Saturday, February 7, 2009

Breaking Depression's Fear Cycle

In my previous article I discussed how depression causes what Doctor Weekes calls a ‘fear-adrenalin-fear cycle,’ where the fear, flight or fight reaction to depression causes more adrenalin to flow. This adrenalin is what causes depression’s symptoms. In addition, the more we fear, flee or fight, the worse we become, as the additional adrenalin produced prolongs symptoms and produces new, even more alarming ones.

I mentioned how the first step in stopping the cycle is to recognize that it is this cycle that causes the disturbing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sensations.

In this article, I outline a system that can begin to slow and eventually stop the flow of fear related adrenalin. Although the system is simple and presented quite clearly in God’s word, it is so ‘unnatural’ that it does not occur to us if lost in a state of anxiety. (The natural reaction to depression is to fear, flee or fight the symptoms.)

Prior to putting into practice the technique that stops the cycle, Dr Weekes explains the importance of facing and examining the symptoms that are troubling us. She writes, 'I have no doubt that you are tensely shrinking from the feelings within you and yet, are ready to “listen in” in apprehension?...Now examine and do not shrink from the sensations that have been upsetting you. I want you to examine each carefully, to analyse and describe it to yourself...Do not tensely flinch from it. Go with it. Relax and analyse it…Now that you have faced and examined it, is it so terrible?' (1) That is, although the symptoms feel unbearable, we can put up with them.

How to Break the Fear, Flight, and Fight Cycle:
1. Accept each of depression’s symptoms as being part of our life, instead of fearing, fighting or fleeing them
2. Learn to live with the symptoms as part of our life, as if they were background music
3. Let time pass while trusting that God is in control (2)

Our first reaction to these steps could be, “But I don’t WANT to learn to live with these disturbing sensations - I want them to go away!”

And there lies the irony of it all. It is only when we accept those sensations, learn to live with them, and let time pass, that the flow of adrenalin begins to diminish. And as the flow of adrenalin diminishes, the symptoms lose their intensity, shorten in duration, and slowly begin to disappear. Accepting them instead of fearing or fighting them is the way to make them go away.

The Bible has many scriptures that illustrate this technique.

Verses for Acceptance:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. James 1:2-3

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Verse for Learning to Live with the Symptoms:
Philippians 4:12-13 ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.’

Verses for Letting Time Pass while Trusting that God is in Control:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” John 14:1

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. James 1:12

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Matthew 6:25,27

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5.

Speaking for myself, I knew the Bible verses that told me not to fear, that I should be content, and that I should rejoice in the midst of my sufferings, yet trying to put them into practice through sheer will power alone did not work. However, once I understood that by putting those verses into practice I would break the fear-adrenalin-fear cycle, those verses suddenly came alive to me.

Letting Time Pass

Less me stress that breaking the flow of adrenalin does not happen overnight. However, my life is a testimony to the fact that it does happen. Dr Claire Weekes says, “Accept it [the symptom] as something that will be with you for some time yet – in fact while you recover – but something that will eventually leave you if you are prepared to let time pass and not anxiously watch the churning during its passing. But do not make the mistake of thinking that it will go as soon as you cease to fear it. Your nervous system is still tired and will take time to heal, just as a broken leg takes time.” (3)

It is important that we keep ourselves busy as we let time pass while waiting to heal. We should go out of our way to find constructive activities that interest us and get lost in them. Physical exercise, such as swimming, aerobics, circuit, walking or jogging, can also be of great help.

Within a month of my reading “Self Help for Your Nerves,” a significant number of my symptoms, especially the physical ones, had diminished or ceased altogether. Over the next six months, I joined a new church, became a musician in a home group, started teaching Sunday School, and engaged in normal social activities again. Some of the symptoms took longer to fade away, but by reacting to them in the correct way, they no longer had the same power or intensity – I no longer feared them. Some symptoms, especially those that required I retrain my thought processes, lasted longer, but in time, they too faded away.

While in the midst of depression, we think we have no future and no hope. But in Christ, we always have hope and a future. 1 Corinthians 2:9 "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him."

Hope enters our lives again when we know that it is only a matter of time (whether weeks or months, or in the case of some symptoms, years) for our nervous system to recover from this cycle. When I read “Self Help for your Nerves,” hope flooded through me, as you can see from this diary entry:

28th July 1990 -
This book has taught me how to react so that the merry go round will be stopped. And it’s teaching me how to react whenever it strikes again in the future.

The Importance of Surrender

To recover from depression we need to surrender every aspect of our life, including our desires and will, to Jesus. Romans 8:28 assures us that God is trustworthy. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’

At the end of World War Two, the Allies demanded that Germany surrender to them unconditionally. That meant the Allies set all of the terms of the surrender and that Germany could not make any demands of its own. We sing, “All to Jesus, I surrender,” but do we really surrender everything? (I am pointing a finger at myself here too!) For when suffering comes along, instead of surrendering all of our will to Him, we typically react by fearing, fleeing or fighting - because we do not want to be where we are. Yet, by reacting like this, we make the suffering worse as this causes more adrenalin to flow.

When we accept what we are going instead of fearing, fleeing or fighting it, when we learn to live with it, and let time pass, we can find rest again. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28.

(1) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p21.
(2) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p19. Note, Dr Weekes includes 'floating' as a step in the treatment technique, whereas I wrote 'learn to live with it.' In my case I found the 'floating' concept hard to grasp, but easily related to that step (or my interpretation of it) when I thought of it as 'learning to live with it.'
(3) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p22.

All verses from NIV.

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    1. You're right - that is SO contrary to "common sense," but so explicitly expressed in God's Word. Excellent as usual, Peter.

    2. Wow, I had never thought of this as a cycle. But that's exactly what it is. Incredible, insightful, anointed truth. Love the Scriptures you included, and also the surrender paragraph. That's a tough one for me.

    3. Thanks for sharing your experience, Peter. Very encouraging indeed.
      I 'journaled' a song quite a number of years ago, which I sing occasionally, but over time, I had forgotten it's meaning. Thanks for helping me revisit it in a way that I can practice it instead of just singing it.

      Here's the lyrics:

      When you struggle to be, let it go
      When you're weary from trying so
      I'm the way that you didn't know
      Look to Me and then let it go
      Yes, let it go. Just let it go

      When you're fighting the fight, let it go
      Admit you're losing it to the foe
      Don't despair, there's a way I'll show
      Look to Me and then let it go
      Yes, let it go. Just let it go

      Can't believe what I see is mine
      Can't believe it was there all the time
      How I wrestled and struggled inside
      Now I find a place I can hide
      I'll let it go. I'll let it go

    4. Thanks for sharing this song, Dave, encouraging us to look to Jesus and let go of the struggle. Wonderful message.
      God bless