After years of managing chronic depression and anxiety with medication and faith, Texas megachurch Pastor Tommy Nelson hosted a conference this weekend geared at helping others achieve mental health success using "biblical principles and practical truth."
In a recent interview with Fox News Radio Nelson, 68, shared some wisdom on the subject based on his personal struggle with his mental health.
"Depression and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes one will have more of this or more of that, but they both come from the premise of the same reason. I became a Christian when I was in college. Before that it was all football and after that it was all ministry," he said. "I never had to be motivated I was just focused."
In 2004 when he was about 54, Nelson began experiencing unexplained physical pain.
"I began to notice just my body would be in pain and I didn't know why. Then it would be sleeplessness. And what it was, was adrenalin was always running and I couldn't sleep, and then it just spiked on a particular Sunday evening and my blood pressure shot up and I just had this unholy feeling and I wasn't sure what it was and I ended up in a hospital stay for one night," he said.
Doctors helped him get some sleep that night but once he was discharged from the hospital, Nelson said he simply went right back to his hectic schedule. He was speaking up to 13 times weekly while pastoring a church of some 4,000 people. He was also getting ready to release a book and working on various church projects.
One day it all came crashing down.
"It just slipped, I could tell you the time, into an emotional hold," Nelson said.
"I think it was Tom Brokaw who said they could tell you your mother died and it won't phase you. They could tell you they won the lottery and it won't phase you. It's that you emotionally are just dead," he said.
Soon Nelson, who is also co-author of, Walking on Water When You Feel Like You're Drowning: Finding Hope in Life's Darkest Moments, was battling a panic attack "where all the blood in your body goes down into your leg so you can run but you don't know what you're gonna run from."
The episode landed him at the hospital again and he learned that he was showing signs of clinical anxiety. The doctor recommended that he start taking Xanax and he brushed her off.
"I said to her (doctor) 'I'm not a sophomore girl.' She should have knocked me off my stool," he said.
The Texas pastor would later find himself in the hospital again. This time he met with a more experienced doctor who agreed with the diagnosis of the previous doctor. He was suffering from anxiety and it was recommended that he see a counselor or a psychiatrist.
"To me it's like Saul going to the Witch of Endor for a Christian to go to a psychiatrist," he said of his thinking at the time. "That's something you didn't do. I was a Dallas Seminary graduate. I counselled people."
For about eight weeks, Nelson said he endured his pain "in the belly of the beast" until his wife cried out to his doctor who found him a Hindu psychiatrist.
"The psychiatrist was just wonderfully aplomb," Nelson said. He was diagnosed with textbook clinical anxiety.
Before his own diagnosis, Nelson said he would counsel his congregants to simply read their Bibles when confronted with anxiety.
"I would say 'just read your Bible' and 'you need to quit worrying about stuff. You need to relax.' I wouldn't scorn you but I would treat it simply as something that you've worked yourself into. I was not aware of the difference between being anxious about something or worried and having clinical chronic anxiety," he said.
While medication helped him out of his depression and anxiety, Nelson said he took his mental health care a step further by seeking a psychiatrist in Dallas who educated him further on depression and anxiety.
"He (psychiatrist) said American people, particularly men, what they do is they build their own tidal waves. ... And they start it with their love of what they're doing and it becomes their loathing. It follows them like a tsunami and they're running ahead of what they have created until it finally just crushes them," Nelson said.
"He said, 'I have a VIP parking space out in the back. You would know the names of the men and women that come and they're all the same type A, focused passionate persons," the pastor added.
Nelson said the psychiatrist also cited American culture as a part of the fuel behind the nation's mental health crisis. Depression is reportedly the leading cause of disability for people ages 15 to 44.
"He (psychiatrist) said to me that when you come from Europe to America, you can feel America. When you land you can feel it — that the pace is intense. We're the one country. We're not a feudal system ... you can move up and down, it's called ambition, it's the American way. And you will come and you will make money and you'll be a success. We are driven ... we just start pushing people hard and after a while they break," Nelson said.
He said he has now learned to embrace medication the same way he has embraced medication for heart disease or diabetes while believing God for his peace as well.
"There is no antipathy between medicine and between prayer and seeking God through it all to lead you through it," he said.