It’s almost Christmas—the lights are shining, the parties are happening, and everything is happiness and peace on earth, right? Wrong. This is the time of year when people are more prone to depression than ever. One factor is the emotional baggage that comes when the holidays bring families together when they normally avoid each other. (I have a friend who calls it “Forced Family Fun.”) For some, the holidays remind them of lost loved ones or broken relationships. Another factor is the shorter, darker days that deprive us of mood-lifting sunlight. The fitting term for it is SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I have had to fight through periodic depression for most of my ministry career. I’m not sure if it’s my emotional wiring or the way working with sometimes needy people impacts me, but every so often, usually every six to nine months, I’ll have a depressive episode. Sometimes it will be a crippling emotional crash that last a few hours, or it could be a low-grade dullness that last a few days. Often it strikes at the conclusion of major projects—I’ve named it Post-Project Syndrome. For seminary students, the post-finals euphoria can just as easily come as a slump.
I’ve found that periodic depression is very common among people who work in ministry or other helping professions.
I’d like to share with you how I’ve learned to care for myself during these episodes, in hopes that it may help someone else.
But before I do, a very important caveat. My depression is garden variety—it is not clinical, or chemical (that I know of). I have never been professionally treated for it, or taken any medication for it. There are many people, however, who deal with depression much more severe than mine has ever been. If you are severely depressed or struggle with it on a regular basis, you will need more help than I can give. Please seek professional care. Most seminaries have counseling resources available at no cost to their students. In mental health issues, I’m convinced it is far wiser to seek help even if you don’t think you need it.
If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call this number immediately: 1-800-273-8255. Or go here: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ There is real hope and help for you.
Having said that, here are the 11 steps I try to take when depression strikes.
- Eat. No matter how you feel, you need nourishment, so get something to eat. Resist the temptation to wallow in the “feeling bad”-ness by starving yourself. “But I don’t feel like eating.” Well, let’s start by not living according to our feelings. Make a choice. Eat. What you eat doesn’t have to be entirely healthy, but a gallon of ice cream or an entire package of cookies, for instance, would be counterproductive. You want to avoid addictive solutions, and sugar is addictive.
- Drink water. Most Americans are dehydrated, and it can affect your mood. Get a tall glass of ice water with a straw (you drink more when you have a straw–it’s true), and keep it full.
- Sleep. Just go to bed. Most Americans are sleep deprived, too. Turn off the phone and the alarm, and get a solid 8-10 hours. Naps are also a genius idea. Feel free.
- Do something you enjoy. Again, you want to avoid additive things: alcohol or drugs, porn, transgressive sexual practices, gambling, etc. But a favorite movie or book or activity (shopping, golf, whatever) can be therapeutic in a good way.
- Exercise. Get outside and move. Run, lift weights, bike, play golf, go swimming. Do something that will require a fair amount of exertion and tire you out. Winston Churchill struggled with chronic depression–he called it “black dog”–and one of his solutions was to undertake massive earthmoving projects at his estate. He would dig a pond or build a wall. Wear yourself out.
- Get some sun. Exposure to natural light is mood lifting, so get outside, remove your shirt or roll up your sleeves and get some rays on your body. It doesn’t have to be much, even 15 or 20 minutes will help. (Sunscreen is still a good idea, BTW)
- Get with people who care about you. Sometimes people prone to depression have a pattern of helping needy people–placing themselves always in their relationships as the giver. You need people in your life who are not takers–who care about you as you are. This is not so they can hold your hand or give you a shoulder to cry on–although that’s ok to a point. This is just to be together.
- Serve someone else. For crying out loud, stop thinking about yourself. It will only make things worse. Instead, move your focus outward: who is there that you can help or encourage? Give it a little thought, and you will remember someone who is in a worse situation than you. Can you deliver a meal to a family, write an encouraging note, visit someone in a hospital or nursing facility, or call an old friend just to see how they are?
- Be thankful. Stop for a moment and count your blessings. Depression usually causes an inordinate focus upon negative things, and curiously, is mostly a problem in the most affluent countries in the world. Do you have a job? A family? Food on your table? A safe neighborhood? Are you healthy? There are billions of people far, far worse off than you. Have you ever BEEN to Somalia? Say thank you.
- Pray. Note that I put this toward the end. A depressed person often struggles to pursue the spiritual side of the solutions until the pump is primed with physical and social stimulation. That’s ok. God does care about you, however, and you should reach out to Him and ask for his help. Read about Elijah’s depression in 1 Kings 19–he got a jar of water and a cake of bread before he had his deep conversation with God. Being right with God in Christ, however, is a tremendous, reliable, eternal source of joy, and you should drink deeply from it.
- In all these things, take initiative. Depression makes you want to sit in a room and do nothing. As Oswald Chambers said, “Moods go by kicking.” Order the food. Put on your running shoes. Call your friends. Every positive action step you take is a step out of the darkness.