Have you ever experienced depression? I don’t mean just when you feel a little melancholy, but when you feel like you’re in a dark cave for days on end and can’t seem to climb out?
In this Gratitude Challenge, I’ve been advocating the benefits of gratitude for freeing us from anxiety and stress while also producing a protective shield around our hearts and minds. Scripture clearly teaches this is possible, but what about when it doesn’t happen? What about when we’re medically depressed? Should the intentional practice of gratitude be our only remedy?
Let’s talk about this.
CAUTION: I’m not a doctor or a licensed therapist. If you feel depressed for more than a few days you should likely talk to your doctor or a therapist.
Bad News: Gratitude will not cure your depression
I have some bad news for you. Gratitude will not cure your depression. Well, at least not by itself.
Researchers acknowledge that the benefits of gratitude help substantially in mild cases of depression, but in more severe cases additional therapies will be required.
This supports what we’ve been exploring throughout this challenge. Gratitude is just one discipline we need to master. It has immense benefits, but we also need the work of the Spirit in our lives who produces fruit like love, joy, and peace.
In addition, it’s important to pay attention to our diet, our sleep, and our lifestyle. Dr. Kelly Turner discovered nine factors that influence radical remissions in cancer patients. Most of these factors also apply to overcoming depression.
9 Factors for combatting cancer (or depression)Dr. Kelly Turner
#1: Changing your diet
#2: Taking control of your health
#3: Following your intuition
#4: Using herbs and supplements
#5: Releasing suppressed emotions
#6: Increasing positive emotions
#7: Embracing social support
#8: Deepening your spiritual connection
#9: Having strong reasons for living
Integrative approach to healing
When I started working for my first church I had just competed in an Olympic distance triathlon. Having qualified for nationals, I was in the best shape of my life. Then I started to pour myself into my work.
After a few weeks, I found myself becoming depressed and unmotivated. I approached one of our pastors and described my symptoms. He quickly asked me two questions: How much are you exercising? How are you sleeping?
What? Where’s the spiritual counsel?
I had stopped exercising. But once I started exercising again my mindset began to improve.
Sometimes our physical ailments only requires physical treatments and adjustment, but many time we require a more integrated multi-discipline apporach.
It takes a team
In 2020 I reinjured my wrist and found myself in physical therapy for about three months. The initial treatments only focused on the injury, but after those symptoms started to subside the therapist began addressing issues of mindset, lifestyle, spirituality, and other parts of my body. He trained me to listen to my body and my mind. My doctor, counselor, trainer, and several therapists all worked together to help me heal.
If you’re feeling depressed or anxious and it’s been ongoing, you will likely need an integrative approach. Gratitude is still a good place to start.
Fight depression with hope
In his book Brain Rules, John Medina gives credit to J.C. Penney for saying, “You get what you look for.”
To illustrate this, Ronald Reagan popularized an age-old joke about a boy who asked for a pony for Christmas, but only got a pile of manure. Instead of being disappointed, he exclaimed, “With all this manure, there must be a horse in here somewhere!”
Our thought patterns create neural pathways (like railroad tracks) that run around our brains. If we consciously choose to focus on the manure, we will only see manure and never notice the horses in our lives. Likewise, if we focus on horses, we won’t be so concerned about the dung.
In Psalm 42, one of the sons of Korah exclaims: “Why so downcast, O my soul?” It becomes a refrain repeated three times between Psalms 42 and 43.
How does he answer himself?
“Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
Hope arises when we look for it. Praise emerges when we focus our thoughts on God’s goodness and character.
But we have to seek it. And it may require help.
Does coffee help?
In 2004 my family and I moved to Chicago to help start a church. Church planting is exhilarating and lonely. Over the course of a few months, I began falling into a deep funk. To combat this I drank increasing amounts of coffee.
INSIDER TIP: While moderate amounts of coffee can help alleviate depression, heavy consumption tends to make it worse. Research reveals the mixed benefits of drinking coffee to combat depression.
I slowly devolved to a point of significant depression. A psychiatrist prescribed medicine, but it made me dizzy and I feared for my life.
With the help of a team of pastors, nutritionists, and counselors, I sought help and began the slow path to recovery. I changed my diet, began taking fish oil, and learned the power of community.
From isolation to gratitude
In Psalm 42, the psalmist’s conversation is entirely between himself and God. But in Psalm 43, which scholars believe to be part of the same psalm, he moves from isolation into the community of faith.
If we remain isolated we will have a hard time fighting depression, cancer, or anything that ails us. Gratitude is meant to be expressed to others. If we keep our grateful thoughts to ourselves they will have far less impact than if we share them with others.
Gratitude overcomes depression with time
Most people who suffer from depression find that it comes in waves. Sometimes it feels more intense than others. But it can last for days and we might ask ourselves, “Why so downcast, o my soul?”
If we take time to intentionally practice gratitude we can create pathways in our brain that shorten and/or prevent bouts of depression.
The psalmist promises that when God sends his light to rescue him he will go to the altar to praise God (Ps. 43:3-4).
I’ve noticed during seasons of depression in my life that I typically wasn’t spending much time worshiping God outside of the one hour on Sunday. Even when I was a worship pastor, I could fall into the rut of only preparing the songs for Sunday worship, but not tending to my relationship with God.
So, you can see that worship and gratitude are intricately connected. And gratitude can help lift us from depression.
The ancient Chinese viewed Thalmus disease as the result of selfishness or a lack of compassion. What better way to combat dark clouds than by bringing light to someone else. So my challenge is for you to make a gratitude visit. Either pick up the phone or go visit someone and tell them how thankful you are for them.
Father, I thank you for showing me grace upon grace. I worship you for revealing light to me when I’ve been in dark places. Please rewire my mind and my heart to respond with gratefulness to whatever life brings my way. Forgive me for isolating myself from you, my family, and my community at the exact time when I need you the most. In Jesus’ name, Amen.