Worries caused by the present pandemic and the resulting limitations on social contact can cause or exacerbate feelings of depression. I want to share a few ideas and experiences I have had relating to depression and suggest some ways to deal with it.
When I was at university in Bristol I often began every new term with energy, hope and the determination to study hard and keep on top of my lecture notes. And usually, well before the end of each term, all I could think of was how to survive until the vacation. The evening before one end-of-term exam I felt too depressed to revise for it, and instead I wrote a poem about my feelings. Next day I found myself totally unable to answer one of the exam questions, so I wrote my poem on the answer sheet instead. I thought that the lecturer, Mr Gaydon, should at least have something to read from me!
Dead bones crumble in the vapid grey of weary thought,
A battering-ram of ash against the dull murmurings of conscience.
Across the vacuum of night, outside the curtains,
Rings the loose sound of dead imagination
Broken free from the cracked columns of directed thought.
Clinging to yellow swamp above my head
Which faded to grey wreaths of burial ink.
My mind sank
I felt no force or urging,
Only from within
Battering a heap of ash.
Somehow I ended up with a 2A degree (borderline First), which only proves what a miraculous God we have!
This year too I have sometimes experienced feelings of depression, and it was dealing with these feelings that prompted me to write this blog.
1. Be thankful
Saint Paul told us to be thankful in all circumstances. However depressed we may feel, we can still control what we are thinking about if we make the effort. Depression is usually associated with negative thoughts, so it’s helpful to think instead about positive things that we can give thanks for. Recently I’ve found myself giving God thanks for my house, which I love. I can’t believe that I somehow earned the money to buy it and even extend it. I also thank God for his amazing creation of this world. How could he ever have managed to suspend 550 tons of water above our heads in order to water the land and refill the reservoirs and rivers and sustain life on the earth? How did he work out how to get the water back up there again? Or how could he have created insects almost too small to see, that are nevertheless able to fly through the air (which I can’t do), find food, and reproduce life with their other miniscule partners? I can remember my mother, accompanied on the piano by my father, singing, “Count your blessings one by one…” Being thankful isn’t a complete solution to depression, but it’s a very good start. So begin and end every day with thanksgiving, and include some thanksgiving during the day as well.
...always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. Ephesians 5:20
2. Phone someone up
God equipped us to talk to one another, and talking is very important, especially if you are self-isolating as a result of the pandemic. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to for a long time, or someone who may well be lonely whom you could cheer up, or even just a family member. It will usually help a little.
3. Help someone else
If there is something you can do to help someone else you’ll feel tons better afterwards.
4. Go jogging, or at least go for a walk.
This is common advice, I know. Walking and jogging are supposed to promote the body’s production of endorphins, which I am told are the hormones that make you feel good. Last month it really worked for me. I used to go jogging twice a week but I gave it up at the age of 70. Last month, feeling rather low, I decided to have another go at it. I was slower than I used to be, but when I got home I felt really good, not depressed at all. It worked!
There are four levels of energeticness, if that is a word. The first is simply to walk. As you walk, look around for things you can give God thanks for. I take a walk after lunch each day, something I did even when I was employed. When it's not too muddy I walk in the woods near my house: I love hearing the birds cheerfully singing in the trees. If you have the mental energy, pray as you walk for any people or situations you see or think of where God’s help and intervention is needed. That way you can walk with God, as Abraham did.
The next level is to jog, to jog at a comfortable speed that you can keep up without getting out of breath. If your physical condition permits it, jogging will keep you fitter than mere walking will, and it may give you a greater lift depression-wise.
The third level is the way I do it, which is in essence to jog as fast as I can. Exertion is necessary if you want to increase your strength and fitness rather than merely maintain it. Currently I go out twice a week, following a pyramid system. This means I warm up with a gentle walk, then a fast walk, then an extremely slow jog, then a normal jog, and finally a slow run, which for me at 78 years of age is as fast as I can possibly manage and gets me extremely out of breath. I then do each stage in the reverse order, finishing with the gentle walk. Each of these stages lasts 2½ minutes, which I time as I go, making about half an hour in total.
When I restarted jogging on August 16th this year I took 31 minutes to complete most of the route I used to go jogging on. On my subsequent three outings my times went down to 28 minutes, 27¼ minutes, and 26¾ minutes respectively. And last Sunday I completed the same route in 26 minutes 20 seconds. That’s proof that with an effort you can improve your fitness, and when you succeed in doing that you feel really good about yourself! Hard jogging or running that gets you out of breath strengthens your cardiovascular system and it reduces the time you have to spend in order to obtain a similar benefit to the benefit you would obtain from more gentle jogging or walking.
The fourth level is of course running. Sadly that’s beyond me now, except for occasional sprints to catch a bus.
Whichever way you choose, walking or jogging with someone else is very helpful, both for conversation (even at 2 metres apart), and for ensuring that you actually do go out each time. And if you go out before breakfast your body will obtain its energy from stored fat, which can help if you need to lose weight.
5. Do something you enjoy
There’s an old saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I don’t know who Jack was, but I’m sure that God intended us all to have fun sometimes. Give yourself permission to do something you enjoy doing, whatever it may be. Listening to music can be especially helpful. When King Saul was seized by depression David’s harp playing soothed him, or it did until the day Saul realized that David was going to usurp him as king and he tried to kill David instead.
6. Deal with anxiety
One common cause of depression is anxiety. A few weeks ago I was getting depressed about all the different jobs I had to do. I was trying to write a new book in the mornings and as a result I was getting further and further behind with everything else. I was depressed because I was trying to do too many things in too short a time. Jesus told us to concentrate just on the things we have to do today, and to forget about all the other things that can wait for another day. So I decided to put aside my writing temporarily and concentrate on clearing the backlog of other jobs. I’m glad to say that my original list of 30 jobs is much shorter now, and as a result I feel much better!
If there are things you need to do which are worrying you, here’s a suggestion that worked for me. Make a list of the things you need to do. Pick out the one thing that worries you most, the thing that you least want to face, and deal with that one first. Pray about it if necessary. Take advice if necessary. Recruit someone to help you, if necessary. But then take a deep breath and do it! Once you’ve done that one you will feel so much better! You can then tackle the next most daunting task, and little by little it will get easier, especially when you reach the tasks that you actually enjoy doing.
However, there may be things making you anxious that you can’t do anything about. If that’s the case then, as the old hymn goes, ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’.
Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. 1 Peter 5:7
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:6,7
7. Deal with stress
Stress is a major cause of depression, but dealing with it is usually easier said than done. Stress may be caused by the behaviour of family members, by situations at school or work, by unemployment, debt, neighbours, bereavement, divorce, moving house or other things. It may not always be obvious what to do to address the situation, but there is usually something you can do, even if it takes courage to do it. Think about it. Get advice if necessary. Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. And whatever else you do, bring the situation to God in prayer and read God’s word. Declare aloud the truths of Psalm 23. There is a solution. God will help you to find it if you trust in him.
8. Deal with guilt
Another cause of depression, particularly for Christians, can be feelings of guilt. These may be related to not doing something you should be doing, or to doing something that you know in your heart you shouldn’t be doing. I suspect that a major reason I used to get depressed at university was guilt about not doing the work I should have been doing. This led to depression, which sapped my energy for studying, which meant that I did even less work, which deepened my depression. Thus there was a downward spiral of increasing depression and decreasing study.
One solution to problems of personal discipline that I recently discovered is to make a solemn promise to God at the beginning of the day that I will do what I should do that day and that with his help I will not allow myself to be distracted in any way from doing it; or else to promise him that for that day at least I will refrain from doing whatever it is that I know I should not be doing. Then, whenever I am tempted during the day to act any differently, I remind myself that I made a promise to God about it. Since I don’t ever want to break a promise I make to God this usually keeps me on track. I don't do this very often, but sometimes I feel it's important to do it.
If you have a long-term problem with sin, whether it’s something you do that you shouldn’t do, or something you don’t do that you should be doing, or even if it’s something wrong in your thoughts, make it a priority to put things right through genuine repentance and earnest prayer to God. If necessary ask for the support and prayers of trusted friends as well. Twice in the book of Isaiah (48:22 and 57:21) God says, "There is no peace for the wicked." Yet in both places God also promises peace and comfort to those who come back to him. If you are not at peace try to discover the reason and then ask God to help you to put things right. Joy may be out of reach when we are depressed, but if we are at one with God we can still be at peace.
9. Deal with comfort eating and drinking
When we are depressed it is common to turn to food or alcoholic drink to cheer ourselves up. These remedies work briefly, but they can deepen depression, either because eating makes us overweight or drinking gives us a headache or worse. Drinking too much alcohol is very likely to lead to depression. The only way I have found to keep myself from eating biscuits is not to buy any. And if you are addicted to alcohol you may have to stop buying that too. If those remedies seem too severe, at least buy low calorie snacks and low alcohol drinks. I have explained how to prevent hunger pangs and keep to a healthy weight in my book Twenty-first Century Nutrition and Family Health.
10. Deal with bad dreams
This is the most interesting lesson I have learned, and I learned it only this week.
Some mornings I wake up feeling depressed. The feeling usually goes away after an hour or two, but sometimes it takes longer to disperse. On other days I wake up feeling fine. Three mornings ago I woke up following a dream that had involved a long argument with someone else about how something should be done. I periodically have unpleasant dreams – perhaps I dream that I am lost, or late for something, or I’ve forgotten to go to a church to take the service, or I’m in an embarrassing situation of some kind, or someone is trying to catch me or even kill me. A few nights ago someone stole my folding bicycle. My sister remembers me as a child screaming in the night whenever I’d had a nightmare. A recurring nightmare I had when I was four or five years old was of a lion coming to eat me. (However, I was very proud of myself when one night I realized it was only a dream and I decided to stay asleep to see if the lion would really eat me. Evidently the dream had not planned how to deal with this, for instead of the lion eating me everything went black and faded out. I never had that dream again. A very early lesson in facing up to one's fears!)
Anyway, three mornings ago I recalled the argumentative dream I’d been having before I woke up, and I realized that if in real life I had just been arguing with someone for an hour or two I would be feeling seriously depressed, and for good reason. So the thought came to me that my morning depressions might simply be caused by whatever I had been dreaming about earlier in the night. I decided that the solution might be to pray each night before I went to sleep. That’s what King David did, for in Psalm 4:8 he wrote, ‘In peace I will both lay me down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety.’
So the night before last I put this revelation to the test. In bed, before I settled down to sleep, I read a Psalm and I spent a few minutes in prayer, giving God thanks for the day and asking him to help me to sleep in peace. Now, being oldish I always wake up once or twice each night, mainly to pay a visit. More annoying is that when I wake up a second time I sometimes find it hard to get back to sleep. That didn’t happen the night before last. After my bedtime prayers I slept right through until 6:35 am, and when I woke up I didn’t feel depressed at all! But there’s more. Last night I once again read a Psalm and prayed before I settled down. I must have forgotten to set my alarm clock at my regular waking time of 6:50 am, for when I woke up this morning, feeling very happy after a second undisturbed night’s sleep, the time was 7:25 am! No bad dreams, and no depression!