During my recent struggle with depression I thought of the advice that I often give when talking on this topic. I was struck by how inadequate it seemed to be. So I am rethinking what to say to those who are depressed or anxious. I am aware that what advice helps may differ from person to person, and may change with regards to what stages their depression-anxiety is at. The following ten tips are very inadequate, and I would recommend that you read some good books on the topic. One book I have really enjoyed by David Murray is called ‘Christians get depressed too.’ Another good book that I am working through is entitled ‘I am not supposed to feel like this’.
My recent struggle seemed different than anything I had suffered before. As a result I feared that it might not lift. The psychiatrist did not share this worry. She said that it would lift, and it did. The fact is that the lowest part of depression does lift. You need to remind yourself that this too will pass. I was struck at how important a sense of hope is. Do everything not to give up your hope and remind yourself that you have not always been in these depths and will not always be in these depths?
Rest is a part of God’s design for his people. I tend to be tempted to feel guilty for talking time off. I remember when I was first married Caroline told me that I was working too hard. I wanted to reply to this observation by saying, ‘thanks’. I did not realise that it is actually disobedient to God not to refresh oneself through rest. I am about to order another book by David Murray called ‘Refresh’.
Meditate on the story of Martha and Mary, and hear Jesus inviting you to take some time aside. Make as many changes in your lifestyle as you can to ensure that you can cope. Learn to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty. A friend pointed out that we are to work from a place of rest rather than rest from a place of work. Make sure that you get enough sleep. If you are struggling to sleep at night you will need a rest during the day (however, it can be unhelpful to stay in bed when you are not resting and just worrying).
The apostle Paul told his young disciple Timothy that bodily training is of some value (1 Tim. 4:8). We must not ignore the connection between the body and the soul. This can be a good form of rest and refreshment. John Piper copes with his proneness towards a low mood through regular exercise.
Talk to your loved ones and tell them how you feel. Talk to your pastor and people in church. Seek help and support. It is really important that you feel free to talk to your doctor.
Sadly there are people who stigmatise mental illness. Try not to let their ignorance hurt you. I had one person tell me that he thought it was a mistake that I told the church that I had had a breakdown. They thought that if I had simply explained that I was sick then people might have concluded that I was suffering from the flu! Clearly this person sees mental illness as something to be ashamed of. Don’t let such attitudes stop you from experiencing the support that comes through being open about the nature of your suffering.
I used to tell people to pray the Psalms. Yet when I was in the pits I could not pray with much focus. I tended to go around and around in circles asking God to make me better. I actually started typing out my prayers to give them more focus. Journaling may also help you work through your thoughts.
One of the important things to learn is not to feel guilty about how hard you are finding it to pray. You heavenly Father understands. He is kind and gracious to you. Jesus taught us that he did not want to add heavy burdens to his beloved people. Set realistic and helpful prayer goals. Target just a few minutes of prayer a day. Don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you can’t focus. Don’t blame yourself for the fact that God seems absent. He is not absent, even though your feelings tell you he is. The fact that your feelings make him seem absent is not your fault.
I do think that the Psalms are a great resource for the depressed Christian. Read them and you will be surprised at how honest the writers are with their complaints. You may not have the energy to spend much time in them when you are in the pits, but see them as an invitation to get real with God. I recommend Tim Keller’s meditations of the Psalms entitled, ‘My Rock and Refuge.’
5. Deal with feelings of guilt
I did say that there can be a relationship between guilt and sin. However, I have found that many people who struggle with sin are too quick to assume that they are being punished by God. God is our gracious heavenly Father. He is slow to anger and abounding in love. He does not treat us as our sins deserve, but according to his loving-kindness. If there are things that you need to confess to God and repent of then do so. Then thank God for the fact that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ and that he delights to forgive. God wants you to rejoice in his forgiveness. It does not honour him to hold on to feelings of guilt over past sin. I asked a depressed friend if he realised God sings over him (Zephaniah 3:17). He replied by saying that seemed too good to be true. But it is true!
Avoid sinful responses to depression and anxiety. Your relationship with food will change. I struggle to eat when I am anxious, but others are tempted to comfort eat (I am prone to do this when I am not ill). You might be tempted to escape into a world of sexual fantasy. When I am mildly depressed I am prone to enjoy self-pity (I try not to listen to soppy eights music at such times). Such attempts to find comfort will only leaving you feeling worse.
6. Grow in your confidence in the character of God
One of the cruel things about depression and anxiety are that when we are depressed we are vulnerable to believing lies. We must combat these lies with the truth. What many sensitive people need is to realise that God is a loving-Father who always seeks the good of his children. Ed Welch writes, ‘Just think what it would be like to be certain that the God of this universe loved you. That alone would probably change the contours of depression.’
One of the ways that God shows his love is through his people. Look to Christians who reflect the gracious character of God. If you focus on Christians who are harsh and unloving, especially Christian leaders who are not merciful, then your image of God may become distorted. Look to people who know God and reflect God well to you. Remember that it is God who makes them the way they are.
7. Put your faith into practice
It is always important for us to put our faith into practice. You may not be able to do this when you are very depressed however there is healing power in doing things for others for the glory of God. Listen to the healing words of Isaiah (58:10): ‘… and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.’
8. Guard your thoughts
The reformer, Martin Luther, said that you cannot stop a bird landing on your head, but you can stop it making a nest. He was saying this regarding our thoughts. I find that when I am struggling with anxiety my thoughts gravitate towards the worst possible scenario. It can be very difficult to control your thoughts, and to stop catastrophic thinking making a nest in your mind, but it is important to try and guard your thoughts.
A friend of mine gave me the wise advice of writing down things that I am thankful to God for. Thanksgiving is a good way to help your mood.
I have noticed that many depressed people struggle with an extreme and exaggerated sense of responsibility. Allow God to be God and trust him to look after your life and the life of others.
David Murray points out that deep rooted self-doubt and self-criticism will often emerge will often emerge and strengthen during a depression. Depressed people often feel worthless and useless. But some Christians are reluctant to give people any praise or encouragement because of the risk of making a person proud. However Murray points out that pride is one of the least risky vices for the person who is depressed. Pride results from having an over-inflated view of one-self. Depression usually involves the opposite. Without minimising the wickedness of the human heart and our inability to please God apart from Christ, ‘we should feel free to encourage depressed people to have a more view of themselves by highlighting their God-given gifts, their contribution to the lives of other, their usefulness to society, and, if they are Christians, their value to the church.’
10. Deal with issues in your pastOne of the key things to understand about depression-anxiety is that it may be multi-faceted. Medication may have its place. There may be a need for rest and lifestyle changes. There will also be wounds that we carry from the past. We may have developed wrong ‘core beliefs’ about ourselves from our upbringing. There may be hurtful things said to us, or traumatic incidents that need to be worked through. Start by opening up to a trusted and wise friend. But don’t be too proud to seek the help of someone who has more expert care.