Cows and Buffalos (Thoughts on Depression)

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Courtesy of James Douglas

Around 1 in every 6 people in the United States will experience a depressive episode in their lifetime. Women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression in their lifetime. Only about half of those with diagnosed depression seek treatment, which can skew the numbers and indicate that the prevalence rates are higher. In any case, hearts are struggling.

When a storm is coming, the animals seem to have a keen sense of it. As humans, we may not be as attuned to nature as the birds, but we do tend to be aware of when our hope begins to fade and the darkness of depression threatens. When the clouds gather and the thunder grumbles, cows do what any sane animal might do, they run away from it. Not desiring to be trapped under a deluge of water or the strobe effect of lightening, they run as far away from the oncoming system as they can. Unfortunately, nature has a way of winning out and moving faster. The storm, unless it dissipates, will overtake them. Buffalos, though, go a different route. They run into the storm. They turn toward it and enter in to fear and the darkness. And they make it through to the sunshine in much quicker time.

Depression is a lot like that. People’s greatest fears concerning emotions, according to Brene Brown, are shame and grief. Depression touches on both of those emotions. It says you are helpless, hopeless, and you can experience isolation in your despair. If we want to avoid feelings of shame, grief, sadness, and pain, we will do whatever it takes to fight it off and bolt the opposite direction. Depression is the oncoming storm, and should you choose to run away from it and fight it, you will linger in the darkness for much longer than you would desire. Entering in to it to learn what it has to teach you is the pathway out.

There is no quick fix to depression. But I believe God gave us feelings as signals in our lives that are worth acknowledging. There are many instances of characters in the Bible who struggled with depression (Jeremiah and David to name a few). The Psalms are filled with laments and grievous words. Yet these people were chosen by God. Sometimes it was a consequence of unconfessed sin, or the overwhelming pain observed in the world, but there was always a purpose. God can use anything, and he certainly uses depression in the lives of men and women. Perhaps it’s a wakeup call, a signal things are not right, a growth experience, or even a doorway to greater freedom. It takes great courage to walk in to the storm. Being honest with your self, and with your experience is a step in the right direction.

[Depression is a painful and difficult illness, sometimes chronic. If you feel you are experiencing depression please seek help]

How Does That Make You Feel?

IMG_20130725_015819   This question was epitomized by TV therapist Dr. Phil. Unfortunately it has been broadly, and scoffingly, ascribed to all counselors as their “go to” question. There is so much more to therapy than getting a person to share their feelings. Yet, like all stereotypes, there are grains of truth embedded. Why do counselors spend time at all with clients unraveling the tangle of their emotions? Our culture defines male masculinity as strong, stoic, and emotionless. Assertive females who show little emotion are viewed as sexy and mysterious, aloof and powerful. Openly expressing and sharing emotions is culturally seen as embarrassing, immature, and weak. But if a friend came to you in grief because they lost a loved one, a job, or even a cat, would you treat them disdainfully? My hope is that would not happen; but my guess is there might be some mild discomfort. Most people are uncomfortable with deep expressions of emotions (like grief, despair, depression, etc.) because they are not comfortable with their own pain.

As human beings, made in the image of God, we have feelings- and LOTS of them! They are neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that can be good or bad. They are signals that things are going well, or flags that they are not. Our culture teaches us to quiet the sirens, numb the feelings, avoid the pain. In other cultures there are dances and songs to wail out when one is experiencing pain. Our culture has no such practices. When we stuff down and ignore we grow more and more disconnected to our authentic selves and our relationships. Not living out of an authentic self, journeying toward greater emotional disconnectedness, many things are affected.

  1. Relational intimacy is sacrificed. That goes for platonic and romantic relationships. It affects how close you are willing to get to others. If you avoid hard emotions within yourself, then you are most assuredly avoiding those same emotions in others. Relational connectedness suffers.
  2. Physical and/or behavioral concerns grow. When emotions are stuffed oftentimes anxiety develops, depression can flourish, anger/rage increases, to name a few. Body aches can increase, especially things like migraines, shoulder pain, neck pain, and digestive issues.
  3. Your life is lived in the grey rather than the brilliant colors offered. When we avoid the negative, it doesn’t mean the positive reigns. It means they both are dulled. Author and pastor Henri Nouwen says suffering and joy are two sides of the same coin. To numb one consequently numbs the other.

Avoided, unnamed, and buried emotions can leave us stuck and imprisoned. It can be difficult to name the emotion if you’ve lived this way for a long time. Happy or sad are the two descriptors most cited. To begin living more fully, I would suggest a few things:

  1. Give yourself space and quiet. We live in such a busy time, and that makes it easier to avoid and numb out feelings. Find some space to reflect and assess where you’re at.
  2. Think through events that have occurred throughout your day or week. Do you feel anything in your body? If so, where? What are the thoughts that accompany those experiences? What does it feel like? Looking through a list of adjectives can be very helpful. Or using a search engine to find a “Feelings Wheel” to help narrow things down. Sometimes we need someone else to use the language for us before we can use it ourselves.
  3. Find a trusted person to discuss some of your discovered feelings, and own it. They’re yours. They aren’t good or bad. It will help you understand them better.
  4. Choose to enter into the difficult, the painful, the confusing. Choose again. And again. They will become less scary, and you will find greater freedom and authenticity in your life.

Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to start asking ourselves: “How does that make you feel?”