“What’s the relationship between spirituality and depression?” This is a question that I have had swirling around inside for a number of years. When I look back on my own experience of depression, more than anything, I think of it as at time of spiritual crisis. I didn’t have faith in myself. I didn’t have faith in the world. Without faith, I didn’t have the strength to manage the challenges in my life or the hope of better days. Everything felt black.
It was a slow, gradual journey back to health. My circumstances changed and I found myself drawn toward spiritual content (books, tv, magazines…) which altered my way of thinking and being in the world. My faith has grown and my fear has reduced. Now, I am well – thriving, actually.
I am even grateful for the contrast between the period I was depressed and my life now. It reminds me not to take my joy for granted. It highlights what works for me and what doesn’t. As I write this, I realise that I no longer even worry about getting depressed again in the future. I had presumed that would be a concern of mine for the rest of my life, but it’s not there now!
This blog post has been brewing for a while. My hypothesis that active spirituality could be a significant factor in protecting a person against depression made sense to me, based on my own experience, but I had no evidence. When writing about the darkest times of a person’s life, I didn’t want to simply be “playing with ideas”. Then, this past week, through a series of synchronistic events, I got my hands on a copy of “The Spiritual Child”, by Lisa Miller, PhD (Picador, 2015). In it, Lisa shares the research on children’s spirituality in easy-to-read, often poetic, language. On the back cover of the book it says that children who have a “positive, active relationship to spirituality are…60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers”. When I read that, I felt I was being given the go-ahead to write this post.
I love the word “thriving” – that’s exactly what I want for my boys (for everyone). Lisa seems to love the word too. I’m less than a quarter of the way through the book but she has said this many times and in various ways:
The only thing that science has shown to reliably predict fulfillment, success and thriving: a child’s spiritual development. – The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller, p24.
To give you a piece of the evidence sited in her book: brain scans of those whose lives are led by spirituality show a number of distinct features. One is the thickening of sections of the right brain where, in depressed people, it would be thinner. If spirituality and depression have opposite effects on some areas of the brain, it suggests that it’s much harder for them to co-exist.
I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of the science but I’m wondering if there are specific aspects of spiritual thinking that particularly aid the prevention of depression. I’ve often heard, for example, that the brain can’t be in a state of appreciation and fear at the same time because of the way the brain operates. A person in a depressed state can alternate between grateful and fearful thinking many times in a day but it would presumably be the proportion spent in each that determines their overall experience?
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR OUR CHILDREN
Given the genetic component of depression, I was nervous about having children burdened with a higher likelihood of experiencing it. Fortunately, I made the choice to go ahead and my beautiful boys have played a big part in the deepening of my own spirituality and sense of thriving. I don’t often worry about whether or not they will experience depression in the future. By attending to their spirituality, I am comforted that I am doing what I can to support their mental health.
I am showing them how to connect with Love and how to put it into action. From a scientific perspective, I am strengthening the loving functions of their brains, building the neural pathways of loving thought. What is spirituality if not Loving (ourselves, others, the world)? What is depression if not fear (in a multitude of forms)?
I think that building my boys’ Love begins with offering them a loving world view. After all, it is our beliefs that shape our thoughts and, therefore, our emotions & actions. To show you what I mean, I’ll contrast a fearful world view with a loving world view –
These are a few examples of the fearful beliefs I had when I was depressed:
I don’t trust the world to be kind or for things to work out well for me (so I have to work super-hard to control everything and make life work myself).
I can’t do all that is expected of me. I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy of happiness and other good things
Everyone else is better than me. Things come more easily to other people.
These are some of the loving beliefs I have now and wish to pass onto my boys:
I have faith in myself and in the universe. The universe is working for me, in my best interests. I have everything I need.
I belong here. I have value. I am worthy of happiness and other good things. (See my post – “A Child’s Worth”).
Everyone is equal and has equal access to support from God.
If we compare the fearful and loving beliefs, we can see that they encourage entirely different ways of being. Depression is a complicated condition with so many contributing factors, but I think that, through showing them a spiritually-led life, I can steer my boys’ thought, biological/neural and lifestyle patterns so that they will have a head start in a joy-filled life and an understanding they can draw on if they ever do find themselves on the downward spiral.
IN SUMMARY: SPIRITUALITY, DEPRESSION & THRIVING
Just to be clear – I am not staying that actively spiritual people cannot have depression or that a person is not “spiritual enough” if they do experience it. I know it is a very complex condition with multiple aspects to it. In both of my boys’ early days, I experienced sustained anxiety which I attribute to insufficient sleep, biological (hormonal) factors and the stress I felt from the demands of a newborn. I was worried at times that I was on my way to depression again (fortunately, not).
I’m also not saying we “should” grow our children’s spiritual strength in order to reduce the likelihood of them experiencing depression. I wanted to share my scientific findings because they have confirmed what I felt I already knew – that the spiritual life I’m building for myself and modelling for Jake & Thomas is an advantage when it comes to reducing their chances of experiencing depression and increasing their chances of thriving.