When Your Teen’s Depressed and Anxious: Dr. Ed Welch
Skyrocketing numbers of anxiety, depression, and self-harm can be downright intimidating to parents of teens. Psychologist Dr. Ed Welch offers you-can-do-this guidance to shape a home environment that welcomes, supports, heals—and helps kids navigate their way to hope.
About the Guest
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- Intrigued by today's episode? Think deeper about Christianity and psychology with Ed's many FamilyLife Today episodes.
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Psychologist Dr. Ed Welch offers you-can-do-this guidance to shape a home environment that welcomes, supports, heals—and helps kids navigate their way to hope.
When Your Teen’s Depressed and Anxious: Dr. Ed Welch
FamilyLife Today® National Radio Version (time edited) Transcript
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When Your Teen's Depressed and Anxious
Guest: Ed Welch
From the series: When Mental Illness Comes Home (Day 1 of 2)
Air date: July 3, 2023
Ed: To speak to the Lord in the midst of anxiety—sort of the everyday anxiety, or those more dumps of anxiety that we identify as panic—to be able to speak to the Lord seems as though it would be the most natural thing to do. “Help. Oh, I need help. This is what it's like.” But it's not natural to our souls.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
Do you ever struggle with anxiety? I should know; I've been married to you 42 years but—
Ann: Yes. [Laughter] Do you think I struggle with anxiety?
Dave: More than I expected.
Ann: I want to know what the definition of anxiety is, and I don't think there's probably a listener that hasn't had this question or hasn't known someone that's dealing with anxiety, whether themselves, family member, friend, child. This is a good topic.
Dave: In other words, you're not going to answer the question, but we're going to talk about other people answering that question. We've got the right guy; Ed Welch is with us. Psychologist, doctor, Ask the Christian Counselor; you're that guy. Ed, welcome to
Ed: I enjoyed seeing you put your wife on the spot.
Dave: [Laughter] I know.
Ed: That was that was great.
Ann: I had no idea he was going to ask. And you know what, now I have an answer. Here's what I remember: 2:00 o'clock in the morning I wake up; my heart is beating so fast, and—
Dave: This is great. We’ve got a counselor in here that's going to help her understand this.
Ann: I am in a dead sleep and I wake/it wakes me up. My hearts beating so fast. I'm thinking I'm having a heart attack. A friend of ours is a cardiologist and I said, “Do I need to come in? Here's what's happening. I can't breathe right now. My hearts racing so much.” And he said, “You know, I think you're having a panic attack.” And I said, “No, you don't understand. I was sleeping. I wasn't thinking, I wasn't worrying.” He goes, “Yes, and that's what it can look like.” Which I had never experienced anything like that.
Ed: Well, every human being is familiar with anxiety and fear, so that's a given. But what you're talking about is something a bit different, the idea of panic attacks.
Ann: Maybe we should introduce our guest first. [Laughter]
Dave: Well, I mean—
Ed: Feel free; this is the way I am as a counselor. I just jump right in.
Ann: I like it.
Ed: Oh, by the way, my name 's Ed. [Laughter]
Dave: Well how many years have you been practicing?
Ed: —since 1981.
Ann: Your book is called I Have a Psychiatric Diagnosis: What Does the Bible Say? I think this is fascinating. Now, let's go back to that.
Ed: Anxiety is everywhere.
Dave: Yes, everywhere.
Ed: Absolutely everywhere. Panic attacks however, they haven't been everywhere. I can remember I probably was working as a counselor for a good five years before I heard of panic attacks.
Ed: But psychiatric disorders, all of them, seem to be growing at a rapid rate, panic attacks among them. So somehow everybody has a panic attack story, and I have a panic attack story as well.
Ann: Ed, was that one? Cause I haven't had anything like that since.
Ed: Well, that's the nature of panic attacks. They typically come when nothing seems to be bothering you.
Ed: You can't identify something that was a trigger for it, but it's as if somehow your mind is communicating to your body that there is a kind of threat out there and you need to be mobilized. Your mind is not sending the accurate message at that time, but your body is willing to react, and there are plenty of threats out there we can imagine our bodies would be ready to react to it at any particular time.
Dave: Now, what was yours?
Ed: Mine was a little bit different; it was a fear of drowning. I can tell you the story a little bit more. I would have the experience of not breathing. I would have, I would have these waking dreams right when I was falling to sleep that I was sometimes it was an enclosed situation. It was a cave; it was getting smaller and smaller. A lot of times it was underwater, and I would wake up panicking.
The panic attack, however, was a particular mental experience that was so profound I woke up and I knew my life was going to be different from that point on. Didn't even bother going back to bed. I just stayed awake all night and just “Lord, help. I feel like I'm going to die. I'm pretty sure it's a panic attack and I don't think I'm going to die. I feel like I shouldn't be panicky if I'm going to die. I should be able to trust You. I would like to have”—
Ed: —"more confidence and peace going into this and uh, ya, ya, I am a mess.”
I've experienced it as well and there aren't going to be many people in the church who either haven't experienced it or they don't have a good friend who's experienced it.
Dave: But we often think, and I'm even listening to you like you're a doctor. You help people with this every single day, and yet you were experiencing it. Was there like a process that you knew I had/I need to do this in my thinking to get out of this? Or was I/you just sort of stuck like most of us?
Ed: That's an important question, I think. For me, I went to Scripture. I went to Philippians 4. You know, think about those things that are good and true and so I tried to think about those things that were good and true, and nothing worked. [Laughter] Nothing, absolutely nothing, worked. Nothing was strong enough to somehow push the image that invoked the panic attack off to the edges. Nothing was strong enough. I was, however, somewhat encouraged that my instincts were to go to Scripture, even if Scripture didn't help.
But here's what came out of it, especially that initial panic attack. It wasn't until the next day where somehow it was the Spirit working. It might have been reading Scripture, might have been talking to another person, but this keen understanding that I never simply spoke to the Lord about it. I use Scripture as a way to try to solve the problem. “I have this. I don't like it. I want to get rid of it.” I was using Scripture, in a sense, as a pill. It's some kind of medication to quiet the problem. It was stunning to me that I never simply said, “Lord, this is what it's like.”
Dave: Walk us through what that would look like because I'm guessing there are listeners resonating with this anxiety and fear discussion. They've got kids maybe as well. And if they're like me, they're like, “Help me; what do I do?” You know, I want to get out of this.
Ann: And maybe they're resonating with, like, “I've tried Scripture too,” but go deeper into—
Dave: Yes; how would you walk them?
Ed: Well, the nature of the panic attack is it doesn't matter how much you go to Scripture, I've never known anyone who was able to somehow extinguish the panic attack by going to Scripture. That doesn't mean it's not good, but in the sense that's not unusual to us, because if we use the larger category of suffering, that would be probably the easiest way into it with Scripture. We aren't guaranteed that somehow going to Scripture, thinking the right thoughts, is going to alleviate the suffering. Instead, what the Lord gives us, He gives us Himself, typically in the midst of it. That might not be what we're hoping for in the midst of a panic attack, but that is the best—to be able to turn to Jesus in the midst of it, to simply say “Jesus, help,” to put words on it.
What is it like for you to speak those words to Jesus? Let me give you a little bit of detour on this, and I think this was probably helpful for me. I was awake all night and my wife gets up early and she sees me in the living room. I usually get up before her so it's not that unusual, but I must have looked different. [Laughter]
Dave: You just pulled it an all nighter.
Ed: And she said, “Well, what's happened?” I said, “I had a panic attack.” And she—the first thing she said was “I wish you would have awoken me.” And my first thought was, “Well, why have two people lose a night’s sleep?”
Dave: Yes, yes.
Ed: But my second thought was “I wish I would have woken you up so you could be with me.” You see the human analogy that our instincts, the right instincts, is: how can there be a person close by that we can rely on, that we can even speak with? It's a spillover of these spiritual realities that we have access to the right person to speak to.
Dave: I heard you speak—you might remember where; I don't know where you were—I was watching this, and you talk about this cat that you lost, and you went in this alley or something. You’ve got to tell that story because your summary of what that cat meant in that moment hit me. I mean I never forgot it. It's like “Wow, that is true.” You just sort of hit it there but tell that story.
Ed: I think that's probably one of my most embarrassing stories [Laughter] and I think I've perhaps told it once and you’re pulling it out.
Dave: And I’m making you pull it out.
Ed: I had a cat. It was an indoor cat; got out. We live in suburbia where there's a gap between the two houses. I had to walk between the gap between two houses and there are all these bushes that I planted over the years. I don't know what I'm thinking but it's like a little kid thinking there are probably boogeymen in those bushes. [Laughter] I don't know what a boogeyman is. It's lunacy but the mind does those kinds of things, and so I'm looking for this cat and I start making noises. [Laughter] I start clapping, “Hey, I” like some sort—I don't know what I was doing, like, just like a lunatic. But I was thinking maybe I would scare away whatever was bad in that corridor.
But I think what you're identifying is I found the cat, picked up the cat, and I had to walk back through that corridor, and I wasn't nervous anymore. Now there are two possibilities. One is I drove out all the bad things with the all the noise. [Laughter] But really what it felt like was I have a living being with me right now; I am not alone. And it felt a little bit different. It was just a cat that—
Ann: —that couldn’t protect you.
Ed: It was declawed in the front [Laughter] so it could do nothing, but when we have struggles in life that are overwhelming, sort of the reality of how we're made oftentimes comes out. And the reality of how we're made is we're not made to be alone.
Dave: Yes, I mean, when I heard the story, I'm like that image, even though it was a cat, hit me like you said. And yet it seems like, at least for me and I know a lot of people do this, when we're fearful, when we're scared and we feel anxiety rising up, we often pull away.
Ann: We’re ashamed.
Dave: I'm not saying you did that that night, but you were alone and your wife's like, “I'm right here.” Why do we do that? And why don't we reach out?
Ed: Yes, you're right; there are two competing experiences. One is, I need the right person, but I need to manage my world. I need to control my world. And we feel like we can do that on our own, just a little bit better. Now here we are talking about anxiety and the more extremes of it, in terms of panic; we're not identifying the causes for it yet. What we're doing now is even without knowing the details of why this happens, to know where to turn, to whom to turn, it's right, it's good, and it's hopeful. It's the way the Lord does things.
What we find in Scripture is the Lord reserves some of His most precious words to people who struggle with anxiety. The most precious words are “I am with you. I am with you.” That's not the entire answer to these things, but somehow it goes deeper than any other answer that we could possibly find. To speak to the Lord in the midst of anxiety—sort of the everyday anxiety, or those more dumps of anxiety that we identify as panic—to be able to speak to the Lord seems as though it would be the most natural thing to do. “Help. Oh, I need help. This is what it's like.” But it's not natural to our souls. It isn't natural to our souls.
If we find that we say, “Help,” in the midst of our anxiety or our panic, there is a certain way that we can say “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus because I see evidence of your work in me, even in the midst of this.” Because to be able to say “help” to Jesus, the Spirit has to provoke that in our hearts. We have evidence, even in speaking out to the Lord, that He is close to us and working in this.
So again, we're just sort of touching into it but it's a precious truth. He is the God who is with us. It's this back-and-forth relationship. We're accustomed to thinking about how the Lord speaks to us or it’s a big Bible and lots of things He says. But so often, and you find this in the Psalms, the Psalms have a kind of implicit beginning, and it's this: what's on your heart? What's on your heart? That's the question the Lord asks, and He says, “You can talk about anything. You can talk about your cat. You can talk about anything, but talk about those things that are most important to you—the joys, the sorrows, the anxieties of life.” That's certainly—
Dave: —be honest.
Ed: Yes, “Who are you?” and “What is your real struggle?” That's the way the Psalms tend to begin. He says, “Talk to me, talk to me and tell me more.” There’re some psalms—I'm thinking of Psalm 10 in particular right now, where there's an extended section of the Lord essentially saying, “Tell me more. What is this oppression like? Tell me more; tell me more about it. Well, tell me a little bit more,” and then it's back and forth and He responds. He responds with compassion knowing how the world is filled with all kinds of threats and all kinds of dangers. He responds with compassion, never minimizing the anxieties that we have.
Because most of our anxieties, when we think about them, when we're not quite as anxious, they can seem sort of silly. But He never says they're sort of silly and notice what would happen. If we thought they were sort of silly in some way, we wouldn't speak to Him about them—
Ed: —which is exactly what He's seeking to work against. If we minimize them, we'll think, “Well, I can figure this out on my own. I can work this one out. Lord, I don't, I don't need you. You're busy with other things.” So the fact that His compassion is all in, no matter what the provoking incident might be, it is a great gift to us.
Dave: Do you find that there are times when you process like the Psalms where you are honest with God? Tell me what you're feeling and you're like, “Man, I'm lamenting. I’m scared. I'm feeling anxious about the future,” whatever it is. And often, you know, you look at the Psalms, as I've preached through them as a preacher and often, I would be like “And look what happens towards the end of the Psalm. David or the songwriter goes from fear to ‘Okay, I told the Lord, and here's what the Lord is speaking to me. I'm with you.’” But when you don't sense His comfort in that anxiety, what do you do? Because I think that's as real for us sometimes too.
Ed: Sometimes it seems as though the Psalms are this compressed episode that it might have been years and they're compressing it into a short story. Now, it could be otherwise. It could be that all of a sudden, they understood the truth of their covenant God and they were delighted—it could be. That doesn't work for me. [Laughter]
What the Psalms do is they point us in the right direction. That's why when I had a panic attack, and I was reviewing Scripture thinking, “Well, it's, you know, maybe I could be doing better, but I'm headed in the right direction. I know who to turn to. I know who to try to listen to.” That's what we're doing.
Sanctification, the maturity in life is not necessarily so much how far down the road we are. Is it, are we on the right road? Do we see Jesus out there? Are we walking with Him and aiming for Him? What you're raising is important. We anticipate that anxieties, if we deal with them well, they're going to immediately - we will immediately be relieved of them, which is the way we would prefer. [Laughter]
Ann: Of course.
Dave: That's a good perspective though because you often think the Psalm I'm reading was written in 15 minutes and this entire journey was a less than 30-minute journey. And you're right, it could have been days or weeks.
Ed: The Psalms are going to be pointed—the psalmist is pointing “Follow me. This is the right direction.” This is speculating a bit, but certainly the Spirit could do all kinds of things and He could stop our anxieties as soon as we speak to Him and speak of our confession of faith. “Lord, I trust you.” He could terminate the anxieties immediately. But there is a certain way that anxieties are this wonderful little reminder for us. Let's assume that all of us have anxieties at some point in the course of a day. Those anxious moments are reminders to us that we have a God who knows us, who cares for us, who is with us, and He will never leave us, never forsake us.
And by the way, the promise, I am with you, He never gets tired of that one. He just looks for other ways to say it. Let me just give you one way that I found so charming. Hebrews, I think, says this, “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” But it's almost as if you see the Lord saying, “How can I say this in a way that will add umph to it?”—you know that will be even more memorable. And so, when you read it, it says, I will never, never leave you. I will never, never, never forsake you. In Hebrew things tend to be repeated; that's how you add that umph.
Ann: Yes, the significance of it.
Ed: Excuse the long story, but my daughter was young, and it was a busy time of life. I have an office in my basement. She came down to the basement and she just wanted to be near me—sweetest thing in the world. How could you—and she said “I don't need to play. I just want to be around.” Well, when you see your daughter doing that, you say, “Life is short.” I can't remember what we did but we went out and just had this wonderful day together, which of course meant that the work I had to do was going to be later in the evening.
So here I was. She was getting ready for bed later in the evening. She started walking down the steps; I heard her. She didn't say word. She just gave me this little note. The note was “Dear Daddy, XXXXX OOOO XXXX OOO over XXXX OOO. Love, Lisa” and I can remember I cried as a result because it was like the Hebrew psalmist where you can see the little girl was saying “I love my daddy.” That's not it. How can I add more umph to this one? “I love him so much. No, no, no, no. I love him, you know, so, so, so, so, every X&O is so, so, so, so, so, over, so, so, so much.”
And that's the way the Lord speaks to us in the midst of our anxieties. We're expecting to think that we're going to be rebuked. But you will not find a rebuke in Scripture to a person who struggles with anxiety. You will find the Lord speaking words of comfort to them.
Shelby: Hang on just a second, because we're going to hear Ann explain why she's been teary eyed the whole time today that they've been talking with Ed.
But first, I loved his practical illustration of his daughter's letter to him. God welcomes us with open arms. In fact, when we're anxious—I've learned this—it's a time when He wants, God wants, to lavish His comfort on us all the more because it puts His love and grace on full display in our lives.
I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ed Welch on FamilyLife Today. Ed has written a book called I Have a Psychiatric Diagnosis: What Does the Bible Say? That's a very fascinating title, and one that I think many can connect with. You could pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you could give us a call at 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
One of the guests that we are going to have later this week is Paul Miller. He has written a book called Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus. This is an encouraging and convicting look at Jesus's life on earth. Now through that lens, it gives practical answers to questions such as “How do you love someone when you get no love in return?” It's a great question. Or “How do you love without feeling trapped or used?”
Well, Paul answers questions just like this in his book Love Walked Among Us. This book is going to be our gift to you when you partner with us financially. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com or give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” And feel free to drop us something in the mail. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
Alright, here's Ann with why she's been so teary-eyed during today's interview.
Ann: I'm trying to figure out like why I've been teary this entire time. Like the entire time. And I think it's that, that He has, Jesus has, been that for me when I—I'll go on a walk and He's my best friend and so I'm telling Him everything—my highs, my lows, my frustrations, I'm tired and my joys and so. I think that has become my favorite thing to do in life.
And then I also think of having a friend, Michelle, that I used to walk with several days a week. We'd walk miles and we'd do the same thing. We’d talk; we'd pray; we'd laugh; we'd complain. And it was that same kind of relationship. I'm telling her everything—all of my thoughts, my vulnerabilities. It's holding the cat where I feel heard, I feel seen. I feel loved. And I don't know where, as a listener, you are, but I resonate with all of this. Like there is a Father who loves you. There hasn't been a time where you've been anxious or sad or mad that He hasn't been with you.
And I love the importance of Scripture, but I also love the idea of just being vulnerable and telling Him everything that you feel, that you need, that you long for, that you hope for. He loves us that much; that He wants to be with us that much.
Shelby: Now coming up tomorrow, Ed Welch is going to be back again with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about coping with yourself and others when you and they both experience fear and anxiety. That's tomorrow. We hope you'll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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