hormones as much as medication!  It's worth a try.  Surely there's something active you like a least a little bit.  I like to walk on the treadmill while I watch funny old episodes.  And I especially love walking clears my head like nothing else.  I also LOVE dance aerobics!

Calming tools (breathing, etc).  Google it.  There are hundreds.

Get a project done
Cleaning out a closet does not, by any means, cure clinical depression!  But when I am feeling myself starting to slosh around in the mud a little bit, sometimes both the activity and the reward of getting a project completed can help to get me back into the upward spiral.

Connect with a friend.  Connection is powerful.  Some of us tend to withdraw when we are feeling low.  Just reach out.

Change of scenery
Sometimes when my blues are getting bluer, I realize I just need a change of scenery.  Maybe you need to get out of the office and eat lunch in the park.  Maybe you need to take a Saturday and go for a drive through the country.  Even a trip to the mall alone for returns can reset my brain a bit and help me to re-enter life with a better perspective.

Clickable:  Recommended Reading list

Full Disclosure:  I may receive reimbursement for Amazon links followed through this blog.


Add your comment