BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part Two of a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series on depression. In addition to today’s post by Pat Quinn, you can read Part One by Lilly Park: Depression and Imbalanced Approaches. This series will also include Depression…Is It All in Your Mind? by Sherry Allchin, and Disciplines of a Depressed Soul by Pastor Paul Tautges.
Psychological research often links depression to catastrophizing. Dr. Bill Knauss writes in Psychology Today, “When ongoing, catastrophizing can be a prelude to depression.” And in whimsical fashion, Michael Rafferty writes in Esperanza, “In the Olympics of depression, catastrophizing is my best event.”
Depression we know about, but what exactly is catastrophizing? We could define it as a mental and emotional process of interpreting and responding to a negative event in such a way that you do any of these three things:
- Exaggerate the magnitude and impact of the event
- Feel overwhelmed and helpless
- Predict a hopeless future
It’s easy to see the connection between this kind of thinking and depression. Examples might include, failing a test and believing you will flunk out of school, or falling into a besetting sin and believing you can never change. Michael Rafferty says “…in my brain, one mistake sets off a chain reaction that ends with my being destitute and alone and sleeping under a bridge.”
While there are several possible contributing factors for catastrophizing (past suffering, bad modeling, genetic makeup, etc.), as Christians we have to recognize that unbelief is often at the heart of it. When catastrophizing, we often believe ideas like:
- “There is no good and powerful God in control of my life.”
- “The weight of the world is on my shoulders.”
- “God doesn’t love me and has completely abandoned me.”
- “I simply can’t live without….”
A Biblical Example of Catastrophizing
In 1 Kings 19, we read the story of Elijah fleeing Jezebel after the contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Elijah had shamed and killed the prophets of Baal and Jezebel had vowed to kill him. So, Elijah flees to Beersheba and, in his exhaustion, discouragement, and fear, asks God to take his life. his is deep depression!
God gives him food and sleep and Elijah continues on to Mt. Horeb. When God asks him what he’s doing there, Elijah “catastrophizes” and says all the people of Israel have forsaken God, that only he is left faithful, and that he probably won’t live much longer—effectively destroying God’s purpose for Israel!
God graciously deals with Elijah, gives him some specific instructions, and finally informs him that actually there are 7,000 faithful people left in Israel and that He is completely in control of Israel’s (and Elijah’s) destiny. What can we learn about how God deals with us when we catastrophize?
- Even godly people like Elijah catastrophize at times. We get overwhelmed and exaggerate what’s happening. Catastrophizing is not good, but it is understandable.
- God fully understands the harrowing circumstances Elijah has just passed through. He is patient and gracious with him, tending to his physical needs, dialoguing with him, and reassuring him with the actual truth of the situation.
- Some things that “bring us back to our senses” are:
- Taking a break: Getting food and rest if we are exhausted and depleted.
- Pouring out our hearts to God: Telling Him exactly how we see and feel about things—even if we’re exaggerating!
- Listening to God’s perspective on things: His perspective is true reality and is always hopeful.
The “RRPL” Response to catastrophizing:
The “RRPL” (think “ripple”) response is a simple way of remembering four steps to fight catastrophizing and its connection to depression. When I say “simple” I don’t mean “simplistic.” These steps are progressive and will take time and Spirit-empowered effort to grow into. Counselors can teach and have counselees practice these steps and then have them journal the process as homework.
1. Recognize: Signs of Catastrophizing Include:
- Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and hopeless about the future
- A victim identity (not the same as being victimized)
- A self-focused perspective
- Exaggeration for effect (to get attention?)
- Making godless statements
- Use psalms to pour out your heart. These psalms include some catastrophizing language—but express it to God as an act of faith and worship: Psalms 6, 10, 12, 22, 25, 38, 42, 55, 77, 88.
- Meditate on Romans 8: 31-39. Verse 35 includes every type of catastrophe imaginable and affirms that none of them can separate us from the love of God!
- Thank God for who He is and what He promises.
- Confess any unbelief, self-focus, exaggeration, or dishonoring statements.
- Ask God for the specific graces you need to interpret and respond in “faith working through love.”
4. Love: In the security of God’s promises and power, speak and act in faith and love.
- It’s fine to share with others how overwhelming and hard things are, but try to include the Lord’s promises in your statements—e.g. “This seems…but God says….”
- Ask others to help you see circumstances more clearly. Ask them how they interpret things and how they see the Lord involved.
- Ask, “How can I express my faith in God by serving someone right now?
The story of God’s wise and gracious care of Elijah reminds me of these words from a beloved hymn:
“Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged: take it to the Lord in prayer!
Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness—take it to the Lord in prayer.”
Join the Conversation
What false beliefs tempt you to exaggerate events and distrust God? How could you use the story of Elijah to encourage someone struggling with depression?