It is not a sin to be depressed.
As a therapist I deal with two major manifestations of depression. One is Indigenous Depression or Organic Depression. This is a disease. It is a function of the brain and its chemistry. Because the brain is an organ, this manifestation of depression is a disease.
It can and should be treated with medicine. One cannot pray enough or simply choose to feel better to make the symptoms go away. There are interventions which deal with this and have nothing to do with character strength, faith or one’s Christianity. This type of depression is beyond the scope of this article.
The most common type of depression I see is a product of stress, loss or guilt and the interpretation or misinterpretation of these situations. We call this Cognitive Distortion and it leads to Cognitive Depression. It is easy to fall victim to a number of cognitive distortions or interpretation errors and thus come away with a pervasive mood of sadness, lethargy, helplessness and hopelessness.
Look at the case study of Elijah. Following a phenomenal victory on Carmel and the direct intervention of God sending both fire and rain in answer to Elijah’s request Elijah manifests the classic symptoms of a crisis caused by depression. Elijah receives a message from Jezebel threatening his life. This precipitating event is the catalyst for one of the darkest episodes in scripture. The interpretation errors are classic. He allows the words of Jezebel to have more power than the Word of God. He allows what she says she is going to do to be more powerful than what God has already done (i.e. Mt. Carmel). He focuses on the actions of Israel—“They have torn down your altar, forsaken your covenant, killed your prophets and they are trying to kill me …”
Trying to be responsible or worrying about things you cannot control is a source of stress and guilt. Because of these errors in interpretation Elijah is afraid. In an attempt to insulate himself he isolates himself by going a day’s journey into the wilderness without his servant. He then complains that he is alone. “I am the only one left and they are trying to kill me.” He becomes isolated and inactive. Elijah’s perception of what he thought was happening and what was actually happening is worthy of note. God’s anointed men would be putting people to the sword but 7,000 people in Israel had never bowed the knee to Baal nor kissed toward him. And although not spelled out in God’s response to Elijah, he not only does not get killed but he does not even die!
Depression is not a bad word. If there are actual circumstances of stress, loss and guilt then sadness, or a period of adjustment, is not only normal but probably healthy. Loss can be defined as, “Anytime life doesn’t meet my expectations I suffer loss” and humans grieve all losses. The grieving process (Accept the Reality, Express/Experience the Emotions, Adjust to the New Norm and Reinvest in the Future) is a process that brings people through the process of loss. When our emotions are used properly they bring us into balance and harmony. In contrast when and if our emotions produce distress, destruction or dysfunction then the depression is of clinical concern.
One intervention that seems to be effective is to challenge the meanings (interpretations) that we assign to various events. I like to challenge people to compare feelings with facts. Ask the following questions. What happened? This is the event. Based on my perceptions what meaning have I assigned to this? Based on this meaning we get our resultant emotions. The event, meaning, emotion process can be used to challenge and rewrite the interpretations that come from the cognitive distortions.
Another case study is Jacob. His sons show him a coat covered with blood. He concludes that: Joseph is dead, Joseph is torn/eaten by a wild animal, and that Jacob will not accept comfort and declares that he will go to his grave mourning i.e. “I will never be happy again.” Is the meaning he assigned to the event (torn, bloody coat) valid? Of course not! Joseph is not dead, was not attacked by an animal and at some point Jacob has a reunion with son and meets grandchildren he did not know he had.
Often depression can be a combination of the two types. In my practice I have often found that by addressing the cognitive component, the symptomology can be reduced and help people come back to a functional level, even when there is some organic depression present. Often clients will encounter a medically based depression and it is helpful to simply recognize it for what it is. The brain is sending false signals that affect one’s mood, motivation and outlook. Some folks are able to master the art of “acting better than they feel.” This is not about being false, fake or pretending to be happy but rather choosing to not let the mood dictate one’s actions or responses.
If we wait until we quit getting out of breath to start jogging we will never start. Often those suffering from indigenous depression are waiting for the feeling to change before they allow their behavior to change. Take it away from depression and consider chronic pain. Will I hurt more or less by getting out today? I will hurt today no matter what I do. Then what good does it do to stay inside, not visit my friends, not shop, etc.? Not asking folks to ignore pain or pretend it isn’t there; just reframing the idea that, “Because I feel this way I shouldn’t or I can’t …”
I would like to recommend the one resource I use more than any other in my practice when dealing with depression. This tool is good for those who may be depressed or for those who may be living with or helping a person who struggles with depression. This tool is a book by David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. This book will explain cognitive distortions, interpretation errors and negative self-talk. It also has a depression checklist, the Dysfunctional Attitude Scale and a good discussion of the pros and cons of pharmaceutical intervention and when it is most and least effective.
By Lonnie Jones, LPC