Depression is a suffocating and miserable experience, and periods of depression can be both debilitating and life-altering. Symptoms not only include suppressed emotions and reduced energy, but also brain fog and body aches. Struggling to think or act can impact life plans, from education to family to career, and behavioral changes can result in loss of motivation, as well as struggles with addiction and other health problems. The percentage of people who experience depression is on the rise, but incredible progress is being made when it comes to treating this complex condition. Pagans can do well to supplement both traditional and emerging treatments, such as medication and therapy, by addressing the spiritual harm that results from periods of depression. This is a condition that impacts the body, mind, and spirit, and treating it on all three of those levels has the potential to multiply the effects of just therapy or medication alone. Here are nine ideas for how to proceed.
- Pray. According to Courtney Weber, "You should go to your altar every day, but if you're in a bad place, go three times a day." Pagans may uncomfortable with prayer; the late Judy Harrow said it, "feels like begging." It doesn't have to be that way. If your entire relationship with a human is you asking for favors and gifts, then talking might feel like begging after a while, too. Try simply telling the gods about your day. Perhaps if you're also in the habit of leaving offerings, you might catch them in the mood to intervene. Spending time with your gods should bring comfort in any case.
- Meditate. To focus attention on something like a candle flame, or to cease thinking altogether, is a way to quiet the conscious mind. This allows deeper parts of the self some space to heal, a respite from the barrage of recriminating thoughts common during depression. This is sometimes considered a form of shifting consciousness, but at its best this is an altered state that puts consciousness in the back seat and allows other parts of the mind to drive instead. It can be surprisingly difficult to meditate at first, particularly if the mind is filled with runaway thoughts, but it's not impossible. Even starting with just one minute at a time establishes the habit, but try to extend that by a minute as often as you can. A solid goal is to have sessions that last at least twenty minutes each, but take as long as you need to in order to reach that point.
- Connect. Seek out a person and have a conversation. Silence is also fine, as it speaks volumes. There is healing that comes simply from being in the company of others of our own kind. We evolved from tribal primates, and our spirits respond to one another. We can feel like we're completely alien during a period of depression, that we are shunned and ostracized, or forgotten or mocked. Those introduced thoughts make avoiding the healing presence of other humans feel justified. It's important to exercise discernment—people who have harmed you in the past may harm you in the future—but companionship is a necessary part of the human experience.
- Remember. We are open to depression in part because of the trauma experienced by our ancestors, and inadvertently passed down to us as our habits, beliefs, and capacity to manage stress. Our ancestors also have an interest in our own success, and understand us in ways that no one else ever could. Call upon the ancestors for resilience when all seems bleak and hopeless.
- Laugh. Life is funny—all parts of life. Some of the best comedy comes out of suffering, because the spark of humor is all the brighter when it flares in darkness. Laughter shakes our body, mind, and spirit, and allows for a reset of all three. Think of a time when something funny kicked off uncontrollable laughter. Recall how you felt when you have basked in the afterglow of laughing deeply and fully. Laughter is a gift of the creator gods, a way to recenter into our truest selves. Give yourself permission to receive this blessing with all of your being when that is possible, but use discernment! There are times when it's best to restrain that guffaw welling up. There will be times when it feels wiser to quash even a chortle, but always silently honor the feeling, and thank whoever you hold holy for this incredible gift.
- Move. Our bodies are parts of our full, sacred selves. In depression it's easy to heed the call to physically slow down, to become one with the bed or a device like a phone or television. The body's stillness is often reflected by a fixation on negative thoughts. Social worker Barbara Rachel taught me a saying used in Alcoholics Anonymous: "Move a muscle, change a thought." Start simple if you must: leave the remote control on the television stand, or your phone on the other side of the room. Work up to walking around your building or neighborhood, spending time gardening outside or tidying up inside, or taking up an active hobby like bicycling, mall-walking, or hog-calling.
- Ground. A state of depression can include the sensation of heaviness in the body, but this is not the same as being grounded. More likely, that's negative emotions sucking up the energy needed to move the limbs about. Grounding is to allow that emotional charge to pass into the earth. Sometimes it is easier to ground with the help of another person, such as a tree, a stone, or a human. Pay attention to how it feels when another person is helping to ground you, as you can tap into that sensation when grounding yourself.
- Purify. Acts of purification are intended to clear out spiritual clutter that accumulates around us all, the result of living a mortal human life. The first step in purifying a space is to clean it, and the first space that should be cleaned is one's body. In periods of depression, even basic hygiene can seem like too much effort, but a good scrubbing from head to toe will at least temporarily elevate mood and restore energy. Tackling a cluttered or untidy home space may require help, depending on how bad it's become, but it's worth it: the home is a reflection of the heart and mind, and improving the outer environment impacts the inner in turn. The spirit of depression finds no value in a clean and ordered home, a mind free of clutter, or a path to the gods unfettered by pessimistic thoughts or stacks of boxes in front of the altar.
- Commune. Spend time with people who are not human. Walk among trees, spend time with pets, care for houseplants, feed local birds, work in a garden. Feel sand between toes, sunshine on the face, or dirt under fingernails. Attune to the spirits of place, be they of the land or the home built upon it. Walking is an opportunity to pay attention to local spirits, whether or not they are incarnate. There are even forms of walking divination that one might try while on a mini-walkabout; I recall that author Tom Cowan taught me a Celtic walking divination once upon a time.
Depression is a condition that impacts the body, mind, and spirit of anyone experiencing it, and treating the body, mind, and spirit in concert is going to yield the better results than avoiding one or another aspect. The voice of depression encourages us to avoid behaviors that are going to be the most effective in that treatment, too. The above list is about intended to aid the spirit, and to a lesser extent the body. None of these suggestions is a substitute for getting treatment from a mental health professional, someone trained in the healing of the mind. Asking our gods or other spirits for help when we are in crisis is a good idea, but most of the time our gods are going to help us through a mental health professional. The gods work with the tools that work best.