Friday, July 1, 2016

Breaking Depression's Fear Cycle

In the previous article, (Learning to face distressing symptoms instead of dreading them) I discussed the importance of facing depression’s distressing symptoms rather than fearfully shrinking from them, as explained by Dr Weekes, 'I have no doubt that you are tensely shrinking from the feelings within you and yet, are ready to “listen in” in apprehension?...Now examine and do not shrink from the sensations that have been upsetting you. I want you to examine each carefully, to analyse and describe it to yourself...Do not tensely flinch from it. Go with it. Relax and analyse it…Now that you have faced and examined it, is it so terrible?' (1) That is, although we are initially convinced that we cannot possibly live or function while these symptoms rage within us, the fact is that after we have faced them, we realise that we can still live and function with them.

Once we have faced those symptoms and robbed them of their power, the next step is to put into practise a technique that will break depression’s ‘fear-adrenalin-fear cycle,’ as Doctor Weekes calls it.

The Fear-Adrenalin-Fear Cycle

The cycle works like this: we react to depression by fearing, fleeing or fighting it. These reactions cause too much adrenalin to flow, and it is this adrenalin that causes depression’s symptoms. We are so desperate to get away from these symptoms that we fear, flee and fight even more, which in turn produces even more adrenalin, which prolongs symptoms and produces new, even more alarming ones, which we fear, flee, and fight, and the cycle continues.

It is crucial that we recognize that it is this cycle that causes depression’s disturbing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sensations/symptoms, and that by breaking that cycle, we can eventually be free of them.

Below I outline a system that can slow and eventually stop that excessive flow of adrenalin. The system is simple and presented quite clearly in God’s word, yet it is so ‘unnatural’ that it does not occur to us when lost in a state of anxiety. (The natural reaction to depression is to fear, flee or fight the symptoms.)

How to Break the Fear, Flight, and Fight Cycle:
1. Accept each of depression’s symptoms as being part of our life, instead of fearing, fighting or fleeing them
2. Learn to live with the symptoms as part of our life as if they were background music
3. Let time pass while trusting that God is in control (2)

Our first reaction to these steps could be, “But I don’t WANT to learn to live with these disturbing sensations - I want them to go away!”

And there lies the irony of it all. It is only when we accept those sensations, learn to live with them, and let time pass, that the flow of adrenalin begins to diminish, as it the very reaction of desperately wanting them to go away that makes them worse. And as the flow of adrenalin diminishes, the symptoms lose their intensity, shorten in duration, and slowly begin to disappear. Accepting them instead of fearing or fighting them is the way to make them go away.

The Bible teaches us time and again that we should not be anxious, and it is not just because anxiety is the opposite of peace and trusting in God, but because God knows just how much fear and anxiety harms us. Here are scriptures that illustrate this technique of breaking the fear cycle by accepting, being content, and letting time pass.

Here are some reflections in my diary about putting this technique into practice:

Verses for Acceptance:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. James 1:2-3

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6

Verse for Learning to Live with the Symptoms:
‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.’ Philippians 4:12-13

Verses for Letting Time Pass while Trusting that God is in Control:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” John 14:1

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. James 1:12

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Matthew 6:25,27

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5.

While I was depressed, although I knew the Bible said I should not fear, should be content, and should rejoice in the midst of my sufferings, trying to put this into practice through sheer will power alone did not work. However, once I understood that putting those Bible verses into practice would break the fear-adrenalin-fear cycle, those verses suddenly came alive to me, causing hope to spring forth like spring rains after a drought.

It Takes Time for a Nervous System to Heal

Note that breaking the flow of adrenalin does not happen overnight, it is a gradual process that occurs over time. However, my life is a testimony to the fact that it does happen. Dr Claire Weekes says, “Accept it [the symptom] as something that will be with you for some time yet – in fact while you recover – but something that will eventually leave you if you are prepared to let time pass and not anxiously watch the churning during its passing. But do not make the mistake of thinking that it will go as soon as you cease to fear it. Your nervous system is still tired and will take time to heal, just as a broken leg takes time.” (3)

It is important that we keep ourselves busy as we let time pass while our nervous system slowly starts to heal. We need to go out of our way to find engaging, constructive activities and hobbies that interest us. Physical exercise, such as swimming, aerobics, circuit, walking or jogging, can also be of great help.

Within two months of reading “Self Help for Your Nerves,” a significant number of my symptoms, especially the physical ones, had greatly reduced in severity or ceased altogether. Over the next six months, I joined a new church, became a musician in a home group, started teaching Sunday School, and engaged in normal social activities again. Some symptoms took longer to fade away than others, but by reacting to them in the correct way, they no longer had the same power or intensity as I no longer feared them. Some symptoms, especially the mental ones such as panic attacks, lasted longer, but in time, they too faded away. Counselling was a crucial step in helping to deal with these, by helping me to retain my thought processes and gain new Biblical perspectives on the things I feared.

While stuck in depression, we think we have no future and no hope, but that is a lie from the kingdom of Satan, for in Christ we always have hope and a future. "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." 1 Corinthians 2:9.

Hope enters our lives again when we know it is only a matter of time, whether weeks or months, or in the case of some symptoms, years, for our nervous system to recover from this cycle. After reading “Self Help for your Nerves,” my diary entries went from being bleak and full of despair, to containing hope, like this entry:

28th July 1990 -
This book has taught me how to react so that the merry go round will be stopped. And it’s teaching me how to react whenever it strikes again in the future.

The Importance of Surrender

To recover from depression we need to surrender every aspect of our life, including our desires and will, to Jesus. Romans 8:28 assures us that God is trustworthy and can bring good out of any situation. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’

We sing, “All to Jesus, I surrender,” but do we really surrender everything? (I am pointing a finger at myself here too!) For when a storm of life comes along, instead of surrendering every aspect of the situation, including our desires, to Him, we typically react by fearing, fleeing or fighting - because we do not want to be where we are. Yet, by reacting like this, we make the suffering worse as this causes more adrenalin to flow.

Even in the midst of the storm called depression, when we accept what we are going through instead of fearing, fleeing or fighting it, when we learn to live with it, and let time pass, we can find rest and experience inner peace again. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28.

(1) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p21.
(2) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p19. Note, Dr Weekes includes 'floating' as a step in the treatment technique, whereas I wrote 'learn to live with it.' In my case I found the 'floating' concept hard to grasp, but easily related to that step (or my interpretation of it) when I thought of it as 'learning to live with it.'
(3) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p22.

All verses from NIV.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Free eBook on Depression (Kindle, ePub, PDF)

Dear Readers,

I have updated the free eBook on depression written from a Christian perspective, which is available on this blog, Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled.  It is available in Kindle, ePub and PDF formats.

Feel free to share your copy with anyone you feel may benefit from reading it.

Just click on the appropriate link to download:

This book is a collection of the articles from my blog, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, where I share my recovery from depression. The book’s purpose is to offer practical advice and words of comfort to those suffering from depression and anxiety, in the hope of helping them to cope with depression and speed them on the path to recovery. The book has been written from a Christian perspective.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Has God Abandoned Me?

“Has God abandoned me?” or "Why has God abandoned me?" are desperate cries from the heart of many, whether stuck in the depths of severe depression or struggling to deal with a major crisis such as a personal tragedy, chronic health problems, even the destruction of lifelong goals.

After floundering in the depths of severe depression for over three months, I wrote this in my diary:

10th April 1990 –
I see others who live and prosper,
And yet here am I, stuck in this dark prison cell.
Jesus, where are You? Please see my circumstances,
Please hear my prayer.
Please set in motion Your answer, Your solution.
Why have You abandoned me?
Why do You remain silent?
I’ve waited and waited, yet I am met with silence.

Someone suffering from depression typically loses interest in life, experiences a sense of overwhelming dread, has terrifying obsessive fearful thoughts, and also panic attacks, insomnia, guilt, confusion, anger, and a dozens of other disturbing symptoms. A depressed Christian also tends to loose the ability to feel God’s presence, cannot take comfort from His Word, and can no longer feel His love.

If struggling with severe depression or a major life crisis, we may also look at our dire circumstances and jump to the conclusion that these terrible things have happened because God has abandoned us. We cannot comprehend how God could still be with us and yet allow us to undergo such suffering.

Here is another entry from my diary:
28th Feb 1990 –
Dear Jesus, I continually get angry with You.
Why have You allowed this? Where are You?
How long will You remain silent? Why won’t You heal me?
I know what You are capable of, yet You do nothing – why?

We may become frustrated, worried and angry when it feels like God’s Word no longer seems to be working, and when He does not seem to be honoring His promises. We wonder if God has left us to fend for ourselves. We cannot understand why He will not answer our desperate prayers – can’t He see what we are going through? Doesn’t He care?

My diary, 14th June 1990 –
The Heavens remain silent,
and this both angers and disappoints me.
I thought I felt Jesus say that He is carrying me through this.
But how can I be sure?
And if He is, why won’t He let me feel His presence?
Why won’t He help me?
Where is His Word? Where are His promises?

Another common reaction is to fear that we have let God down in some major way, wondering if we have stepped outside His will by disobeying Him, or have committed an unforgivable sin. We wonder if this was sufficient cause for God to turn His back on us and abandon us. And if we get angry with God for letting us go through this inexplicable suffering, devastating guilt may follow these bouts of anger. We may even think that we have lost our salvation and are no longer a Christian.

From my diary, 20th July 1990:
Experiences like the past eight months
almost make you wonder,
it makes me wonder if I am one of His children.

Some Christians suffering from depression or a major crisis say: “It feels like God has abandoned me! I can’t feel God’s presence anymore.” Or, “Why has God abandoned me?”

There are two common threads weaving through what I have written above:

1. We may look at our circumstances and leap to the conclusion that God has abandoned us, and/or
2. We can look at our feelings, and because we cannot feel that God is with us, we conclude that He has abandoned us.

So what can we do when we feel or fear that God has abandoned us? What can help us get through this phase?

Recognise Our Feelings are Deceiving Us

When stuck in the midst of severe suffering, we need to recognise what a friend once told me, “We can’t see properly in times like this. Our feelings completely distort our world view and vision.” It is as though we are wearing extremely dark glasses all of the time. Although light surrounds us, we cannot see it because of the dark glasses.

We Must Not Trust Our Feelings

Bearing in mind that our feelings have become distorted, we must remind ourselves daily that we cannot trust our feelings nor pay them any heed – they are tricking and misleading us. This is hard, I know, because throughout our lives we have learned to listen to our feelings and let them guide us to some degree or another. But what may work for a healthy person does not apply to someone suffering from depression. We need to learn not to place any significance on what we are feeling, and recognise that we may remain in this condition for a while. But be encouraged, this phase does not last forever. When our exhausted mind and nervous system heal, whether this takes months or years, our feelings will return to normal. We will feel God’s presence and love again, and we will take comfort from His word again.

We must not use our Circumstances as a Basis to Conclude that God has Abandoned us

We need to realise that our circumstances are not an indication of whether God is with us or not. We Christians sometimes fall into the error of thinking that while things are going well, God must be with us, but when our world falls apart, it means that God has abandoned us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, the Bible assures us that God will never leave us nor forsake us. Secondly, it tells us that we will face trials, and that God will use these for good in our lives, and that He will comfort us in and through them.  

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ James 1:2-4

‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ Romans 8:28

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

We Need to Keep Things in Perspective

We need to remind ourselves that this world and its troubles are only temporary. We who trust in and cling to Jesus have a wondrous hope – one day we shall spend eternity in heaven and see the face of God and Jesus everyday - a perfect place filled with love, joy and peace. We will also have a brand new body that is perfect in every way.

When I consider the unimaginable, eternal riches that await us in heaven, the temporary trials I endure on the earth fade into insignificance.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.' Romans 8:17-18

Trust in What We Know, Not in What We Feel

So if we cannot rely upon our feelings nor upon the way in which we interpret our circumstances, what can we rely upon? We can rely upon what we know and believe.

We know and believe that God is with us (although we can’t feel it), we know and believe that He loves us (although we can’t feel it), and we know and believe His word is all powerful (although we can’t feel it and things seem to be out of control). We know these things because the Bible tells us, and because the Holy Spirit in us testifies to that fact. For now, it is enough to know God is with us, to know that Jesus loves us, and to know that His Word is all-powerful. It does not matter than we cannot feel these things while depressed or our world view has been distorted by suffering.

In reading through my diary entries, it is interesting to see that although I lamented that I felt abandoned by God, in those very same entries, I also concluded that I knew He was still there and still cared for me. I was learning to rely upon His Word instead of upon my feelings.

13th May 1990 –
The Bible says to consider it joy to endure trials,
I must say that there has been no joy in this trial.
It defies any previous experience known to me.
But I’ve been forced to trust God
when it seems like He has abandoned me.
I have been forced to come to a place
where I have trusted Him without feeling like doing so.
All I want to do is cry out that He had abandoned me,
that He is not faithful.
But He is faithful. And I know that.
He is faithful and true. He is Jesus.

14th June 1990 –
I feel so like Job.
“Curse God and die!” my thoughts yell at me.
“Look at this suffering!
How can He be faithful,
when He’s apparently done nothing
for six whole months now - curse Him and die!”

But God is faithful, and I know that –
it is His name – Faithful and True.

Bible Verses that we can Rely Upon

Feelings can change like the wind and are colored by our circumstances, and circumstances can also come and go. However, God's Word remains constant, it never changes. Let us look at some of those Bible verses now – verses we know are true and can be relied upon.

God’s Promises to Never Leave Us

Deuteronomy 31:8 “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged."

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Matthew 28:20 “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

John 10:27 “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

God’s Promises that He Loves Us

Romans 8:35,38-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Galatians 2:20 The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

God Never Changes

God never changes, He is the one constant in an ever-changing world. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8

Assurance of Salvation

If it feels like we think we have lost our salvation, here are a few verses to reassure us of the gift of eternal life that we receive from God when we believe in, cling to and rely upon Jesus.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23.

That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9 And "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16.

It does not matter if we cannot feel that we are saved if suffering from depression or going through a major life crisis, what matters is that we believe in Jesus and stand upon His Word. (More on this topic in this article.)

Relying on God’s Word, not our Feelings

One last thought before I sign off. When we have learned to cope with or passed out of difficult times such as depression, we will be able to look back upon the phase where we thought God had abandoned us, and we will recognise very clearly that He was with us and holding us safely in His hands the whole time.

We will also realise that it was during this time that we learnt to rely upon and stand on God's Word, instead of relying on our feelings.

Luke 6:47-48 “I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.” 

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

What Causes Depression?

Depression was the most confusing and bewildering experience of my life. I spent countless hours trying to work out what was wrong with me and what it was that caused me to get into such a state.

From my diary, 8th February 1990 -
I think and think,
and try to work out
what has happened to me and why,
and what I should be doing.
But it is a worthless exercise,
I am allergic to my own thoughts.

Months later I learned that I was suffering from depression, and that the illness can be caused by biological, mental/emotional, and social factors, and more commonly, a combination of all three.

Biological Causes

Without going into the technical details, it is sufficient to say that as with any part of the human body, there are a great many things that can go wrong with the human brain and mind. More complex causes of depression can include chemical/genetic imbalances in the brain and glandular disorders. A lack of sleep such as chronic insomnia and a poor diet (including undiagnosed food intolerances) can also cause depression. And ‘there is some evidence to show that severe depression runs in families. This has led to the conclusion that some people innately may be more prone to depression than others...” (1)

I suffered from chronic insomnia in 1989, the year that preceded my descent into severe depression. This had started in my late teens and had grown progressively worse, the result I believe of having undiagnosed complex partial epilepsy. I have only been able to sleep naturally after being placed on anti-seizure meds in my mid-thirties. That year I also made the mistake of eating poorly and skipping exercise. Both of my parents have also suffered from depression.

Social Causes

One thing that I have learned is that our past, and especially what transpired during our childhood years, typically catches up with us once we reach adulthood. Any form of child abuse, whether physical, mental or emotional, and even rejection, can either cause depression or make a depressive episode much worse than it would have been otherwise. Over disciplining a child, or setting unattainable goals or unrealistic standards for them, can also play a factor.

The Christian counsellor I saw when I was depressed spent hours helping me to face and deal with issues from my childhood - issues that during depression had grown out of proportion to become insurmountable stumbling blocks.

Mental/Emotional Causes

‘It is well known that the stresses of life stimulate depression, especially when these stresses involve a loss. Loss of an opportunity, a job, status, health, freedom...possessions...can each lead to depression. Then there is the loss of people. Divorce, death, or prolonged separations are painful and known to be among the most effective depression-producing events of life.’ (2) In November 1989, I suffered a major shock that caused me great stress.

The feeling of being trapped by situations such as those listed above - situations over which we have no control, also contributes to depression, as does a habit of thinking negatively on every aspect of life, including having a negative self-concept.

Another cause of depression is anger turned inward, in other words, towards ourselves. If we are deeply hurt but have no outlet for expressing the ensuing anger, this can lead to frustration, resentment, and deeper anger, which can cause depression. (3)

Guilt, in response to failure or wrong doing, can also cause depression.

One thing I would like to share in closing is that it is common for Christians to suspect that our depression has spiritual causes, since we typically feel so far from God when depressed. I also remember fearing that it was God who was inflicting the depression upon me. When I shared this with my counsellor, she said, “We make the mistake in thinking that because our spiritual life is affected by depression, the cause must be spiritual. But this is incorrect; depression touches every part of us, so why do we think that it will not touch us spiritually?” My counsellor reassured me of the truth, that God does not afflict depression upon anyone. God is a loving God who delights in giving us good and perfect gifts, as well as comforting us in our times of trouble.

Download a free ebook on depression, ie, this blog's articles

All verses from the NIV.

(1) Christian Counselling, Word Publishing, 1980, p87.
(2) Christian Counselling, Word Publishing, 1980, p88.
(3) Christian Counselling, Word Publishing, 1980, p88.

How can a Christian get depressed?
Can a Christian get depressed?