’Tis the Season for Depression: 7 Steps To Battle Darkness

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“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”     –Psalm 139:7-12

It was impressed on me to write about depression a few days ago. Seasonal Affective Disorder touches a lot of people this time of year, and the highest rates of depression occur during the holiday season. I had five different people either talk about or post something related to depression over the past few weeks. There definitely are folks in the Tanner and greater Limestone County communities who are battling depression. 

Depression is the common cold of mental illness. According to a study done by the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.7% of all adults age 18 and older reported a major depressive episode in 2016. That percentage goes up with younger generations: 12.7% amongst adolescents aged 12-17, and 10.9% amongst young adults aged 18-25. I’ve had several seasons when I’ve been down and emotionally numb. I’ve seen counselors a few different times in life, and probably will in the future. While I’m not a counseling professional, I wanted to share some things I’ve found useful in seasons of darkness and depression. I hope you find them helpful too.

1. Connect with God in the darkness–There can be a sweetness to the darkness if we face it with Jesus. We can have a deep connection with God and others in our sadness. Don’t walk away from God in your pain; rather, pour your heart out to him. We are invited to bring our negative emotions to God in the prayer book of the Bible, the Psalms. Many of the Psalms showcase experiences of darkness and have people pouring out their souls to God in complaint, anger, and confusion (read Psalm 22, 42, 43, 44, and 88 for starters). Sometimes God comes very close to us in our sadness and difficulties, as he did to a suicidal Elijah in 1 Kings 19, or to Paul concerning his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, or Jesus in Gethsemane in Luke 22:39-46. Pour out your heart to God; don’t cut yourself off from him in these dark times. He is near to the broken hearted (Psalm 51:17) and he will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matthew 12:15-21). Are you sharing your struggles and negative emotions with Jesus, or cutting yourself off from him? He desires to strengthen and help us.

2. Claim the gifts that come from dark seasons–There can be gifts that come from being acquainted with melancholy. There is no experience or trauma that God cannot redeem and use for good in some way, according to Paul in Romans 8:28. That’s not to say that everything that happens to us is good or is part of the intentional will of God. Rather, God can turn around whatever we go through and bring good out of it, even if it is despicably evil. The darkest hour of Jesus’ life–his betrayal, suffering, crucifixion, and death–was redeemed by God to become the means of winning deliverance for all who would receive Christ in faith. God can redeem our situations of trouble too, if we cling to him in faith and don’t give up. God develops our endurance, character, and hope in situations of suffering (Romans 5:3-5). Similarly, going through trouble can lead to good art. I have always been attracted to gloomy songs because they help us feel our emotions, express our pain, connect with someone else over the experience of suffering, and the really good ones help orient us toward hope. These songs send the message that there’s someone out there who gets it and they’ve worked through it. Being acquainted with depression can help us connect with others in their times of despair. We are better able to be a calming, empathic, hopeful presence. Don’t lose sight of the gifts that can come from your experiences of despair. Those who run from sadness won’t understand or be able to wield these gifts as effectively. Have you claimed the gifts that come from the darkness?

3. Don’t fall in love with despair and wickedness–As a caution related to my previous points, while there can be growth and connection with God in the dark, there also can be a temptation to fall in love with it. Despair may be all we pursue or allow ourselves to feel. We can come to believe we are unworthy of love, we don’t deserve or can’t accept happiness, we are broken and really deserve hopelessness and pain. One of the effects of sin is that it corrupts our hearts and minds, so that we desire the wrong things and believe the wrong things. The sins of others also shape us–negative beliefs get written deep into us by abuse, rejection, pain, and frustration. There is often a measure truth to our negative thoughts and beliefs. I’m not going to tell you just to accept yourself, that you’re fine just as you are so just do you. In fact, it’s healthy to feel negative emotions and be challenged by God, because the Bible is pretty up front about us being sinners who don’t measure up to a holy God. Before I became a Christian, while I experienced the love of Jesus drawing me to himself, I also experienced conviction of sin, that I was jacked up and stood in need of God’s mercy. There are parts of us–not all of us, but parts of us–that really are quite unlovely. All of us mess up, all of us experience brokenness. But the good news is that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on us cleaning ourselves up. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Jesus loves us so much that he died and rose again to heal our brokenness. By the cross he rids us of shame and guilt and radiates the Father’s pure love to us. This is not because we are worthy, not because we’ve earned it, but because of God’s overflowing generosity and grace that he freely gives to whoever will trust Jesus as Lord.

Sadness can help us be honest about our flaws and limits, but being consumed by it leads us to push away the love and grace of God. A tool of the enemy is to get us to acknowledge our badness but think that grace isn’t really available to us. The most devastating schemes of the devil are partial truths. Jesus can help us see ourselves as he sees us: people who are loved in spite of our sins, who are fearfully and wonderfully made, people whom God desires to bless, people meant to live for God’s glory and purpose.

This is really the heart of the internal battle. I can’t make you love God, have a healthy love of yourself, and want the right stuff. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job, and he can use Spirit-filled people to move us to that place. Do you allow yourself to experience love and joy? Have you fallen in love with darkness so much that it’s all you pursue anymore and you reject God’s love and grace for you? Do you believe you are a deeply loved person, someone Jesus valued so much that he died for you and lives to be in a loving relationship with you? Don’t let darkness lead us to smother hope and push away our extravagant God, whose grace is always greater than our sins.

4. Remember that where you are now isn’t where you’ll always be–Night isn’t mean to last forever–eventually dawn comes. Negative circumstances are what lead most people to depression. You may be suffering abuse. You may feel smothered by a dysfunctional family that you wish you could get away from. You may be experiencing conflict or mistreatment at work. You may have lost a family member, a friend, or a job. You may have done something you’re ashamed of and have a guilty conscience. You may be poor, struggling to make ends meet. People may make fun of you or pick on you. You may feel like you don’t fit in anywhere and no one is interested in you. You may be struggling with health problems. While these things probably won’t change overnight, some of them will. Where you are now isn’t where you always will be, and Jesus can bring us into seasons of favor and joy if we persist through the hard seasons. Sometimes we can get to those seasons by making a change–changing jobs, changing where we live, getting some healthy distance from our family, getting away from an abusive relationship, getting some distance from a particular friend group, investing in a relationship with Jesus, changing our habits, and so forth. Sometimes we can’t change our situation and we have to grind our way through a difficult season. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is useful in situations like this: “Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Whether we can make changes in our situation or not, we are not to lose hope. Hope is the ability to see how things could be better, to anticipate it, and to orient ourselves toward that future goodness. With Jesus, while we may have difficult seasons, there is always hope for things getting better. Don’t throw away the hope we have in Christ just because our present season is hard. And if your safety is being threatened and you’re being abused, there are ways to get you to a safer place. Just reach out.

5. Have friends–One of our students at First Priority last week shared how someone befriended her when she was going through a season of depression and helped her get through it. Now she wants to pay it forward and spread hope and joy to others. If you find a friend who will listen to you, care for you, joke around with you, and especially pray for you, you’ve found a treasure. I call on friends when I’m going through a hard time to share what’s going on and ask for prayer. Depression can lead us to isolate ourselves and display awkward behaviors that push people away. Resist the urge to isolate. Find some folks you can trust, who won’t betray your best interests. Proverbs tells us that there are friends out there who stick closer than family (18:24). You can be that friend for someone else, too. The important thing is to have friends you can trust and to have give and take in your friendships.

6. Go see a counselor–When we get physically sick, we go see a doctor in hopes that they will help make us well. Unfortunately, we don’t always think the same way when it comes to emotional sickness. We may push ourselves away from seeing a counselor, telling ourselves that going to a counselor is a sign that we’re “one of those messed up people.” Being real about problems and seeking healing and wholeness doesn’t mean you’re weak; it actually takes courage. If you’re too proud to seek wholeness, it’s your loss. Counselors and psychiatrists, especially well-trained Christian ones, are like doctors of the soul. They have expertise in diagnosing emotional wounds and unhelpful behaviors/thought patterns. They can point us toward healing and give us concrete steps to get there. They can determine if our brains aren’t producing enough neurotransmitters to make us have a good mood, and can detect other neuro-chemical issues that affect our emotional states. Medicine helps heal, and there’s no shame in taking medicine for mental health when we need it. Before Thanksgiving, I talked with a stranger while I was getting my wife’s tires changed. As we talked about life and church, he eventually shared how the antidepressant he takes greatly helps his mood and helped him get through a difficult season in caring for his elderly parents. Antidepressants aren’t silver bullets that totally fix everything, but they can be tools to have in our toolkit. Medicine can help our moods and emotional states, but I would combine it with other healthy activities. It never hurts to go see a counselor, and I have a professionally trained Christian counselor I’d recommend in the Madison area if you’re interested. 

7. Cope with stress in healthy ways– We all have different behaviors we use to cope with stress. They all work for us to some degree, but some are healthier than others. I offer some brief Dos and Don’ts here:

Do: Do get enough sleep and exercise. Do pray and go to church. Do vent to friends. Do keep a journal where you write out all you’re dealing with–you can even turn it into prayer. Do get clean from any addictions. Do punch a pillow or punching bag. Do assertively handle conflict.

Don’t: Don’t regularly eat tons of awful food. Don’t isolate. Don’t rip someone’s head off in anger. Don’t run from healthy conflict. Don’t shoulder everything yourself and try to be a strong rock. Don’t self medicate with drugs, alcohol, or escapist behavior. Escapist behavior compounds problems, and while it may take the edge off for a while, it while lead you to crash down lower and lower.

Some days we do better than others when it comes to coping with stress and having healthy disciplines. I certainly don’t have perfect discipline. None of us do. The sooner we accept and even laugh about our foibles, the better it will be. If we mess up, ask God for forgiveness, forgive yourself, and try again.

So there you have it. I hope some of this resonated with you. My prayers are with you if you’re going through a season of depression. While the darkness is tough, and all of us will go through dark seasons in life, they don’t have to get the best of us. We can be good stewards of our dark times, and God can work in us through them. Just be easy on yourself and give it time.

What would you add to the list?

Stephen Fincher

Tanner United Methodist Church, 19607 Huntsville Brownsferry Road, Tanner, AL, 35671

Pastor in Tanner, AL with my wife Laura.