Depression is sometimes described as an emotional shutdown. It causes a change in appetite, a loss of confidence, and a tendency to be overly self-focused. It can complicate other medical conditions, and can even be serious enough to lead to suicidal thoughts.
Like the check-engine light on an automobile dashboard, depression is usually a signal that we are experiencing other problems. Often emotions such as anger or grief are present, but are not being expressed or processed in a healthy manner. In their book Happiness is a Choice, Christian Psychiatrists Dr. Frank Minirth and Dr. Paul Meier define depression as “anger turned inward.” Other unresolved emotions that lead to depression include persistent grief, intense anxiety, feelings of guilt or a loss of self-worth. A sense of helplessness and hopelessness dominates. Negative self-talk and a perfectionistic, critical attitude, often accompany depression. Jerry, a depressed executive, told me, “Don, I feel like I’m living under a dark cloud all the time.”
Resources To Counter Depression
At times depression can take a more serious turn. In such instances, brain chemistry may have become altered, and a combination of medical care and insight-oriented, Biblically-based counseling may be the best approach. In extreme cases, especially if suicidal thoughts or feelings are present, hospitalization may be necessary.
One common misconception is that you should never bring up the question of suicidal thoughts if you think someone close to you may feel suicidal. Actually, according to mental health professionals, including Drs. Minirth and Meier, the opposite is true. Asking someone if they are having suicidal thoughts or feelings can actually allow them to acknowledge and verbalize them—an important first step to dealing with them.
The following recommendations for dealing with depression are adapted from my book When Cancer Comes (Moody Press: 1993), and come out of years of personal ministry to hurting and depressed individuals as well as interaction with gifted, insightful and Biblical-based counselors.
- Break through any lingering denial about feeling depressed. Whenever we are confronted with anything hurtful or unpleasant, our most common response is to employ a defense mechanism known as denial. In short, we try to pretend we aren’t depressed, that we haven’t been hurt, and that we don’t feel angry, anxious or whatever negative emotion may be present. When we use denial, we are actually deceiving ourselves and ignoring a basic principle stated by Jesus in John 8:32, “…the truth will set you free.” I remember talking with a friend named Candy who was in denial about being depressed, and about the cause of her depression, a diagnosis of cancer. Breaking through her denial led to effective cancer treatment, and became the first step to overcoming her depression.
- Share feelings honestly with those who are close to you. We live in a society that magnifies self-reliance, and often idealizes the “Lone Ranger” approach to dealing with our problems. Yet even the Lone Ranger had the support of a faithful sidekick, Tonto. Often the numbness of denial is replaced or even fortified by the gnawing ache of isolation. Solomon in Proverbs 17:17 spoke of a friend who “loves at all times” and a brother who is born for adversity. Even Jesus, facing the agony of His impending crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane, invited His three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, to share in a time when He felt “…troubled and deeply distressed.” (Mark 14:33) As a longtime friend used to say, “A burden shared is only half a burden.”
- Spread the sharing of your burdens around. Emotional overload can be a real hazard to those who are close to a depressed individual. A spouse or a close friend may experience emotional overload unless we find more than a single person on whom to unload our feelings of discouragement and depression. Often a support group or other Christian-based small group ministry can be extremely helpful.
- Seek out a life coach or counselor, or in case of severe depression, medical or psychiatric help. As I noted earlier, for many individuals the insight and wisdom of a Christian-based coach or counselor can be extremely valuable. As Proverbs 12:15 points out, the wise will seek and pay attention to counsel. A coach can help you assess where you are, listen to you, and offer encouragement and accountability in the setting and pursuing of goals to move you to a better place emotionally. A counselor can offer insight into past issues such as abuse, bullying or family dynamics, how they may play into depression, and how they can be overcome. When depression is severe, properly supervised medical care can be combined with the support of a Christian counselor or even inpatient treatment to bring about a breakthrough.
- Address physical, emotional and spiritual issues that may be involved in depression. When we are depressed, we often fail to eat right, get enough sleep (since depression often disrupts sleep patterns), or take time to exercise. Emotionally we may allow feelings of anger and bitterness to continue to drag us down. Spiritually we may neglect reading God’s Word, engaging in prayer, or worshiping and fellowshipping with other believers. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 the apostle Paul prayed that our “…whole being; spirit, soul and body…” be preserved blameless. Each area—our walk with God, our emotional responses to people and circumstances, and even our physical disciplines—can, if addressed properly, help us overcome depression.
Over the years I’ve talked, in person or on radio, with many individuals who felt the helplessness and hopelessness of depression. I’ve been encouraged to see how many, when applying these principles, have seen their depression become a part of their past, not their present.