Steps to combat depression

One reader asks, “I am in my mid-fifties and for the past several years I have found myself struggling with increased feelings of discouragement, lack of motivation and a decrease of energy. A friend suggested that I might be depressed but not to worry about it since it is normal for people to become more depressed as they get older. Is that true and what can I do to deal with my depression?”

That’s a common question, especially after the holidays. After the excitement and energy expended over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years many people experience mild to moderate levels of depression. The simplest definition of depression is that it is a specific downward alteration of one’s mood. When we understand and are in control of our emotions they can be very constructive. Mild levels of depression can warn us that something is wrong in the way we are living our lives or that we are making unhealthy choices. It can alert us to our need to make adjustments or changes, to withdraw and regroup, to allow Him to refresh us and refocus our perspective.

Depression can also be a very destructive emotion. Research suggests that one out of every seven individuals will need professional help for depression at some time in their life. It is estimated that industry loses four to six billion dollars of productivity due to the effects of depression that is unacknowledged and untreated. Depression is one of the major psychiatric disorders on college campuses today. When it is denied or ignored for too long depression can become a major factor in suicide.

It’s interesting to note how much the Bible has to say about depression. In Numbers 11:10-15 we find Moses so depressed that he asks God to take his life. In I Kings 18 and 19 we find the remarkable story of Elijah. After a dramatic illustration of God’s faithfulness and power against 450 false prophets Elijah was drained. When one person, Jezebel, threatened him he assumed the worst, ran away, crawled under a juniper tree, had a one-man pity party, allowed his perspective to become so distorted by severe depression that he asked God to take his life. Elijah had an almost terminal case of the “Juniper Tree Blues.”

Notice that Elijah was more than just sad, he was depressed. What’s the difference? Depression differs from sadness in that the depression is more intense, it lasts longer, and it significantly interferes with effective day-to-day functioning. Depression involves the loss of perspective and the inability to experience joy and feel pleasure.

Elijah experienced many of the classic characteristics of depression. He withdrew from normal activities, he isolated himself, was discontent, gloomy and despondent, felt hopeless and helpless, had a distorted perspective and lost his confidence in God. A few of the other characteristics of depression include a lack of motivation, changes in normal sleeping and
eating patterns, oversensitivity and increased anger.

Who is more likely to experience unhealthy depression? Women are two to three times more likely than men to experience depression. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that depression is more striking during the late teens and early 20’s and appears to be decreasing among older people. So much for the myth that older people are more likely to become depressed.

Research suggests the increase in depression could be caused by unfulfilled expectations concerning economic well-being, increasing urbanization, people moving more and not  developing personal attachments, a decrease of common social standards and beliefs, and changes in family structures and the roles of men and women in the workplace.

Other causes involve physical factors such as a genetic predisposition, biochemical factors, reaction to medication, glands, menstruation, menopause, hypoglycemia and PMS. Others include poor eating habits, lack of rest or exercise, grief due to a loss, self-pity, unemployment, stress, any positive or negative change, unconfessed sin, or even the let-down after reaching an important goal.

Are there any specific steps that most people can take to deal with depression? I say most people because there are some whose depression is so severe that they need immediate professional help from an experienced Christian psychologist or physician. Some people’s  depression is so severe and disabling that getting professional help can be a matter of life and death.

The first step is to acknowledge that you are depressed. Then identify the level of your depression. In comparison to your past experiences, is your present depression mild, medium or severe? If it is mild or medium then continue with the next steps. If your depression is severe, contact your pastor and a qualified Christian professional. If you learn to acknowledge your depression as soon as possible it won’t become as severe and will be much easier to deal with.

The second step is to go to God. You can do this by talking to Him in prayer and seeking His guidance and direction. You can also turn to the Bible. Look at Psalms 55, 58 and 59. Here we find that David, a man after God’s own heart, both experienced and expressed the emotion of depression. You should also look up some of the many promises God has given you.

The third step is to identify the causes. Depression almost always has more than one cause. Understanding the cause is a key part of the solution. When is the last time you had a  physical? Have you been getting adequate sleep, healthy nutrition and regular aerobic  exercise? What might you be doing that could be causing the depression? Is there anything that you are dwelling on that is contributing to your depression?

The fourth step is to identify what you can directly change or influence. Areas of change might include how you think, how you spend your time, and some specific behaviors or habits. Make a list in order of importance of those changes and start with the first one. Go ahead, choose to be proactive. Don’t wait until you feel like it. You could wait for a long wait. If you need some encouragement take a good look at Philippians 1:6, 2:13, 3:14 and 4:13.

Back in I Kings 19 we find that God dealt with Elijah in part by allowing him to express his emotions and by temporarily relieving him of responsibility and providing him with nutrition, rest and exercise. The result was a refreshed Elijah with a renewed perspective. God wants you to be refreshed and your perspective renewed.

Healthy people experience depression. You do not need to be controlled by your depression. Remember that emergence from depression is usually gradual and that, while feelings are almost always the last thing to change, they can change. If you still feel like you can’t do it, remember that Romans 8:37 says that “we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” Not through our own strength, but through Him.

Oliver is the director of the center for healthy relationships. He can be reached at GOliver@jbu.edu.