The summer after I graduated from high school I can remember saying to myself one day, “I would never commit suicide, but I can understand why some people do.” During my late teens and for many years after that, I felt depressed much of the time, and depression still troubles me now and then. I also know that I’m not alone. Many people suffer from varying degrees of depression.
The title of this article is “How to Deal With Depression,” which suggests that I’m a mental health authority imparting the latest medical concepts about depression. I’m not a professional. I’m writing this article to share some of what I’ve learned over the years about dealing with depression.
One word in the title is critical. It’s “How to Deal With Depression,” not how to overcome it. I can’t say that I’ll never get depressed again, but I can say that I’ve learned to deal with it so that it’s not the ongoing, everyday problem that I used to experience. Perhaps there are people who have completely overcome depression. I applaud them! But I believe it’s a mistake to suggest to people who experience significant, ongoing depression that they can expect someday to completely overcome it. As the months and years go by and they fail to realize that expectation, the failure itself can intensify their depression.
Also, before I begin to share my story, I want to clarify that this article is not about how to deal with profound depression that requires intervention by a qualified mental health professional. If you have serious, ongoing thoughts of suicide, I urge you to call a suicide hotline immediately (the national hotline in the United States is 800-273-8255). And if depression is interfering with the normal duties of your life such as a job or maintaining a household, or if it’s seriously affecting your relationships with others, then I urge you to discuss your situation with a mental health professional.
My first recommendation for dealing with your depression is that you talk to God about it. However, it’s important to do it the right way. If you get on your knees and simply beg God to relieve you of your depressed feelings, you’ll probably end up making the problem worse. I’m not saying that God couldn’t remove your depressed feelings immediately. I’m only saying that that isn’t His usual way of helping depressed people.
My advice is that you do your best to relax, then say this simple prayer: “God, please show me how to deal with my depression, and especially help me to understand the defects in my life that are causing it.” After I’ve said this prayer, I wait. The depression will still be there, but I try to accept it as “what is” right now and go on with life as best I can. I keep saying this prayer day after day, and as the weeks and months go by, I begin to experience more positive attitudes.
Shortly before Jesus’ crucifixion, He made a promise to His disciples that applies here. He said that the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all truth” (John 14:16; 16:13). And I propose that the truth the Holy Spirit will especially guide us to understand is the truth about ourselves.
Often, depression is brought on by fear, guilt, or anger that we aren’t even aware of. These emotions are good when they’re used properly. Depression happens when we don’t resolve them appropriately. Part of God’s leading in my journey through depression has been to help me gain insight into these underlying feelings and find ways to deal with them.
When you ask for God’s guidance, He may lead you to seek the help of a mental health professional. During my last semester at the seminary, I took a class in pastoral psychology, and one day the professor described several mental health conditions. I recognized one of them as mine, so after the class I spoke to him in his office. He counseled with me a few times, and he advised me to seek professional help when I arrived at my first ministerial appointment, which I did. I consulted for about a year with a Christian psychiatrist whose office happened to be just two blocks from the apartment I’d rented. I wasn’t cured at the end of the year, but counseling with him definitely helped.
Years later, I also spent two weeks at The Bridge to Recovery in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Bridge is a residential treatment center that helps people deal with emotional trauma, shame, codependence, and various nonchemical addictions. Depressed people are very hard on themselves and very self-critical. Focused therapy at a place like The Bridge can make a huge difference in the lives of depressed people.
Depression is sometimes caused by misunderstandings about God. If you feel afraid of God; if you think of Him as a harsh Judge who’s out to punish you for your many sins, ask Him to lead you to people, books, magazine articles, and Bible verses that can heal this misunderstanding. Remember that we are saved through believing in God’s grace and forgiveness, not by efforts to appease His anger.
One of the Bible’s best explanations of God’s grace is found in the first eight chapters of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. I wrote a book a number of years ago titled Forever His, in which I explained the concept of grace and how to deal with the fear that we aren’t “good enough” to please God (see the book ad on page 46).
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) is a beautiful illustration of God’s loving acceptance of sinners. The young man wasted one third of his father’s wealth, and his father could have treated him very harshly, but he welcomed him home because he loved him. That’s what God is like. Ask Him to lead you to that understanding.
Over the years I’ve found several other ways to deal with depression.
journaling. Back in my mid-20s I spent a lot of time writing out my thoughts and feelings on four-by-six cards. I didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a word for what I was doing. It’s called “journaling.” Over the years, some of my best insights into myself have come through journaling.
talking. The psychiatrist I counseled with commented to me one day that sometimes talking with a friend over the back fence could be as helpful as anything he had to offer. And he’s right. A good place to talk about what’s going on in your life is 12-step meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs encourage members to find a sponsor—someone they can confide in on a regular basis. I’ve tried it, and it works.
activity. God gave us minds that can think and do, and “doing” is one of the keys to good mental health. It’s especially important to be active in ways that contribute to the well-being of others.
However, there are two extremes to watch out for. One is to do nothing but sit around much of the day feeling sorry for yourself. The other is to work, work, work to cover up depressed feelings, which is what I more easily fall into. I have a friend who calls me up every now and then and says, “What have you done for fun today?” That’s a good question, and it’s also good advice!
music. Another strategy I’ve used to deal with depressed feelings is to sing. I especially like songs that have a cheerful rhythm. Three of my favorite religious songs are “There’s Sunshine in My Soul Today,” “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” and “I Know Whom I Have Believed.” I’ve memorized the lyrics to these and other songs, and I sing them over and over, sometimes out loud and sometimes just humming as I think the words in my mind.
Also, try closing your eyes and relaxing your whole body as you listen to soothing music. Some experts say that classical music is especially helpful for dealing with depression.
healthy feelings. Back when I felt depressed most of the time, there still were moments when I felt very good about myself. Often these fleeting moments of cheerfulness would last for only a short time—measured in minutes, not hours—and then I’d be back into my depression.
One day when I was in my early 30s I experienced one of these moments of cheerfulness as I walked across the campus of a university where I was studying. Suddenly, a thought struck me: This is how I’d like to feel all the time!
So I sent up a quick prayer: God, please help me hang on to this feeling as long as possible, and the next time it comes around help me to hang on to it a little longer. Then I relaxed and waited for the next cheerful moment to happen. When it did, I repeated the prayer: God, help me to hang on to this feeling as long as possible. This time the cheerfulness lasted a little longer. Over a period of months and even years, this strategy resulted in significant relief from depression.
faith. One of the problems I’ve had to deal with when I get depressed is the feeling that my mental state at the moment is set in cement. The sky seems dark above, and it seems like I’m teetering on the edge of my grave below. That’s when I find it helpful to believe that God truly will lead me to a better frame of mind. Jesus said that “everything is possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23), so I try to relax, accept my present mental condition, and wait for God to guide me to a better way of thinking and feeling. And He does.
Depression is caused by chemical reactions in our brains, and our physical lifestyle has a major influence on our brain chemistry. Three lifestyle issues are especially helpful for dealing with depression.
diet. Modern technology has had a major impact on the food industry, and unfortunately, it has often contributed more to our taste buds than to our health. Rather than depending largely on restaurants and prepared foods, it’s better to prepare simple meals at home with an emphasis on fruits, grains, nuts, and vegetables. It’s also important to avoid consuming lots of sugar and foods that are loaded with fat.
exercise. I have a stationary bicycle in my home, and I try to “ride” on it for half an hour, four or five times a week. A half-hour brisk walk or jog in the fresh air each day is even better. Moderate to vigorous exercise promotes the production of endorphins—the “happy chemicals” in our brains.
rest. Depression is one of the common results we can expect when we don’t get enough sleep. Most people need seven to eight hours each night. Be sure you’re getting your fair share.
God also gave us a prescription for rest when He created us. It’s called “Sabbath.” The Hebrew word shabbath means “rest.” If you’re working only eight hours a day but you’re doing it seven days a week, week after week, find a way to cut back to six days and take a break the seventh day. The Bible designates the Sabbath as holy time, during which we are not to “do any work” (Exodus 20:8–11). So during that 24-hour period I just forget about my job and all the stuff I need to do around the house. What a relief!
We live in a world where bad things happen. I don’t know of any formula, treatment, or strategy that’s guaranteed to relieve you and me of all depression all the time. However, the approaches I’ve suggested in this article have helped me deal with my depression, and I hope they can help you deal with yours.