(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2015. It has been one of our most popular articles since that date.)
UNITED STATES — It’s become fairly commonplace for articles about Blue Monday to come up at this time of year. According to a formula concocted for a now-defunct travel network, the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year. While that designation was most likely created to sell vacation packages, it does serve to focus attention on a complex, often intractable condition.Pagans are certainly not unusual in suffering from depression, but since their worldviews can differ widely from that of the over culture, the tools and techniques for treating depression may also differ. To learn more, The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagan mental health professionals, as well as those who have struggled with depression.
Reverend Selena Fox, founder of Circle Sanctuary, has been a practicing psychotherapist for most of her adult life, and most of the people she works with in that context are Pagan. “It’s important one takes a holistic approach to healing and wellness,” she said. For Pagans, she added, that means “to be able to tap into their spirituality as part of working on getting better.”
That is only one part of a successful treatment plan for depression, she stressed, for two main reasons:
- A biochemical imbalance may be contributing to one’s depression, and often the best treatment in such cases involves biochemical support. “It’s really important to deal with the physical-plane dimensions of the condition, as well as the spiritual ones,” Fox said. That may mean medication, or one of the many herbal supplements which are used to lift mood. Determining which is best should be left to a trained professional.
- There is a tendency among depression sufferers to constrict one’s social life as these interactions and activities stop giving pleasure. “It’s important to be aware of those tendencies and get help shifting out of holing up like that,” said Fox. Again, that help can take the form of a professional, such as a social worker, counselor, or therapist, or that help can be observant loved ones who are able to recognize depressed behavior.
Fox actually likened depression to a common cold in that it’s a relatively common condition, which should be resolved within a couple of weeks with self-care. Like the cold, though, if it persists longer than that, outside treatment should be sought. She recalled working in a clinic where some patients would only decide to seek help after having suffered for six or eight months.
“It’s much easier to treat depression when it’s addressed earlier,” she said, noting that there are always treatment options available, no matter how serious the condition has become.
Some ways to find a suitable mental health professional include asking for references from Pagan friends and organizations in the local area, or contacting a professional association, such as the Association for Transpersonal Psychology that recognizes the importance of holistic approaches.
Taking all of that into account, there are Pagan-specific approaches to handling depression; all of which can be incorporated into a larger treatment plan. Both Fox and Tony Rella, a mental health counselor in the Seattle area and a student-mentor at the Morningstar Mystery School, use the elements of earth, water, air, and fire in their treatment plans. Fox also includes spirit in her approach.
While not every Pagan incorporates these concepts into their own religious practice, these elements can be used to present the information and recommendations that we have gathered from Fox, Rella and others.
Earth, the body, can take a beating during depression. Sleep patterns can be disrupted, and an attitude of, “What difference does it make?” can lead to poor self-care. Fox likens this to a passive form of suicidal ideation. “Someone who has the flu might not have the energy to get it treated, and it turns into pneumonia,” she explained.
Rella said activity and diet are very important earth aspects. “Am I getting exercise? Am I spending time outside? Am I getting regular doses of sunlight or Vitamin D? A big problem in the Pacific Northwest! Is my diet promoting health? There is emerging research that indicates a relationship between depression and inflammation in the body, leading some professionals to suggest experimenting with reducing or eliminating foods that might promote inflammation, like foods high in sugar.”
Foods are an important part of Shauna Aura Knight‘s personal strategy:
About a decade ago, I started noticing certain foods seemed to impact me. I was focusing more on reducing my migraines and acne, but (as it turned out) those foods also impacted my depression. I used to live off hot pockets, mini pizzas, and soda. Carbs, sugar, dairy. It took years to finally make the switch to a (roughly) paleo diet. No grains, no added sugars, no dairy, no calorie free sweeteners.
Part of what helped me to make the switch was my belief that the divine is in each person, and that my body is divine. ‘My body is a living temple of love’ is a line from one of my favorite chants. My sacred body is worth the extra effort. Eliminating certain foods reduced the exhaustion/depression symptoms, and helped me to lose a hundred pounds which has significantly reduced my foot pain and joint pain. Taking Vitamin D, B, and my prescribed thyroid medication also helped.
Factors like sunlight and physical activity can be difficult to manage in northern climes. When reached for this story, Fox reported that it was 40 below outside her Wisconsin home. “Some days, sitting by a sunny window is all you can do,” she acknowledged, but she suggests supplementing limited exposure to sunlight with full-spectrum light boxes, and visualization exercises. Weather permitting, she also recommends nature walks for a number of reasons: exercise is known to improve depression in its own right, changing one’s environment can interrupt a cycle of negative thinking, and Pagans in particular tend to respond well to exposure to the natural world.
One very pragmatic approach comes from Heathen Cara Freyasdaughter.
I take my depression meds regularly. I also get them refilled and checked on a regular basis by doctors who are qualified to do this. I see this as part of a larger technique for dealing with depression called “taking care of myself.” My Goddess has Strong Opinions on whether I (or others) take care of ourselves enough or love ourselves enough. It’s a constant message that I, and others who work with Her, get. So I find that when I take care of myself, I honor Her as well.”
Regarding the element of water, Rella asks questions that are tied to mood, including “Can I give space and permission for painful emotional experiences to emerge? What deeper wisdom might these feelings point toward? What difficult truths can I see in my heart?”
Feelings about others also feed into the water element. Fox pointed out that loved ones can be among the first to recognize depression. “If you are encouraging a loved one who seems to be in the funks and talks negatively day in and out, it’s a really good idea to have some conversations with that person hoping it will encourage or motivate them to get some additional help.”
Blogger Alyxander Folmer, writing about his own struggles with depression, said that his loved ones serve as a source of motivation:
. . . during the hardest points of depression just mustering the energy required to express emotion can be daunting. When just getting out of bed feels like it takes more energy than you’ve got in the tank, it’s hard to care enough to put on music (or fight laundry monsters). On those days, the only thing that gets me moving is remembering that people need me.
I have a wife who deserves a functioning partner. I have approximately 1/3 of a child who needs me to to provide a safe and stable life for it to grow. I have friends that need to know they can call on me when times are hard. This has become my morning mantra for those days when I’m just to exhausted to muster up will to function. It doesn’t matter how I feel, or how little I care about anything else. That one thought will get me moving.
Jolene Poseidonae spoke about a technique she developed for herself:
Detached compassion is something I developed not initially to cope with depression but as part of shadow work years ago as I learned how to drop the tools that had helped me survive a violent, abusive upbringing but were then getting in the way of my being a functional adult with healthy relationships. It was something I developed so that I could trust in my gods and in the people who loved me, and it spilled over into dealing with depression. It’s a sort of stepping back from the emotional ups and downs that hit so fast they leave me dizzy, it’s the practice of disengaging from one’s emotions. Emotions are always in a state of flux for me, and they are often untrustworthy.
It’s harder when the emotion is a constant, steady stream of a conviction of unworth, of wretchedness, and the knowing that nothing will ever get better, and this burning desire to cease existing will go on and on and on with no relief, but having the practice in place helps me turn my connection to those emotions off. It’s like I sort of side-step them. I watch them, I hear them, and I feel them, but I turn aside so that the feeling of them isn’t as direct. I’m not as engaged with them. Usually, this helps shorten the duration of my being mired in the black. The days I have when I lose all interest in my projects are fewer, and it’s been a long time since I’ve lost months like I used to.
Knight noted, “When my depression was at its worst, I couldn’t acknowledge I had depression because that would mean I was ‘bad,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘hopeless.’ Admitting I had a problem — looking into that dark, shadowy mirror of my own fears — was the first big step. Getting help was more difficult as I have no health insurance, and I was alone without much income. I did manage to get some help via therapy at a cheap clinic, but even that cost too much. I was introduced to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, though, and I realized that I had done personal work similar to that when I was doing leadership training at Diana’s Grove.”
Air is associated with the intellect and thoughts. “What kind of story is my depression telling about me?” asks Rella. “What harmful self-beliefs are coming to light? How could I rewrite those stories to promote more ease and self-acceptance?”
Fox suggests monitoring self-talk to identify the onset of depression, which can otherwise begin without detection. On paper or electronically, jot down one’s thoughts over the course of a day. “If a person is finding a great propensity for negative thinking that is often an indicator that there’s some kind of depression going on. Phrases such as, ‘Well, what’s the point, I’m failing at this, nothing’s ever going to get better.’ If there’s ideation indicating hopelessness, sorrow, putting oneself down, that’s a sign you need some help.”S. Jade Gribanov said that distracting herself from negative thoughts works for her. She added, “Music. Anything that makes me feel good. A brainless inconsequential activity to occupy my conscious mind. My brain will run itself in circles for a few hours. Most of it will be garbage but I always come up with a couple of things to keep me going for a while longer.”
Music works for Knight, as well. “I sometimes also sing to manage depression, and I’m trying to work singing into a daily practice. While I still struggle with occasional ‘pit of despair’ days where I am utterly exhausted, and I am still trying to find ways to feel emotions like joy and happiness, my life is far better than it was.”
Freyasdaughter embraces her own thoughts from times when she felt better. “I read my past writings. There are times when I am full of faith and trust in the Gods completely, and when depression hits I lose most of that. So it’s good for me to go back and see these hopeful things, written by my own hand, and remember that the depressive funk I’m in can and will pass. It has before.”
Poseidonae also uses her writing, but slightly differently. “Writing is a huge part of coping. Going easy with myself when I need to is also a part of it. Losing myself in fiction. Sometimes throwing myself into my devotional acts helps, and sometimes it makes it worse. Sometimes I have to retreat away from all my gods — Poseidon being the sole exception — and just be.”
“In my observation, qualities of Fire are particularly challenging for people with depression,” said Rella. “The depression says, ‘I don’t care about anything and I don’t have the strength to do anything.’ Engaging the will to act on something important to me is a powerful coping strategy. Sustaining a daily practice, even when you don’t ‘feel it,’ helps.”
He goes on: “For some people at the height of depression, getting out of bed to take a shower is a tremendous act of will, and worth validating. Those who have never experienced a deep depression might have trouble understanding how much courage and strength it takes to do these daily tasks, and it is the enactment of these that helps the person work through and move out of their depression.”
For Fox, action can often break the patterns that feed depression, as has been touched upon earlier. Fire can also be utilized literally, in the form of candles or exposure to sunlight and other full-spectrum lighting.
Fox uses spirit in the context of “one’s practices and understandings” when speaking about depression. “Some daily spiritual practice can be a really important component,” she said.
“That could take the form of “being at a home altar calling on the Divine, Goddess, God, Great Spirit, or a particular pantheon, depending on the tradition. Actually call on the sacred and ask for assistance as one goes through life and the day.” Further, “a ritual for self-healing involving chanting, candlelight, incense, [or] affirmations . . . is really a complement to whatever else one is doing.”
Sable Aradia, a Pagan clergyperson, provided some specific actions for depressed Pagans to take in her second post on The Downward Spiral — Depression and Suicide in Paganism, including the use of banishing pentagrams to dispel negative moods, witch bottles to get rid of bad luck, and seeking council of the gods.
I believe that if you keep your eyes open for them, the gods send you signs also. When my husband was in a major car accident and in the ICU for a month, the phrase “this too shall pass” continued to be sent to me. People would say it on the bus to me; I saw it tattooed on the wrist of one of the kinder nurses. You get the idea.
Hellenist Conor Davis finds that religious ritual sometimes works for him. “I have found that, when I can manage it, prayers and devotionals can help me with some of the milder symptoms of depression. On bad days where I don’t want to get out of bed much less leave the house, nothing seems to help and everything seems feeble.”
Freyasdaughter said, “I make a gratitude list. By that point or so, I’m in a place where I can move easily into a state of worshipping my Goddess, and in return She gives me back love. It’s a great feedback loop. When I’m depressed it’s often very difficult to reach out to the gods and trust that they are there, or to trust that anything I’m feeling or hearing from them is real or true. So, the gratitude list, where I sit myself down and make myself look at the things that are going well in my life, helps me to get back into that connected, hopeful headspace again.”
Dver, a spirit-worker on the margins of Hellenic polytheism, made this observation: “I have come to the conclusion over the years that my chronic depression is actually a recurring shaman sickness, essentially (I’m not actually a shaman, but a spirit-worker, and this concept seems to apply to various sorts of mystics). When I hit my worst point many years ago, I began delving into spirit-work (though I didn’t call it that at the time) and things got much better. To this day, when I am experiencing any longish stretch of depression (more than a few days), it is almost always a call to pay attention to what I am neglecting, and once I begin doing my Work again, the depression lifts.”Many of those who reached out or wrote about this topic have compared depression to an underworld journey, in which the traveler must confront difficult truths, or even discern truth from self-lies. Given the complex and powerful symbolism in this area, it’s worth further study.
Depression is a condition which can alter one’s own perceptions of self-worth, which can lead to neglect of the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life. A holistic approach to treatment might include physical activity, monitoring self-talk, performing regular spiritual practice even if it seems pointless, and changes in diet and medication. Because it can be a serious illness, and particularly because it changes self-perception, outside help should be sought for any depression which lasts for more than a few days.