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Mental Health and Spiraling Into Depression: Brian Barnett

with Brian Barnett | March 31, 2023
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Campus minister Brian Barnett has got quite the story about pain, mental health, and spiraling down into depression because of his life's circumstances. He'll talk about his struggles but also what it looks like to see things turn around by taking every thought captive to obey Christ.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Shelby Abbott

    Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Campus minister Brian Barnett has got quite the story about pain, mental health, and spiraling down into depression. He’ll talk about his struggles but also what it looks like to take every thought captive to obey Christ.

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Mental Health and Spiraling Into Depression: Brian Barnett

With Brian Barnett
March 31, 2023
| Download Transcript PDF

Brian: There is so much grace for you if you are riddled with worry and anxiety. There is no condemnation at all. For your anxiety or worry or doubts or depression. But at the same time, God does want to give you victory in this area. He wants you to grow in the areas of having a renewed mind in the things of Jesus, and He wants you to take steps of faith. For me that involved counseling, that involved taking care of my physical health and diet. And of course, it meant knowing Scripture and the Holy Spirit and how to fight against these worries.

Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic. This is Real Life Loading.

I'm your host, Shelby Abbott, and I've always been someone who struggles with anxiety, negative thoughts and chronic pain issues. Since there are so many people who can either personally relate with me or know someone who goes through what I can go through, sometimes, I wanted to tackle it head on. So today I'm talking with one of my best friends in the world, Brian Barnett.

Brian's a Campus Minister in the Tidewater, Virginia Beach area, and he's got quite the story to tell about pain mental health, and spiraling down into depression because of his life's circumstances. There's hope though, so don't worry. To start, Brian is going to talk us through his struggle with his physical and mental health, and then he'll share some things he's learned that you can apply to your life too.

Lean in because this is an amazing story with my friend. Brian Barnett.

So, let's start with a really appropriate question, I think for you and for me, because we've talked a lot about this. What is your go-to order at Chick-fil-A?

Brian: My go-to order is a grilled chicken sandwich with extra pickles, actually as many pickles as they will allow me to have. Did you know on the app that you can go up to times ten on pickles before it stops you?

Shelby: No, I did not know that.

Brian: Of course, I thought it was unlimited because I would always just do like seven. But once you get to ten, they cut you off.

Shelby: That's amazing. So, something to know. Yep. You can go up to times ten. Do you regularly go up to times ten?

Brian: Pretty much every time.

Shelby: Oh Yes. Do they give it to you in like a little cup or do they pile it on the sandwich?

Brian: It depends on the location. It's always like a surprise. It's like Christmas morning for me every time I get it.

Shelby: All right, I like it.

You're a unique person for several reasons. But one of those reasons is because you love small talk with other people. Can you think of a time when you just felt so alive when engaging in small talk with someone recently?

Brian: Yes, I love small talk and I understand that that's weird, but I would much rather have small talk than a deep conversation. And I hope that's okay to say as a Christian, but--

Shelby: No, it's not, but continue.

Brian: --one example is that just last. I was at a coffee shop and in walked my landlord from 13 years ago in which we shared a duplex and we chit chatted for like 20 minutes about who knows what. I talked to other people afterwards and they were like, if I saw my landlord from 13 years ago, I would run the other way.

We chit-chatted. It was great. In the middle of the conversation, my next-door neighbor walked in with her newborn baby and just handed the baby to me and was talking with me and my landlord while I was holding a baby – and it was the time of my life. We talked about like sewer systems. We talked about the weather. We talked about Chick-fil-A. It was a great time.

Shelby: That's incredible. God's always using you in such crazy ways and that's actually kind of why I wanted to have you on Real Life Loading with me today. I want you to tell me a little bit about your story. Talk about when you started to go through an extreme amount of pain and stress, and what happened in that process.

Brian: In 2018, I started to have unexplainable health problems. So much so that I was bedridden for two years. I was experiencing migraines 24/7 through the night, struggling to sleep. I had blurry vision, muscle tremors, just all the time. It was truly unexplainable. So much so that I went to countless doctors.

They thought maybe I had a tumor. They thought maybe I had cancer. They basically ran all these tests and time after time, they basically said, uh, we don't know.

From 2018 to 2020, I lived most of my life in a bed, which was insane to even think about now with two little kids, a ministry. I had to go on medical leave. I felt like I was losing my mind, let alone my body - and at times feeling like I was losing my faith. So, for two years it was extremely, extremely overwhelming.

Shelby: Yes. When you finally got to a diagnosis, what did it end up being and how did things change from there?

Brian: Yes, so I was about 35 at the time and mostly healthy. This was like shocking to me, my family, to the doctors. And it turned out that it was the house that we were living in. We were living in an over a hundred-year-old house, and we found out that there was a lot of mold in the house. We never thought that that would be the issue because my wife and my kids were feeling fine.

When we found that out, we temporarily moved out of the house. And I thought I would just start feeling better right away. When I moved out of the house, which wasn't the case, we got the house cleaned and remediated and approved by the government that this house is safe. We moved back in and within a day I was like, In bed again, just extremely sick.
We made the hard decision to move out of our house, essentially in the middle of the night to an apartment. And again, I thought I would get better, like right away, just being out of that moldy environment. But it led me on a year and a half journey of trying to get healthy, both physically and mentally. I thought it would be an easy road after leaving the house, but it turned out to be very challenging even afterwards.

Shelby: Okay. So, you're in an apartment for a year and you start the process of building a new home from the ground up. And then, Things start to get better, right?

Brian: Yes, I started seeing some doctors who specialize in what's called mold toxicity, essentially that my body has become infested with molds, so just leaving the house doesn't help. I have to detox the mold out of my body. I went on these extreme diets. It was called the Caveman diet. I was just eating meat and fruits and vegetables, so, Over the span of a year living in the apartment, building a brand-new house that would be good for my allergies and no chance of ever having mold. Through that year I started to get better, but I wasn't completely better. I was out of the bed, but I would have like relapses into so much pain. every month or so. It was very alarming, and I couldn't figure out why this kept happening, even though we were in a safe environment.

Shelby: Yes, and at the end of that year, we ended up, you were in Ocean City, Maryland with us on the Summer Mission Staff Team, which I've talked about the mission several times on Real Life Loading. You're with us over the summer and you were, you were good over the summer. You were like doing well, feeling healthy, energetic, and I remember you were a little bit nervous about going back to Virginia and wasn't it, once you got back to Virginia, it was like hours after you got back, you started to relapse into the same kind of symptoms that you had before, right?

Brian: Yes, when we came back home after Ocean City, within hours I was sick again. And it was in some ways, it was the lowest point in our life because for years I was bedridden. But we kept pursuing different things, pursuing different options, thinking maybe this would help me--

Shelby: Yes, but there was hope there.

Brian: Yes, but when we moved out of the house, completely upheaved our life. Thought we had the solution to then come back and to be back in the same physical and emotional and mental state felt worse than even those years of being stuck in bed.

Shelby: So, this major setback felt extremely defeating, as you said. You ended up seeing your Christian counselor at that time and he advised you to consider taking an intense, what he called mental health program called D N R S, which is dynamic neural retraining system - that he said could rewire your brain to function well and to heal your body. So, tell me what happened in that whole process.

Brian: Yes, it's surreal to think about because it's through a mental health program that has no religious affiliation, but I feel like God used it to supernaturally heal me. Seeing this counselor was helpful and he put me on to this course in which it says that people who are dealing with chronic pain, people who have had like horrible trauma that's happened in their life, that oftentimes their brain goes into this state of extreme caution, almost like P T S D and high awareness. Basically, saying that your body for so long was in pain. And now that even though you're in a safe environment or a safe situation, your brain is still functioning in that way - and so you need to retrain your brain to not always be in fear, to always be worried - and to, in a sense, send the right messages to my body instead of the negative messages to my body.

Shelby: Okay, that makes sense. Now, we're not explicitly endorsing D N R S here, even though God used it in your life to heal you, and not everyone gets the physical healing they desire. In fact, I'm living proof of that with my chronic nerve pain that hasn't gone away. But sometimes God does provide healing. So, tell me how it worked out for you.

Brian: I started this on a Monday, this is August of 2021. I was in bed, massive headaches, blurry vision. I was diagnosed with Lyme's disease. I had plantar fasciitis that was like diagnosed. I was wearing braces on my feet and by the end of the week,
I was too nervous to admit it in the moment, but I was completely healed. I didn't wear the braces on my feet. My body was healthy within one week. I had gone back to work after I had spent months of not working, being on medical leave. It was completely surreal.

Shelby: Yes. Which I don't think I would've believed that if I saw like a, a testimonial written online.

Brian: Yes, I read testimonials like that before I took this course and was very skeptical and said, well, they paid those people for sure.

Shelby: Yes. So, can you give me a couple of examples? Of like some stuff that the program had you do to try to rework your brain to go from bedridden to being well, within less than a week.

Brian: Yes. Now mind you, many people have taken this course and many people it takes longer than a week. But for me it was such a drastic change. Some of the stuff they do is - anytime you have this negative thought that comes into your mind or anytime, like for me, it was my environment. Anytime I smelled what I perceived to be mold; I would be filled with so much fear that this was going to be the beginning of the end of me - just being stuck in bed.

Basically, the program says, anytime you have any negative thought, tell yourself to stop, stop, stop and tell yourself that, “you need to think about what is true and what is right.” Which you're seeing a glimpse already to biblical truths. And just stopping the spiral of negative thoughts.

If you had these negative thoughts, you say like in the past these things happened, but now I will live in this way. Then you're supposed to speak whatever is true. They would talk about your truth, like speak your truth. And for me, I was like, “What's the greatest truth?” It's Scripture, it's Jesus. I'm just going to speak the words of Scripture over my life. So, I stopped the negative thoughts and then spoke Scripture, and within a week my life was completely different.

Shelby: Yes. Okay. So, you decided after you saw this do such incredible things in your life and you applied specific Scripture to go along with it. You created a document that's a collection of verses in Scripture that bridges the gap between the program that you went through and the Bible. Talk a little bit about bridging that gap and some of the scripturally based stuff that connects so well.

Brian: Yes, and this is where I'm going to get most excited Shelby? Like seriously, it blows my mind when I look at these verses in Scripture and what I went through in my life. Romans 12 talks about “do not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of my mind.” [Paraphrased]

How do I renew my mind? I looked up verses like 2 Corinthians 10[:5] that says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion that's raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” When I used to read those verses, I used to always think like, I'm going to be in a conversation with someone about evangelism and apologetics and I'm going to like capture their thought and be like, you're wrong.

But I realize that most of the time the lies that I'm believing aren't coming from outside. It's coming from within. I then remember that Satan is described as the father of lies. That Satan most likely is not going to try to do something overtly to tempt you. Most of the time, he's going to subtly implant lies and disbeliefs and half-truths in your mind.

So, in light of all of that, so transform my mind. Take thoughts captive make it obedient to Christ. How do I actually do that? And then I remembered Philippians 4, which was my go-to verse for so long in my life, I am a prone worrier, and I just assumed that I will just worry for the rest of my life.

So, I studied Philippians 4[:6-7] for a long time, which says, “do not be anxious about anything.” I told myself the beginning of that Bible verse so many times, do you know how that helped me? It didn't because I just kept telling myself, do not be anxious about anything. Which just made me more anxious.

Shelby: Right. Yes.

Brian: But then the rest of that verse says, “do not be anxious about anything, but through prayer, petition and thanksgiving present your requests to God and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.” [Paraphrased] So that was helpful, but then the very next verse is even better. You ready for this?

Shelby: Give it to me.

Brian: It says, “whatever is true, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is excellent, whatever's commendable, think about those things and the peace of God will be with you.” Beautiful. So how do I take my thoughts captive? How do I stop them and make them obedient to Christ?

I think about what is true and holy and good and all of these things, which is essentially D N R S. Stop the thoughts, take them captive, and then say what is true. And we know what is true about Jesus. That he loves us; that he cares for us; that we are adopted as sons and daughters. It's not based on what we do. We are heirs of the King of kings. Oh my goodness, come on and through that, and trying to remind myself of that every day, the Lord has healed me, and it is amazing.

Shelby: It's incredible. Yes. You are transformed. You're different, not just health wise, but your perspective on life is different because you're not worrying about stuff. That doesn't mean you don't struggle with worry or anxiety still, you still do struggle with it, but you're not the same person you were two years ago. You're not.

Brian: Yes. I'm still tempted by worry. I still worry. The difference now is I don't spiral out of control. Before it would be a worry and a fear, and then I'd just be spiraling down and down with so many negative thoughts. Now I can notice the worry, I can notice the fear, and then I can actually practice these things by replacing these lies and worries with the truth of God.

Shelby: We'll get back to my conversation with Brian Barnett soon, but now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar.

There's a term used in Alcoholics Anonymous. Called being a dry drunk. It's basically used to define someone who has gotten sober from alcohol, but still engages in selfish, addictive behavior in other areas, such as like sex or working out or social media or workaholic tendencies or whatever. Yes, Hannah may not have had a drink in over four months, but she's still running to places that fill the void alcohol has left behind. She's still giving in to addiction, but she's doing it in a way that doesn't involve alcohol, so she's still a drunk, a dry drunk. Get it?

Now, when I first heard about this term from a friend of mine, we both agreed that a lot of Christians have a tendency to be exactly the same, dry drunks. Maybe we're not dry from alcohol use or abuse per se, but so many of us run to idols that we hope will fill the void in our lives. There's an ache that exists in all of our hearts only to be alleviated by a rich and thriving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but we constantly look for alternative solutions in substitute saviors.

And when the pressure inevitably gets turned up through life's roller coaster like circumstances, it becomes easier and easier to run to our vices instead of our true Savior. Many of us turn inward when it gets hard and think about what will be best for us in the moment. We want the pain to go away. We want the suffering to be lifted.
We want the inconvenience to be corrected. We want to feel good instead of bad. So, our knee jerk reaction is to turn to any kind of earthly medicine to make the pain stop.

Porn gives a quick dopamine hit and pleasure spike, so we go there. Buying that expensive item online that we've been eyeing for a while, gets us excited for something new, so we tap purchase. Getting with our friends and mocking the guy who we think is an idiot gives us a feeling of superiority. So, we extend the verbal jabs when the other guys not even in the room and swell with a sense of excellence above him. We're all in the habit of running to idols that make us feel good for a short while, but ultimately have no benefit in our lives.

The substitute saviors always leave us feeling worse not better and inevitably end up chipping away at our character, our decency, and frankly, our holiness. But you know what? God still loves us. Even when we chase those idols, He is ready to forgive all of us dry drunks when we come to the life altering realization that we don't just need the gospel at the time of our salvation, and then at the moment of our home going in death.
We need it all day, all night, every day, and every night of our entire lives. We've got to continually run to our only true Savior who can rescue us from the slavery of our godless vices. He alone can heal us from our dry alcoholism, if we simply throw ourselves on His mercy and run to Him when we're tempted to dart elsewhere toward the foolishness of idle worship.

This has been a Shelby sidebar on Real Life Loading. Now let's get back to my time with Brian Barnett.

Can you give us maybe a few relatable things to practice when we're going through something painful? Like maybe there's a twenty-year-old person listening who doesn't necessarily need a program like the one you mentioned, but they are struggling. They're struggling with pain, anxiety, stress, things that normally come with being a student or being young in the world today, the daily grind of wrestling with life's problems. Start by telling us what to do when life is life.

Brian: Yes. Well, the crazy thing about the program I went through and then this deep dive of Scripture, which I have a list of like fifteen verses related to thinking rightly and the promises of God associated with it. I got into all of this to try to get physically better so I could like have my life back.

The thing that has really changed - It's not just my physical health, but my ability to fight against worry and anxiety. I know that one of the biggest problems every Gen Z student is dealing with is worry and anxiety. You don't need to go through this program for worry and anxiety, but you do need to figure out how to use Scripture to fight against worry to literally take those negative thoughts captive.

I will be going about my day, and I have a negative thought and I will literally tell myself, stop, stop, stop, that is not from the Lord. Here is what is true of God in light of my situation. Sometimes I'll say it out loud. Sometimes I just say it in my mind and I'm doing it dozens and dozens of time every day. To me, that's a picture of how we walk in His Spirit, replacing these negative thoughts with what is true from the Spirit. So, I would tell a twenty-year-old, there is so much grace for you if you are riddled with worry and anxiety. There is no condemnation at all for your anxiety or worry or doubts or depression. But at the same time, God does want to give you victory in this area. He wants you to grow in the areas of having a renewed mind in the things of Jesus, and He wants you to take steps of faith. For me, that involved counseling, that involved taking care of my physical health and diets. And of course, it meant knowing Scripture and the Holy Spirit and how to fight against these worries. We can do it. We can do it together. Let's go.

Shelby: Yes, well, I think that's an important thing that you pointed out there at the end, some of the things that you went through. How do you think that a young person can practically let God into the difficult parts of their life so that God can transform and heal them? Are there some other things that you can think about that the young person listening now can do?

Brian: Yes. The first thing that comes to mind is - be brutally honest with God about whatever difficulty you're facing, whatever pain you're facing, whatever worries, fears you have, be brutally honest with God and this brings a full circle to the two years that I.
In bed.

I listened to worship music, which helped me cling to God, but the thing that I did most was I would listen to the Psalms. My vision was so bad that I literally could not read the Psalms, but I would listen to the Psalms and it sustained me because I saw how brutally honest they were with God.

There were things said in the Psalms about, where are you God? You've abandoned me God. Things that were said in the Psalms that I thought if I said this in a church, they would think I was a heretic.

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Brian: But it's in the Psalms. I realized through reading the Psalms, hearing the Psalms that one of the best ways for us to come to God with our issues is to be brutally honest.
He's not surprised. He's not upset. So, when I was honest with God about my troubles, it's what sustained me.

I've talked to you about this verse, right, Shelby, about 2 Corinthians 1[:8]. This section of Scripture helped me survive and helps me survive as I still face trials and tribulations. It's Paul writing and he says, “I don't want you to be unaware of the troubles I experienced in Asia, but I was facing so much trouble that I despaired of life itself.” [Paraphrased] and just that's not the end, but just right there. It's so encouraging for me, because I know it sounds weird to be encouraged by that.

Shelby: Yes.

Brian: But I'm so encouraged by it because he was brutally honest. Paul, who wrote. Of the New Testament. He said things were so hard, he essentially wanted to die, and he is telling God and he's telling other people this. So being honest about what we're facing is so important. But then the next verse said, “These things happened. These difficulties happened in order that I would rely more on God and less on myself.” [2 Cor. 1:9b Paraphrased], Which now looking back years later, all that I faced with health and worries and fears, I can say without a doubt that God used that to force me to rely on God. Did I love it in the moment? No. Do I love that I'm closer to God now? A hundred percent. A hundred percent.

Shelby: Yes. I'm really glad that you talked about that because that is a very practical way for someone who needs some help right now to just basically be able to go, “okay, I can do that. I can yell at God, I can, I could be honest with Him. You also mentioned this at the end of, when I asked you the last question, you said, let's do it together. What do you feel like community is like when it comes to someone suffering like this or going through pain?

Brian: Oh man, Scripture is just riddled with this idea over and over again that we should mourn with those who mourn. I think that like so many groups of Christians have this perception that we need to have it like altogether, or I have Jesus, everything's fine, which is kind of true, but not really. Like we need to be honest about the difficulties that we're facing. So, I would say find a group of Christians, find a small group, find a church, find a Christian organization in which you could be brutally honest with other people.

Because here's the thing that I found out with being brutally honest, everyone's dealing with stuff that is difficult in their lives, everyone's dealing with it. And when I was willing to be vulnerable, so many other people opened up. I had no idea that they were facing it. And then we got to live out great biblical community by encouraging one another, praying for one another, mourning for each other, and it sustained me and is sustaining me.

Shelby: Yes. So, when you were first struggling, you mentioned this little phrase that I want to, I want to touch on a little bit more. You said that you felt like you were losing your faith, and no doubt many people can relate with that. So, what did that feel like at the time and. What do you mean by that? And then how has God restored that in your life? Like how has God used the process of you going through what you went through to help you understand that He's there for you and that your faith doesn't need to go away? Talk about that a little bit.

Brian: Yes. I mean, I think anytime anyone faces extreme difficulty or pain or trauma, that there are naturally questions of like, where is God in this? Why isn't he helping me? If he's not helping me, where is He?

I think I had this aspect where I believed that if I followed God, then God will then give me blank. He will give me health, or for years like I'm doing all of these things God for you. Why won't you give us a child? I think my faith was dependent not just on God, but on God giving me good things.

I wasn't asking for like a car or anything, just, you know, a child and health. I think God was stripping me of that. And so, when I felt like I was losing my faith, I was actually, thankfully looking back, I was losing that aspect of my faith, that thing that was actually a foundation of my faith that needed to be stripped away. And so going through all this made me realize that our faith is dependent on Jesus, not on our circumstances. And for years, my faith was dependent on Jesus plus semi-decent circumstances.

Shelby: Yes.

Brian: And losing that turned out to be a great thing for me.

Shelby: Yes, because you were able to build it back on something - more biblical,
more true. Well, I am grateful for your friendship, and I love you like a brother because you are my brother. Thanks for being on today, I appreciate it.

Brian: Love you too, Shelby. This was a joy.

Shelby: Yes, it was real great.

It's so great to have such important friends who point you to Jesus in the good times and the bad, and Brian is one of those friends for me. I loved hearing his story again, and I hope the biblical applications he connected and made can help you if you're suffering from poor, mental, and or physical health.

Now if you'd like the PDF document of Bible verses that Brian has crafted, you could find a link to it in our show notes. And if this episode with Brian Barnett was helpful for you, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend - and it's enormously easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading or look for our link tree in the show notes.

I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading, Bruce, who kind of doesn't do anything with Real Life Loading anymore, so I'm probably going to leave his name out in future episodes. I still love him, but bye, Bruce - anyway, Kaytlynn, Jarrett, Josh, and Chloe. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading.

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