Depression's Causes: Exhaustion
All energy is energy. You burn it exercising, reading, talking, grieving, or simply exerting will-power. A chess player can burn up to 6000 calories a day playing chess. Think about that. Without leaving her chair, a master chess player burns three times the calories an average person consumes in a day. For perspective, you usually burn around 125 calories walking a mile. So, a chess tournament could burn as much energy as walking 48 miles
My science is not precise here, but my point is important. You do not have to be doing something physically to burn a lot of energy. Every time I walk with a family through a funeral I hear the same sentence, “I don’t know why I am so tired.” Well, now you know. Activities like grieving lost loved ones, worrying, and anxiously turning over in your mind what might happen, all take energy. Sometimes they take a lot of energy.
By the Spring of 2020, I would have been exhausted without a pandemic. April is always the time of year pastors get tired; we sprint from the beginning of Advent through Easter. Throw in an unexpected funeral, a son going off to basic training, and a terrible case of bedbugs for good measure. I was done.
Then, as you all know, the Covid-19 pandemic swept us all up. I began to worry about what might happen. I began to grieve lost graduations and family events. I missed my friends, my worship services, my church, and everything else that gave me energy. Instead of being refueled, I walked around with an anxiety-caused sore throat for six weeks. Instead of celebrating an Easter sunrise service, I sat in my office crying before walking out to preach to a camera.
Oh, and let’s not forget decision fatigue. Every week we had to make what felt like life-or-death decisions. Would we worship in person? Would we require masks? Would meetings be held in person or on zoom? Nothing was normal anymore. Every routine action required deliberation and communication.
Plus, I had a church of scared people who needed me. So, I went into hyper-drive. I wanted people to know we were here for them. So, I went to Facebook-live two or three times a week: hosting Q/A sessions, giving devotionals, and making announcements. I used up every last bit of emotional energy I had.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for the Lord gives sleep to those whom he loves. (Psalm 127:2)
In my experience, exhaustion and depression go hand in hand. When I went to bed praying that God would let me sleep without waking up, yes, that was my depression praying. It was also my body saying, “I’m out. Seriously, Lord, I need to sleep for a very long time.”
If you are feeling the effects of depression, sleep may be your best friend. We have a strange relationship with sleep. We don’t get enough, so we are tired, so we drink lots of caffeine to keep us awake, so we don’t sleep well… Scientists tell us artificial light shining in our eyes, like the kind from T.V.s and computer screens, keep us awake. What do we do when we cannot sleep? We turn on the T.V. of course.
Please don’t think this advice is shallow or unspiritual. When Elijah was so depressed, he cried out to God to end his life, God responded by giving Elijah food and sleep. (1 Kings 19)
I have found that sleep is the kind of thing that must be trained for. As children we knew how to do it. I find myself staring at sleeping babies marveling at how peaceful they seem. But now I had to learn how to calm my mind, how to eat, when to turn off screens, all so I can sleep.
I recommend learning how to sleep. Consider the apps Calm or Headspace. Read Tony Schwartz’s material on the benefits of sleep. Go to bed an hour earlier than you think necessary. And instead of scheduling a vacation filled with activities, take an entire week sleeping in.
I try to take at least one day a week, and one week a year when I begin the day asking myself this simple question, “Can I possibly go back to sleep?” If I can, I do. I suggest you do too.