Depression and Anxiety
Note: I am not dispensing medical advice in this article, and what I write here should not be substituted for clinical treatment by a medical doctor and/or clinical counselor. Further, I cannot possibly cover every aspect of this sensitive and complex subject in an article. Entire books have been written on these conditions, and I will only skim the surface here. However, it is my hope and prayer that this article can provide you with some direction if you are currently struggling with one or both of these conditions.
“Writing this article is giving me anxiety.”
“I’m so depressed about my test grade.”
“This job is giving me an anxiety attack.”
“This weather is so depressing.”
The terms “anxiety” and “depression” get thrown around a lot. Sometimes these terms are used properly, and other times they are used to exaggerate our description of thoughts and feelings.
Mayo Clinic’s website defines depression as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest…it affects how you feel, think, and behave, and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.”
The same organization doesn’t neatly define anxiety as one condition, but says that “People with anxiety disorders experience frequent and excessive anxiety, fear, terror, and panic in regards to everyday situations. These feelings are unhealthy if they affect your quality of life and prevent you from functioning in a normal manner.”
Quite simply, anxiety can be summed up as excessive, intense worry, and depression can be summed up as excessive, intense sadness. Both of these conditions can show up as fatigue, racing thoughts, crankiness, wild swings of emotions, anger, a sense of hopelessness, apathy (not caring about anything), lack of motivation to do anything, weight gain or loss, trouble concentrating and making decisions, insomnia or sleeping more than normal, stomachaches, and digestive problems.
You know at least one person your age, and probably at your school, with depression or anxiety. Statistics vary, but multiple studies have reported that at least 70% of teens say that depression and anxiety are a “major problem” for people their age. Girls are at least twice as likely as boys to suffer from depression or anxiety. These conditions are fairly common, and we as Christians should not be surprised when we encounter these problems within our churches and schools. Jesus himself reminds us in John 16:33 that we will have trouble in this world.
Go back and read the definitions of depression and anxiety again. Can you see how they are related? Depression and anxiety often, but not always, go hand in hand. It’s a feed-forward cycle: if you are depressed you will most likely have anxious thoughts and feelings, and anxious thoughts and feelings can cause (or worsen) feelings of depression.
Another cycle worth noting is that of cause and symptoms. For example, physical imbalances of certain hormones and/or brain chemicals can be one contributing factor (cause) to your depression, and your depression can cause physical symptoms like heart palpitations and fatigue. A spiritual valley in which you aren’t living in the assurance of God’s providence can cause anxiety, which can make it difficult to trust God (symptom).
So are you really anxious or depressed? It can be helpful to uncover what you really mean when you say you are feeling anxious or that you are depressed. Both of these labels can be used to describe a variety of emotions. Do you mean that you are sad? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Angry? Worried? Hurt? Nervous? Disappointed? Accurately labeling your emotions can help you work through them, in your own head or in your conversations with parents, counselors, and friends.
Depression and anxiety can both range from mild (feeling down) to moderate (letting those “downer” feelings overtake you and affect your ability to function) to severe (suicidal thoughts and urges).
If you are having thoughts about taking your own life, please stop reading this article immediately and go talk to someone about how you are feeling. Precious daughter of the King, please know that there are many people who love you and care about your spiritual and emotional well-being.
In general, the range from mild to moderate depression/anxiety can be partially determined by the answer to this question: “Do I even want to feel better?” Answering yes or no does not give you an official diagnosis, but it can help you determine the severity of your condition. Asaph struggled with wanting to feel better, as he tells us in Psalm 77:2b: “my soul refused to be comforted.”
There is certainly a spiritual aspect to your depression and/or anxiety. The Bible tells us of many of God’s people who battled spiritual depression and anxiety, including Asaph in Psalm 77, the prophet Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations, and David, whose bones waxed old within him while he refused to confess his sin (Ps. 32).
There are those who teach that all depression is the result of unconfessed sin, not having enough faith, or not praying hard enough. While your spiritual life certainly plays a major role in your thoughts and emotions, there are many other considerations that directly and indirectly affect whether or not you will be clinically depressed or anxious. These include physical (brain chemical imbalances, vitamin and nutrient deficiencies), environmental/geographical (the famously cloudy skies of Michigan!), genetic (you’re more likely to struggle with depression or anxiety if someone else in your family does), and relational (yes, good friends are important to mental health!).
Before we move on to “what can I do about my depression?” I’d like you to consider that your emotions and feelings are controlled by your thoughts. Emotions are a valid expression of what is going on inside of us; however, your thoughts control those emotions, and you choose your thoughts. The Bible makes a distinction between these two aspects of our being in Mark 12:30, where we are instructed to love God with our heart, soul, and mind.
Changing your thought patterns is one key to alleviating your depression and anxiety. In fact, we can be changed by the renewing of our minds! (Rom. 12:2). What are you choosing to think about? If you constantly have negative, bitter, and angry thoughts running through your head, you are choosing to think those thoughts. Philippians 4:8 tells us what we should be thinking about: things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy!
If you are struggling with mild to moderate depression, anxiety, or both, what can you do? Treatment of depression and anxiety is much more complex than a list of “10 Tips to Feel Better.” However, there are, in fact, some things that you can (and maybe should!) try.
- Check your spiritual life. Are you skipping your personal devotions? Do you have an unconfessed sin that is standing between you and God? This is not the only reason you might be feeling down, but it’s something to consider. Depression can mean you just don’t feel like doing anything, including reading the Bible and praying. My friend, you don’t need to feel motivated to spend time in the word! Choose to open your Bible, and choose to read Psalm 77. Asaph struggles with depression in the first half of the psalm, but in the second half he chooses to think about and meditate on the power and goodness of God. He chooses to think on “these things” (refer back to Philippians 4:8)—and if you are regularly filling your mind with the hope of salvation and the assurance of eternal life, you’ll be able to think on those things instead of that nasty DM that you received last night.
- Consider medication, with the guidance of your parents and your doctor. Balancing your brain chemicals can sometimes make changing your thought patterns a little easier, and help you want to feel better. Starting on an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication is a very personal decision, and one that should be made carefully and prayerfully. Medication should not be viewed as a magic happy pill, but it’s a helpful tool for many who struggle. At the very least, get some bloodwork/lab tests done. Sometimes correcting a basic vitamin or mineral deficiency (such a Vitamin D) can feel life-changing.
- Take care of your physical body. Eat more vegetables and less candy, drink more water and less pop, and get some form of exercise every day. I don’t just say these things because I’m a health coach. Research has shown a direct connection between increased exercise (cardio or weights) and improved mood/decreased depression symptoms. Also, junk food directly messes with your brain chemicals. Maybe it’s not cool to bring veggies and dip to school, but your mental health is worth it. So go for a run, fill up your water bottle, pump some iron, and eat your greens.
- Spend less time on social media. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that what we’re seeing is everyone else’s highlight reel and not actually their real life, and this can contribute to your feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, hurt, disappointment, and sadness. Pay attention to how you feel (as a result of what you are thinking!) during and after scrolling Instagram. Maybe you need to get off your beanbag and go take a walk instead of double-tapping.
- Talk to someone: a good friend, your mom, your pastor, a mentor, or a licensed counselor. Making sense of your thoughts and emotions is sometimes more easily accomplished out loud, and this person can listen, pray with you and for you, and provide you with wise spiritual and practical advice. Proverbs 11:14 is good encouragement for us to utilize our trusted relationships in this way: “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” God created us relational beings, and even the most introverted person will benefit from working through problems and trials with a fellow believer.
- Get out of your own head by taking the focus off yourself. I’m not accusing you of being selfish, and I realize it’s easier said than done to look up and out instead of down and in. You can do this in two ways. Focus on who God is, and focus on the needs of others and how you can possibly help them, pray for them, or be a friend to them.
Depression and anxiety are complex, and you shouldn’t expect to “fix” these conditions overnight. However, remember that although we have trials in this world, we can still “be of good cheer; I [Christ] have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Lisa Deboer is a wife and mother and attends Zion Protestant Reformed Church.
Originally published April 2020, Vol 79 No 4