Looking Beneath Our Smiles: Unmasking Our Mental Health and Asking Ourselves How We’re Really Doing

In a society obsessed with achievement, we often find ourselves wearing masks to conceal our true emotional struggles. We put on a brave face, responding with a casual “fine” or “great” when asked how we’re doing, even when deep down, we are grappling with a myriad of burdens. The truth is, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges can silently creep into our lives, catching us off guard and causing us to spiral into a state of distress without much warning.

Sarah, a successful marketing executive in Houston, found herself in a coffee shop filled with people. Amidst the lively chatter and the clattering of cups, she sat at a corner table, lit up with a bright smile. She was about to deliver a pitch to a potential client, and she was sure she’d secure the account. Sarah was always on top of her game; she was known for her exceptional work and unwavering composure. To all those who knew her, she had it all together, but beneath her radiant smile laid a different story.

Sarah’s anxiety had been building slowly, like an invisible weight pressing down on her chest. As she navigated her busy life, she buried her pain and hurt, convincing herself that she could handle it all. But anxiety doesn’t discriminate; it can affect anyone, regardless of their external success. Suddenly, during the important presentation, Sarah’s racing thoughts intensify, her heart pounds relentlessly, and she finds herself gasping for air. The spiral is swift, and she loses control and hits rock bottom, experiencing a significant panic attack that leaves her shattered.

A panic attack is a powerful physical manifestation of mental distress. It is an intense surge that triggers a cascade of physiological responses in the body. While Sarah appears calm on the outside, her body is reacting in ways beyond her control.

During a panic attack, the body’s fight-or-flight response is triggered, flooding the system with stress hormones like adrenaline. Sarah’s heart races, her breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and she feels a tightening sensation in her chest. These physical symptoms are the body’s way of preparing for a perceived threat, even if no immediate danger is present.

What makes panic attacks particularly distressing is that they can seemingly occur out of nowhere. Sarah may have been able to manage her emotions and anxiety leading up to the presentation, but her body’s physiological response takes over, overpowering her ability to control the situation.

Sarah’s story is just one example of how anxiety and depression can sneak up on us, catching us off guard when we least expect it. These mental health conditions don’t always announce their arrival with loud warning signs. Instead, they quietly infiltrate our minds and hearts, manifesting in subtle ways until the pressure becomes too much to bear.

So, how can we keep tabs on our mental health in a world that encourages us to hide our struggles? How can we recognize the signs that our mental well-being needs attention when we are often conditioned to bury our pain and put on a brave face?

1. Recognizing the Signs

The first step towards maintaining good mental health is self-awareness. We must pay attention to the signals our minds and bodies are sending us. Here are some signs that our mental health may be suffering:

  1. a) Emotional Exhaustion and Loss of Joy:A persisting sense of fatigue, a lack of energy, and the inability to find pleasure in activities that once brought happiness;
  2. b) Heightened Anxiety and Restlessness:An ongoing state of unease, racing thoughts, and an inability to relax, leading to disrupted sleep patterns;
  3. c) Social Withdrawal and Isolation:A tendency to withdraw from social interactions, distancing oneself from friends, family, and activities that were once enjoyable;
  4. d) Changes in Appetite and Sleep Patterns:Significant shifts in eating habits, such as loss of appetite or excessive comfort eating, coupled with disrupted sleep, insomnia, or oversleeping;
  5. e) Impaired Concentration and Productivity:Difficulty focusing on tasks, reduced efficiency, and a persistent mental fog that hampers daily functioning;
  6. f) Physical Symptoms without Medical Cause:Unexplained headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or other physical manifestations that have no apparent medical explanation.

By acknowledging these signs, we can initiate the process of seeking support and prioritizing our well-being.

It’s important to remember that mental health struggles are not a sign of weakness; they are a normal part of the human experience. Even Christians, whose faith is a vital resource that provides comfort, hope, and resilience in times of struggle, can be a source of solace and a guide for navigating life’s challenges. The power of prayer, community support, and belief in God can undoubtedly contribute to their mental well-being. However, it is essential to recognize that having a strong faith does not make Christians immune to mental health incidents. Christians, like anyone else, can experience anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. They may grapple with doubts, spiritual crises, or feelings of guilt or shame. While faith can provide support, it is not a guaranteed shield against mental health struggles.

  1. Cultivating Authentic Connections

In our pursuit of masking our mental health struggles, we inadvertently distance ourselves from the very support systems that could help us heal. By fostering authentic connections and nurturing relationships built on trust, we create safe spaces for vulnerability and open conversations about mental health. Sharing our experiences can be cathartic, allowing us to shed our masks and find solace in knowing that we are not alone in our struggles.

Mark is a young entrepreneur in northwest Houston, facing immense pressure to maintain his image of success. He left his successful real estate position to start his own business, and his days were filled with meetings, deadlines, and a constant stream of responsibilities. He wore a mask of confidence, always assuring others that he was “fine.” However, behind closed doors, Mark’s anxiety overwhelmed him, leading to sleepless nights and a growing sense of isolation. His home life was chaotic, with teens who were increasingly growing more rebellious and a wife who was also overwhelmed and stressed about Mark’s change in career and whether they would be able to make it financially.

Mark made the decision to end his self-imposed isolation one evening while attending a workshop run by Shield Bearer Counseling Centers. During an open discussion, he opened up about his inner battles. To his surprise, more than one person in attendance reciprocated, revealing their own struggles with anxiety. In that moment, they formed a connection that went beyond superficial interactions. Mark discovered the power of authentic conversations, realizing that true strength lies in embracing vulnerability and seeking support. These connections can happen within families, at church functions, or even at your workplace.

  1. Prioritizing Self-Care

To maintain good mental health, we must prioritize self-care as an essential part of our daily lives. Self-care goes beyond bubble baths and massages; it involves actively engaging in activities that promote emotional well-being, resilience, and balance. Some effective self-care practices include:

  1. a) Setting Boundaries:Learning to say “no” when needed, setting realistic expectations, and establishing boundaries that protect our mental and emotional space;
  2. b) Mindfulness and Meditation:Cultivating a practice of mindfulness and meditation can help us tune in to our thoughts and emotions, promoting self-awareness and reducing stress;
  3. c) Physical Activity:Engaging in regular exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural mood boosters, while also providing a healthy outlet for stress;
  4. d) Seeking Professional Support:When our mental health needs attention, seeking professional help from therapists or counselors can be invaluable. These experts provide guidance, coping strategies, and a safe space to explore our emotions. In one phone call, Shield Bearer can help put you on an affordable path to finding solutions and healing.

Remember, self-care is not selfish; it is an act of self-love and preservation. It is time to unmask our mental health. Society’s expectation to always be “fine” or “great” perpetuates a harmful cycle of silence and repression. By embracing authenticity, cultivating supportive connections, and prioritizing self-care, we empower ourselves and others to address their mental health needs openly and without judgment. Let us remove the masks, share our stories, and create a world where the question, “How are you doing?” is met with empathy, understanding, and genuine concern.

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Thad Cardine

Thad Cardine is the Chief Executive Officer of Shield Bearer Counseling Centers and author of Solutions to Common Parenting Dilemmas: Answers to Issues that Drive Moms and Dads Crazy. With over 30 years devoted to leading nonprofit organizations, writing curriculum, teaching in private and public schools, speaking, and raising five wonderful children with his wife and best friend Jamie, Thad Cardine feels he has found the true definition of success. "Success for me is when your faith, your values, your passions, your work, and your family all coalesce." Shield Bearer removes the barriers to receiving mental health services and provides licensed counseling, support groups, educational workshops, and seminars to help families and individuals better their lives and heal since 2005.