Ignatian guide to tackling depression
by Brendan McManus SJ
with additional points from John Sakai Yosuke SJ
"Ignatius at the River Cardoner," Meg Roxas
Not many people realize that St Ignatius of Loyola went through great depression and came to the point of suicide. He quickly realized that this was destructive and that he had to change his thoughts and behavior. He was prone to extremes, fasting and pushing himself, which took a toll on his health. Like modern day Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), he had the wisdom to examine how reasonable his thoughts and prayer habits were. He realized that even though they appeared good on the surface, they brought him to a bad place, e.g., spending long hours in contemplation left him exhausted for studying the next day. Idealism and perfectionism can appear good but can be very destructive. Ignatius learned something important about balance: things are good up to a point and then they turn bad. Think of how we have to keep in balance many things in our lives, for example, finding the optimal amounts of stress, exercise, food, social life etc. Here are some Ignatian tips for keeping balance in our mental health:
1. Talk to someone. If you let things remain in your head they wreck your head. The simple act of telling someone else gives you perspective, halves the tension and gives you a more balanced approach. The greatest wisdom is knowing when to ask for help and knowing who to open up to: a trusted friend, a professional listener (Samaritan, counsellor, spiritual director etc.).
2. Get expert help if you need it. Don’t mess around with alternative solutions or quackery; start with the medical help that is out there. Do some research on what has worked for others. Depression or low mood that has gone on for longer than a few weeks needs an urgent intervention; things don’t get better on their own.
3. You are not your feelings. Even though feelings seem all engaging and can dominate our world, we have to learn how to befriend them, detach from them and let them come and go without getting caught up in them. A simple meditation on this is: stop, find a quiet place, even pretend to be listening on headphones. Ask yourself how you feel. Notice that there is a small gap between you and your feelings. Stay with that gap. In it, all is quiet and empty – full of possibilities. Rest in this gap for a few minutes each day. Train yourself to watch your feelings come and go, like clouds do, no matter how strong they are. This will help you when you hit a crisis and may even save your life.
4. Act against negative tendencies. I often come across people who give up going to the gym, work or meeting people because they don’t feel good. It’s a vicious cycle though as it fuels isolation and withdrawal. The rule here has to be: keep doing those things that work and then you will feel better, especially exercise, diet and socializing. Just do it.
5. Practice awareness and gradual change. Being human means that we can’t suddenly fix things like a machine getting a new part. Normally we need time and practice to make changes, a ‘process’ of small incremental steps. A little bit of awareness helps, noticing what I am feeling as I do things and where things change. There are decisions and actions that are life-giving and those that deaden. Noticing when and where these changes occur helps to keep ‘tuned in’ and making small positive adjustments. The Ignatian ‘review of the day’ (Examen) prayer is very useful here in noticing and making small changes.
6. Believe in the future- this won’t last forever. Having hope and perspective is an important thing for getting through tough times. The Ignatian idea of ‘detachment’ or ‘inner freedom’ is useful here in not being too attached or fixed on everything being perfect or having blissful feelings, in order to be able to live well and function. This needs practice though, as the world presents this idealized picture for us whereas the reality is much more ordinary and full of ups and downs. Taking the longer perspective means seeing the beauty in small things, not being slave to inner feelings and having a sense of humor about difficulties.
7. Don’t ‘spiritualize’, i.e., imagining that God is sending you depression as a punishment or in order to suffer. Depression is a very common human experience that a lot of people go through. There are certain things that you can do to help yourself and you need to do those things. Then there are certain things you need to hand over to God and this is real prayer, engaging with the reality of your situation and not escaping from it. Some of the Old Testament Psalms are really helpful here in that they express real human situations: “Out of the depths I cry to you”, “Into your hands I commit my spirit”, “Why have you forsaken me.” Notice the balance between what you do and what you ask God for; it is not exclusively about you or alternatively all about God. Rather there is a real relationship and a sharing of responsibility.
8. If you are going through hell, just keep going. One of the most helpful things is to have a structure for each day, a rhythm of work, meetings, meals, exercise and relaxation. Often we do this automatically without thinking about it too much. When you hit a crisis however, this becomes crucial as it is a real anchor in the storms of life. One of the key things though, is not to start changing the structure or routine in the middle of a storm, which is a great temptation. Rather, hold tight and keep doing simple things even if you don’t feel like it. Get a good start on the day, resist the temptation to over sleep.
9. Find meaning and purpose in what you do. Depression reminds us of our limitation and mortality, we can’t control everything, life is tough. There are small steps you can take and simple ways of reaching out to others. Seeing others pain reminds me that we all suffer and making little connections can connect me with others and the wider human journey. Learn to be gentle with yourself, be compassionate as God is compassionate, accept everything but do whatever you can that will help.
10. Having faith or belief in a higher power is a key part of positive mental health. Believing that we are good, created by the divine or whatever you believe ‘God’ to be, helps to build solid foundations and to be positive. Often we have inherited negative images of God (judge, lawmaker, remote parent etc.) and positive mental health and recovery involves rebuilding our images and ways of praying such that they promote a positive image of the self, how to be in the world and a caring, close God.
11. Remember your past joys and consolations. Depression pushes you to feel miserable. It's like an overcast sky. It tempts you to think that the sun will no longer shine on your face, and you may begin to feel that your existence is a burden to those you are close to. At times you become unable to hear the voice of the person you love and just want to be free from pain. Even so, when you lose your strength and you can't find hope for life, recalling the smile of the person who cherishes you, the days you experienced joy, and in the biblical sense, that "God has loved us first". Remember. Your existence is precious and irreplaceable.
12. Nurture a gentle heart. There is a Japanese expression: "to read the air". Is it a coincidence that many people who are prone to depression have a strong sense of responsibility and are very considerate? St. Ignatius had to confront his own perfectionism when he was struggling in the Caves of Manresa. More than necessary, he was overwhelmed by his past mistakes and his imperfections, and he was trapped in anxiety. "Reading the air" is a tension felt by honest and kind people. Still, reading too much air, losing self-confidence, or lamenting your imperfections will not do anything good to anyone. The important thing here is not to shoulder all the responsibility and anxiety by yourself, but to be able to bid goodbye to your past self (your mistakes and failures) and acknowledge your new self, as Saint Ignatius did. In order to live in a such tension every day, we should pray to God for the strength that is essential for dealing with depression.
*1 to 10 are from the original article by Fr. McManus. 11 to 12 are additional points by Fr. Sakai.