Scrolling through Facebook the other day, I came across a cartoon that made me catch my breath.
Written by Sarah Flanigan and illustrated by Nick Seluk of The Awkward Yeti, the comic explains that “Depression and anxiety are teammates and I’m the opposing team.” The comic illustrates how depression and anxiety drain motivation and energy, but sometimes, they go on vacation. It ends by saying, “I have to be prepared to go back into battle when they return from vacation.”
This imagery is incredibly powerful. We must arm ourselves to brace the onslaught of depression and anxiety, and we must do so with words and with truth. The power we possess to battle our mental illness cannot be understated.
“Sufferers of depression lean on metaphors,” Zack Eswine says in Spurgeon’s Sorrows: “You and I need a language of sorrows and God teaches it to us.”
There are no words to describe depression. We capture shadows of it when we describe it as a feeling of drowning, of utter loneliness in a crowded room, or of trying to crawl out of a deep, dark pit without any concept of which direction is up.
Eswine goes on to say that “Realistic hope…counts on the use of metaphor.” We can use this language of sorrows to describe depression, and we can use words to heal, too. These are metaphors of life: crawl towards the light; drink from the well of living water; leave your heavy burden at Jesus’ feet.
Let’s brace our minds with metaphor. Instead of physical armor, let’s wrap ourselves in song. Let’s arm ourselves with happy memories, with the words of people who love us. Let’s use our good days to prepare for our bad days.
Here are some physical, mental, and spiritual ways to arm ourselves against depression and anxiety, those monsters looming over our lives. The battle is difficult, but it is not impossible. Depression often comes in seasons, and I can tell you this: there is hope, and it does get better.
We may not be able to stop the depressive episodes or anxiety attacks, but we can prepare ourselves to fight.
1. Be Kind to Your Body
Our physical body is inextricably linked to our brain, our emotions, our spiritual being. As such, the way that we treat our physical bodies will affect our mental health.
Depression is not kind to our physical bodies. It often leaves me curled in a ball, unable to get out of bed or even answer text messages. It drains me of the energy to prepare healthy food or exercise. It takes away my motivation and even my ability to take care of myself.
There are some things you can do to combat this. You can make a conscious effort to purchase healthy food; you can pick a day that you’re feeling relatively energetic and meal prep. You can also choose to buy healthy food that’s easy to grab and eat, like fruit or veggie trays or smoothies that are ready in the morning for breakfast.
Exercise is important, too. If you can’t bear the thought of going to the gym, that’s okay. Just move your body—take a walk. Another good way to motivate yourself is to sign up for a class with a workout buddy. I absolutely love yoga because it’s both a physical and mental stretch, and both the poses and the silence challenge me. There are apps you can use to workout at home, too—SWORKIT is my favorite, and the basic plan is free.
Just be kind to yourself, okay? Indulging in junk food and Netflix may feel instantly gratifying, but fueling your body with healthy food and sunshine and endorphins will be more rewarding in the end. On the days when you can manage it, get outside and take a walk, and swap fast food for real, whole food.
2. Keep Your Mind Light
Depression robs us of motivation and makes the smallest tasks seem overwhelming. To the outside world, our lives are cluttered with missed appointments and dirty dishes. But we’re carrying the enormous weight of living, and so these smaller tasks fall by the wayside.
I’ve learned it’s okay to be proud of yourself for the small things. Got out of bed? Took a shower? Made a doctor’s appointment or a counseling appointment for yourself? Made plans with a friend? You’re doing great, and you should be proud.
If life is overwhelming because of its enormous weight, make it small. If you’re the kind of person who is motivated by to-do lists like I am, make a to-do list that breaks big tasks into small ones. Something that helps me is to write down everything I have to do, even little things like eating breakfast or putting gas in my car or calling a friend back. When I’m able to cross these things off my list, it helps me realize that I am being productive, even with limited motivation and energy.
I love the Happiness Planner as a tool to keep track of the wonderful things that happen every day. It’s easy to see what a good life it is when you can keep track of the lovely things that happen. For me, those things are coffee dates, getting a new book, and long walks. Nothing is too small to contribute to a good life.
The trick of depression is that it casts your entire life in shadow, even swallowing up the good times. The best way to fight the shadows is to shine a light directly on them. For me, that light is the loving words of friends, the memory of a perfect summer day, a song that always inspires a dance party, a night of stargazing with my husband. I choose to actively remember these things by writing them down, by keeping a planner and journal full of the good moments and the things I’m so incredibly grateful for.
Mornings are hard. If you suffer from insomnia and nightmares like I do, you know this all too well. Bribe yourself to get out of bed. Have your favorite coffee waiting in the fridge. Make a morning playlist filled with peppy or soulful tunes that will sing you through your morning routine. Burn your favorite candle while you get ready.
And while you’re trying to crawl out of the pit, try to cut back on digital entertainment. This is something that feels impossible with depression. I used to hide in my room for hours and watch Netflix on my phone because I couldn’t fathom using my limited mental energy for something else. But what I didn’t realize was that consuming so much television was sapping my mental energy and happiness, not restoring it.
I canceled my Netflix account for the sake of my mental health, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. My days seem longer and lighter and happier. This may seem impossible, but just promise me you’ll try it: a week without TV. See how your passions come alive and your thoughts become lighter.
3. Preach the Gospel to Yourself
I’m going to tell you something that you already know: depression seems to rob you of God’s presence. I think this is the most challenging aspect. There are plenty of times in my journey when the hard times have caused me to draw nearer to God, but depression only seems to put up a wall between me and God when I need Him most.
But here’s another thing about depression: it lies. “I have called you by name; you are Mine.” God says. “When you go through deep waters, I am with you…I will make a pathway through the wilderness” (Isaiah 43:1-19, NLT). This is the truth: in these deep waters, God is near, even when He feels utterly far away.
The hardest thing is that we have to continue to pray, read the Word, and seek Him, even when it feels impossibly empty. “He is not far from any one of us,” the Bible promises in Acts 17:27 (NLT). And I promise you—when you feel alone, He is not far. By reading the Word and praying, we are defying the darkness.
If we give in to the temptation to stop seeking Him, we will miss out on the only truth that can really encourage and restore our hearts. We must pray and not lose heart in these times. The truth is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and He is the same in our seasons of doubt as He is in our seasons of joy (Hebrews 13:8).
When it feels impossible to pray for yourself, ask a friend to pray for you. Sign up for a reading plan on the free You Version Bible app and make sure that the app notifies you each day that it’s time to read. Leave your Bible on your desk, your pillow, wherever you can’t miss it. Ask a friend to keep you accountable. Buy a journal where you can pour out your thoughts to God, however incoherent they may be.
One of the many glorious things about the gospel is this: the truth of the Gospel is not dependent on how we feel about it. Preach the Gospel to yourself daily: remind yourself how Christ died and rose again, nailing your sins to the cross and separating them from you as far as the east is from the west.
Tell yourself that the God of the universe chose to forget your sins, to suffer on your behalf. Remind yourself that He cares so deeply about you that he has made a pathway out of this wilderness. The high king of heaven has not forgotten you. He has not forgotten you. He is with you even now as you read this. There is nothing more profound than being loved, and you are so loved: absolutely and completely loved.
All of these things are true.
4. Skate in the Middle of the Storm
Last winter, my best friend and I were driving in St. Louis, driving to the next stop on our weekend itinerary of adventure. It had just started to sleet and the world was covered in a thick sheet of ice. As we were pulling out of a parking lot, a pickup truck slammed into us and then drove away, leaving us to wait for hours for the police in the dark, icy cold.
We could have sat in the car and shivered. Instead, we skated in the storm. We ran out into the parking lot and slid around, “ice skating” in tennis shoes. Every time I think of that night, I don’t think of the sound of the car hitting us or our ruined plans. I think of skating in the storm: the reminder that we had each other, and that was enough.
Depression is like that, too. We can choose to shiver in the car while we wait out the storm, or we can make the most of it. Skate in the parking lot while you’re stuck and have nowhere else to go. Look for a friend to wait it out with you. I promise your friend will take your hand, and I promise God is near, despite your depression telling you otherwise.
One more thing: these exercises in self-care can be enormously helpful, but they’re not a substitute for medication or therapy. No one can battle these monsters alone, so if you need help, please call your doctor, make an appointment with a therapist, seek resources, or reach out to the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
*Graciously written by guest contributor Hannah Coffman. She loves to write about Jesus, travel, and mental health.*
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