Coping with Depression

Lift Your Drooping Hands

"Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees."—Hebrews 12:12 (RSV)

Thomas Gilbert

To some it may seem odd that a Christian magazine would need to devote space in its pages to the subject of depression. After all, should not those who believe that Jesus Christ has purchased for them eternal salvation from sin and its penalty—death—be among the most joyous people in the world? Should not an upbeat attitude and frame of mind characterize those who believe that "if God is for us, who is against us?"

Yes, Christians should be joyous and upbeat. But like all "shoulds," this is not always the case. As members of the human race, believers in Jesus Christ, and the salvation he obtained through his sacrificial death, are subject to all the maladies of the human race. Despite their special position with the heavenly Father, Christians experience the same weaknesses as the rest of mankind. The scriptures testify of this: "No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man" (1Cor. 10:13). While this apparent lack of protection from sickness, sorrow, and pain may seem odd to some, scriptures indicate that God has a purpose in allowing his people to experience these things—that they may develop sympathy with those around them and be prepared through personal experience to assist Jesus in cleansing sin and sickness from the world during his Messianic kingdom.

Depression Widespread

Depressive illness, or depression, is a relatively widespread affliction of the human race and Christians experience it too. About 8 percent of American men and 15 percent of American women will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. If a person experiences an episode of depression once, there is a 50 percent chance of their being depressed again. If depression recurs, there is about a 75 percent chance it will return for a third bout. Another form of depression is not episodic but long-lasting and chronic. (This is one of the experiences that the Lord has permitted me to have, and now I count it all joy—most of the time.) Depression can be very serious. At the very least, depression will rob a person of any continuing sense of joy in life. At its worst, depression results in the loss of life itself through suicide.

Characteristics of Depression

Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and the utter hopelessness that things will ever improve. It is also characterized by inactivity, because the depressed person believes he or she has no control over the circumstances of his or her life. Other symptoms which may accompany and indicate depression include poor appetite or overeating, insomnia or oversleeping, low energy or fatigue, low self-esteem, poor concentration or difficulty making decisions, and recurrent thoughts of death.

The number of people suffering from depression seems to be increasing. Partly this is because there is a growing awareness of it, better diagnosis by professionals, and a lessening of the stigma once associated with having mental and emotional problems. Another part may be the fact that social and economic realities, such as the breakdown of the family, the decline of spiritual values in the face of growing materialism, and the intense competition in the job market have created an atmosphere that increasingly breeds negative, depressive responses in our lives.

Have you ever experienced depression? Are you now suffering from depression, or think you may be? If so, have you found a way to effectively cope with your experience of depression or do you just endure it, regarding it simply as your "lot" in life? There are ways to help one cope with, or treat, depression, although only about 30 percent of those who experience depression seek treatment.

Treating Depression

The two major forms of treatment used today relate to the two prevalent beliefs about the causes of depression:

1) Depression is a result of bad, unsound, or irrational patterns of thinking. The interpretations and conclusions a person makes about himself and his situations in relation to others and the world around him become distorted. Distortion results from not taking into account all of the facts or looking honestly at the facts. This type of thinking over a period of time can become habitual and ingrained in their personality; it can be very hard to break or change.

A person can unconsciously pick up, or assimilate, such patterns from people with whom they live or work. In Proverbs 22:24-25 we read: "Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, lest you learn his ways, and find a snare for yourself."

Treatment used for correcting this possible cause is called cognitive therapy, or therapy for the way we think. It helps the depressed person explore the patterns of thinking that lead to the interpretations and conclusions and the accompanying feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. This can be accomplished through diligent personal efforts ("self-help") or through professional counseling (talk therapy).

2) Depression may also be due to a chemical deficiency or imbalance in the brain that results in some type of interference with the thinking process. The analysis of information and other stimuli is in some way inhibited and irrational interpretations and conclusions are the outcome. Treatment based on this theory or cause consists of medication to affect the level, or available level, of chemical neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly serotonin. These medications are known collectively as anti-depressants.

Scriptural Counsel

The first method of treatment—paying close attention to our patterns of thinking about ourselves, others, and the circumstances and events around us—is clearly supported scripturally: "For as he thinks within himself, so he is" (Prov. 23:7 NAS). "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways" (James 1:8). "Finally, brethren, whatever is true . . . honorable . . . right . . . pure . . . lovely . . . of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things" (Phil. 4:8). "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith" (Rom. 12:2, 3).

In understanding this last scripture, we need to realize that the renewing of our minds involves not just inserting new spiritual thought patterns but also removing and discarding old thoughts and thought patterns—those that are of the old human nature and do not serve the interests of the spirit-begotten new creature.

One method to help determine if we are thinking properly is to test our interpretations by imagining and examining alternative interpretations and conclusions. This can help us break out of unsound thought patterns, but it takes work and practice. With work, you will find that in any circumstance there are actually many possible or plausible interpretations of an event or situation. Which one best fits the facts? When we train ourselves to routinely examine several alternatives, our mind is not so likely to jump at and embrace the first interpretation that comes, especially one influenced by past thinking patterns.

Unsound Thinking Patterns

Professional counselors identify about ten categories of unsound thinking patterns that may be involved in producing depression. Here are a few of the major ones:

All-or-Nothing Thinking—This is the tendency to evaluate personal qualities or interpret events in extreme, black-or-white terms. All-or-nothing thinking forms the basis for perfectionism. It causes us to fear any mistake or imperfection; we will then see ourselves as complete failures, and we will feel inadequate and worthless. This way of evaluating things is unrealistic, because life is rarely completely one way or the other. For example, no one is absolutely brilliant or totally stupid.

Example: Because of timidity, you fail to speak in a situation where you believe a Christian viewpoint is needed. You later say to yourself, "I am a total failure as a Christian."

Over-generalization—In this pattern, a person concludes that an unpleasant thing that happened once will occur over and over again. The pain of rejection is generated almost entirely from over-generalization. Usually words like "never" or "always" occur in over-generalizations. When we use them or hear them, take note!

Example: You learn that Bro. and Sr. Hospitality have invited several other brethren to their home for dinner and fellowship next Sunday evening. Disappointed that you have not been invited, you conclude: "Nobody likes me. I never get invited to other brethren’s homes." Depression sets in. Is the "never" statement true? In all likelihood it is not.

Mental Filter—Pick out a negative detail in any situation and dwell on it exclusively. Soon we will perceive the whole situation as negative. It is as if we are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with special lenses that filter out anything positive. All that we allow to enter our conscious mind is negative. It is a habit that can cause much needless anguish.

Example: You’re at a convention and very much want to fellowship with a particular brother or sister. At every intermission and mealtime, by the time you find that person, he/she is already deeply involved in a conversation with someone else. Bitterly disappointed you conclude, "This is a depressing convention. I wish I had not come."

Scriptural example: Israel’s loss of faith when they saw Pharaoh’s army approaching them near the Red Sea. They focused on the negative, ignoring all the positive things the Lord had done for them (Exod. 14:9-14).

Discounting the Positive—This is our tendency to transform neutral or even positive experiences into negative ones. We do not just ignore positive experiences; we cleverly and swiftly turn them into the opposite. An everyday example of this is the way most of us handle compliments. We have been conditioned to automatically tell ourselves, "They are just being nice." With one swift thought we mentally discount the compliment. We do the same thing when we say, "Oh, it was really nothing." We may actually insult the person who gave the compliment because we are implying that they are incorrect—what they were complimenting us for really did not deserve a compliment. Discounting the positive is a very destructive pattern of thinking—we search like scientists to find evidence to prove our hypothesis that we are second-rate, inferior. Whenever we have an experience that we interpret as negative, we dwell on it and conclude, "That proves what I’ve known about myself all along." Whenever we interpret an experience as positive, we tell ourselves, "That was a fluke; it doesn’t count." The price we pay for this pattern of thinking is intense misery and an inability to appreciate the good things that happen, the good in ourselves, and the good in others.

Jumping to Conclusions—We arbitrarily jump to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts of the situation.

Example: Your spouse is unresponsive to your attempts at conversation one evening. Your heart sinks because of the way you interpret the silence: "He/she must be mad at me for something I did or didn’t do." In the best of relationships this is sometimes true, but in this case you are unaware that he/she was severely criticized at work and is too upset to want to talk about it or anything else.

Example: You are convinced that you will not have a blessed experience attending a certain convention because not one of the speakers is among your favorites. In fact, you have not even heard of two of the speakers before. Unfortunately, this is a situation in which you can predict a negative outcome and be in a good position to ensure that the outcome is indeed negative (self-fulfilling prophecy).

"Should" Statements—We try to motivate ourselves by saying, "I should do this." These statements to ourselves cause us to feel pressured and resentful. Paradoxically, we end up feeling apathetic and unmotivated. "Should" statements generate a lot of emotional turmoil in our daily lives. When the reality of our own behavior falls short of our standards, our "shoulds" and "should nots" create self-loathing, shame, and excessive guilt. When the performance of other people falls short of our expectations, we will feel bitter and self-righteous. We will either have to change our expectations to approximate reality, or always feel let down by human behavior.

Examples: "I should be on time for meeting." "He should have been able to answer that basic question."

Labeling and Mislabeling—Personal labeling means creating a completely negative image based on our or another person’s errors. It is an extreme form of generalization. There is a good chance we are involved in personal labeling whenever we describe our mistakes with sentences beginning with "I am a .. . ", or describe others’ mistakes with sentences beginning with "He/She is a . . . " Labeling ourselves or others is not only self-defeating or disrespectful, it is irrational. We and others cannot be equated with any one thing we/they do. When we label ourselves or others based on perceived inadequacies, we create a lot of personal pain or hostility toward others. In mislabeling, we often use words that are inaccurate and emotionally loaded.

Examples: "She’s a subscriber to The Herald." "He attends a Dawn class."

Scriptural example: "And Nathanael said to him, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’" (John 1:46).

Personalization—We assume responsibility for a negative event or situation even when there is no basis for doing so. We conclude that what happened was our fault. Personalization causes us to feel crippling guilt.

Scriptural example: Jesus took no responsibility for the failure of the Jews to respond to his preaching and recognize him as Messiah.

Working to undo unsound, negative thinking patterns will help one find more joy in life, especially the Christian life. We will discover an ability to more deeply appreciate ourselves and others around us, especially our spiritual family. It really is a matter of attitude. One time I believe God spoke to me through a fortune cookie at a critical point in my life. (It was the only worthwhile "fortune" I have ever found in a cookie.) It said, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Professional Counseling

Sometimes our best personal efforts to "renew our minds"—to make these adjustments in our thinking—yield little progress. In that case, consideration might be given to utilizing the assistance of a professional counselor. No professional counselor or therapist worthy of their title will try to undermine your foundation values in trying to help you find solutions. Even so, always remember who is in charge of the treatment—you. Be firm in explaining your values and perspectives to the counselor if a comment or suggestion seems to be in some way contrary to those.

Sometimes cognitive therapy alone, even with a professional counselor, does not bring significant improvement to or relief from the depression. (That has been my personal experience.) In that case the counselor may suggest a trial period of anti-depressant medication to see if additional benefits can be obtained. This, again, is your personal decision. No one can or should make it for you. Realize, however, a person may need trials with several anti-depressants before the right match is found.