Language of Pain: The Psalms and Our Mental Health

When my wife and I took a trip to Niagara Falls three years ago, our social media feeds rapidly filled up with photos and comments about how much fun we were having.   It was such an exciting trip that, upon our return, we readily, and happily told anyone who would listen about the amazing sights we had seen and things we  had done.

A few years before, when depression robbed me of my desire to engage in any of the activities that I normally found exciting, interesting ,and engaging and each day felt heavy, dull, and grey. I told no one. Not even myself.

Speaking about exciting events, trips and those aspects of our lives that are truly joyful seems to very naturally come easy to us.  The reverse; sharing our struggles, vulnerabilities, challenges and traumas can be exponentially harder.  Part of this stems from the effects on our physical, emotional and spiritual natures as we tell our stories.

When we relate a joyful or exciting life event to a friend or co-worker, we not only share words about the event, but in many respects, relive the place, sights, and sounds, as well as the emotional and physical experiences.  This can be a profound gift when relating a family trip, a visit with a friend, or a memory of time spent with a loved one.

These gifts of the imagination weigh much more heavily  if what we are speaking about is a far less joyful experience of struggle, emotional despair or trauma.  These are not experiences we generally wish to return to and re-experience in this way.   Add to this various social and cultural factors and conditioning; such as those that verifiably make it more difficult for men to speak out than women (“It’s time to talk about men’s mental health”
“40% of men won’t talk to anyone about their mental health”), and the need for guidance is clear.

What many healthcare professionals and services agree on is that, regardless of social, cultural, or demographic background, speaking to another about the challenges we face can be extremely helpful for our mental health.

A recent New York Times article reviewed some of the evidence for this.  They cite a UCLA study,  which found that speaking about the feelings we have experienced or are currently experiencing can lessen the ‘fight or flight’ response of the amygdala when encountering stress. This can not only relieve powerful emotional responses in the moment, but appear to mitigate those responses when we encounter a similar ‘triggering’ context in the future. Over time, this can help to make us more resilient when the next crisis comes our way.

An additional challenge, when encountering emotionally charged situations, mental health crises, or trauma over and above finding someone we trust to speak to, can be in finding the words to adequately give voice to what is taking place inside.

It is here that our Judeo/Christian faith can provide a potential inroad in the form of the Psalms.  The book of Psalms sits at the heart of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  They are a millennia-old collection of prayer/hymns that cover the entire gambit of human physical, emotional, and spiritual experience.  They are, in fact, a school of prayer whose purpose is to provide God’s children with words and a language to turn to in every human circumstance.

The psalms recognize that we do not come into the world having words and language on our own. All of the words that we have to express delight, hope, love, anger, or despair, have been give to us by others. First by our parents and then by those in our ever-expanding social networks. Some of these words are helpful, and some are not. Some groups have given us words for challenging situations, and some of our relationships may have discouraged giving voice to these kinds of things.

Our prayer within this school of the psalms is never in isolation.  While we may feel devastatingly alone in our present context, the words that God teaches to our voiceless hearts lead us beyond the reality of physical and emotional isolation, and inexorably into His presence.

Like an attentive parent teaching us to how ask for a drink, God gives us words to speak in times of joy and praise, “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name for ever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name for ever and ever.” (ps 145);  in times of sorrow and contrition, “Have mercy on me, O God,  according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Ps 51);  and even when we’ve narrowly escaped death, “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” (Ps 116).

Within these are two special classes of psalms that many find unusual.  Psalms of lament and what are sometimes referred to as  ‘imprecatory’, or ‘cursing’ psalms. These provide a language of the heart and soul for the most distressing moments of human experience.

During those times when we feel alone and abandoned in our doubt, fear, anxiety, and pain psalms of lament can give us a voice when  our own words fail us.

When struggles with our own mental health challenges or in the care of our loved ones leave us feeling utter powerless and alone, prayers like Psalm 42 can speak the words our hearts are struggling, or feel we lack the permission to express;

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
   so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
   for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
   the face of God?
My tears have been my food
   day and night,
while people say to me continually,
   ‘Where is your God?’

…I say to God, my rock,
   ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
   because the enemy oppresses me?’
As with a deadly wound in my body,
   my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
   ‘Where is your God?’

When confronted with acute or chronic trauma,  an additional effect of the flight of flight response of the amygdala is to self-isolate. This can begin a cycle of isolation—>depression and anxiety—>more isolation that can be difficult to break out of.  Speaking out loud words such as those found in Psalm 42, that give expression to this profound loneliness and isolation can help short-circuit this response. 

In one of his Wednesday General Audiences on the Psalms, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI touches on the deeper spiritual reality of this kind of prayer saying “by teaching us to pray, the Psalms teach us that even in desolation, even in sorrow, God’s presence endures, it is a source of wonder and of solace; we can weep, implore, intercede and complain, but in the awareness that we are walking toward the light…”

Our prayer within this school of the psalms is never in isolation.  While we may feel devastatingly alone in our present context, the words that God teaches to our voiceless hearts lead us beyond the reality of physical and emotional isolation, and inexorably into His presence.  Here the Word of God, Jesus Christ, both prays the sorrow of our hearts with us, and responds to that sorrow with his own broken heart.

Even as I express my devastation and helplessness at the myriad of burdens that surround me, using words that seem to echo my own internal dialogue as described in psalm 3;

“O Lord, how many are my foes!
   Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
   ‘There is no help for you in God.’”

…this lesson of lament,  exposes me, even in my darkness, to the light of a loving presence that reminds me I am never alone;

“I lie down and sleep;
   I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of tens of thousands of people
   who have set themselves against me all around.

…and that I have a God who will defend me, even from the worst of voices, those in my own voice, which whisper despair into my own heart.

Rise up, O Lord!
   Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
   you break the teeth of the wicked.

This is not some sort of spiritualist magic. In its initial stages, we may continue to feel alone, even as the psalms remind us of God’s presence. The words may feel dry and lifeless on our lips in the same manner that we may initially feel speaking to a friend who lacks the power to help seems pointless and mute. It is a gradual process this learning of the ways of God, and of the needs of our own tortured soul.  God understands what the UCLA study and others like it indicate, speaking our feelings of abandonment, powerlessness, fear, and even anger out loud can be the exact antidote we need. 

Although prayer like this is not intended to become a replacement for  professional counselling, therapy, or even medication when appropriate, there can be a real, lasting, and cumulative effect on our ability to whether the storms of mental health challenges as they affect our lives and families.  This is the incarnate Word of God, who is God, Jesus Christ who is not only willing to allow his own heart to be broken by our pain, but who invites us to discover a path to healing, growth, and resiliency hidden within one of humanity’s most ancient schools of prayer, the Psalms.

Peace and God Bless,

Deacon Eric Gurash

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