Depression can be debilitating. It can make the seemingly simplest of tasks seem like scaling Mount Everest. Finding ways to persevere through these seasons can be immensely helpful in the long run. In this post, I’m going to outline a few of the practical ideas that have been helpful to me.
As with my previous post on this subject, I want to reiterate that there are two ways to read these suggestions: (1) As a simplistic attempts to explain highly complex problems. Many people have simplistic answers to emotional and mental exhaustion. These answers are cliché, trite, and reductionist. They offer no real comfort and misunderstand the complexity of a person’s struggle. It is not my intention to do that in sharing my experience. (2) Instead, these can be read as an attempt to offer some hope and encouragement. What follows is merely my own experience. I do not presume that these suggestions will impact everyone the same way. My goal is rather simple: to encourage you by my experience that there is hope and help that can be found for depressed pastors.
For starters, it’s important to set realistic and attainable goals. Sometimes we can exacerbate our problems by reaching for perfection. An all-or-nothing attitude will quickly become deflating. It’s tempting to think that if something doesn’t just fix all my emotional/mental problems then it’s not worth doing. That is a massive failure on my part. I need to see the value of smaller goals and their meaningful contributions to my long-term recovery. Some days my goals might be really small: get out of bed and take a shower. Other days my goals can be more involved: finish two chapters in the book I am reading; help my wife around the house; cut the grass; do my job. I am trying to be patient with my own growth. The objective most days is not to succumb to passivity; plodding activity is always better.
Serving others is also another practical step with massive benefits. Depression shrinks my world. It prevents me from seeing God’s larger picture; it prevents me from seeing the many people around me who also struggle. Remembering that I am not the only one in sorrow or hurt reminds me to look up from my world and find ways to love others. Counselor, Brad Hambrick comments:
How do we keep our own struggles in perspective? One way is that we give weight to the struggles of others. A primary focus on our struggles always makes them seem more significant. When we begin to neglect serving others, we no longer hear phrases like: “thank you…,” “I miss you…,” and “you make my life better…” The absence of these kinds of interactions makes life seem less meaningful; which only makes depression-anxiety worse. But when all we hear is the silence; we often fail to recognize it may be rooted in our void of serving others. (Depression/Anxiety: A Suffering Paradigm, 56)
Serving others expands my world, allowing me to regain a sense of purpose, and meaning that depression attempts to rob.
Music has been another helpful means for me to engage my emotions Godward. I love music and listening to worship music in particular can bring joy and focus to my mind and heart in a time of an emotional low. It doesn’t always work, it’s not magic, and there are times where I don’t want to feel so I refuse to listen even to worship music at those moments (this is wrong of me, I believe). Often, however, I have found that some good songs can motivate me, encourage me, and reorient me towards truth. So I may listen to my iPod periodically throughout the day. I have a playlist of pre-selected songs that I know to have a powerful effect on me and I may revert to them for help in difficult moments. A couple of songs that are helpful right now are: “Oceans” by Hillsong; “Give Me Faith” by Elevation Worship; “Be Thou My Vision” by Ascend the Hill; and “Beneath the Waters” by Hillsong. Music is a powerful tool to encourage our emotions, try utilizing it.
Finally, I have been learning the importance of taking care of my body. Getting plenty of sleep, eating better, not drinking too much caffeine, and exercising regularly have helped me with how I feel and how I respond to those feelings. We are whole-being creatures, which means that my physical body impacts my emotional, psychological, and spiritual body. It is immensely difficult to fight an emotional, mental, or spiritual battle when my physical body is lethargic and achy. It’s not impossible, but exceedingly challenging. In fact there is a great deal of research that reveals that regular exercise can play a positive role in a person’s struggle with depression. Biblical Counselor and medical doctor Charles Hodges has pointed to some research to suggest that “daily vigorous exercise can reduce the risk of depression in the general population by 34%” (“Depression and Exercise”). It’s not a perfect cause and effect relationship by any means, but it’s made a small difference in my own experience. Sleep too plays a crucial role in emotional health. Seven to eight hours a day allows us to better regulate our emotions. Lastly, diet can be a productive contributor to emotional/mental health. Hambrick notes some specific benefits to healthy eating when he writes:
- Antioxidants combat the effects of free radicals, a primary source of the physiological deterioration caused by depression-anxiety. Antioxidants include beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
- Carbohydrates have been linked to boosts in the neurotransmitter serotonin.
- Protein is known to boost the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. (9)
So, I am learning to take care of myself, be conscious of the biological and physiological factors that may contribute to or exacerbate my emotional/mental struggles.
It’s not that any one of these practical, or the previous spiritual, counsels does the trick. As if one element is the determining factor of my struggle. Rather, it is these tools that are collectively helping me to battle my depression better. Some days are still exceedingly hard. Yet, I am hopeful because I know God’s Word is true even when I don’t feel its truthfulness. The Scriptures state: he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). One way or another, in this life or the next, God will transform my experience of depression. I have hope, even if it is sometimes a weak hope, I have hope. These practical exercises play a part in cultivating that continued hope.