Last week I got my annual flu shot. I’m late, but better late than never. I’m also washing my hands more. I want to do whatever I can to prevent getting ill.
As women, we’re told to get yearly mammograms and do regular breast exams so that we will have the best chance at early detection of breast cancer. We’re told to eat a diet high in fiber and low in fat in order to prevent colon cancer. To stop smoking, eat healthy, and do aerobic exercise to prevent coronary artery disease, and to take our calcium supplements and work out with weights to prevent osteoporosis.
But did you know that there is another disease that affects about 30% of all women, and 41% of those affected are too embarrassed to even ask for help?
The disease is depression, and it’s on the rise, but there are some things that we can do to build depression prevention into our lives. It starts with taking care of our body. Last week I blogged about how important exercise, eating right and sleep are to keeping our body healthy and less vulnerable to depression.
This week, I want to talk about our mind and the way we think. The Bible tells us, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23). How we think and what we think about directly affects our emotions and, to a great extent, our body and our behavior.
When we experience negative feelings associated with depression such as guilt, hopelessness, shame, despair, or anger, most of the time we feel helpless. But it’s important that we understand that there are some things we can do about these negative feelings and one of them is to pay attention to our thought life, in particular our self-talk.
Next time you’re feeling depressed, listen to your internal dialogue. It probably sounds something like, “I can’t do it. I’m hopeless. God doesn’t care. I’m just a loser. I can’t do anything right. I’m so stupid (or fat, or ugly). What’s wrong with me? God must hate me.”
Sound familiar? Charles Spurgeon says, “A troubled heart makes that which is bad worse. It magnifies, aggravates, caricatures, and misrepresents. If just an ordinary foe is in your way, a troubled heart makes him swell into a giant.”1
Proverbs warn us that “death and life is in the power of the tongue.” What you say to yourself (and think) about life, about your circumstances, about yourself, and about God directly affects your emotions. The psalmist cried, “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught” (Psalm 55:2).
Let me explain. Imagine a terrible scene such as one of your children being hit by a car or doing something foolish and everyone seeing you do it. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re thinking such awful thoughts. Notice how just thinking about it creates a sinking feeling inside your stomach. And, when you stop thinking about it, that awful feeling begins to go away as well.
The same process happens when we’re watching a scary movie. Our mind is fixed on the story line and, even though we know it’s not true, our emotions are caught right up in the story and we’re feeling terrified. So what do we do if we don’t want to be up half the night with nightmares? We turn off the television or switch channels so that we will stop feeling scared.
In the same way, when you habitually focus on all your faults, mistakes, or difficult life circumstances, you will feel the emotions that correspond with those thoughts. In addition, those of us who by nature are more “glass half empty” people face extra challenges because we usually feel more dissatisfied and unhappy than our optimistic friends. This makes us more vulnerable to depression’s grasp.
Here are three specific things you can do to guard your heart.
1. Understand the thought/feeling connection. When you think negatively, you will also feel negatively. Psychologists call this “stinkin thinkin.” Remember, your thoughts and feelings can be real and powerful, but they don’t always tell us the truth. Even when you know your thoughts or feelings are not true, as long as you focus on them you still feel them–like when watching the scary movie.
2. Your thoughts and feeling are just that, thoughts and feelings. They are NOT a statement about who you are. For example, sometimes I feel jealous or hateful feelings. Just because I feel those emotions doesn’t mean that’s who I am. In fact, I don’t want to have those feelings. That’s why they are so upsetting to me. When I have certain negative or even sinful thoughts and feelings (as we all do), I don’t have to let them control me. They’re not who I am, just how I feel in the moment. When you realize this truth, negative feelings and thoughts lose some of their power over us.
3. If you happen to be a pessimist, you must be intentional about looking for the good in difficult situations. What you focus your attention on will affect your emotional life. Someone once wrote,
“Two men looked out prison bars,
one saw mud, the other saw stars.”
Both were present, but the man who focused on the stars instead of the mud probably felt much happier than the one who only saw mud.
The apostle Paul was no stranger to depression or stressful circumstances. Yet he reminds us:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8
To build depression prevention into our lives, we must guard our heart by learning to be content, learning to give thanks in all things, and learning to look for the good in all situations for this is God’s will for us. As we do this, He will keep us emotionally and spiritually healthy and strong.