COPING WITH THE BLUES: The Basics.
When someone comes for counseling and tells me that they are depressed, it is important for me to discern how serious their problem is. So I ask them to describe what they are going through. If their problem sounds like deep, ongoing, clinical depression, I refer them to someone more competent than myself. If their problem is perceived as temporary mild depression, I prepare myself to work with them.
In either case, my first duty is to ask them, "Do you want to get better?" They might be startled and respond, "What?" So I ask again, "Do you really want to get better, to get completely rid of your depression?" I hope they say, "Yes, that's why I am here." But they may hesitate to answer my question. Why would anyone hesitate? Depression is not fun. And, whether mild or serious, most people would want to get rid of depression, right? Not necessarily.
Believe it or not, there are some people who feel good about feeling bad. They might not be conscious of it, but they find some pleasure in feeling down. First of all, depression gets them attention. People around them say, "Oh, you look so down. You poor dear. I feel so sorry for you. It must be awful what you are going through. Tell me all about how difficult your life is." Secondly, depression gets them out of work and relieves them of a lot of responsibility. When they are down and out, other people will not turn to them for assistance. Instead, others say, "Oh, I'll do this task. I can see you aren't up to doing anything right now."
In order to get well, a person must want to get well. I mean really want to get well. They must be determined and be fully committed to do whatever it takes to get well. That means they must be willing to spend whatever time it will take, make whatever effort is necessary, call upon whatever resources are available to them, outlay whatever cash is required and, if they are a person of faith, do constant prayer work in order to get well.
If a hypochondriac comes to a doctor for a cure, but doesn't really want to get well, nothing the doctor advises will work. As a counselor I am willing to do all I can for a counselee. But if the counselee is not totally committed to getting rid of their depression, I ask them not to waste my time. Nothing I do will work for them.
When a person with everyday mild depression says they are committed to getting well, we are off and running. I go into my five starting questions.
1) Do you get enough sleep?
2) Do you eat balanced meals?
3) How much exercise do you do each week?
4) How much do you play?
5) Are you getting enough light?
These questions are so obvious that I am almost embarrassed to ask them. But dealing with these fundamental issues up front often alleviates much of the problem.
1) As long as I can remember, "Doctors say..." that the average person requires eight hours of sleep to be healthy and function properly. Nevertheless, many of us are so busy that we tend to cut back on sleep whenever we can. We try to sneak by with less than eight hours. We justify cutting back on sleep because we have so much work to do.
To motivate ourselves to get enough sleep, it helps to remember that sleep deprivation eventually diminishes the effectiveness of our actions. Our reflexes are not as sharp. We tend to make stupid decisions. We are less alert when driving. We may say dumb things that we would not say if we more alert. And sleep deprivation eventually affects our mood. We get cranky and crabby. We feel drained, drowsy and all done in. Guess what the solution is? "Doctors say..." eight hours, or close to it. That's the first step in combating depression.
2) Eating balanced meals is more in the category of "Mother says..." In my case, it was my mother, grandmother and older sister. When I was growing up I was a fun-loving kid who just wanted to go outside and play. I didn't want to lose playtime by stopping to eat. Fortunately, my dear mother "forced" me to sit down and eat. And since she was from the farm, she knew what a balanced meal consisted of. I grew up healthy and, with good eating habits, have remained healthy. Thanks, Mom.
I have a popular knowledge about nutrition, but am not qualified to give any in-depth advice. Books on good nutrition fill local libraries and bookstores, plus there is a plethora of information available in magazines and on the internet. All of us need to read and keep abreast with the latest discoveries about how to stay healthy. A firm commitment to our physical well-being begins with a firm commitment to be informed.
For a rule of thumb: No one puts cheap fuel in a Mercedes. Our body is much more precious than a luxury car. We need to threat our body with utmost loving care. We need to provide it with the highest quality and right amount of nutrition. Our body will give us many years of loving service in return.
3) Doctors, mothers, and just about everyone nowadays will tell you about the importance of exercise. It is good not only for physical health, but also for mood elevation, mental alertness, improved digestion, better sleep, greater energy and a sense of accomplishment. Exercise also contributes to longevity.
My mother was physically healthy and mentally alert well into her eighties, in part because she never drove a car! She walked - to the store, to the bank, to church, to the bus stop and, when she wanted to go to downtown Chicago, she walked six blocks to the train. Did I say Chicago? For fifty years she lived in a suburb of Chicago, so that means she often walked in rain, sleet, snow, and wind. What a lady!
"A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world."
-- Dr. Paul Dudley White
Getting motivated for exercise is a challenge for many people. They know exercise is important. But they tell themselves, "I'll do it next week." My advice: find exercise that you enjoy doing. Many people enjoy walking. Others prefer jogging, biking, swimming, golf, etc. One of my earlier forms of exercise was roller-skating. Accompanied by good music, I could skate for hours. Gardening does it for others.
Many people live in cold climates where it is difficult to spend time outdoors much of the year. With no access to a gym, indoor health club, or skating rink, what can they do? Walking around a Mall is a possibility, if a Mall is accessible. Calisthenics is usually possible at home, but for some this is not enjoyable. I recommend music. Play a favorite selection and then dance or "dancercise" to the music.
Another strategy is to pretend you are directing an orchestra. This can be a great upper-body workout. If I were rich enough and had the space I would buy a drum set. Have you ever seen an over-weight drummer? What a happy way to stay fit! The trick is to be creative and find an enjoyable way to work out. Any brisk, rhythmic exercise for at least thirty minutes releases molecules in the brain called endorphins, which quickly work to wipe out anxiety and depression and boost self esteem.
"Above all do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it."
-- Soren Kierkegaard
4) One of the first rules of thumb that we were taught as kids was: "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy." Without play, Jack is not only dull but also depressed. Play has the power to resurrect the child within us and thereby reduce the size of adult problems. Play is a great equalizer, bringing together people of all ages, colors and creeds. Play diminishes our possessiveness of material things, encouraging us to share so that others may join in our play. Play helps us gain perspective. Play is an act of freedom.
"Your mental health will be better if you have lots of fun outside of that office."
-- Dr. William Menninger
"People who cannot find time for recreation are obliged sooner of later to find time for illness."
-- John Wanamaker
Most Americans don't feel valuable unless they are useful and productive. So we work and work in order to produce and produce. We need to balance work with play. Putting fun and relaxation into our day refreshes our spirits and renews our energy. Play is ultimately productive, for it leads to a healthier and more creative life.
The rules are simple:
1. Grab your hat.
2. Grab your coat.
3. Leave your worries on our doorstep.
4. Just direct your feet to the playful side of the street.
"The life without festival is a long road without an inn."
- Democritus (400 B.C.)
5) Finally, light. Growing up in Chicago, I know how crabby people can get by the time the month of March rolls around. The result of a long, cold winter is called "cabin fever" or "winter blues". It is estimated that 10% to 20% of our population goes through some form of this. A more serious illness afflicting 4% to 6% of Americans is called Seasonal Affective disorder, SAD. This is the result of having to spend so much time indoors.
Natural light deprivation leads to depression. Darkness contributes to depression. Because sunlight appears to stimulate the production of melatonin, which influences our mood, proper emotional maintenance involves going outdoors every day. Also, all rooms except our bedroom during sleeping hours should be well lit, with bright colors, cheerful pictures and window curtains opened wide. Full spectrum lighting, which produces light similar to that of the sun, is recommended.
To sum up: In order to progress from blues to smiles to joy, the first step is:
Then we need to take stock and see if we are getting enough:
In Matthew 19:19, Jesus tells us, "You are to love your neighbor as yourself." Implied in this statement is the obligation to love ourselves. Getting a good night's sleep, eating balanced meals, making time for physical exercise, and enjoying play and light are all part of caring for ourselves.
These strategies are not only an opening plan for dealing with depression. They are part of the basic foundation for a healthy spiritual life. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that "grace builds upon nature." If we neglect the legitimate needs of our human nature, our spiritual efforts will have no foundation to build upon. We will be building on air.