The stereotypical picture of someone who has standard depression is someone who stays in bed all day. This person cancels all their plans, isolates themselves, and has difficulty maintaining areas of responsibility due to their low mood and energy. But if you’re a high-functioning individual like me, you might not fit this mold. For those who can relate, I’d like to share 2 main lessons that have helped me during the darkest of times. But before doing so, here are some key differences that will help us understand this condition better.
- For one, high-functioning depression is not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5. It’s actually more of a term that became popularized in our culture to describe individuals who are high-performing while dealing with the symptoms of major depression.
- The official diagnosis that most individuals receive when they are high-functioning is still: major depressive disorder.
- The main question when assessing high-functioning depression is: for how long, and how much does depression interfere with our capacity to go on with our life? This is the differing component that makes high-functioning depression different for everyone.
Until my postgraduate years, I felt extremely alone because I didn’t fit the mold of a typical depressed person. I pushed past my pain in order to perform at work, school, and keep up with my relationships. Is this you? Do you also push past your pain in order to not disrupt your day? If so, here are two lessons that you may need to hear.
1. There are practical ways to manage high-functioning depression.
When I entered college, I had absolutely no coping mechanisms to help me through my dark times. I always thought the best way to get over something was to face it head on, so I would always “embrace” my pain. In reality, all I was doing was replaying in my sadness on a loop, which almost always made things significantly worse.
So what are some ways to manage high functioning depression? What are some good coping mechanisms? Especially in the midst of commitments that you cannot give up? It’s easy if we stopped working or had the option to drop out of school. But in the midst of everything, when we have no choice to take time off or quit, how do we deal with depression and sadness?
Before I list them out however, I need us all to understand that management strategies are not the same as solving the problem. They are just ways to help you manage the symptoms you face, not solutions to stop them. So for my high-performing individuals, here are some strategies that can be helpful in battling this type of depression.
- Allow yourself to give up some responsibilities. It doesn’t mean we’re weak and incapable. When our plates are full of responsibilities, we will not make the time or space to process our emotions and to get help.
- Disclaimer: There are obligations that you CANNOT give up versus the ones that may be flexible. And this looks different for everyone. For example: you don’t HAVE to serve at church, but so many of us feel like we have to.
- Seek out people that you can honestly share with. A key trait of high-functioning depression is that people act like everything is fine, as they suffer silently. One way to break out of this pattern is to find safe people you trust, and share honestly with them. Don’t tell them half-truths, don’t say you’re okay, don’t brush off their intentional questions. It’s when you let yourself be seen for who you really are, and HOW you really are, that you begin to heal and find comfort.
- Admit to yourself that you may have depression. High-functioning people often brush off their emotions to say that it’s just a hard season, and that it will pass. But sometimes, it’s not just a hard season, and we need to fight the stigma within ourselves to see that we may actually have depression. Once we admit it to ourselves, then we’re able to take the steps to get help.
- Lastly, medication and therapy are really good tools to help you manage your high-functioning depression. Medication is a tool that God gives us to help regulate the biological processes that we cannot voluntarily change. And I believe therapy is another powerful tool that helps us process our lived experience of high-functioning depression.
Maybe your depression won’t go away completely with these strategies, and maybe you’ll always walk with a limp. But, walking with a crutch is different than walking without one. So I encourage you all to make these strategies your own, and get the help you need.
2. The Bible says high-functioning people need physical and spiritual rest.
This lesson comes from the bible directly. It’s the story of Elijah the prophet, and I want to share with you how God ministered to him in his time of depression.
When Elijah fought and defeated the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, he was directly going against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s official religion. When confronting the prophets, Elijah prayed fervently for God to send lightning from the sky in order to light a fire and prove that he was the true God. But when Queen Jezebel found out, she issued a death threat and sent out men to kill Elijah.
Elijah then became afraid and immediately ran away for days into the wilderness. He isolated himself and wanted to die at this point. When he finally came to a stop under a tree, this is what he told God in 1 Kings 19:4:
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
But God did not take Elijah’s life that day. In fact, God did something we often don’t prioritize – He ministered to Elijah by giving him food and drink, and used his angel to command him to rest because “the journey was too great for him” (1 Kings 19:7). And after this, Elijah regained the strength to go 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God. The first thing that God did for Elijah was to replenish him physically during a time when he did not have the will to live any longer.
Why do you think this is? It’s because we need physical rest during our times of depression. Especially for high-functioning individuals, we need to MAKE the time for physical rest in our busy schedules.
Next in 1 Kings 19:8, we see that God took Elijah to His mountain- the mountain of Horeb, which means ‘mountain of God’. It was the spiritual mountain where people go to rest and meet with the Lord. God led Elijah here specifically because he knew Elijah not only needed physical rest, he also needed spiritual rest. It was God’s presence through his still small voice (1 Kings 19:12) that gave Elijah’s soul the sustenance to live the life he had been given. Only after encountering God at the mountain of Horeb was Elijah able to continue on his journey.
What raised Elijah out of his depression was hearing God in his presence in a still small voice on top of that mountain. All the management strategies I’ve listed before are great but spiritually speaking, one question to really consider as a high-functioning person is: are you really seeking the voice of God? Because without this, no matter how much you try to perform, no matter how many coping strategies you try to implement, without the voice of God you will never be able to heal completely.
So for those of us who are constantly pushing past our pain and forcing ourselves to function, take a moment to pause and reflect. What are some strategies I can use to manage my depression in the midst of all my responsibilities? Am I making physical and spiritual priority a rest? Am I intentionally seeking out God’s voice in my depression? In the most difficult and unseen moments, I hope these questions can help you find the peace and healing that comes from God.