Depression and Anxiety

At a time of sudden tragedy or acute physical illness, there is an immediate response by others, even strangers, to jump in with a concerted, all-out effort to help. This is the way it should be. In these types of situations, the trouble is obvious, and we naturally care. However, there are other tragedies and disorders—no less painful—that are suffered valiantly and patiently but, too often, alone. When a problem is chronic, those observing tend to move on with their lives. When a problem is hidden, others are not even cognizant of its existence. And finally, when a problem is complex and filled with misery, the natural human response is to walk away because it is too uncomfortable to look at. Nobody wants to change their cozy world view. This would entail a level of vulnerability that few are willing to hazard. It just might hurt too much, or it might cause too much inconvenience. The easy way out is to go into denial mode, as the priest and the Levite did in the account of the good Samaritan. Today, you are invited to take the risk of opening your mind to the realities of suffering. This time, the type of suffering being considered is mental/emotional disorders. Although many types will be mentioned, depression and anxiety will be examined the most.

Mental disorders can be divided between psychosis and neurosis. Neurosis is a relatively mild mental illness, while psychosis is a severe mental disorder. The most pronounced difference is that a psychosis causes a person to lose touch with reality. This can include seeing things that are not there, hearing voices, experiencing delusions, etc. An example of a delusional psychotic symptom could be a person believing that they are the president or some prominent person. Some psychotic illnesses are schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and sometimes bipolar disorder. A person with a neurosis can have delusions in the sense that things are exaggerated in their minds, but they have the capability to recognize this, even though that doesn’t necessarily stop the loop of unhealthy thought patterns. Some neurotic illnesses include depression, general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and others.
Depression and anxiety are so intertwined that we will consider them together.

The term depression is thrown around too loosely and is often used to describe a transient, difficult time in life. For example, a person can have a disappointment, a loss, a bad day, or a spiritual struggle. These types of situations can cause sadness and unhappiness. In a sense, it could be called mild depression, but this is a disservice to those who are battling severe or clinical depression. The common difficulties in life can usually be taken care of by trusting them to the Lord. There are also many helpful scriptures, books, and coping methods that are available to aid a person towards emotional healing during these times. Often, articles are written in which it is stated that a person experienced depression or anxiety and, after a simple experience with the Lord, He miraculously took it away. These experiences are real and precious and should never be trivialized. However, calling this type of situation depression or anxiety can cause confusion to those dear ones who are suffering from clinical (severe) depression or anxiety disorder. Perhaps, for these milder cases, it would be better to use different terminology: difficulties, struggles, trials, sad times, fears, etc.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality” (Andrew Solomon). Often, a person with clinical depression loses all interest in things they would normally enjoy. They can hurt with an emotional intensity that feels much like a profound physical pain, though some get beyond the pain to where a dullness or complete apathy sets in. Other symptoms can be the inability to sleep or the propensity to oversleep “because there’s nothing to live for.” Lack of appetite or outright nausea for months on end can further complicate matters, bringing weight loss and a lack of proper nutrition. Sometimes the most mundane tasks seem like mountains. There is an absolute lack of motivation to do small, seemingly inconsequential tasks. One person suffering from clinical depression said that they had some boxes in their bedroom that needed to be thrown away, but they didn’t even know how to begin. There is a complete lack of energy and ability to get things done. It is likely impossible for a healthy individual to fully comprehend these things. Depression is debilitating. It can cause people to lose their jobs, their marriages, and their lives.

Anxiety can be experienced together with depression or separately. In general anxiety disorder (GAD), a person can be anxious and possibly irritable over almost any challenge, great or small. They often have no idea what they are anxious about. Imagine waking up every morning with a pounding heart, fear, and a sweaty body, yet with no clue why you feel that way. Worse yet, with no idea how to get rid of the awful feeling. Panic disorder is very closely related to GAD and is characterized by apparently motiveless attacks. Sometimes, there are known triggers such as phobias, but often they come seemingly out of nowhere. Many describe it as feeling like they can’t breathe or like they are dying. Typical symptoms are a pounding heart, sweating, a feeling of utter doom, and a sense of being trapped inside one’s body. There is no word in the dictionary to describe how this feels. Panic attacks can build on themselves and, for some people, just the fear of having one brings on another, thus starting a vicious and debilitating cycle. There are people who cannot leave their homes or perform simple daily tasks because of their fear of having a panic attack.

There isn’t one simple cause and one simple solution to depression/anxiety, but there is definitely hope and help! Here are some likely causes of these disorders:

  • Trauma, especially during the early formative years
  • Certain physical illnesses
  • Genetic predisposition (For example, MTHFR gene mutation is very common.)
  • It appears the human brain was designed to function at its best in a slower paced environment. However, in recent years travel, communication, and technology have added tremendous new pressures.
  • Guilt, self-will, unforgiveness, and other sinful patterns of thought and actions

Usually, there is a combination of things that come together to cause the perfect storm. The brain thinks by using neuron pathways. Thought patterns become established and, as the brain uses those learned neuron pathways, those unhealthy pathways become default mode. Depression can become a physiological illness. (At this point, professional intervention is imperative. The unhealthy thought patterns need to be literally rerouted so that healthy patterns become the prominent mode again.)

Nothing is more helpful in avoiding depression/anxiety than a firm foundation in Jesus Christ. This is also the foundation to healing. However, due to the fact that we live in human bodies with human brains and minds, a Christian is still susceptible to these things, just as we are susceptible to diabetes, heart disease, etc. The right diet can help mitigate diabetes and heart disease, but it is no guarantee against either one. In the same way, believing in Jesus is helpful to mitigate clinical depression/anxiety, but He has chosen to allow these disorders to afflict some of His children at times. The journey to healing is not usually easy or short, but it is definitely worth it.

The best path to healing is a multi-pronged effort:

  •  Prayer is essential, but a person dealing with deep emotional needs is unlikely to experience prayer like a healthy individual does. Rather, there will likely be a feeling of dullness. However, if a person is at peace with God, a certain assurance can undergird them in spite of it all. (There are cases where even this isn’t clear to the individual, due to muddled emotions.)
  •  In the healing process, it is imperative to be completely open and transparent with a qualified individual who can give a listening ear and sound guidance. This involves trust, which is often a challenge, because trust might have been broken at its deepest levels.
  •  Medication is almost always necessary for at least a time, except for mild cases. Many of these medications often take weeks to reach their effectiveness. It is common to try several before finding the one that works well.
  •  Studies show and verify definitively that the best results are when a person uses both counselling and medication.
  •  There are other treatment available as well that are used more often for the most difficult situations.

Friends, family, and those of the Faith often look on and wonder how to relate. If we allow the love of God to rule in our hearts, it will move us to compassion instead of judgment. It is easy for a healthy person to look at the situation from the outside and feel they have the answers. In reality, they might not know what is really happening. The suffering individual might be doing all they can to push ahead, even with a put-on smile. Sometimes, the best way to help is to let the person know that you are there for them unconditionally, that you will not desert them. Listen without judgment. Do not take it personally if a friend or family member acts anti-social or appears not to want any personal contact. Be patient and do not give up. Making callous suggestions is not helpful, and neither is giving the impression that they just need to get a grip on themselves. A suffering person would love to have it that simple! They cannot “just snap out of it” on their own. Someone described it like asking someone to jump over the roof of their house. We all know that nobody is capable of such a feat. However, suppose you would encourage an individual to just be positive and take a run for it, that with the right mindset they would be able to jump over the roof of their house. This would be akin to expecting a clinically depressed person to just get over it with sheer willpower and forced thought change.

There are many good articles, books, and self-help tools for those in grief, sadness, or mild depression. Many of these suggest that happiness and vitality are a choice that we make. This is true for many, but keep in mind that those suffering clinically are usually well beyond that realm. When relating to the suffering and the wounded, we must be careful not to lay a yoke upon them that they cannot bear. Rather, reach out in thoughtful kindness and reassurance. This takes patience. Let us not leave the wounded beside the road without hope! Rather, let them feel the warmth of your caring heart.