Feeling anxious and depressed? With the world and the economy in such bad shape, it's no wonder such feelings are common. What can you do to combat these negative ways of thinking? Use these five keys to help!
Our current global financial crisis is taking a toll on people in many ways. Some have already lost their jobs. Others fear that as the world economy continues its downturn, they will lose their jobs too. Others are concerned that they won't be able to afford their house payments and will lose their homes. A substantial number of people fear that the economic situation will spiral down into another Great Depression.
All of these concerns and uncertainties are contributing to widespread anxiety and despair. Of course, fear and depression are not new to human beings. They are ongoing dynamics that have been around as long as we have existed.
Some fears are not bad. Fear keeps us from taking unnecessary chances that might endanger our health or lives. (The proper fear of God is a healthy fear that involves standing in awe of Him and His power to intervene in judgment and ultimately to decide our eternal destiny, leading us to respect and obey His commandments rather than scoff and disobey.)
However, when normal fears graduate to the point that they interfere with a healthy state of mind or infringe on our ability to function effectively in life, they have become problems.
Let's take a glance at the extent of the problem and consider some ways to combat it in our own lives.
Widespread problem with a long history
The numbers of those who suffer crippling fear are surprising. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that in a given year, one in 11 adult Americans suffers from a phobia—a fear so extreme that it interferes with the ability to function normally. One example is acrophobia—fear of heights. A person who suffers an extreme form of this phobia might fear even to enter a tall building or be afraid of venturing higher than a few floors.
An online search for phobias and fears can easily bring up lists of hundreds of entries ranging from ablutophobia (fear of washing or bathing) to zoophobia (fear of animals). Some of these phobias are relatively common, and some are very rare.
Far more people suffer from anxiety—constant fearful uneasiness. Though generally less intense than phobias, anxiety can also reach the point of being disabling. In general, any fear that is not God-oriented or healthy presents an obstacle that denies us normal happiness and well-being.
Unhealthy fear began among human beings when Adam and Eve disobeyed God (Genesis:3:10). After they disobeyed Him, they became afraid of God, whereas before they had regarded Him as a friend. Fear and terror are among the curses God said would come on His people Israel if they disobeyed Him (Leviticus:26:16-17).
Fear's companion: Depression
Like unhealthy fears, depression has also been around ever since man departed from the commandments of God. When Cain and Abel brought offerings to God, "the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering" (Genesis:4:4-5). Though the Genesis account does not state explicitly why God didn't respect Cain's offering, 1 John:3:12 implies that God wouldn't accept it because evil was present in Cain's life.
It's interesting to note Cain's reaction after this rejection: "So Cain was exceedingly angry and indignant, and he looked sad and depressed. And the Lord said to Cain, Why are you angry? And why do you look sad and dejected?" (Genesis:4:5-6, The Amplified Bible). So the first specifically recorded incident of depression in the Bible occurred in connection with sin.
Fears and depression often go together. Psychologist and author Dr. Archibald Hart explains that "you seldom see depression without some anxiety, or anxiety without some depression. They are two sides of the same coin. It just depends which side lands faceup" ( The Anxiety Cure, 1999, p. 170).
These fellow travelers often make life miserable for many people, so it's imperative that we know how to deal with and overcome them. Professional therapy and medication are often used with success, but we'll here explore five tools and techniques that everyone can use and apply at little or no cost to successfully deal with fear and depression.
1. Record your feelings through journaling
One method many people have found helpful is to record their feelings. Dr. Hart writes: "How can you change your thinking habits without engaging in a lifetime of therapy? One way is to get yourself a little notebook to record your beliefs whenever you catch them" (p. 113).
Mistaken thoughts about life situations or how others feel toward us can lead to depression or anxiety. Perhaps you've never thought about it this way, but the benefit of journaling is attested to not only by health professionals, but also by the Bible!
God's servant David, though generally a man of great courage and sound mind, at times suffered from depression and anxiety. For example, he referred to depression when he said, "The Lord shall enlighten my darkness" (2 Samuel:22:29). He expressed vivid thoughts of depression and anxiety in Psalm:22:1 where he wrote: "My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?" (New International Version).
Biblical scholars recognize that the thoughts of this psalm presage the anguish of the Messiah, but the psalm also expresses deep emotions that David felt—though we do not know the specific circumstances in his life that triggered these thoughts.
David's pen expressed his agonies as he progressed through the psalm, yet at the end his words are exultant (verses 25-31).
David is the primary author of the book of Psalms. Through this remarkable collection we can learn of events in his life's story—in which he often expressed strong emotions. Almost without exception David's writings end on an exultant note; he worked through his anxieties and sorrows through writing and pouring out his heart to God. We can read his psalms and be encouraged, and we also can write out our own feelings and take them to God to lift our spirits.
2. Reduce your stress level
We live in a fast-paced, overstressed world. Stress is one of the causes of anxiety and depression. Counselor and author Rex Briggs writes: "There is a lot of external pressure in this type of society and little emotional support. Perhaps that is why anxiety disorders are the fastest growing psychiatric condition for which people seek help today" ( Transforming Anxiety, Transcending Shame, 1999, p. 39).
Some people are particularly vulnerable, such as those involved in caregiving occupations in which they are providing emotional and/or physical support for others. Research shows that these people suffer from depression, anxiety, insomnia and stress about three times as often as non-caregivers. Mothers carry a heavy load of caregiving, especially if no father is present, and thus could fall victim to depression.
Regardless of occupation, those who want to avoid excessive stress must maintain balance. This includes getting enough sleep and exercise. Exercise is a proven method of reducing stress.
Not that long ago, people were usually employed in occupations that involved physical labor—or in many cases they walked quite a bit to get to and from work. Today, however, most people either drive to work or take mass transit, and their work is relatively sedentary. Many do not perform chores around the home as earlier generations did, and they relax in front of the TV when they get home.
One result of this is that too many people don't participate in stress-relieving physical activity. Lack of exercise contributes to a lack of restful sleep, which in turn feeds into the stress-on-stress cycle.
A simple antidote to this is to initiate an exercise program to burn off some of the stress you feel. Research has demonstrated that weight-bearing activities help relieve stress. This includes walking, which most people can do easily enough.
The Bible was written in a time when people were physically active and didn't need an exercise program like many need today. Scripture does recognize, though, that "physical exercise has some value" (1 Timothy:4:8, Good News Translation).
3. Maintain a proper diet
Most mental health professionals understand that some foods are beneficial and some are not, especially if eaten in excess. Some foods enhance our natural tranquilizers while some are natural stimulants. Both can be beneficial, but we need to strive for balance.
Since the Bible is God's inspired, revealed Word to mankind, it's the first place we should look for overall guidance in dietary matters. God gave His people guidelines on what they should eat and what they should avoid, and provided them with an environment in which a healthy, balanced diet would come somewhat naturally.
"The ordinary food of the average Hebrew of Bible times was bread, olives, oil, buttermilk and cheese from their flocks; fruits and vegetables from their orchards and gardens; and meat on rare occasions" (Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, 1987, p. 43).
The Bible Almanac similarly states: "Vegetable products formed a major portion of the diet ... When meat was used, it was often for the purpose of serving strangers or honored guests. Grains were an important part of the diet ... Fruits and fish were a favorite part of the diet" (James Packer, Merrill Tenney and William White, editors, 1980, p. 465).
Mental health professionals who emphasize sound nutrition, in connection with sound mental health, recommend balance from all the major food groups. This includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and protein, as described above.
A person who is suffering from anxiety should limit intake of stimulants—including caffeine. One who is suffering from depression, if he or she chooses to drink alcoholic beverages, should do so in careful moderation.
"A feast is made for laughter; and wine makes merry" (Ecclesiastes:10:19), but alcohol is also a depressor of the central nervous system. Excessive alcohol consumption will drive someone deeper into depression. "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise" (Proverbs:20:1).
4. Associate with other people
As the English poet John Donne wrote several centuries ago, "No man is an island." This brief statement expresses a simple but vital truth: It is not healthy to be alone. In the beginning when God created Adam, He stated, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him" (Genesis:2:18).
The truth is that we need other people—especially when we face various challenges or crises in life. Ecclesiastes:4:9-10 tells us: "Two are better than one ... For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up."
God intended that we should share our experiences in life. It is especially vital that we have someone to share our burdens with when we're laboring under the crushing weight of fear or depression.
Without having someone with whom we can share our burdens, we may well think they're insurmountable. But the truth is that no trial is too great if we have divine help and wholesome fellowship with other Christians and with God (Philippians 4:13; 1 John:1:3).
Other people can help us see the lighter side of life even when things look bleak. Humor is a valuable tool to provide balance to extreme thoughts and feelings and by nature neutralizes fear and depression. It's been said that "laughter is the best medicine," and it is one of the vital antidotes for mental disorders. Depression is not just a mental affliction. It involves an imbalance of endorphins—the "good" chemicals—in the brain, and humor helps boost endorphins.
The Bible long ago expressed the effectiveness of humor in providing relief for a depressed spirit: "A merry heart does good, like medicine" (Proverbs:17:22).
Whenever Christians gather together, they can mutually edify one another by the synergistic effect compared to iron sharpening iron (Proverbs:27:17). "When all is said and done, the best guarantee of a long and healthy life may be the connections you have with other people" (Nancy Shute, "Prescription: Don't Be Lonely," U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 12, 2008).
5. Develop a relationship with God
The most important thing you personally can do to combat and overcome fear and depression is to develop a vibrant relationship with God. Secular research and biblical instruction alike verify its effectiveness.
At one time psychologists believed that faith in God detracted from psychological wellness, but research has shown otherwise. "Modern psychologists predicted that religion would be exposed as a neurosis and outgrown; instead, religious commitment has been shown empirically to be a vital component of basic mental health" (Patrick Glynn, God: The Evidence, 1999, pp. 19-20).
Further, "people of committed religious faith report much higher levels of personal happiness and psychological well-being than do their agnostic or atheistic counterparts" (pp. 61-62).
The Bible is essentially an owner's manual on how to conduct our lives. If we apply it, it assures us of overall peace and happiness.
Many of its passages assure us that a relationship with God will enrich our lives: "Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble" (Psalm:119:165). "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy:1:7). Love is one of the attributes of God's Holy Spirit, and "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John:4:18).
Psalm 19 contains several statements about how the Word of God engenders a healthy mind. It converts the soul (verse 7), rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes (verse 8).
Another element of a healthy relationship with God is prayer. Men and women of God in the Bible prayed. Jesus told His disciples to pray, and He taught them how (Matthew:6:9-13). Jesus prayed regularly to His Father and on at least one occasion prayed all night (Luke:6:12). He prayed in part because He experienced the same human emotions and temptations we all experience (Hebrews:4:15).
The night before He died, Jesus was very anxious as He said, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" (Matthew:26:38, NIV). He countered this by praying earnestly three times to God (verses 39-44), and in so doing was strengthened to face the excruciating ordeal that awaited Him in the hours to come.
Prayers can likewise strengthen us in times of fear and depression. Both David and the prophet Daniel faced threats to their lives that they overcame through prayer. Both men habitually prayed three times a day (Psalm:55:17; Daniel:6:10). The New Testament tells us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians:5:17).
Still another tool in our kit for a healthy mind through a relationship with God is meditation. Meditation is focused thinking. "No amount of meditating can magically erase the stress of losing a job or a loved one. But it can help people cope" (Michelle Andrews, "How to Beat Stress and Angst Through Meditation," U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 29, 2008).
The apostle Paul urged Timothy to meditate on God's Word: "Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine ... Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them" (1 Timothy:4:13-15). The author of Psalm 119 said that he meditated on God's law (verse 97).
Meditation enables us to replace unprofitable thoughts with healthy ones. If you find your life burdened with stresses and anxieties, the end of the day is a good time to overhaul your thinking. Dr. Hart advises, "This is ... a good time to do a 'mental wash' when you review anxieties that are cluttering your thinking and dump those that are not important" (p. 204).
Above all, seek God's Kingdom and way of life
Worry is a form of fear, and excessive worry can also morph into depression. Jesus knew that we are prone to worry, so He said to His disciples, "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on" (Matthew:6:25). He added: "For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew:6:32-33).
The ultimate solution to all of humanity's needs and problems is for Jesus Christ to return, for God to establish His Kingdom and for mankind to receive the gift of eternal life. But God has promised to provide the essentials of life now to those who seek Him, and His unbreakable promise is that those who turn to Him in repentance and obedience will eventually live forever in His everlasting Kingdom.
May we all believe God when He tells us in Isaiah:41:10: "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand." GN