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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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. 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.”