by Clair Bradshaw and Herbert Weber
Once I [Clair Bradshaw] saw my childhood idol, actor Patty Duke, being interviewed about her struggles with depression. Throughout her life, Patty has experienced erratic mood swings resulting from a condition called bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive illness). In the interview she recounted her days of extreme elation. But when she tearfully described depression that sometimes kept her in bed for weeks at a time, I began to cry, too. I instantly identified with her anguish. Though the details of our illnesses are different, several years ago I, too, suffered a devastating depression.
At some time or another, everyone experiences depression. You feel down on life and down on yourself. Usually, once a bad day or a bad week is over, your mood lifts. But sometimes depression lingers, in spite of your best efforts to pull out of it.
Working your way through.
Whatever the circumstances of the depression you feel, there are reasons to hope. Here are some proven methods for climbing up from feeling down.
Know what you’re dealing with.
Experts think that depression involves what’s going on inside of you, as well as what’s happening outside of you. For example, chemical imbalances in the brain can cause depression. Or life events can trigger depression—such as the death of a loved one, relationship problems, a job loss, a difficult transition, even the birth of a baby. Certain drugs or combinations of drugs can bring on depression, as can chronic stress or illness. Some people notice that their gloom is linked to changes in the seasons. And some depression stems from problems in the way people view themselves or their world—problems that may go all the way back to childhood. How do you know if what you’re feeling is depression?
Check the symptoms you are experiencing against this list of common signs of depression:
• Feeling sad, pessimistic, dissatisfied, guilty, worthless, helpless, hopeless
• Loss of interest in things that used to give pleasure, including sex
• Sleep difficulties or the desire to sleep all the time
• Problems with concentration, memory, and decision-making
• Lack of energy; fatigue
• Nervousness, anxiety, irritability
• Loss of appetite, or weight gain
• Heart palpitations, dizziness, or recurrent and unexplained aches
• Suicidal thoughts
You may have many of these symptoms or only a few; depression hits different people in different ways. There are also different types of depression, ranging from the mild but chronic dysthymia, to the more severe and disabling major depression, to the cycles of depression and mania that characterize bipolar disorder.
Reach out for help.
Depending on the cause, duration, and severity of your depression, you may need medical help to recover. Depression cannot be willed or wished away. You can’t just “put on a happy face” or “snap out of it.” Being depressed is not your fault and you don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed to talk to your doctor about it.
During my depression, embarrassment kept me from getting help early. I considered my depression a profound weakness in my personality, even though as a registered nurse I knew better. But depression is a wily opponent. It robs you of the self-worth, decisive reasoning, and motivation that would normally prompt you to get the assistance you need. After weeks of agony, I finally confessed my suicidal thoughts to a friend, who urged me to get help. Within a week, I began to think more clearly and sleep more soundly. Gradually, I started healing with the aid of psychotherapy and medication.
Your doctor may prescribe for you one of the many antidepressants now available. Another effective way of combating depression is professional counseling or therapy, which may be recommended instead of or in addition to drug therapy. Some types of psychotherapy that are especially effective in combating depression are cognitive/behavioral (to change negative patterns of thinking and behavior), interpersonal (to handle relationship problems), and psychodynamic (to resolve psychological conflicts rooted in childhood).
Tend to your feelings.
If you have suffered a major loss in your life, it’s normal to feel depressed, and you need to successfully work through your grief in order to lift the depression.
Working through grief involves feeling your pain in all its intensity. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, for example, you may need to mourn not only that person’s absence but also the blow to your dreams for the future or the loss of companionship, love, and affection. You may also have to deal with a change in your identity or a crisis of faith in yourself and in God.
Expressing your grief by sharing feelings with a trusted friend or writing in a journal, for instance, provides a kind of emotional release. It also helps you to celebrate your love for the person, which will never diminish, even though your pain gradually will.
Anger and guilt can also be intertwined with depression. The despair you feel about your life today may originate in destructive patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting left over from childhood. The professional guidance of a counselor or therapist can help you recognize damaging patterns of the past and break out of them in the present.
In today’s feel-good, quick-fix society, being sad often seems unacceptable. But it’s possible that your unhappy feelings are trying to signal you that something in your life is amiss. Maybe you need to take a stand in a relationship, re-evaluate your career, find better balance in your life, or strengthen your spiritual connections. If feeling sad causes you to slow down, reflect and reconnect with your center, it can be a real opportunity for soul-tending.
Take small, definite steps toward hope. Depression often causes a certain inertia that becomes a vicious circle. Take the initiative now to get your momentum going. As you begin to take action and make choices—even small ones—you will start to feel less hopeless and more in control of your life. Break large, overwhelming tasks into smaller, manageable ones. Be patient with the pace of your progress.
In your depressed state, you may have gotten used to thinking negatively about yourself and your life. Challenge negative thoughts with self-affirming ones. Take credit for your successes and reward yourself for them.
Be gentle and generous with yourself.
At this vulnerable time, you need to pamper yourself. Follow a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise. Exercise releases the body’s “feel-good” chemicals, which will help you feel more positive.
Give to yourself emotionally as well. If you feel empty, fill up your soul with beauty and goodness. Do things you enjoy and savor the pleasure you derive from them. Be with people you enjoy, and cherish their kindness and love.
Nature can also be comforting. Sometimes peace seems more attainable and God more approachable through the wonders of creation. Take a walk on a wooded path or treat yourself to a fresh bouquet of flowers. Enjoy nature’s vibrant colors and textures, and pleasing sounds and smells.
Just by reading this CareNote, you are opening yourself to hope. Let God love you back to health and wholeness through the hands of helping professionals, the miracle of modern medical treatment, the hearts of caring friends, and your own desire to be well.
As you emerge from depression, life will begin to look better and brighter to you. You will remember what it means to feel content and at peace. And you will discover beauty within and without that you never knew existed.