Strategies for Dealing With Depression
About the Guest
How should a person handle depression? Christian counselors Ed Welch, author of Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, and Leslie Vernick, author of Getting Over the Blues, offer some helpful suggestions for walking through depression.
How should a person handle depression?
Strategies for Dealing With Depression
Bob: The experience of depression can take people by surprise.
Woman #1: I have four children; and after my third child was born, I was just a wreck. That's really not normal for me. I was snapping at my husband and…
Woman #2: It was just one thing after another—the billing, the schooling, and the children. I just literally lost it. The rug just got pulled out from under me.
Woman #3: I think, in my family, you know, it's probably 50-50. Half of us deal a little bit more with depression. Who knows why? That's just the way we're wired.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 14th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey; and I'm Bob Lepine. Is there hope for those who find themselves struggling with depression, trapped in "a stubborn darkness”?
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We've been talking this week about depression; and I can imagine there may have been some listeners who said, "I'm too depressed to listen." I mean, I'm not trying to trivialize it; but I can imagine there are some folks who said, "I just don't want to listen to a program about depression because I'm too far down in the tunnel." You really do wonder, “Is there hope for folks in that kind of a situation?”
Dennis: There is hope, and I feel like our guests on FamilyLife Today have all this week given practical biblical hope and help for struggling with one of the more mysterious emotional challenges that a human being ever faces. Dr. Ed Welch and Leslie Vernick join us again on FamilyLife Today.
Ed, Leslie, thanks so much for writing on this subject, for your ministry through counseling and education. I just appreciate you both, and I also appreciate you pointing us back to God and the Scripture through both of the books that you two have written.
Dennis: Ed, one of the things you talk about in your book are strategies and, Leslie, you have these in your book as well, in terms of how you go about dealing with depression from a practical standpoint.
Bob: You've both seen people come out of the tunnel, haven't you? You've both seen people who were down there for a long time; and you thought, "Boy, this may be the rest of their life." Something happens and the light comes on; and the depression dissipates, right?
Leslie: Well, that's right. It is not just sometimes always a light comes on, but any kind of healing takes time. If someone has had major surgery, for example, or anything that's been debilitating—hit by a car—you don't just jump out of bed and start running a marathon.
I call my exercise as first steps because sometimes a first step is all you can take. You have no energy. You feel like you're at the bottom of the barrel or at the end of the tunnel, or it's too dark; and you're afraid to start running. All you have is one step. As you take that step, you start to build some muscles that you can take the next step and the next step. It's very important that a woman or a man, who is depressed, not put a burden on themselves thinking that they've got to read a whole chapter of Scripture or they've got to do something really, really hard.
All they need to do is take the first step. That begins the process as long as they can begin to take the next step after that. When they fall down, to get up and take the next step.
Dennis: Using your imagery of the first step, stepping up and away from depression, are you saying that someone who has a propensity towards depression can truly step up and out of it and no longer struggle with it for the rest of their lives?
Leslie: No, no. I'm not saying that someone will never struggle with depression. I think that there are people who are vulnerable to depression—I being one of them. There are some steps that you take, and then you learn depression- prevention steps in your life just like you would take steps to prevent heart disease or cancer.
That doesn't mean you're not going to get it, but you certainly can build healthier lifestyle patterns in your life; for example, women learning to manage stress. It is so important when we have resources in our life. Stress is one of the major factors that often tumbles someone into depression—to learn to manage stress, both external stress—the environmental stress around you—but also the internal stress.
For women, it is all these, “I should be this,” and, “Everyone should be happy with me all the time, and I can never make a mistake.” This internal pressure that we put on ourselves that makes us more vulnerable to getting depressed when someone is upset with us or angry with us and we don’t know how to handle that conflict—those interpersonal problems. It is really important that women learn, and men, how to handle stress—how to manage their resources.
Bob: Your exercise regiment, your time in the Word, and all of those disciples are a part of your depression-management system to keep you from falling back into the tunnel?
Leslie: The purpose, I would say, “My purpose is to know God and glorify Him.” I wouldn’t do it as a means to an end but certainly the results of that because when you are depressed, it is really hard to implement some of those strategies. You start to do them when you are not so depressed so that when you start to head toward that, you can pull yourself back sooner. That is, I think, is a really important thing to learn in the midst of depression—how to recognize you are heading toward the cliff and pull yourself back.
Ed: It seems like one of the questions we're wrestling with is, “What can we guarantee? From our knowledge of Scripture, what can we guarantee to the person who is struggling with depression? Can we guarantee that following the biblical course will mean they will never struggle with depression again?” We can't say that. That would be like saying, "If you follow a biblical course, you'll never encounter suffering once again in your life."
There are some things, I think, we can hold out almost as guarantees in the Scripture. For example, the worst that we can guarantee is something like a Christian funeral. A Christian funeral has great grief; but, at the same time, there is this joy. There is this knowledge that death has been conquered. Christians are very, very weird people, where they are able to have simultaneous emotions. I think that's the worst that we can offer a person who struggles with depression.
Dennis: We can offer them joy, a sense of victory, even though they may never "slay the beast"—the depression beast that pulls them back down—but they can, in a sense, have victory in the midst of that.
Ed: Have hope in the midst of it.
Leslie: Yes, a sense of hope, which is really the death knoll of depression—a hopelessness. Once you have no hope, then your spirit is about ready to give up; but someone who still has hope in the midst of depression is someone like Ed’s dad, who can continue to persevere because you know that there is a purpose in your depression. Therefore, your suffering isn’t meaningless.
It is that meaningless suffering that just does us in. When we know that our suffering is for a purpose, either for our own good or for the glory of God—God may use my suffering to enable someone else. My depression may serve to help me be a better counselor, and I can see that now.
Bob: Is it more likely that someone who is in the tunnel of depression is going to have a slow journey out rather than wake up one morning, the birds are singing, and the sky is blue; and they go, "Well, the cloud lifted; and I'm okay."
Leslie: Well, you know, Jesus healed people in different ways. For some people, it was very instantaneous. He said, "Get up and walk;" and they got up and walked. There have been people who I've talked to who have said, "You know, I woke up this morning and that dark cloud was gone; and praise God." Who knows why it came, and who knows why it left. It was there, and now it's not; but for most people, I find it's a more gradual healing.
Dennis: Whether it is steps or whether it is strategies, both of you write about this. I'd like to explore something you talk about in both of your books. Ed, you have—I'm looking here—you have 20 practical strategies that really appeal to me, as a man.
Bob: As a fixer.
Dennis: Who wants to fix it. Now, you know, we're laughing about it, and I know we're not just going to fix it; but there really are some good practical helps here. Again, Leslie, you have steps. I want both of you to just share some practical strategies and steps.
Ed: Many of these strategies come from people who have been depressed. They have been used by folks. Here is one, "Be suspicious of how you feel. Be suspicious of how you feel.” In other words, "I feel like nobody loves me. I feel like God doesn't love me." Feelings, when they are as pronounced as they are in depression, they demand our allegiance. They demand some sort of interpretive power so "I feel like no one loves me," becomes, "No one loves me." There is a huge difference between the two.
No. 1, “How can we be suspicious of how we're feeling?” Here is something, again, that demands great faith. How can we bring a humility to the process because depression is saying, "There is no hope. There is no purpose. There is no joy"? Essentially, what we're doing is, we're asking the person to have a protest against that and to say, "No, there is hope. There is purpose. There is joy." That protest demands immense humility.
Leslie: One of the things, dovetailing on Ed's strategy, is I talk about our heart being comprised of our feelings, which is important to recognize, but also the thought/feeling connection because, for example, the psalmist says in
Psalm 55:2, "My thoughts trouble me, and I am distraught." Our thoughts affect our feelings.
When a person feels like they're abandoned, it's because they're thinking that they have been abandoned. It is very important for us to understand that just because we think something is true, it doesn't necessarily make it true.
God's Word is a plumb line for truth. Even the Israelites felt abandoned by God in Isaiah 49 because they were telling themselves that God abandoned them. God took pains in that passage of Scripture to say, "Though you think this, it's not true."
It is very important for us to be able to understand that our heart can deceive us in our thoughts and our feelings. Also, our heart comprises of our will. That is where the psalmist says, "As for me, I will." Partly learning to battle depression is an exercise in strengthening our will so that we can begin to say, "As for me, I will continue to have hope in God."
Bob: I want to make sure our listeners understand. We are not suggesting that you read through a verse like that, and voila! Everything is fixed.
Ed: Here's the pill. Yes, that would be great.
Bob: I'm thinking, what is it, Psalm 46 where the psalmist says, "Why so downcast, O my soul?" Right? Just put your hope in God. Well, there it is. There's the verse on depression. Your soul is downcast; put your hope in God; problem cured. Next?
Would to God that it was that easy, right?
Leslie: The question of, “How do I do that in my life situation?” is really the finesse of coming alongside of someone and applying the right medicine to the right problem. You know, there are lots of good medicines out there; but if it's not applied to the right diagnosis and the right illness, it doesn't work. We can do something that's not effective—doesn’t make it bad medicine; it just makes it not applicable.
Dennis: Right. What we're talking about here, really, is applicable to every follower of Christ.
Dennis: You've got to believe the truth about who God is and what His character is like and not believe a lie that God's mean-spirited or He's evil. You have to believe the truth about Him, about yourself, and about life.
Leslie: People have come into my counseling, "You're so practical. You're so practical." I never liked that word. I always thought, "I want to be inspirational." I am not inspirational; I'm practical. I am always the “how-to person.”
How do you actually apply this? How do you actually help someone have hope in God? If God says, "Have hope in me," well, then, how do you actually get that hope?
I think it is really important that we take a piece of Scripture that God is telling us about and meditate on it, chew on it, and say, "Okay, God, if this is what you're saying to me, how does this apply to my life? How does this apply to my feelings? How does this apply to my thoughts? How do I take this thought captive to the obedience of Christ?
When I don't, what am I supposed to do with that? How do I work this into my relationships?" We don't just take this truth and put it on our forehead like a band-aid. We have to swallow it deep in our soul and make it nourish our souls.
Ed: This is where we go back to depression being a journey that you shouldn't take by yourself because what Leslie is talking about seems utterly impossible for a lot of depressed people.
Leslie: That's right.
Ed: So some earlier steps would be, for example, most depressed people have some idea that there is hope in Scripture. They have some idea that this is truly the Living Word of God. It's not simply a book. It's the way the Spirit speaks life into us.
They are willing, at least, to look, which might mean, "I will read Scripture to a depressed person." I will say, "Here are some things I found edifying. I don't know if you will. Stop me; raise your hand if there is anything that I say that could seem like God's Word spoken to you." Then, when we find that passage of Scripture, then to do exactly what Leslie said, "Now let's stay here. Let's pray about this. Let's apply it together. Let's consider 25 applications of it. How can this truly be ours?"
Leslie: How can you walk this out tomorrow, today, this afternoon when you go home? I love the passage when Jesus was trying to comfort Martha after Lazarus had died. He was speaking to her. I could just picture her, her eyes glazing over, sort of saying, "Jesus, yes, I heard this before." He stops in the middle and He says, "Martha, do you believe me?"
Oftentimes, I ask people, "When you're reading the Scriptures, to stop themselves and say, you know, ‘Do I really believe you, Lord? Do I really believe what you're saying?’ If I don't, again, be honest and, ‘Help my unbelief. I don't really believe you're good, I don't really believe you love me, I don't really believe that you have a purpose in all this depression.’"
Talk it out with God, and let God talk to you. That is a very important relational connection that we begin to build, even in the midst of our depression, with God.
Ed: The shorthand for this, Leslie, would be to recognize that Scripture is not simply a group of words; but it is personal communication.
Leslie: That' right.
Ed: I think you mentioned before that it is the wonder of the Christian life—there is a certain give and take. God speaks, and we respond. How can a depressed person respond? The response might be as simple as saying, "Amen. I believe this helped my unbelief."
Dennis: I want you both to comment on this one that, Ed, you have in your book. "Keep a sharp eye out for grumbling and complaining. Like gossip, these sins are acceptable in our culture so we don't see their ugly roots. What does the grumbling or complaining really say?" Now, what does that have to do with depression?
Ed: Okay. Let me start with that by suggesting that anytime we see sin in our life, it is a really, really good thing. That is what I'm assuming. I'm assuming that as the Book of John says, "When the Spirit comes, he is going to convict us of sin." If we see sin, we say God is on the move; and this is a wonderful expression of love that God is giving us. To be on the lookout for sin is just the normal Christian life; and it's an excellent, excellent process.
Bob: I have to stop you just as you say…
Ed: That doesn't sound excellent to you, Bob?
Bob: It does. I was just with a friend who is going through a season of time where God has been doing kind of one of these revealing points. My friend was saying, "I'm seeing the reality of the blackness of my own sin." We did talk, rejoicing at what a great thing this was for God to do, the kindness of God to show you your sin.
I actually pulled back and thought, "I wonder what I'm not seeing. I wonder where I'm..." There was part of me going, "I probably need to, but I really am not sure I want to." You know? It is that tension between, "Lord, show me. Well, no. Well, yes. Well, no," You know?
Leslie: There is this fear of seeing our sin. There is pride that we really don't want to see that we look uglier than we thought we were, but it is likening it to looking in the mirror. I mean, all of us look in the mirror every morning. We see ourselves, and most of us admit that we need some work before we come out to the door.
That is sort of the same thing when the Scripture shows us our sin, or God shows us through His spirit our sin. It is like looking in the mirror. Then we have decide, "Well, thank you, God, you showed me that my hair was sticking up. Thank you that you showed me that I've got dirt smudged all over my face, so then I can take care of this and fix this. It's a kindness to me that you are helping me to become a better version of myself than allowing me to continue being deceived that I’m fine when I'm really not.”
Bob: Okay. Well, back to the grumbling and complaining—so we see our sin. How does that affect depression?
Ed: I can certainly speak personally. When I find myself leaning in a depressive direction, what happens? I get negative. Nothing is good. Everything is colored with pessimism, and it seems right to me because we live in a fallen world. Things don't always go very well.
When I move to a place like Numbers Chapter 14, and here people are doing things that just seem very ordinary. They are complaining because they are in the wilderness. The wilderness is a wretched place. That is where every depressed person, by the way, finds themselves. They are in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place that is barren and destitute, but it is also a place where you find God.
Well, instinctive to the human heart, we are going to grumble and complain. If you listen, sometimes to your own depression, as you overhear it, oftentimes you will hear that there is a deep grumbling and complaining. “God is not good. This world is not good. He is not in control. There is no hope in this world.”
Depressed people are just like everybody else. We all grumble and complain. When you listen to depression, try to hear some of the logic of it. Sometimes it sounds just like Numbers 14—the children of Israel in the wilderness.
Leslie: But the real important thing for a person, who is depressed, when they become aware of that, is not to beat themselves up, "Oh, what's wrong with me that I'm just a horrible sinner?"; but to say, "You know, I can see that God is using this awareness to help me to change to become a stronger person, to become a holier person, to be able to confess the sins."
Say, "God, I don't want to be this grumbler and complainer. I can see where this drags my spirit down; and Satan gets a foothold into my life when I begin to doubt your goodness and your character—that you gypped me out of something good," which is what the Israelites were doing, "God, you've gypped me. I belong in Egypt! I like those leeks and onions."
Dennis: Yes. It seems, to me, that one of the other emotions closely attached to depression is anger. When people have resentment in their hearts toward another person, can't forgiveness be one of the key strategies in moving and stepping out of depression—forgiving another person? I know of a person right now who is trapped in this tunnel of depression. It seems like this person needs to begin by forgiving their spouse.
Leslie: I have a whole chapter in my book about when people have hurt us and, “How does that affect us?” and, “How does that cause us to be more vulnerable to getting depressed?” Forgiveness, certainly, is an important part. We may feel like this person doesn't deserve forgiveness, and they may not; but as long as we stand and judge, then we stay in bondage.
Ed: What we're doing is: We're trying to listen just a little bit more carefully to depression. What is it saying—anything in particular? Sometimes we can't understand what it's saying; but there are times when, Dennis, as you are pointing out, it does move us in that anger spectrum, grumbling being sort of low-level anger; complaining being low-level anger.
Now, what does anger say? Anger says, "I want something, and I didn't get it. I want something, and I didn't get it." You can see how self-pity is a neighbor to that because anger is saying it loudly, "I want something, and I didn't get it!" Self-pity is saying (softly), "I want something, I didn't get it, and I'll never get it." Both of them have that anger component.
Again, it’s a delightful opportunity to search our hearts. Leslie is making a very important point here: Here is the Law, the absolute law. The absolute law is: Christ gets the last word. The last word is a word of hope and a word of beauty. The last word is a word that says, "Yes, you've been faithless in your grumbling, and complaining, and your anger; but I am faithful. The cross assures you of my faithfulness." The last word has to be a Gospel word, which is a word of hope and encouragement.
Bob: I think both of you are familiar with C.J. Mahaney's little book, The Cross-Centered Life. In that book, one of the things he talks about is the need that all of us have to do less listening to ourselves and more talking to ourselves. We need to hear less what we are saying and, instead, start instructing our soul on what's true.
If we can somehow get out from behind, "Why do I feel this way and what's going on?" and just have more of an other-centered, outward-focused, self-sacrificial life, that fulfills what the Gospel calls us to, that is going to do a lot to break up some of the fog that we're walking around in.
Dennis: And, Bob, what happens in that situation is a person who is depressed ends up feeding their soul the same stuff, the same anger, the same lack of forgiveness, the same resentment, and all the way down.
Ed and Leslie, I really want to thank you for being honest and allowing us to peer into your journey as individual followers of Christ. We've been talking about how depression is a part of the suffering that God can take us through as an individual believer. We've talked about how joy is possible if you believe the truth about who God is and what He says about you.
Finally, we have also talked about in the tunnel, in the darkest—what seems like the most hopeless situation—God is there. He supplies other people to come alongside us in the midst of that dark tunnel to help us through and to, hopefully, help us step out of it.
I just appreciate both of you, your counseling ministry. I think, most of all, not just because you have a compassionate heart and a love for God and for people but that you're anchoring your wisdom and your advice back in the truth of God's Word. I just appreciate both of you, and hope you'll come back and join us again here on FamilyLife Today.
Leslie: We’d love to. Thank you.
Ed: That's kind of you. Thank you, Dennis.
Bob: We hope this has been helpful for everybody listening, not just for those who are wrestling with depression, but for all of us who know people who are wrestling with depression. This conversation, we hope, has helped people know how we can love those people well, how we can walk the path with them, and support them in the midst of what they're going through.
I hope listeners will get copies of your books. Ed has written a book called
Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Light for the Path. Leslie has written a book called Defeating Depression. We have both of the books in our FamilyLife TodayResource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about how to get a copy of either or both of these books.
Again, our website: FamilyLifeToday.com or call toll-free 1-800-FLTODAY—
1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word TODAY. Ask about the books on depression. Somebody can answer any questions you have about the books or make arrangements to have them sent to you.
This week, we are also making available a free 64-page booklet by our friend, Randy Alcorn, that addresses the subject, “If God Is Good, Why Do We Hurt?” It is not just about the issue of depression that we have been talking about this week—it’s about all kinds of issues—all kinds of pain and suffering that goes on in our lives. It examines God’s goodness in the midst of those kinds of human realities.
Again, the booklet is a free gift that we would love to send to you this week. If you are a new listener to FamilyLife Today, we would love to get acquainted. This is a way we can do that. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about how to get a copy of the free booklet from Randy Alcorn, or call 1-800-FLTODAY. We will make arrangements to send it out to you. We are glad to have you listening, and we appreciate your support of FamilyLife Today.
We want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow when we are going to talk to a husband who walked on a journey with his wife through the pathway of darkness. It is an interesting story because his wife is somewhat well-known as a comedienne. David Pierce joins us tomorrow. We will hear his story. I hope you can be with us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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