In my post Feeling Depression as a Christian, I wrote on recognizing and understanding depression. I looked at King David’s writing of Psalm 42, which has the blues chorus, “Why so downcast, O my soul?” I reflected on how many godly men and women share this struggle of depression, including many in the Bible. Today I’d like to offer some hope. Hope is the quintessential belief that tomorrow–and next year–will improve from today.
As a pastor and a counselor, let me be clear: it is possible to feel better. People who feel stuck under an emotional or spiritual dark cloud can move to sunnier climes. There is a trail of crumbs out of the dark woods, Hansel. You can climb from depression to hope, with a little help.
The main causes of depression
In our journey to hopefulness, it helps to touch on the main causes of depression. While every person and situation is different, some common factors do occur in depression.
Difficult life events. If you are faced with continuing struggles and problems like loneliness, unemployment, relationship issues, health concerns, family or work stress, research shows that you are a candidate for depression.
Loss. If you are living through loss events like losing a loved one, giving up a beloved pet, breaking up with a partner, or losing a job–especially in combination–depression can occur, especially if you have old “sadness” factors in your life.
Family factors. If your family has a history of depression, you may have a greater genetic risk. As well, given their previous nurture environment, some people have developed personalities that are–even on a good day–given to too much worry, low self-esteem, perfectionism, shame, negativism, or self-criticism. These people often slide into depression more easily. And several studies show clearly that children who weighed less at birth or whose mothers were struggling during pregnancy had significantly more depression in adulthood.
Brain changes. Depression is complicated. It is, as best we know, a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain, as impacted by genetics, life stressors, medical conditions, and substances (alcohol, marijuana, drugs, medicines) people take. All of these can cause your brain to have too much or too little of a particular brain chemical, and so affect the way your brain regulates your moods.
The path out of depression
Some of the items above cannot be easily changed. Perhaps they can be modified some, but only over time. But there are always some options we can take each day. David, guided by God as he writes Psalm 42, offers three real-life ways to move out of depression. Hundreds of times, I have seen patients begin to shake their depression by following these steps.
- Ask truthful questions of yourself.
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” (Ps. 42:5, 11)
Notice that David is admitting the truth of his emotional state. He is downcast and disturbed. The Hebrew words here evoke powerful images of a tower which is crumbling or a person who is being pressed down into the dirt, all with an internal churning and moaning. This is depression. Crumbling and pressed down. I love that David is not pretending anymore, nor trying to put on a happy face on his mood. In counseling, we have a saying: “Name it to tame it.” When we are honest and speak the truth, things begin to lose their power over us. We begin to heal. David honestly names his emotional struggle. And then he asks the tough question, “Why?” In Psalm 42, David does not give in to depression or self-pity but rather “takes himself in hand” and faces it. David begins to wrestle through his dark emotions.
Healing from depression begins with honest evaluation and truth-telling. Healing requires asking the hard questions, “Why am I here in this state? How did I get here?” It is an internal conversation, but truth seems to blossom when we find someone we can share our story with out loud. Yes, mom, talking it out really does make it feel better. This is why having a wise counselor or therapist can make such a difference to people in depression. As we talk, they can help us understand the “Why? This dialogue can be exhausting for the depressed person–especially if the brain is out of chemical balance. Medications can add both peace and energy to the walk out of depression, and are worth considering.
2.Work on changing your daily focus. “Put your hope in God.” (Ps. 42:5)
The second step in his battle against depression, King David challenges himself to do something different. It is an action: “put your hope.” He tries to do what his spiritual self knows should be done: “Put your hope in God.” People who are depressed tend to rehearse the negative parts of their life. They look at the problems, the pains, the isolation, the darkness. As well, all humans look to lots of worldly things to change our world to a more hopeful place. If I had a new job. If I were important. If someone loved me more. If I had money to travel. If only I lived at the beach. These become an automatic pattern in the way we think, and can draw us downward. Be honest, don’t these things almost always fail? Hollywood is full of people with money, fame, beach houses, and Lear jets, but who are crumbling, pressed down, and suicidal on the inside.
We need to stop thinking about those things which drain our joy. We need to break the cycle of downward thinking. The Bible has a challenge for us: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Phil 4:8-9). One simple technique I teach to help with this is called “godly mindfulness”, remembered as STOPS:
- Take a deep breath
- Observe what you are experiencing, feeling and thinking about.
- Pray for God’s presence and wisdom to step into this moment or experience.
- Step forward, one foot at a time.
I believe that there can be no lasting hope in anything else in this broken, failing world other than God. There never has been. There never will be. In Psalm 42, David recognizes he is dying slowly of thirst–but it is a thirst only quenched by God.
I have stated before that you cannot simply pray yourself out of depression. But, over and over, I have seen people shake their depression through a renewed focus on their faith. As they begin to surrender their thought patterns to him, Jesus heals them. He gives them hope. A cry to God allows the most powerful Force for good in the universe to work on our hearts and minds. When you awake each day, say a short prayer: “Lord, help me live with hope today. Hope in your touch, your mercy, your guidance, and your love. Amen.
3. Remind yourself of the certainty of God’s help. “…for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
To “hope in God” leads David to another step in his crusade against depression. It is the reminder, based on the character of the God, that there is a new day coming. “I will yet praise him.” This is a great promise. God has not changed. Therefore, his purposes for me have not changed. He has led me through tough times in the past. He will do so again. Instead of looking at the past glumly as something I have lost, I will make a new decision. I will look at this world only as a foretaste of the many good things yet to come.
Look at the examples of this in the Bible, people like Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and David. All had to look ahead. All had to weather the storms while still declaring, “One day…” One day hangs out there for us all. And this requires living life one day at a time. It is an unpleasant truth that one of the gifts of the Spirit given to some Christians is the gift of long-suffering. Yech! Who really wants that gift? But in our suffering, God’s Spirit is quietly building us up. He is at work. Hang in there. And in the darkness, say thanks. Go to a worship service. Turn on the radio to your favorite station. Say a quick prayer. Call a friend.
Hang in there. We are all individuals getting through life the best way we know how, one day at a time. I offer a final reminder that no one is defined by just one piece of themselves. You are not your failed marriage, you are not your genetics, you are not your grades, you are not your history, and you are not what society says you are. You are not your depression. You are much more than that! Beauty, and compassion, and love, and tenderness, and depth–all wrapped into one God-shaped person! There is but one you! Honestly, we all have obstacles to overcome. The way to get through them is to focus on the truth and the hope that God gives. And in the process, realize that attitude and perspective are everything. The only true failure happens when we give up.
A final crisis note: if you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, feel like hurting yourself, or you are at the point of giving up–tell someone, or make one confidential call first, please: 1-800-273-8255. A brilliant friend of mine runs MY QUIET CAVE, a resource for those struggling with depression and bipolar disorder. Check it out. You are valuable to me, and you are not alone.