Editors note: this article was originally published on TheReturnedMissionary.com
I have talked to a lot of returned missionaries. Most RMs are super excited to come home. A survey we conducted on the returned missionary site revealed that the thing most RMs were excited about was getting to see their family. However, when asked what was the most difficult obstacle to overcome after the mission, among other things, depression was a very common answer. This is especially the case with missionaries who return early.
Some of the strongest missionaries I have met have come home and dropped into a deep depression that they struggle for a long time to overcome. Depression can be a vicious monster that is hard to overcome without help. It is such a widespread issue in the Church, that even an apostle of the Church has spoken about it in General Conference.
I am not a psychiatrist, nor am I a licensed therapist, but I want to tackle this because it is affecting people who are very dear to me and it is very painful. I have a friend who attempted to take his life because of it, an uncle who did take his life, and my best friend battles daily with this monster. Without a weapon, it’s hard to win a battle with a monster. So, I want to help give you, or the person you love, some powerful weapons to battle depression full-on.
**CLARIFICATION** Two Types of “Depression Monsters”
To begin I will try to paint a picture in your mind to illustrate the two types of depression monsters.
(Monster #1). Picture a man who lives and works in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. It is very green and humid where he lives. Most days are wonderful weather and other than some days, this man can always get to work. It doesn’t snow much in the D.C. area so he rarely experiences a snow day. Years have gone by without getting snowed in. However, every once in a while, it a big snowstorm hits and this man cannot do anything because when it snows, everything shuts down in D.C.
(Monster #2) Picture another man who resides in Barrow, Alaska. One of the closest towns to the North Pole, the sun sets here in November and doesn’t reappear until January. The small town is built on a layer of permafrost that is 1,300 feet deep in some areas. It is always cold here no matter what time of year. This man lives in the cold. The heaters always have to be on and cars have to be plugged in at night or the engines will freeze. Unless something is done to keep warm, or the man moves to a warmer place, he will always be cold.
People inside and outside of the Church talk about depression all the time, but rarely ever distinguish the difference between “D.C.” and “Barrow” depression. The D.C.-man-depression can happen to everyone. Every once in a while, something happens to drop the D.C. man or woman into a psychological “snow day” where nothing can get done. This could almost just be called the blues, though some “blues” can cause even the happiest and most optimistic of people to become frozen. I have been struck with this a few times and it is hard to get out of without the help of some weapons to plow me out of the deep snow. Then there is the Barrow-type of depression. The permafrost. Clinical depression. It is cold and always hard unless you do something constantly to warm up. Heaters are constantly on or you might be frozen stiff in a matter of days. These analogies aren’t perfect, but I wanted to at least attempt to illustrate the difference between the two as we battle depression together so I can distinguish between these two monsters with the battle weapons.
I honestly believe that the following battle techniques can help with both the “D.C.” and “Barrow” types of depression.
Ready to turn up the heat? Okay let’s go.
1. Don’t Misunderstand Worthiness or Repentance
Too many D.C. citizens misunderstand repentance. Too many Barrow citizens misunderstand worthiness. Please read this article about what repentance is NOT. Self loathing is not repentance.
I have had conversations with people who struggle with clinical depression who get confused and think God must not love them. They go to church, read their scriptures, say their prayers, go to the temple and have served a full-time mission…and they are still miserable. Then they conclude that God must have forgotten about them and they must have something inherently wrong with them. This is not true. God loves us all. He loves the Barrow man just as well as the D.C. man. And sometimes even when we have felt that we have done “all that we can do,” to come close to God, something is off inside our brain (or our gut! – see #5 below), and we can’t see clearly enough to recognize that God is there, and has been there all along.
One book that helped me more than any other to understand worthiness was The Continuous Atonement, by Brad Wilcox. It helped me to know that God is not an umpire sitting there waiting to scream “YOU’RE OUT!!!!” in my face when I don’t make it to the plate in time. Instead, He is a strong and loving coach who sometimes puts me through really hard workouts because He sees the potential in me to become the greatest athlete He has ever coached. He watches over me only because He wants me to excel and when He can’t be there, He sends others to help motivate me to get up after I fall over life’s hurdles.
God is your loving coach, and He is your greatest fan, especially when no one else is watching.
If you understand who and how God really is, you’ll never misunderstand worthiness and repentance. This is a powerful weapon for Latter-day Saints.
2. Hang Out with Tinker Bell and You’re Bound to Fly
In the story of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell can fly. And her magical pixie dust seemed to rub off on anyone who spent enough time around her. With enough dust, they started flying. I’m not suggesting you hang out with magical fairies all day, it’s the metaphor I’m getting at.
Some people are just really good at being happy, like Buddy the elf. They have actually trained their brain (even if they don’t realize it) to default to more positive and happy thinking. This has an actual physiological effect on your brain (as you will know if you read any of the books I suggested about learned optimism below). These Tinker Bells have the magic dust whether it was genetically given to them or they learned it or a combination of both. Daily happiness and gladness of mind has become second nature to them.
You may think that this method only works for the D.C. man, however, studies have shown that spending time with those who are happier will naturally influence your level of happiness. [1. Read this list of research studies that highlight the strength that comes from being around people who are happy.]
Spend time with the ridiculously happy person in your ward or neighborhood. Just be around them. Shadow them at their work. Have lunch with them weekly.
At first for the Barrow citizen, it will be really annoying. Later, it will be easier to watch and be with them (especially if you are applying some of the other weapons in this list). Then you will find yourself imitating them. And then embracing their silliness and asking yourself why you never skipped across the road for no reason and danced in the rain. And you will feel better. It will become habitual. Your brain will actually become addicted to it.[2. See page 33 of Dr. Martin Seligman’s book Flourish for more details of getting addicted to positive emotions, like Gratitude.]
Hang out with Tink more. Her magic dust will rub off on you. 🙂
3. Be Your Own BFF
Make a list of your 5 best friends. What are they like? Why are they on the list? These are the people who love you so much that they wouldn’t care if you called them at 4:00 am to talk. Are you on that list? Because you should be. You should be your own best friend.
This is really hard to do for the Barrow man. Sometimes impossible. Most people who live in Barrow can’t do it on their own. Someone needs to be there for them. If you are the Barrow citizen, you know what I mean. You HATE it when people say things like “happiness is a choice” or “just square your shoulders and cheer up!” or “Just be more positive.”
Sometimes you just can’t because something is off inside you. Sometimes someone else needs to be your best friend before you can be your own. When the sun is gone during those winter months, Barrow citizens need friends who can just be there. Watch this to understand a little more. However, when the sun is out and you are able, be your own best friend. Love yourself. Take care of yourself. It’s okay to take a day (or a week) off to get back on your feet. Treat yourself like a million bucks. You are worth more than that. Create a victory journal and start to record all your accomplishments (even getting out of bed). Literally pat yourself on the back when you do something that is good. Clench your fist, pull it from up to down while you look up and say: “yes!” Force yourself to smile for 60 seconds.[3. It may sound funny, but it actually pairs a physiological action with a positive emotion, just like smiling. See more of these pairing techniques in Little Voice Mastery, by Blair Singer.] Celebrate your your un-birthday as much as you need to. Believe that you are worth it because you are.
As a D.C. citizen myself, I can attest to the power of being my own best friend when I have been snowed in. When the snow comes, you become a critic of yourself. It can be really easy to fall into holes of despair and forget who you are. The snow doesn’t start to melt until you start to stand up for yourself (to yourself) in your own inner conversations. Abraham Lincoln was a citizen of Barrow. But he developed the ability to be loyal to his better side more than the black monster inside. To be his own best friend. (I will talk more about him in the last point). No wonder his first inaugural address concluded with the optimistic phrase implying that we would need to be loyal to “the better angels of our nature.” [4. See Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address here.]
The happiest people have a healthy love of themselves. [5. See #5 on this list of Reasons why Happy People are Happy.] They are their own best friends.
I believe that it is possible for both the D.C. and Barrow citizens to be loyal to the “better angels of their nature.” Make sure you are on the list of your best friends. If you are, you’ll be happier. I promise.
4. Get Up and Jiggle (Exercise)
I don’t need to tell you that research has proven that exercise helps people overcome depression. I know you have heard this before. But it is true! There are days when the last thing you want to do is get out of your bed and walk around whether you are a D.C. or a Barrow man or woman…you’re not getting out of bed. Well, even jiggling around in bed is better than nothing! And don’t blame me if something brakes, but you could even jump on your bed. I can’t do that anymore because things will brake. So I bounce on a little mini tramp. Even jumping jacks can help. Just get moving. Jiggle around for long enough that you start to breathe and break a sweat if you can. Brisk walk. Wog. Jog. Run. Bike if you have one. Turn on some music and dance like the amazing grandpa who throws his canes down (in the video above).
Motivation is often an issue for those who struggle with depression, so here is a tip: when the sun is shining inside, do things that will make it easier to want to exercise. There is research that shows the if you make something 20 seconds easier to do, you will be more likely to do it. For example: it takes 20 seconds to get out your shoes and socks and exercise clothes. So get those out and put them in an easily accessible place. Make it 20 seconds easier. Research shows that this works.[6. Click here to read more about the 20 second rule or click here to buy the Harvard happiness expert, Shawn Achor’s book.]
Or just jiggle on your bed.
In case you need more motivation, here are a few scientific reasons for both the D.C. and Barrow citizens to exercise regularly:
- It releases endorphins in your brain which help ease depression (these help you feel good naturally).
- Increases body temperature (which can actually have a calming effect)
- Increase your immunity and can push out toxins in your body, which can worsen symptoms of depression
- Takes your attention off worries. Like meditation where you only think about your breathing, walking and jogging (or any continued exercise) can help take your mind off negative thoughts because your attention is on the activity at hand.
- Build confidence and self esteem. When you set and accomplish physical goals (even ones that seem really small), you feel great!
- Increased Social interaction. Those who walk around the neighborhood are more likely to meet a neighbor who might just smile at you (if you smile at them). You could go with someone to help motivate each other. Maybe join a team or a club sport or even just go dancing. You are bound to meet people who love to exercise like you and positive social interaction will boost mood.
- Healthy coping mechanism. There are so many coping mechanisms that are not healthy (like drinking or looking at pornography). Exercise is much more healthy and can have all the benefits that go with it. [7. See this article for more research and citations.]
If you still need any motivation to exercise, just watch this whiteboard animation video.
5. Trust Your Gut, Literally
No, I’m not talking about belly fat. I’m talking about your GI tract. Your gut.
Your gut truly has a mind of its own. And the connection between your gut and your brain is fascinating to me. I won’t cite as much research as I will for the next one, about nutrition and the brain, but here are a few facts to keep in mind.
Our gastrointestinal tracts are sensitive to our emotions. Feelings like anger, anxiety, sadness and elation can all trigger physiological symptoms in the gut. Have you ever had a really hard breakup with the person you thought you were going to marry and subsequently you lose your appetite? After getting over it, you finally meet the love of your life, and you get “butterflies in your stomach,” right? Harvard Medical School published an article that talks about this brain-gut connection:
“The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected — so intimately that they should be viewed as one system.”[8. Click here to read the whole article at Harvard’s site. Emphasis added.]
The connection is so strong that studies have shown a significant correlation between digestive issues and mental illness. Almost anyone I know who has struggled with a mental illness has also struggled, strangely, with some sort of digestive problem. Some of them have serious problems. IBS, ulcerative colitis, parasites (from a foreign mission), chronic constipation, etc. Emily Deans, MD, a psychiatrist wrote about this on Psychology Today. She said:
“We are never truly alone. On our skin, in our gums, and in our guts live 100 trillion organisms, altogether known as the microbiome… Most of them live within the gut…What do they have to do with psychiatry? It turns out way more than we might have suspected. The gut and brain have a steady ability to communicate via the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system. Some of the microbiome can release neurotransmitters, just like our own neurons do, speaking to the brain in its own language via the vagus nerve… The make-up of our gut microbiome could make the difference as to whether we are sick or well, both mentally and physically.”[9. Read this article in full and after you’ll have a degree in biology.]
This fascinates me. The little bacteria that are floating around in our intestines can actually send a message to our brain the same way the brain sends a message to our hand when we have a thought to itch our nose, and then we lift our hand and itch. Crazy! Don’t get creeped out by all the critters inside of you.
Just think of it this way, you have 100 trillion friends living inside of you.
But these friends can get thrown off by emotions. When this happens and your digestion is compromised, especially for long periods of time, it can have harsh effects and can cause many diseases and illnesses. The research shows that mental illnesses including depression, bipolar and others are all strongly correlated with an unhealthy gut. In fact, as much as 80% of people suffering from mental illness also have a digestive issue of some kind. [10. Med Free Bipolar, by Aspen Morrow, p.72] And 85-95% of our serotonin is produced in our gut.[11. Ibid (Med Free Bipolar). Also see Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia.] Serotonin is the thing that Prozac was designed to help increase, right? Why not just fix your gut and create it yourself and avoid all the potential side effects of Prozac and other SSRIs. Maybe I’m thinking too simply here, but what if I’m not?
So give your GI tract some TLC, and you’ll be happier. I promise.
How do you TLC your gut? Here are a few suggestions:
- Do a gentle and regular colon cleanse.
- Change your eating lifestyle to more whole foods and less processed and refined foods.
- Take a probiotic and then rotate brands every few months (your body starts to adapt). At least eat or drink probiotic yogurt (like Kefir), regularly.
- Drink more water between meals.
6. Feed The Starving Brain
Brace yourselves for this one because I’m going to get a little nerdy on you here. Ready for some academic research? Okay, here we go!
This one is probably the most helpful to melt the ice of those who are living in Barrow, Alaska – together with a healthy gut. Feel free to disagree with me, but depression and mental illnesses are not caused by a Prozac deficiency. Nearly 1 in 5 American adults suffer from some sort of a mental illness. [12. See the research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in this Newsweek Article, February, 2014.] It’s a little more than 1 in 5 in Utah who suffer. [13. See same Newsweek Article quoted above. It’s actually 22.3 percent in Utah.]
There are a lot of factors that contribute to clinical depression and mental illness. But not too many that we can’t zero down a few, and I believe that nutrition is a huge factor. In many cases, it is one of the biggest factors. To me, it just makes sense. For example, pigs who don’t get proper nutrition get so aggressive they start to bite each others’ tails and ears off. [14. The Vitamin Cure, by the Discovery Channel.] Animal food scientists found a cure for this: nutrition. Many scientists and psychiatrists have been researching the effects of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and amino acids) on mental health. Their findings show that good nutrition is positively correlated with good mental health. There are 25 peer reviewed academic studies from researchers around the world who have found a certain micronutrient formulation to help people who struggle with clinical depression, bipolar affective disorder, ADHD and other mental illnesses. Among these are notable studies by a Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Charles Popper. All of these studies focus on a specific formulation called EMPowerplus (or simply EMP+). [15. Click here to see a list of the 25 empirical studies with their abstracts.]
In addition to these studies, many other studies have shown the positive correlation between micronutrients and better mental health. This theory has been very controversial because the stakes are so high. If the theory is wrong, peoples’ lives could be at stake. Bernard Gesch, an Oxford University physiologist tried to disprove the theory in a study on 231 prisoners in a British prison. Half received a steady diet including vitamins, minerals, fish oil and Omega-6 oil. The other half received placebos. In nine months, inmates taking supplements committed 35% fewer antisocial acts than the group on the placebos, which had never happened in the entire history of the institution.[16. See the studies by Schoenthaler and Gesch cited in this article by Discovery Magazine.]
There are many studies that show that Folic Acid, Magnesium, Chromium and Inositol (all natural micronutrients) are positively correlated to better mental health.[17. Just read the whole Discovery Magazine Article because I’ll keep pointing to it. It lists the studies out.] In this Discovery Magazine article it cites other research: “A 2000 study of older women found that 17 percent of those who were mildly depressed and 27 percent of those suffering severe depression were short on vitamin B12.” Even two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling said that nutritional supplements, unlike psychotherapy or drugs, represent a way to provide “the optimum molecular environment for the mind.” And that varying the concentrations of substances normally present in the human body, like vitamins, minerals and amino acids, may control mental disease even better than conventional treatments. [18. Ibid.]
And the “conventional treatments” (at least the psychotropic medications to treat depression and other mental illnesses) come with a lot of scary and unknown side effects. I have personally witnessed how psychotropic medications taken over time can negatively affect someone. It is NOT fun. It can tear a marriage apart and leave a family hopeless. Please don’t get me wrong. My best friend’s life was saved because of medications, whereas, 200 years ago, she would have been sent to an institution the rest of her life (or to a jail) or pronounced a witch or something else horrible. I’m grateful for medications that are there for emergencies. But I have seen the effect of medication over long periods of time VS the effect of nutrition over time. Feeding your brain with good nutrition can have the same benefits, without destroying your kidneys, gaining you 80 pounds, throwing your thyroid off, and making your unable to bear children the rest of your life.
I have a hard time accepting this.
And I submit to you that the brain of someone who suffers from severe depression needs to be nourished and fed. It needs more nutrition. Read the research. DON’T go off your meds cold turkey if you are on them right now. PLEASE be careful. But also please consider trying to feed your brain with better nutrition. This book, along with a personal transition coach helped my friend in her transition off of her meds and on to the EMPowerplus micronutrients.
An article was published on Meridian Magazine last year that talked about an LDS man who created a micronutrient formulation after tragedy struck his family and he lost his wife to a mental illness.[19. See this article] Other stories have been published since then of how it has helped thousands of people who struggle with depression and other mental illnesses. My best friend uses this product and it has changed her life. It’s called EMPowerplus.
I don’t only endorse this product because it has been backed by research, but also because it has worked for so many of my friends and changed their lives. I fully stand behind it. To learn more, click here. Or to buy it click here or click the bottle image below:
When the article was published on Meridian and on LDS Living, it was very controversial because it is such a sensitive subject. It is still just as sensitive. And I try to approach this with as much sensitivity as possible and with as much research to show that I’m not just presenting a fluffy testimonial. Feel free to disagree with me here too, but I have seen this stuff work. If you want, go get the same vitamins and minerals from Walmart or any health food store if you can find them. Just remember that there are 25 empirical studies on the product in the bottle above and other studies that show that the effectiveness is increased when delivered in combinations. [20. Dr. Julia Rucklidge is the researcher behind this. Click here to watch her on the news explaining why a broader range of nutrients given together is more successful.] I believe the above mixture is that mixture.
Whatever you do, please feed your brain.
Our brain only accounts for about 2% of human body weight, but accounts for about 20% of the body’s nutritional and energy demands. [21. See Med Free Bipolar, Aspen L. Morrow, p. 36] You need these nutrients if you live in Barrow.
I have seen this melt some frigid Barrow depression. Improving your digestive health (so you can absorb the nutrition) and feeding your brain will help you more than any other thing. Try it and you will be much happier. A lot of people don’t do this until they are desperate. They say they will try anything if it will help. I know where they are coming from. It’s not an easy road. It is a leap of faith. But Please try it, carefully.[22. I’ve been through this so please reach out if you want to ask me questions with the experience I have had with my friends. You can find all my contacts in my author profile below.]
7. Remember Lincoln’s Grit and Learned Optimism
Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln both had severe depression. How did they do what they did? Lincoln was one of the most influential leaders of our time, keeping the ideal of freedom alive not only for the United States, but for the world. And Churchill was the enigma who motivated an entire country through countless British tragedies during WWII as he led his countrymen to an improbable victory against Nazi Germany. They were both citizens of Barrow, Alaska. What was it that kept them going in the days of no medications and less understanding of clinical depression?
(This is where the Barrow citizen stands up and smacks me). I thought you said it doesn’t work to just say: “just be more positive” and “happiness is a choice” and now you are saying it again. No. Grit is different.[23. Watch this TED Talk about the power of grit.]
Grit is learning to function well even when massively depressed. These two men became really good at the psychology of “dealing with it.”[24. See page 53 in Flourish.] The truth is that both Barrow and D.C. people will have days when they wake up feeling blue and thinking life is hopeless. The best thing to do is to know that you can actually fight those feelings AND live as heroically as you possibly can. I truly admire these two men for their amazing grit. Sometimes, on my snow days, I don’t understand it. So I just train myself to draw strength from the grit of men like these.
Considering Winston Churchill’s major problem with depression, it blows my mind to think he wrote these words:
“Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [25. Read this great article on Churchill’s depression by my buddy Seth Adam Smith.]
His most challenging enemy was not Adolf Hitler. It was his own depression.
This man is one of my heroes.
Researchers have proven that your brain can actually learn helplessness.[26. Google search “Martin Seligman – Learned Helplessness.”] Just like it can learn helplessness, it can also learn optimism. You can train your brain to be happier and healthier. This has been proven time and time again in research. Read more in these books to become an expert at learned optimism:
- Learned Optimism and Flourish, by Martin Seligman (former president of the APA)
- The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor (Famed Harvard Happiness Course professor)
- The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey
- Little Voice Mastery, by Blair Singer
I’m not going to tell you to be more positive, but I will tell you that you’re wrong if you believe you are helpless, even in Barrow, Alaska. There is hope for you too.
I did not intend this article to be an all-inclusive solution to cure depression. That is a war that may last a lifetime. However, a war is won one battle at a time, and these are very powerful weapons to help you win each battle. For those living in Barrow or the D.C., there will still be many other things to learn and to know in order to keep winning each battle against depression.
Keep fighting soldier.