I have lived with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD, formerly Clinical Depression) for all of my adult life – that is 35 years. For most of that time, my depression was undiagnosed and largely untreated. It has been a difficult journey, one on which I have learned a great deal.
Perhaps you wrestle with the Black Dog of depression. Maybe a friend, colleague or family member does. Or, perhaps you just want to better equipped in case someone crosses your path that you can be a help to. Either way, the following lessons and suggestions might be of some use to you. I sincerely hope that is the case.
What is depression?
How on earth do you define depression? In my case – for others, it may be quite different – it is a storm in my brain.
Imagine, if you would, a beautiful, orderly, picturesque country town. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Manicured lawns. Spotless cars. Perfect homes. Neat hedgerows. Immaculate gardens. Nothing at all is broken, unkempt, or disorganised. The residents are fastidious to the extreme, and it shows. This little town is the picture of order, harmony, and cleanliness.
Then it comes.
A terrifying, cataclysmic whirlwind of destruction roars through this perfect little hamlet. Wreaking havoc in moments, the cyclone leaves a trail of carnage and chaos in its bitter wake. Trees are uprooted and tossed aside like toothpicks. Homes are demolished as if made of balsa wood. Cars are crushed beyond recognition. Powerful winds have taken every semblance of order and eradicated it in seconds.
Only chaos remains.
This powerful metaphor pictures the modus operandi of depression. It is a storm in my mind that wreaks havoc upon my soul. Let me explain.
Many of us, when contemplating the subject of depression, think of the emotional aspect of this condition. Gloom. Despair. Despondency. Sadness. Heartache. Anger. Numbness.
Certainly, the emotional element of depression is extremely powerful. However, an equally important factor to be considered is that of the intellect. That is, the mental and cognitive chaos that rages in the mind of the afflicted individual.
“Often understood as an emotional condition, depression is to those who experience it characterized largely by its cognitive patterns. The novelist William Styron has likened his depression to a storm in his brain, punctuated by thunderclaps of thought—self-critical, fearful, despairing. Lincoln clearly knew these mental strains (he wrote once of “that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death”); he knew how, oppressed by the clamor, people often become hopeless, and seek the most drastic solution.”
Joshua Wolf Shenk
“A storm in his brain” – yes, that’s it.
I cannot speak for others, but in my case, it is as if my brain has gone into overdrive and the throttle is stuck wide open. Sleep departs from me as my chaotic cogitations run wild, rampaging through my confused head and wreaking havoc. Every possible scenario of failure, pain, and disaster presents itself to my mind. If it is hopeless, dark, or terrifying, I will imagine it and meditate upon it. Ad infinitum.
A storm in your mind is extraordinarily debilitating. It steals your natural abilities to think, to reason, to remember, to clarify. The very tools and processes that we use to extricate ourselves from the troubles of life are themselves troubled, even broken. How can we deal with a problem that renders impotent and useless the very means by which we are accustomed to dealing with problems? That, perhaps, is the great challenge of wrestling with depression. Read on!
What can you do?
Based upon decades of experience and research, let me give you a few basic suggestions regarding some practical things that you can do right away in order to help alleviate some of the symptoms of your depression.
Regular exercise will often decrease the severity of many symptoms. It provides very effective stress release, improves sleep, and releases those wonderful endorphins into the troubled mind.
Research published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 2000 showed that exercise – three aerobic sessions a week – was as effective as medication in reducing the symptoms of depression. Furthermore, research showed that people who exercised regularly were much less likely to relapse. A research study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2005 showed that moderate aerobic workouts, done three to five times weekly, cut mild to moderate depression symptoms nearly in half.
Regular exercise has been proven to:
• Increase energy levels
• Strengthen the heart
• Reduce stress, anxiety and depression
• Boost feelings of self-worth
• Improve sleep
One of the simplest helps for the depressed person is for them to do things that they enjoy. Sound too good to be true? Well, unlike the familiar adage, it’s not too good to be true. It works.
What do you like to do? If it isn’t illegal or immoral, do it.
Make time for the things you that enjoy. It really helps.
• Ride a bike
• Read a book
• Go hiking
• Climb a mountain
• Watch a movie
• Listen to music
• Visit family
• Take a vacation
• Go out to eat
• Walk the dog
• Join a gym
• Restore a car
• Knit something
• Build something
• Break something
• Drive somewhere
• Walk somewhere
• Go camping
• Play sport
• Watch sport
• Play a game with your kids
Yep. You read correctly. Talk. Chat. Chinwag. Shoot the breeze, as my American friends might say.
No, you don’t feel like talking.
Yes, you need to talk.
Openly, candidly, honestly.
If you do not have someone to whom you can open up in total confidentiality, in an air of acceptance and mercy, then you need to look for someone. A professional might be of some help in this area.
Now, let me address my fellow men. It’s time to man up and open up. Enough of the false machoism that keeps us from sharing our struggles for fear of being labelled weak. Away with the false notion that real men don’t speak with other men about their emotions, and they certainly don’t cry.
As thousands and millions of men around the world stumble off of an emotional precipice into oblivion and death, clutching their bosoms as they keep their fear and sadness to themselves, someone needs to stand in front of them and cry out, “Stop!”
“Depression isn’t something a lot of men like to talk about because in the modern West it is seen as a weakness, and a man isn’t supposed to be weak. What’s more, men are generally less apt to talk about how they’re feeling than women are. We’re more action-oriented and externally-driven, and pay less attention to what’s going on within…Suicide, a common outcome among people (especially men) experiencing severe depression, has been on the uptick since 2000. Of all the people who committed suicide in 2013, 77% were men. It’s a problem that hits men the hardest, but no one is talking about it that much.”
(Brett McKay – “Leashing the Black Dog.” American statistics)
Write down your thoughts, feelings and experiences on a regular basis.
First, it is quite therapeutic. When you are confused, there is something clarifying about writing down your thoughts. Of course, you should journal the positive, as well as the negative.
Second, it helps to identify helpful and harmful patterns of thought and behaviour.
Third, when you go to receive counsel (which, I hope, you will), then it is of significant value to have such a journal. Your counsellor will make great use of it, identifying significant patterns and depressive triggers.
5. Seek Professional Help
Why don’t we seek professional help when it comes to mental health?
Why do we accept medical specialists in so many fields, yet reject them in the field of mental health? Why is it acceptable to take medication for all kinds of ailments, but not acceptable to take medication for issues of the mind and emotions?
First, let us seek to understand why mental health and its professionals are so marginalised in our western society.
Historically, issues of mental health have been met with ignorance and scepticism. The mentally ill were often imprisoned in their own homes, by their own families, or they were committed to mental institutions. Mental health was largely misunderstood, and, therefore, treatment was crude, ineffective and often harmful. Mental health professionals were seen as quacks, often with good reason.
As a result of this, many westerners are suspicious and sceptical regarding mental health care. Although this mind set is now waning, due to recent moves at educating people, it is still very prevalent. Many people are slow to share their mental and emotional struggles for fear of what others will think of them.
I believe that there are many cases where the services of the right medical professional could certainly help the person suffering from depression. This has been true for me, and for a number of close friends.
However, let me offer a word of caution here. Psychotropic medications – those affecting mental activity, behaviour, or perception – are very powerful. This is a good thing, when they help to relieve the symptoms of depression and other forms of mental illness. This is a dangerous thing, if the drugs are wrongly prescribed, are unsuitable for the patient, are used incorrectly, or are discontinued suddenly. Interactions with other drugs is also highly complex, and potentially harmful.
Please understand that every person, every mind, is very much unique. Therefore, the doctor or psychiatrist cannot be sure of the effects of a particular medication upon a certain individual until the medicine has been administered. Add to this the fact that many medications have significant side effects, and you have a very complex and challenging situation. That is why the choice of health professional is so crucial – I know that I have been blessed with a wonderful doctor and a great psychologist. I would encourage you to see a mental health care professional who has been recommended to you by someone that you trust, if at all possible.
The most important person you’ll ever talk to
The most important person in the world that you’ll ever talk to is you.
No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do.
Paul David Tripp
Your most important conversations take place in the dark, hidden recesses of your own heart and mind.
People might say that talking to yourself is the first sign of insanity, but I know the truth: all of us talk to ourselves. And it often isn’t very pleasant or edifying. In fact, I would go so far as to say this:
The conversations that you have with yourself are a good indication of the state of your mental and emotional health.
As a general rule, the more depressed and melancholic I am, and the more my heart is overwhelmed with fear and worry, the more negative, critical and spiteful my self-talk becomes.
What can be done regarding this destructive self talk?
First, stop listening. Do not take these voices on board. Stop thinking on their evil imaginations. Refuse and reject your own counsel. Cast down imaginations.
Next, use the same rules for self talk as for talking to others. That is, always speak with grace, seasoned with salt.
Third, fill your head with the right kind of voices to drown out harmful self talk. Purify your mind with truth, because the truth will make you free.
The Emotional Toolbox
By way of summary and application, let me introduce you to the idea of your emotional toolbox.
Picture a simple toolbox. It only has a few basic tools inside.
As you learn to use these few simple tools, you find that you could use some more. So, one at a time, you find useful tools that help you get the job done. You purchase them, learn how to use them, and store them in your tool box.
After a while, you have quite a comprehensive collection of tools. With time and patience, you take care of almost any job that needs doing.
You have the right tools to get the job done.
Think of depression as something emotional in your soul that needs fixing. One tool isn’t going to do the job. You need a variety of strategies to help you as you go through life. You need an emotional toolbox. Here are some tools that you should have in your toolbox (not in any specific order):
- Physical exercise
- Professional medical help
- Prayer / meditation
- Church / spiritual / religious gathering
- Medication, administered and managed by your health professional
- Healthy eating and lifestyle habits
- Uplifting music
No single tool will fix every problem, all the time. It takes a combination. Not every person needs every tool, either. Some people can improve without medication, for example, while some struggle to do so. Others cope well without much exercise, and others find it essential.
Find out what tools work for you. Put them in your toolbox and use them. Often.
APPENDIX: Well-known people who suffered from depression
As an interesting footnote, it is believed that the following people suffered from serious depression, yet still achieved great things in their chosen field of endeavour:
- John Adams, 2nd President of the United States and a founding father.
- Hans Christian Andersen, Danish writer.
- Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister.
- Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States.
- Charles Darwin, British naturalist.
- Diana, Princess of Wales.
- Charles Dickens, British writer.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, American author.
- Michelangelo, Italian painter and sculptor.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Austrian composer.
- Isaac Newton, British physicist.
- Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist (‘father of the atomic bomb’).
- Edgar Allan Poe, American poet and writer.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff, Russian composer and pianist.
- John D. Rockefeller, American industrialist.
- Charles M. Schultz, American cartoonist.
- Robert Schumann, German composer.
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Russian composer.
- Leo Tolstoy, Russian writer.
- Mark Twain, American writer.
- Vincent van Gogh – Dutch artist.
- Oprah Winfrey, American talk show host.
- Boris Yeltsin, first President of Russia.
I am not giving my blanket approval to all of these individuals and their works; I am simply pointing out that people throughout history overcame their melancholy, or managed it, and excelled in some way. Depression did not win.