I might be depressed.
When you ask someone how they’re doing these days you often get a qualified response like, “all things considered I guess I’m doing all right.”
It’s hard to tell and many people are unsure. I’ve heard a number of people say, “I think I might be depressed.” The reason for the tentativeness is that we’ve never been through this before and so it’s hard to measure what is a normal, realistic response to the current stressors and when I might be feeling something strong enough to indicate that I’m in trouble, I might be depressed.
Here’s the answer, it’s a trick question, being depressed could very well be a normal and appropriate response for what you’re going through. Settling the question can bring a little relief just for knowing more certainly where you are emotionally and then also because you can come up with a plan for addressing what you’re feeling and hopefully get to feeling better. Let’s start with figuring out if you might be depressed.
What’s the difference between feeling depressed and being in a depression?
It’s kind of like being in a big swimming pool of sadness. If you are feeling depressed it’s like standing in the shallow end, with a little bit of effort, you can make your way to the side of the pool, put your hands on the pool deck, push off the bottom and get out of it.
If you are in a depression it’s like you were standing on the bottom of the pool in the deep end, it would be much harder to get out because the sadness is so much deeper. A push off the bottom isn’t enough to get you to the top. You’d have to hold your breath and kick and paddle to reach the surface and then get yourself to the side of the pool. And then, your feet not able to push off the bottom, using just your arms, you work to get yourself out. It’s a lot easier to get out of the deep end if there’s someone who’s already out who can extend a hand and help pull you out.
Feeling depressed usually means that I’m feeling some pretty intense sorrow, usually in obvious connection to some negative experience. But that feeling usually doesn’t last long, certainly not months and it gets better when circumstances improve.
A state of depression is intense sorrow that lasts for 2 weeks or longer. You may or may not be able to trace it back to a specific cause. The impact is that you are experiencing at least 4 of the following:
- Change in sleep patterns; insomnia, sleeping all the time, sleeping different time, get to sleep late get up late
- Change in appetite /weight gain or loss, no appetite, eating comfort
- Decreased energy & motivation, feels like you’re wearing lead clothes
- Physical activity reduced, your couch has it’s own gravitational field
- Inability to do activities of daily living – school, work, hygiene
- Difficulty thinking / concentrating
- Loss of pleasure – things that once made you happy don’t
- Impaired social functioning, withdrawal
- Feelings of worthlessness and helplessness
- Thoughts of ending the pain by ending your life
When 4 or more of these things last 2 weeks or longer, someone is likely caught in a state of depression.
Living in quarantine could induce several of these; impaired social functioning, physical activity reduced, change in sleep patterns, decreased motivation, feeling helpless in the face of big things like a worldwide pandemic or social unrest, struggling with activities of daily living, specifically, difficulty getting out of your sweat pants and taking a shower.
What leads to depression and who can be affected by it?
Depression is often caused by a combination of factors; significant loss, unmet needs and wants, and insufficient coping skills.
Loss of someone or something dear can initiate depression, a death of a loved one, a significant relationship breakup, a parent’s divorce, a close friend moves away, you move from a home, school and neighborhood you loved; anything that means a lot to us, when lost can start depressed feelings.
The pandemic has caused a lot of losses for a lot of people, loss of businesses, loss of income, loss of home, loss of social interaction and many more. Any of these losses are meaningful enough that they would likely initiate strong feelings of sadness.
But usually it’s the other factors that get us STUCK. If after a loss certain needs remain unmet that’s a problem. We all have valid needs, for things like:
- Meaningful Relationships
- Love, affection
- Respect & affirmation
- Nurture and attention
- Safety & protection
We have wants like:
- Success, to accomplish something noteworthy
- Status, to be recognized, esteemed by somebody
- Power/agency to decide and act for yourself and within a sphere of influence
- Productivity, to contribute to a greater good
- Trust, to have the trust of others and to have others you can trust
Out of these needs and wants we build expectations for life, some realistic, some maybe not so much, like ...
- I want to be liked by everybody
- I should never fail
- Life must always be fair
- I’m entitled to…pain free living, material things, a certain standard of living
When these wants, needs and expectations, even unrealistic ones go unmet for a long enough time depressed feelings can gain strength.
The negative events that are either something bad happening to us or something good and necessary not happening for us can overwhelm us either by being very big right now, or they might be of less intensity but they drag on without improvement for an extended period of time. Either one of these can carry us across the threshold of hopelessness. When a person feels hopeless that their circumstances will ever improve, depression is likely to settle in.
Depression can affect anybody and everybody because life happens to everybody. Everybody suffers losses. Everybody lives in this broken world where our legitimate needs are not always met. Then if we have never been trained in the kind of life skills necessary to combat depression, we can get overwhelmed and stuck in it. Lots of us have not been taught all the life skills necessary because the people in charge of teaching us were perhaps never taught.
There’s no shame in being depressed because it’s typically not your fault. But it is your responsibility to get out because this is your life to live. It doesn’t mean you have to get out by yourself, you can ask for help. But it’s your responsibility to ask for, be open to and cooperative with help.
What helps? As Christians what we really want to ask is Why can’t I just pray and have God heal me of depression?
There are lots of things that help and prayer is definitely an important part. There are a couple of reasons why if all a depressed person does is pray, they may stay stuck in depression for a while.
Prayer is not getting God to wave His magic wand, it’s not a form of rubbing a genie’s lamp and getting 3 wishes so you can make all the unpleasant stuff go away. Prayer is the way we enter into a partnership with God. In this partnership God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves and gives us assignments for the things we can do something about. When we do our part, he adds his power so our efforts accomplish more than they really ought to. It’s the difference between flying into a headwind or flying with a tailwind. When we align with God’s will we have the benefit of his tailwind carrying our efforts further.
It’s right to ask God to give you insight and direction about what your part is. It’s good to ask for the courage and strength to do your part. I have found that it’s wasted breath to ask God to do your part for you. He’s very patient and insistent that we join him in working life things out. Because that’s part of how we have a relationship with Him, we do stuff with Him, we tackle challenges together, we go on adventures together. It’s the “together” part that God seems even more interested in than just the resolution of this thing that’s making me unhappy.
God wants me to be happy. He just knows that it can only truly happen in a relationship with him. Any of our attempts to gain happiness without God just don’t get him very excited and He tends to not jump on board with our plans.
So the first reason prayer alone typically won’t work has to do with the nature and purpose of prayer, it’s not christian magic, it’s a partnership. The other reasons have to do with the nature of depression and our nature. If you look at a person, you see a person, a whole person. When you look into a person you see that the whole is made up of many parts. There is the
- Volitional - our wills
These parts are not like individual compartments like in a sewing box, or a tackle box or a tool box. A person doesn’t have just a physical problem. Prolonged sickness affects how we feel emotionally and can affect how we think. How we feel emotionally can affect our relationships, the state of our relationships can affect how we feel emotionally and physically. Ever get a stomach ache because you knew you were going to have a confrontation with someone? When we are impacted in one area of our being, it affects other areas of our being.
Prayer can do wonders for engaging the spiritual and addressing some parts of the emotional aspects of depression. That still leaves other parts of us and there may be work there we need to do in order to get free, like growing up into maturity. God is not so likely to do that part for us miraculously. He’s more likely to give us assignments and assistance while we do something over time and after a while we notice we’re more mature.
Examples of things we can do to combat depression, these are things that would be our part of the partnership:
Intellectual / emotional area: The thinking part is big in depression. Depression inspires negative thinking, Negative thinking feeds depression and other negative feelings like anxiety. So we sometimes need to correct our thinking to improve our feeling.
God says, “Be transformed by the Renewing of your mind.”
We have to choose truth, throw out lies and partial truths.
Psychologist Martin Seligman made some observations about the differences between pessimists and optimists. He identified the 3 P’s. These are three beliefs that reinforce hopelessness and depression. Pessimists see the trouble as being pervasive. One part of their life going badly means their whole life is ruined. Optimists can admit that they’re experiencing rough times but they can also acknowledge, celebrate and embrace good things that happen alongside the bad.
Pessimists see the problem as being personal. They are having problems because they’re inadequate and uniquely flawed beyond all other human beings. Optimists see the problem as coming from outside of themselves, in the environment. Problems happen in everybody's lives. They as a person are capable and can figure out and solve problems with some help.
Pessimists see the problem as permanent. This is how things are and will be from now and forever. Optimists see problems as temporary. “This too shall pass” is their motto. They remember past trials that came to resolution. That’s the big 3 beliefs of depression, trials are Pervasive, Personal and Permanent.
Our part of the partnership involves grieving losses. Give voice to the sadness. Don’t stuff it, express it. Don’t blast people with it, but express it in a regulated way. Use words. Use tears. Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else. Don’t destroy something that’s not yours or that is dear to you that you’ll miss later. If you do, that will launch another round of depressed feelings. Share feelings with someone without putting it on them to solve. Loss is not usually solved, it’s processed. Some things are lost never to be regained and we may never be the same as we were before the loss. But life can be good again after a loss. Meaningful, sometimes even richer things can be found on the other side of a loss.
Some of the present circumstances that are driving depressive emotions could have roots in past experiences. Sometimes current events uncork a reservoir of stored up pain from similar past experiences. It might be helpful to get a guide and a coach to help navigate your history to resolve past open loops. Counselors with training and experience helping others to do this work can be very helpful.
Some would say that the best cure for depression is to not stop at alleviating the sorrow but to move into building strength of well being.
Martin Seligman says that we can hope for better than the ceasing of pain. He says that with a commitment to certain practices we can flourish. Jesus did not say that he came so we could escape pain but so we could live abundantly. It’s interesting that practices psychologists are identifying today as useful for flourishing are similar to the practices God invites us to do so we can live abundantly. Each evening give thanks for 3 good things that happened that day. Do a random act of kindness for somebody. Maintain some positive meaningful relationships. Which leads us to the next area. From thinking/feeling we shift to...
Relational aspects of our responsibility in the partnership to resolve depression.
We may have to reconcile some relationships by asking for and granting forgiveness. We may have to set boundaries and limits on some hurtful people. We may have to change some friendships, dump some that are destructive and get some new ones that are life giving. We may have to choose to enter into some relationships with people who can be mutual, who can give to you as well as take - can be real and vulnerable with you as you are with them. The nature of depression is to want to isolate. We have to choose to engage with safe people. We may need to improve our relational skills such as listening and speaking the truth in love.
We need to eat right, get enough sleep, get some exercise. These are all things that seem impossible to do when you are depressed. We might need medicine to jump start the machinery of the brain that is stuck cranking out the neurotransmitters that make sorrow and prevent joy. When you are depressed doing anything seems insurmountable. So digging out from a depression will begin with small steps. Seeing a doctor about finding the right medication for you could be a logical first step. When you have a medication that works it enables you to do some of the other things that you will need to do to get free like exercise, prepare nutritious meals and get good sleep.
Finally, there’s the Spiritual aspect.
If you’ve ever felt depressed you may have felt a darkness overshadow you and maybe even felt an evil oppression coming against you. That’s not imagined. That’s real. It makes strategic sense for Satan, who has limited powers and is up against infinite God, to pile on to naturally occuring tragedy in an attempt to make it more debilitating. So I don’t think its unrealistic to expect that there is a twinge of spiritual darkness mixed in with this naturally occurring pandemic, in the cultural strife, in the political unrest.
We find a brilliant insight from Scripture, James 4:6-8, which says,
“But he (God) gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
We have to resist the temptation of self-comfort also known as the pity party. We have to resist the urge to self medicate. We have to resist the urge towards distraction rather than facing what’s going on. We can’t be a collaborator with our tormentor and expect to feel better.
We need to do those activities that cultivate intimacy with God. What those activities are can be different for each of us. It could be a walk in nature. It could be in listening to or singing worship songs. It could be studying or memorizing Scripture. It could be serving someone. It might be journaling or it could be having conversations with dear friends about deep life things. All of these and many more have been used by people to connect with God. When you remember the ways you’ve experienced God before and choose to do them again with some discipline you will notice that you are drawing near to God and he to you.
All of these partnering actions are useful for dealing with depressed feelings or full-blown depression. The difference is typically the time you need to be faithful in doing these practices in order to experience improvement. Remember it’s easier to extricate yourself from the shallow end than it is from the bottom of the deep end.
After saying all of this, I want to end with a confession. I don’t know of anything that turns something as horrible as what we’re going through into something wonderful and pleasant. What we’re looking for is something that makes us more resilient while going through this horrible set of events and something that redeems some good things out of the hard things and sustains us until circumstances around us improve, factoring in that we have no idea when that will be.
In review, could we quarantine ourselves into a depression? Answer: Yes. What's the difference between having depressed feelings and being depressed? Answer: Intensity and duration. What’s the difference in responding to each? Answer: not much difference. The same things that help depression help with depressed feelings. Mostly different is adjusting the expectation about how much effort and time will be needed to get a positive result. And perhaps also adjusting the expectation from the idea that “there is something out there that I don’t yet know about that can eliminate all my pain and sorrow” to instead, “I can reduce the amount of pain and sorrow I’m experiencing by eliminating the optional causes and I can live with and through the pain that’s left using appropriate tools. I can end up with something that enriches my life after all is done.
Serenity prayer long version
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things that I can
and the wisdom to know the difference,
living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
enduring hardship as a pathway to peace,
taking as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will,
so I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you forever in the next.