A few months ago, I read a book that brought me to an interesting realization. The book is Walking on Water When You Feel Like You’re Drowning: Finding Hope in Life’s Darkest Moments by Tommy Nelson and Steve Leavitt. In the book, Nelson describes the way that depression affected his life. When I read through it, I realized that I had never heard anyone verbalize how the symptoms of depression play out in life on a day to day basis, nor had I ever communicated them in that way either. I’ve seen the medical criteria a million times, but they are these huge generalizations that can actually show up in rather obscure ways.
Nelson was able to associate these symptoms with his depression because he had never experienced them or depression before. The onset of these symptoms coincided with the beginning of his depression, therefore making the relationship rather obvious. Having Bipolar Disorder, I have experienced these random things since adolescence, so I had never connected them to my depression.
I thought sharing these things would be helpful for others to gain a better understanding of what a friend or loved one might be experiencing, or maybe even aid in spotting depression in yourself. I’m going to share my own experience, but I’m sure no one person’s experience is the same across the board.
What does Depression physically feel like?
Emotional or cognitive symptoms are what most people think of when it comes to depression, but there are clear physical symptoms that accompany the disorder, as well. Typical symptoms include stomach issues, aches and pains (including headaches), fatigue and insomnia. I won’t elaborate on the stomach issues because that’s just not fun to talk about. Let’s just leave it at the stomach and digestive system simply don’t function correctly.
Besides tummy trouble, another physical symptom that I deal with is feeling super uncomfortable in my skin. I had never associated this with my depression until Nelson mentioned it in his book. It plays out like this for me. First, I think I must be sitting in an uncomfortable position, so I try several different ones. Then I think it must be the way my clothes are hanging, so I adjust and readjust – sometimes evening changing clothes. It becomes a sensory thing. My watch irritates me, my sleeves feel too short, the shoulders of my shirt don’t feel aligned correctly. Everything just feels uncomfortable.
As far as the aches and pains of depression are concerned, they are not due to any injury or over exertion. I experience aches mostly in my forearms, but sometimes my shoulders. The key to identifying these are that they are random, and unrelated to anything you can identify.
Another symptom is noise sensitivity. Just this year I associated this with my depression. I get super sensitive to sound, and it sends my brain into overload. That’s a great one for me, having five kids and all. This is one symptom that I had always noticed as some sort of issue because it is so stinkin’ strong and because I don’t always experience it. Before this year I had never noticed that it was only an issue when I was depressed.
As I mentioned earlier, fatigue and insomnia are also physical symptoms of depression. Sometimes it just shows up as a nagging tiredness, but sometimes it is all but disabling. In those times, I feel like I am just dragging my body though the day – surviving. I look for anything that might help me get through the day; Coke, coffee, food, whatever. A large part of my mental energy is spent just trying to make it through until I can stop for the day. All day long, I look forward to going to bed.
Unfortunately, the idea that sleep will be a reprieve is deceptive. I know this is common to most everyone who deals with depression. When a depressed person goes to bed, they either can’t fall asleep, or have multiple awakenings throughout the night. This adds to the exhaustion and actually feeds the depression. Our brain creates a chemical called Serotonin when we sleep, so a sleep deficit is always in turn, a Serotonin deficit. Serotonin is the chemical in our brains that help us feel happiness, so when it is low, so is our mood.
Now on to the emotional and mental symptoms. These are the symptoms most everyone thinks of when it comes to depression. They are the feelings of sadness and hopelessness. I won’t spend much time on these because I think most people understand what they look like. Basically nothing makes you feel good. Anything that you normally enjoy suddenly becomes boring and fails to bring you any happiness – your favorite songs, TV shows, hobbies, foods, even favorite people. It’s all just boring; irritating even.
Beyond the normal manifestations, these feelings also play out as being overly weepy, pessimistic or overwhelmed. In fact, life becomes so overwhelming that even the tiniest decisions are paralyzing. Sometimes this is due to the current emotional state, and sometimes it is caused by a general cognitive fogginess. When I get to this state, Jeff usually sits down with me and talks through the things I’m stuck on and helps me make lists and prioritize tasks. That’s super embarrassing to admit because I consider myself to be a very capable and self-sufficient woman. And I am – most of the time. The problem is that there are multiple versions of me.
People who deal with depression usually have two versions. One version functions normally and successfully in daily life, overcoming whatever obstacles that come their way. Then another version that is completely overwhelmed by the simplest of tasks or decisions. A practical example of this is that when I am depressed, I can’t make myself sit down and pay the bills. Not because we don’t have the money, but because I can’t decide if I should do it before or after switching over a load of laundry. Then the fact that neither the bills nor the laundry are taken care of just sinks me deeper into a pit.
Symptoms That Don’t Fit The Mold
Some emotions of depressions that don’t get much attention, but that are very common, are feelings of anger, rage, irritability or actually being completely void of all emotion. When I’m in that last state, Jeff has described my countenance as cold, hard and completely apathetic. Don’t you wish you were married to me? What’s crazy is that I usually don’t know that’s how I’m coming across. I know I’m fine, so I continually express that verbally, but on the outside I look like a shell of a person.
Here’s A Fun One
Another tell-tale symptom of depression is being plagued by what are called “morbid thoughts.” I realize an explanation of this shrink speak is probably in order here. Morbid thoughts refer to thoughts of death, injury, accidents or suicide. Lovely, huh? If you are a Christian, you are probably thinking, “Well, you should just pray and meditate on verses about casting all your cares on God and taking every thought captive.” Well, that is a very Biblical and correct response. And that is actually what I do. Going over verses in my head is the only thing I can do to replace the images and thoughts.
One thing that is peculiar about this, however, is that it isn’t quite how it sounds. It’s not centered on fear or anxiety. There isn’t a thought process to them. It’s not like thinking, “what if a burglar busts into our bedroom and starts stabbing me?” And then worrying about that and feeling scared. It doesn’t play out that way. It’s just images flashing in your head of that happening. You see the image in your mind faster than you would have ever had the ability to think up the scenario.
It’s not being scared to get out of your car because you’re worried another car will run you over in the parking lot. It’s getting out of your car just like normal, and then expecting to get run over every time you walk behind another car. Not because you are worried it’s going to happen, but because an image of that happening keeps flashing through your head.
The “S” Word
Since thoughts of suicide fall under this “Morbid Thoughts” symptom, I will touch on those for a minute. Thank the Lord, I haven’t gotten to the point of actually wanting to do that in many, many years. The last time I remember feeling that way, I was a teenager. Throwing adolescent puberty and turmoil on top of Bipolar Disorder is quite a whammy. God bless my sweet parents for even continue to talk to me today!
I want to address this because it’s important to be able to hear the truth behind the words of a friend or family member. There is a whole spectrum of suicidal thinking. I didn’t actually realize this until last year when my psychiatrist described it.
“Thoughts of suicide” are on the medical criteria list, but I always just interpreted that as wanting to kill yourself. There is however a whole range of desires that fall into the category of suicidal thoughts. On the least dangerous end of the scale is the feeling that you want to disappear or run away. Somewhere in the middle is not caring if you were to die. Then towards the other end of the scale is hoping you will die, and then obviously at the most dangerous end is wanting to kill yourself and lastly actually making plans. Isn’t this a fun blog post? The truth about depression isn’t usually pretty, but it’s always necessary.
Even though this isn’t a fun topic, it’s an important one. If you hear someone express that they feel like they are “trapped” or “in a cage” or that they just want to run away, you need to take those words seriously. I’m not saying that person is on her way to suicide, but at the very least she needs some help and support with whatever she is are going though.
Got Any Good News?
Thankfully, yes. There is good news. FEELINGS ARE NOT REALITY. Isn’t that awesome? I realize that this is contrary to what society tells us, but it’s the Truth. Webster defines feelings as “an emotional state or reaction”. It’s rather neurotic to try to find our reality based on an “emotional state,” but in our post-modern society void of absolutes, that’s the mantra. “Do what you feel.” “Follow your feelings.”
While I never think feelings are a good plumb-line in life, depression certainly makes that true. Depression completely distorts reality and twists the Truth. Thankfully, we can go to the Author of Truth and find reality there. God gave us the Bible, and we can hold up our thoughts and feelings to Scripture to determine whether our feelings are true or whether they are just that – feelings.
Not only did God give us the Bible to provide a framework for reality, but He he also blessed us with community. Whether it’s family, friends or both, the power of authentic community cannot be overestimated. Now, I’m not talking about the folks that you go to potluck fellowships with. I’m talking about the people who really know you. The people to whom you can safely bear your soul and who help carry your burdens. These are the people who can help you evaluate your feelings and thoughts and provide you with perspective. Community can help you see the Truth, even through the dark clouds of depression.
My husband, parents and my church community group provide this for me. I can tell Jeff that I think I’m ruining our kids, and instead of writing me off, he talks it though with me to show me that what I’m feeling isn’t true. I can share with my community group that I feel like I need to make a particular life change because I am second guessing everything, and they can remind me that we all prayed through that decision and felt like it was the right one. The women in my group know Jeff and I well and can assure me that he does love me, even when I feel certain things are going all wrong. I have example after example of how my community helps me see the Truth, even when depression is feeding me lies.
Last, but not least, God gave humans amazing brains and intellectual capacity which have given us modern medicine. Yay! When our brains are all out of wack and our chemistry isn’t balanced, we can go to doctors to get help. Antidepressants and mood stabilizers are a huge blessing to those of us that need them, and they can be completely life changing. It should be noted that they work best in combination with careful life choices and a good support network.
There. I left you on a happy note. I’m obviously not depressed today. As always, I’m glad to answer questions or to talk, so feel free to shoot me an email or leave me a comment.