Depression is hard—for anyone. But for some people, on some days, it’s almost unbearable.
If that describes you, it’s you I’m writing to—especially those who have been facing this for a while.
Many of you have “tried everything” and yet watched your pain worsen over time. And you might just be told “that’s just how depression is” when you ask why.
Just yesterday, I read someone’s plea, “I pray and pray for God to heal me. I’m in tears writing this and it’s a real struggle daily. Please pray for me. This pain is no longer bearable.” And today, I was talking on the phone with a wonderful, faithful friend barely holding on.
How could this be? In so many other areas—from careers to sports—the harder we try the closer we get to our goals. Why does this feel so different—with the discomfort often getting worse, not better, as we put more effort into healing over time?
There’s almost nothing I care about more than coming to better answers on these agonizing questions. It’s become my life’s work. I’ve interviewed and spoken with people across the country, reviewed hundreds of studies, scoured the internet for stories of healing from depression, and poured most of my career into experimenting with various digital and online supportive innovations (see here and here and here).
But even though I’m optimistic at the possibility of people finding deeper and more lasting healing, I’ve learned from hard experience that for those hurting this badly, the idea of trying to change anything, or even just reading something can just feel like too much.
If that applies to you, I want to try and speak directly to you right now. I’d like to try and summarize very simply exactly what I would say if I was sitting next to you, in exactly the order I would say it.
But first, let me say that if you’re in a dark place, I’m so sorry. One woman told me that depression hurts worse than being physically beaten up. I get emotional thinking about you—those who are in this difficult place are on my mind when I go to bed, and when I wake up in the morning. Thank you for trying to hear me out.
(1) Do everything your Mom would tell you if you were sick. Whenever I’m talking with someone in an especially dark place, the very first thing I say is something like this: I want to beg you to do something that might sound strange, but shouldn’t: Over the next few days, I want you to take extra care of yourself—yes, BABY YOURSELF—doing all the things your Mom would have told you to do when you were sick.
If you had the flu, what would you do? You eat differently, you rest more, you work a little less—and fill your time with soothing activities, right?
What if you could approach this excruciating pain right now as a kind of “emotional flu.” What kinds of things could you do differently, at least for a while? What music soothes your mind? What videos or shows lift your spirits? What books do the same? What people have rallied your spirits in the past?
Anything and everything you can do RIGHT NOW to help provide additional comfort is a top priority. This is no quaint “home remedy.” The latest biological research on depression suggests that inflammation in the body plays a big role in depression (yes, the same stuff that shows up in physical sickness). So, anything you can do to reduce inflammation should indirectly help your mood.
(2) Tomorrow doesn’t have to be like today. Breathe deeply because I’m about to say something that will feel cliché—but it’s exactly where we have to go next. This doesn’t have to last forever. I promise. I would give my life to back this up. But I don’t have to—because the best research already supports it.
You may have heard the opposite—from people with lots of letters after their names. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from people who say “yeah, I heard this will always be something I struggle with. It’s going to be a life-long thing I have to deal with.”
If the research confirmed this, we should say it to people. But trust me, it doesn’t. Sometimes I’d like to shake those well-intentioned professionals in their clean white coats—“it’s your job to know what the updated research says! Stop saying things that make depressed people feel even MORE depressed!”
I interviewed one young woman who told me her suicidal thoughts started the same day her doctor told her that her depression would be life-long. Don’t believe that! Even if you haven’t seen your depression levels shift very much for years, stay open to new possibilities to come. “Never predict the recovery of another person,” as another wise woman once told me.
Leave open the possibility of windows of heaven opening up tomorrow, even for you.
(3) Your brain is changing constantly. One reason people say discouraging things like “this will always be a struggle you have to face” is they still believe something old-school—namely, that mental health problems come from permanent deficiencies in the brain (also not true!) Trust me, NO neuroscientist believes this anymore! But people keep saying it, and sharing it.
And people like you keep being weighed down by it too. Just imagine what would happen if EVERY person with depression understood how profoundly our brain is shaped by the experiences we go through. You might just see how much the future is changeable depending on…what?
The next moment. And the next. And the next.
What you do—or don’t do next—matters profoundly. And that’s great news!
(4) There are SO MANY things that influence depression. As long as we’re on the bad advice soapbox, most depressed people I speak with have become convinced that there are only a few main causes of depression (brain, genes, grief/trauma). The truth is there are hundreds of different factors that have been proven to have an influence on our mental health—and potentially “set us up” for depression (science calls these “risk factors”).
This has led some researchers to suggest that we’re living in a “depressogenic” society that “gives birth” to depression like a petri dish. You’re normal if you’re feeling depressed, given the way most people live today. As one researcher at University of Kansas summarizes, “Our brains just weren’t designed to handle the sedentary, socially isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, poorly nourished, stressed-out pace of twenty-first-century life.”
The fact that you are hurting in this society speaks to your sensitivity, NOT your deficiency. Homer Simpson doesn’t get depressed—but people with depth and richness like you do!
(5) There are lots and lots of things we can do to get at the roots of depression. All this, once again, is good news. Why? Because if there’s a LOT setting us up for depression, that means there’s a LOT we can do about it. One woman told me how excited she was to learn there were NINE areas of her life contributing to depression. Why so excited? Because she’d spend the previous decade believing there wasn’t much she could do—and becoming persuaded that she needed to just wait for professionals to figure out how to make the pain go away.
(6) Don’t over-rely on short-term remedies. Don’t get me wrong. Professionals can be amazing supports—sometimes bringing miracles to pass in our lives. But they don’t have the power to take this pain away. And, in fact, sometimes their efforts can make things worse—especially over time.
I’m just going to be straight-up with you. Antidepressants have provided relief for many in the immediate term. That’s why the FDA approved them for short-term use. But Americans are no longer using them short-term or as part of a broader package. Many rely on them as their main answer—in a long-term fashion.
And that’s not good. I’ve gathered over 20 studies tracking the long-term pattern of people on year 5 or 10 or 15 of Prozac, and there are a lot of compounding difficulties. Compared to those who never go on antidepressants, statistically speaking, these people are more depressed.
That’s not a theory. It’s what the research confirms. Every study I’ve ever found confirms the same pattern.
That might apply to you. If it is, take heart. And don’t panic. Because if you’re aware of that, you can do something about it. Yes, you have options.
(7) Slow, gradual, gentle tapering can make a difference. My friend Laura Delano found herself in exactly that place—on several medications, and out-of-her-mind miserable…until she realized that long-term reliance on medication might be part of the problem.
So, she tried moving in another direction. Gradually. Gently. Over time. (The biggest problem by far is that people go way too fast—with many doctors cutting dosage in half—which is far too fast!) As long as you go slow—one medication at a time—ideally with your doctor’s supervision, some gentle titrations and reductions are possible for many. For those who have been on for years, it will likely take years to get off—but my experience is that you can find new parts of yourself waking up again. My colleague Laura has dedicated her life to helping people learn how to do this wisely and carefully (check out The Withdrawal Project).
Of course, only you can know if any of this is good for you to consider. In consultation with those you trust, follow your intuition. Don’t expect everyone to be on board—especially those who see these medications as essentially your only way of staying stable.
But especially in these moments, don’t be afraid to think for yourself. It’s absolutely true that medications have been a real benefit for so many. But at some point they can become barriers to deeper healing–and you will know best when that is, and what to do next.
(8) Channelling your inner Sherlock. Healing can be stressful. That’s why people often give up—far easier, at times, to stop hoping that anything will change fundamentally.
I’m inviting you to try again. BUT in a different, gentle, patient and curious way. For instance, don’t try to “figure everything out.” Just take the next right step.
What is that for you? I can’t wait for you to find out. If you need a hint, put in a good Sherlock Holmes movie tonight—and then adopt that same inquisitive, curious stance on your own life.
As best you can, try to stay in an attentive, watchful place…looking for clues and inner nudges about what could make the most difference for you.
(9) Going on an adventure. All this is very different from what we usually hear. When someone’s in this much pain, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that people usually talk about it like a crisis or emergency to solve. Although there may be truth to that, the problem is it can send our body into “mayday mode.” Whatever benefits come from the “fight or flight” response, this is simply not the best place from which to learn, grow or heal.
Instead of a crisis, I’m encouraging you to go on a new adventure—a quest for your own deeper healing. On an adventure, you wouldn’t be surprised to face major challenges. And when you have a bad day, you get up again, right?
Over and over. And you keep learning new things all the time. Like this:
(10) Learning to push back on painful thoughts and work through painful emotions. Piercing, intrusive, dark, scary thoughts are part of the experience of depression for many—something most people take for granted as reflecting “reality.” It’s possible, however, to learn to push back on these foreboding thoughts—relating to it as mental content and the predictable “propaganda of depression.” Rather than taking it so personally, you can learn to relate to these thoughts like stormy weather patterns passing through—protecting yourself, wrapping yourself in a warm blanket, but certainly not going out in the storm and embracing it as your inevitable “reality” (for more on this, check out the Mindweather 101 class Thomas McConkie and I prepared—here’s another link for its videos on Youtube).
Similar techniques can help you work through painful emotions—sitting with them and observing them from a place deeper than the emotion, the thought and the physical sensation…a place not so “caught up” in all the intense ferment of emotion. If you dig down deep enough to tap into that place, you can learn for yourself how mood cycles come, arise, and pass away.
In all of this, follow your deepest sense of what is right and best for you. The Lord knows exactly what you need. However confusing this may be, the Savior is not confused. He knows how to lead you to deeper healing, and He has the power to get you there too. If you’d like an extra boost in exploring how to reach for Him in your current situation, check out these online “Resilience Through Christ” groups led by faithful members who have experienced healing, and created by committed Latter-day Saint therapists. They’ve done good research on the results – and I’ve been so impressed by them.
If any of this provides a boost to you in any way, it would totally make my day.
However long you are burdened. However long you wear that long smile, we who love you will continue to wait and pray and cheer you on. As the chorus sings in the classic Ragtime musical, “we’ll never get to heaven till we reach that day.”
A day when God will “wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.”
That day cannot come soon enough. But sooner or later, it will come.
Love your brother,