Prayer, Self-Care & Mental Health — Serving Others Well
“How are you?” It was a simple question. But when my therapist asked me this in 2016, it exposed the overwhelming anxiety and depression pit that I was rapidly falling into. I was in the middle of one of the most challenging times in my life, raising four young children, being isolated at home, and romantically daydreaming of the smart, independent woman I was in the past. I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I literally had to keep people alive, which felt like an insurmountable feat.
My therapist’s question set off so many emotions that I then unloaded on him. I was scared, isolated, tired, had no vision or direction. I was just surviving. After I began to calm down a little, he asked, “How can you take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself?”
That question hit me right in the heart. Fast-forward to 2022, where we are just slowly clawing out of our own pandemic “pits.” Working for InterVarsity, I’ve heard many stories of how the last few years’ angst, sadness, and loneliness have taken a particularly heavy toll on college students. And if you’re a student yourself, chances are you’ve seen these struggles play out in your own life or in those around you.
The Covid pandemic has seriously worsened mental health for college students, as social life became limited, and expectations to keep up with schoolwork remained largely the same. In 2020, 40 percent of college students reported experiencing depression, and 34 percent reported anxiety, according to the Healthy Minds Study, an annual survey of thousands of students.
This begs the question, the one my therapist asked: how are we supposed to take care of others if we don’t care for ourselves?
Following Christ’s Example
It may seem counterintuitive as Christians to put ourselves first. We are taught to bear each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2), and there’s God’s commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31). It seems like putting others first unequivocally all the time is the way to be.
Jesus was the best example of this: he healed, listened, engaged with, and honored his friends and followers. So shouldn’t we be like Jesus? The simple answer is yes, but first, we need to take care of ourselves.
The New Testament is full of examples of Jesus taking time for himself in silence and prayer and listening to God, like Matthew 14:23, Mark 1:35, and Luke 6:12. One of the best ones comes from Luke 5:15-16:
Yet the news about [Jesus] spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
The news spread about Jesus and his miraculous healing and restoration power. He was helping hundreds of people heal and come to know him. I can imagine he was tired and overwhelmed; maybe he felt empty too. So, to continue blessing and healing people, he withdrew from all the distractions in life and prayed.
Following Jesus’ example is the best way to help others: we need to go away by ourselves for prayer and quality time with God.
Jesus longs for us to seek him. He’s the ultimate healer and comforter. In Exodus 14:14, Moses says, “The LORD will fight for you, and all you have to do is keep still.” God is ready to take on our burdens and fight for our peace and healing; our responsibility is to find regular quiet times with him.
If we can learn to do that every day, God will recharge our hearts, mental loads, and bodies. He will nourish us each day. We just have to make an effort and then “be quiet” (as some translations say). When we’re in touch with the Holy Spirit regularly, we are filled with hope, grace, peace, and strength to help others. We can bear their burdens only when we’re restored and in communion with God.
Maybe you feel like I did when my therapist first asked how I could take care of someone else if I don’t take care of myself. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine being able to help anyone in that moment. Maybe you’re feeling skeptical that quiet time with God could actually help.
But I challenge you to start small. Find at least five minutes a day in your schedule when you can sit still, shut off your devices, and talk with God. Ask him boldly to help you and show you how you can walk alongside your friends, family, and classmates. Let him do the fighting for you and allow the restoration that happens inside to become a solid foundation for helping others.
Stephanie serves as Communications and Operations Director of InterVarsity’s Learning and Talent department. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time with her husband and four young children. To make a donation to Stephanie’s ministry, use this link: donate.intervarsity.org/donate#21400.
COVID, a lack of in-person relationships, the ongoing realities of racism, patriarchy, income disparity, and climate change — the world can feel like a dumpster fire. Scary to watch from a distance but devastating when you’re standing in the middle of it.