Sarah was an active mom with three small children. She was involved in her weekly mother’s group and had offered to be the one to organize and run the group several times in the past. She was generally seen as a “go-getter” by her family and friends. She was always happy and energetic and often had a smile or laugh to share with others. She also enjoyed her quilting hobby and would meet with other women two to three times per month to share quilting ideas and projects.
Then, over the course of a month or so, she became lethargic and sleepy. She wasn’t getting up with the alarm clock in the morning and would often wait for her husband or children to get her out of bed. She began having feelings of sadness and crying spells most days. She gradually stopped quilting in her free time and began napping instead. She stopped going to her mother’s group in the mornings and her quilting group in the evenings. She no longer enjoyed quilting because she couldn’t make any decisions about projects she was working on.
She began to feel worthless, and as time passed, she started to think about what life would be like without her and how her family would be better off without her dragging them down. She couldn’t get herself out of bed in the morning or play with her children — and she became less and less active in her life.
Sarah was suffering from depression.
Like Sarah, have you ever had these symptoms?
- Feelings of sadness most of the day, nearly every day for two or more weeks
- Feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, and/or crying spells
- A loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed
- Loss of pleasure in life
- Significant sleep changes
- Significant weight changes
- Feelings of either agitation or lethargy
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, and even making decisions
- Thoughts about death or suicide
If so, you may be one of the 14.8 million adults that suffer from depression every year. One, two, or even three of these symptoms in response to a stressful life event may indicate a sadness that will pass with time. However, when several of these symptoms are present at the same time and for a longer period, it can be the sign of a more serious depression.
Many people experience depression during the course of a lifetime. Some of those depressive experiences are in reaction to stressful life events, such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or chronic illness. Depressive episodes can be minor instances that pass — or they can be so profound that they significantly impair one’s ability to function in daily life.
It is important to know that such serious symptoms of depression are not signs of laziness or a lack of willpower — they are signs of serious illness. Those who are severely depressed don’t choose to withdraw from life; they actually can’t be involved in life. They have no ability to motivate themselves or follow through with ideas that would help them. In fact, they often think of themselves as worthless and expendable.
The causes of depressive experiences can be triggered by minor life events or more major ones. They can range from life stressors such as the loss of loved ones, jobs, money, and/or support systems. Or there can be biological and/or genetic components, especially if there is a family history of depression. For women, postpartum depression is a significant reality and should be watched for, especially if there were depressive experiences prior to the recent pregnancy, during the current pregnancy, or following a previous pregnancy.
We are created to think, feel, behave, and pray in such a way that our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and spiritual lives are all intertwined. Therefore, if we can change one of these areas, the others will change as well. The most effective way to treat depression is to focus on one of these at a time, knowing the others will be affected as well. You can start with any of the processes as long as all four are addressed eventually.
Here are some different methods that can be used to overcome depression:
Thought patterns: Changing our habitual negative thought patterns is one way of changing the way we face the world. For example, finding things to be grateful for is one way of changing the way we think. Making a gratitude list each day, focusing on five or more people, situations, or objects that we are grateful for will change our attitude over time from one of “I don’t have; I can’t do” to one of “I do have and I can do.”
Habitual behaviors: Changing habitual behaviors that contribute to the way we feel can also be the focus of healing. For instance, making a behavioral plan — such as waking at the same time each day, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in physical exercise — are all ways of enhancing the body’s natural tendency to overcome depression.
Emotional life: Changing our emotional life by talking about the underlying emotions (both good and difficult) and the life circumstances that may be contributing to them can help. Focusing on unpacking emotional turmoil is a way of letting go of harmful emotions and increasing helpful and healing emotions.
Vice to virtue: Changing our focus from vice to virtue can also be an aid in dealing with depression. Create a plan for your life where you can focus on and increase your existing virtues, while developing new virtues that oppose your vices. In other words, allow the grace of God to permeate your life. Pray to him for healing and allow him to enter your world more deeply. While those who are depressed may have extreme difficulty experiencing God’s love in their life, they can at times work on increasing virtue until they are able to experience God more deeply.
For many people, medication is not only helpful, it’s a lifesaver. It helps the body to respond biochemically to the deficits that it experiences. Also, for many people with depression, it is only through the help of others that they are able to continue daily living. If you know someone who may be suffering with depression, please reach out and offer a helping hand.
First, it is important to understand that depression is not about willpower and sloth. It is a real experience that the person has little control over. Take the time to listen to those suffering from depression. As Jesus tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Sometimes offering an empathic ear can be the best gift to offer hope to someone who has lost all hope.
Another way to help is to offer to help with normal, everyday activities. This will not only give them a sense of hope that someone else cares, but also will give them more time to focus on healing. For example, when a family has a new baby or moves to a new location, often people will reach out with meals or offer to help out with chores or child care. If you notice that someone in your life is not as chipper or energetic as usual — or maybe even a bit distant — offer tangible help.
Don’t ask, “Would you like help?” or “Can I help you?” Those who suffer with depression can’t make decisions easily, and they often want to cover up their struggles as they compare what they feel like inside to what they see you doing on the outside. Just provide the help. For instance, you might say:
“I’m making chili tomorrow for my family; I’ll bring you some for your family.”
“My kids and I would love to have your children come play at our house this Friday.”
“My adolescent son or daughter is looking for service hours, so they’ll come clean your house this weekend or do your yard work.”
“I’m going out for coffee. My older children will watch yours, and you and I can spend some time together for few hours.”
Reaching out is a bigger help than you realize. And lastly, don’t forget to pray for those who suffer from depression. In fact, St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the emotionally challenged, so ask for her intercession often. Prayer is a powerful tool in the healing process and is often overlooked by those who suffer because of the dryness they feel in prayer. So it becomes even more important for those who do not suffer to pray on behalf of those who do.