Dr. David Coombs, Ed.D, MFT
Everyone experiences periods of depression. It goes with being mortal. In the October General Conference of 2013, Elder Holland Jeffry R. Holland said major bouts of depression, be they short lived or chronic, seem to be the lot of most, if not all, people. He spoke of his own battle with a major depressive episode.
The title of his talk, “Like a Broken Vessel,” provided the metaphor that describes how people feel, at times, broken. And they fear they may never become whole again.
Speaking out of his own experience, Elder Holland gave encouragement to others who are hit with these psychic blows. He advised them to consider the following: take time to rest and to “not run faster than they have strength” (Mosiah 4:27); to ask for priesthood blessings; to seek the aide of professional counselors and medical doctors; to hold on to their faith in the Living Christ; and to not lose hope.
All people, when experiencing difficulties and challenging times, may benefit from repeating to themselves an ancient proverb, “This too shall pass.” The dark night will eventually give way to the bright morning of another day. When the prophet Joseph Smith was deep in despair he received a revelation which is recorded in Section 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse seven: “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”
Depressed people want to pull away from others, to isolate themselves, and to hide. This may be necessary for a time. They need the patience of non-judgmental, loving family members and dear friends who will not insist that they put on a false front and pretend all is well when it is not.
However, after they have sufficient rest, have sessions with professional counselors, have the benefit of medications or a change in diets, after they have fasted, prayed, and given thanks to the Master Healer, if they have not yet done so, then they need to analyze the way their thinking has contributed to their depression.
In his book, Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns teaches the importance of trading depressive thought patterns for ways of thinking that bring relief and hope. He emphasizes we are the sum total of our thoughts and what we are feeling is often a result of what we are telling ourselves; our moods and our dark feelings are a result of our own poor self talk. Every action is preceded by a thought. People can interpret events so that they conclude that they are worthless, of course, that leads to depression. However, they can overcome their depression by choosing to think more rational thoughts that will lead to their feeling valued and worthwhile. To do this they need to identify how they think themselves into despair.
Dr. Burns identifies ten ways people do their depression:
- Think in terms of all or nothing, black or white, success or failure with nothing allowed in between. One student got a “B” in one class and “A”s in all the others. He was depressed because he wasn’t perfect. He had to have all “A”s to consider himself a successful student.
- Overgeneralize events, for example, a boy asked one girl for a date and she politely said no. The boy saw this as proof that all girls hate him; he will never marry; he might as well face the truth that he is worthless.
- Use a mental filter to pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their thinking is distorted. A woman shamed herself for being ten pounds over-weight and refused to be comforted.
- Disqualify any positives by saying that the good things they have done don’t count. They say things like, “When friends try to give me assurance, they are just trying to be nice. If they knew all the dirty truth about me, they would reject me.”
- Jump to conclusions. Because one person doesn’t like them, that proves that no one likes them. Some see themselves as mind readers who are absolutely sure that, while people are being nice, they have ulterior motives.
- Awfulize or take something that is unfortunate and make it much worse than it really is. A man found bird poop on his car and said, “This kind of thing happens to me all the time and it’s not fair.”
- Exaggerate the importance of certain feelings that they even say things that make them appear odd: “I feel the world is coming to an end; since that’s what I feel, then it is true.”
- Frequently use the words “should” and “ought” to create unnecessary guilt. They feel the only way out of their depression is to live a perfect life. But because people are not perfect and never will be, they see no way out of their depression.
- Use the negative power of labels to call themselves “Losers,” “Dead Beats,” or “Worthless.” For example, a woman may say, “I am a bad mother. If I were a good mother, my boy would be a better student.”
- Grant themselves awesome powers by thinking if they had only said the right thing, at the right time, or had taken the right action, they could have prevented a catastrophe from happening. Some label themselves “Stupid” and hold on to the regret that their lack of action is the cause that others are in great pain. “If I had called or visited when I was prompted, my friend would not have committed suicide. It’s all my fault.”
So what is the answer? How do people overcome their negative thinking that leads, in part, to their depression? The answer is simple, but it requires hard work that only they can do. They must identify how they use one or more of these methods to do their depression. Anyone thinking irrational thoughts will be depressed. So the answer is for people to challenge illogical and destructive ways of thinking. One effective strategy is to keep a daily journal and to write out negative thought patterns; this shows clearly how they participate in creating their own depressions.
After identifying irrational thoughts, they write out how they wished they had thought and acted. In later similar situations, they will have the opportunity to do what they have planned. They vigorously challenge themselves to stop their inappropriate thinking and practice thinking more rationally. Be aware that many depressed people will not take this advice. They may fight it, resist it, and do nothing. They may find excuses to convince themselves that this will not work. People will say things like, “I don’t feel like doing this.” “This is too hard.” “I am helpless, powerless, and I simply don’t have the energy to do what it takes.” “How do you expect me to do this when I am feeling so depressed?” “Yes but...”
The slightest efforts reap rewards. Just getting off the couch or out of bed and going for a walk brings blessings. Breakthroughs occur when depressed people say, “I think I can do this. I might as well try something. I hate being depressed. This advice just might work for me. What if I get Dr. Burns book, Feeling Good and read it and get more ideas on ways to think differently? It just may help me.”
Some might say, “Do I have to write in a journal. Couldn’t I just process these ideas in my mind?” No! There is power in writing out how depression is done. Whether on paper or on the computer screen, seeing their thoughts in black and white is powerful. Additionally, they can talk with others they trust who can help them recognize more rational ways to think. Right thinking begins with the words they say to themselves. If they don’t think they can do it, they are right. But if they think they can, then there is hope. As they act on the possibilities, people will continue to move forward till they have found relief by learning the language of faith both in themselves and in their Creator.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with this thought: “You are about as happy as you make up your mind to be.” That is true!
Just as people can think themselves into a depressed state, they can also think the right thoughts that lead them to a life of increased confidence; they will know they are people of worth. Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he.” People are responsible for their own happiness. No one can make them happy. It really is their choice.