Recently, for a few years, I struggled under the weight of anxiety-related depression. This was already the most prevalent mental disorder in the United States before Covid-19, so it’s very likely that you or someone that you know is struggling with it now. My hope is that sharing my experience will provide encouragement for those struggling through it and insight for others so that you might be able to understand and encourage your friends. Please assume that some of your friends are quietly struggling through anxiety-related depression. Sharing this just might speak directly to them. It also might give them the courage to reach out to you.
In the midst of my struggle, I did not speak of it to anyone really, except for my husband and a counselor, who laughed dismissively when I told her. In her eyes, when she compared me to the rest of the world I seemed way too blessed to be depressed. I admit, my depression was ridiculous, but it was also very real to me. I could not push through it and it was negatively affecting every aspect of my life. It happened despite my faith, my blessings, my awesome husband, my health, my children, my very privileged life as an American, my husband being in military medical school, and my former work as a missionary to orphans. NONE of that made me unsusceptible to anxiety-related depression.
The reason I didn’t speak of it much was that I felt like that was somehow accepting it, like I would get used to talking about it, and I feared that I would get even more stuck in it. I wanted to ignore it, overcome it, and be a blessing and an encouragement to others. I didn’t want anyone else worrying about me or feeling like they needed to tend to me. It was deep, and heavy, and lonely and hard ... and I didn’t know if it would ever go away. Although I think that slippery slope will always be there for me, I’m no longer at the bottom of it. There is no formula for overcoming anxiety-related depression, but there are a few things that really helped me. Not everyone’s experience is the same, and I do not mean to simplify or minimize this. First, let’s look at what scripture says about it.
Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.”Proverbs 12:25
Anxiety is a response to stress; it is a symptom revealing an underlying issue. For me, the issue was that the demands of the life that we had created were greater than my ability to calmly and joyfully endure. I had developed a habit of overreacting to even small stressors and had become so used to feeling stressed and overwhelmed, that it became my default mode and my response to even small stressors. There is no quick fix for bad habits. Overcoming felt more like climbing out of a deep pit, by correcting negative thought patterns one at a time, over and over again.
This verse was so very helpful! It inspired me to prioritize simplicity and good words. Identifying and minimizing stressors in every aspect of our life created some emotional margin for healing and has multiplied peace. Simplifying lifted a lot of pressure, so simplicity has become a constant priority! And filling my mind with good, encouraging words, first thing every day and periodically throughout the day, has proven to strengthen and restore my peace and my joy. To this day, good words throughout the day feel like checking my compass while out at sea. It reveals the direction in which my thoughts are headed and helps me keep my thoughts from drifting to worry, which snowballs into depression. I find my “good words” in the Bible every morning, in books, audiobooks, or blog posts by women I admire, like Sally Clarkson, and by listening to grace-oriented Bible teachers, whether at church or online. I intentionally engage with people who speak good, encouraging words, and try to be that for others. As Romans 12:9 suggests, I “cling to what is good.”
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”Philippians 4:6
Prayer reduces anxiety and brings peace. I learned to view the moment when I began to feel anxious as a fork in the road. I could either choose anxiety which causes depression, or I could choose prayer. I had been overlooking the options and had worn a rut in the wrong direction. The better option was to retrain my mind to turn towards God in gratitude and to look to Him for help, to thank Him for the struggle requiring me to seek Him, for the ways that the struggle would enable me to help others later on, and for God’s guidance, even when I don’t feel it. “... to be Spiritually minded is life and peace.” Romans 8:6b
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”Thessalonians 5:16
We have a choice, each day and each moment, to either focus on the good and rejoice in it, or to focus on and be weighed down by what we wish was different. Sometimes we are in such a habit of being discouraged and disappointed, that we don’t feel like we have a choice. We still do, it’s just that deeper ruts make it harder to take a different path, and we feel stuck because it takes a while to feel the impact of a different choice. For years now, on Sunday mornings, I make a specific list of everything that I am thankful for, even the challenges, and how they help me to stay humble and focused on God. Doing this has proven to be a good exercise. In the most discouraging moments, I can visually recall that list of the many things for which I can rejoice and be grateful. Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp during the Haulocaust. Betsie recalled this verse and encouraged her sister to give thanks for the lice that plagued them in their quarters. It turns out that the lice kept the guards from entering their quarters, which allowed for evening prayers and Bible reading. Whatever we are facing, God’s will in the midst of it is that we train ourselves to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. This is such a challenge for me, but it’s one that is worth fighting for!
“A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken,”Proverbs 15:13
A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.”Proverbs 17:22
I have learned that the state of my heart is a choice. I am not saying that it’s easy to choose to be something that you do not feel, but we do choose our perspective in every moment, cheerful or sorrowful. If we choose moment to moment to focus on what we are upset about or disappointed by, it breaks us down. Seeking out what is good in the moments makes us merry and cheerful, and has such a huge positive impact on the people around us. It’s a step in the right direction! Minimize being sorrowful by prioritizing being cheerful, as a gift to those around you.
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”Matthew 11:28
When my boys have “quiet” time in the afternoon, I lay down with them, near them. I resist the urge to grab my phone to catch up on the news and Facebook, close my eyes and mentally recite the verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” I allow myself to stop everything and focus on trusting God to the point of resting. I encourage my boys to do the same, to rest, and think about God for a little while. This practice sets me free and allows me to relax, in the midst of it all, and to calm down about anything that may be stirring me up. Finding time to be still and peaceful has proven essential for me. It is my rest and a chance to replace weariness, anxiety, and depression with peace and faith in God. I also get up before my family does each morning to find a few quiet moments to fill my mind with scripture, and I’m learning to also step back throughout the day whenever I begin to feel anxious and weary. My sister calls it, 'giving herself a time out.' I love that and had not realized I could do that! My kids and I created a code word for it: pumpkin. If anyone says it, that means that they just need a few minutes alone.
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things.”Philippians 4:8
We Follow Our Focus. We move towards whatever we focus on. If we focus on what irritates us, we are going to become more irritable. If we focus on what we fear, we are going to become more afraid. If we focus on the big rock in the middle of the path, we are going to crash into it. And the opposite is also true. When we identify and focus on an alternative route, we can redirect our thoughts and our feelings. This is a mountain biking analogy, but I have found it to be true and applicable in so many aspects of life! If we focus on what’s not going well, if we put that thing out in front of us and we focus on it, then we HIT IT and crash.
We have to identify what is going well, delight in that, focus on that, praise your spouse and/or kids for it, and use it to build them up and strengthen them. Sometimes, merely looking outside of yourself and creating some positive ripples and snowballs all around you can completely change the atmosphere. If the path you’re on is going downhill, change directions. Change your thought patterns. Ask God to lead you, and open up His Word. He will. Seek out what is going well and focus on it! My husband and I have gotten into a habit, every time we identify even the smallest positive thing, no matter what other craziness is going on around us, of playfully calling out to each other, “We’re crushing it!” For example, child #3 nibbled on a piece of asparagus at dinner? "We're crushing it!" Often times life requires a ridiculous sense of optimism!
I have created this chart to help me as a simple reminder of how to minimize anxiety-related depression by prioritizing certain actions.
In Part II of this series, I will share with you more practical ways I have discovered through personal experience that help when dealing with anxiety-related depression.