Winston Churchill was a self-proclaimed optimist who battled recurring bouts of depression all his life. He called depression a “black dog, leaping for his throat.” He fought in multiple wars throughout his lifetime, beginning with the Boer War in 1899 and ending with World War II in 1945, and he also fought political battles at home and abroad. As a natural leader and strategist, he devised battle plans for each engagement. Fighting depression was, to him, no different. Here are five of his strategies for conquering depression.
Conquer Brain Fog–Make a List
One of the methods Churchill used when his mind was racing and ruminating and focus seemed impossible, was to write a list of all the things troubling him, then go over the list in a methodical and logical way to determine which were unimportant, which were out of his control and therefore irredeemable, and which item was worth concentrating his energy on that day.
Doing a quick brain dump every morning by listing out all the things on your mind, then crossing out the things which are trivial or out of your control, will help you narrow your focus down to the one or two things that are most important.
Prepare for Bad Days in Advance—Identify Your Resources
In a letter written to his wife, Clementine, Churchill mentioned a doctor in Germany who had been able to cure the wife of his cousin from depression. Knowing his depression might return at any time, Churchill, who was always looking for an extra edge in a fight, wrote, ‘I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns.”
Churchill identified a resource he might need in the future, just in case. When you’re having a relatively clear day, that’s the day to identify your resources. Load the number for the local Behavioral Health department in your phone, along with numbers for crisis lines and local first responder services. Bookmark helpful videos and websites.
Use ‘Change’ as a Weapon
Another strategy Churchill used to keep his mind balanced and clear and avoid mental strain was the element of change. In all the remedies tried by people in his time to soothe mental distress, such as rest, travel, exercise, and solitude, he identified change as the common denominator.
“Change is the master key,” he wrote. “A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat. There is, however, this difference between the living cells of the brain and inanimate articles: one cannot mend the frayed elbows of a coat by rubbing the sleeves or shoulders; but the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts.”
So one way Churchill could use change as a weapon to fight mental fatigue and depression was simply to turn his mind to a new type of task, or change his location, or activity level, or seek either solitude or companionship.
When depression hits, you may not feel in the mood for a change, but try to change something, even if it’s something small. Take a day trip into the country, or visit a new store, or tour a new location. Put yourself in a low-stress social situation, like a local job fair, and hang out with some new people. Take $20 and give yourself the responsibility of buying a present for someone. Volunteer to serve lunch or dinner at a homeless shelter, or at the Salvation Army, just for the day. What other small but significant changes can you create in your life?
Use the Good Days to Plan for the Bad Days
Depression can vary from day to day, with some days easier than others. On the easy days, create a strategy to handle the tough days.
Winston Churchill avoided heights, always. Not because he was afraid of them, but because he was attracted to them for the wrong reason! If he stood near the railing on a battleship deck, or gazed down from the roof of a tall building, he knew he’d feel a nearly overwhelming urge to throw himself over the edge. So his strategy for managing depression included avoiding heights.
What is your personal kryptonite? Is it heights, like Winston Churchill? Avoid them. Is it guns? Remove firearms from your home, or place them in a gun safe, and entrust someone else with the key. Is it knives or razor blades? Or are you tempted to overdose on prescription drugs? Get a lockbox for any tempting blades and medications and give the key to a trusted family member or friend, and make sure only tiny bottles of over-the-counter medications are available for use. This is life and death, so there’s no such thing as over-the-top preparation. You need to do what works for you.
Find an Advocate
Churchill’s advocate, according to his daughters and according to the letters he left behind, was his devoted wife Clementine. He told her about the bouts of depression, and she was a great sounding board and sympathetic ear. In one letter he reassured her that the sadness he was dealing with at the time had a real and solid foundation, and did not “have any relation to those terrible and reasonless depressions which frighten me sometimes.”
You need someone in your corner, someone who listens and takes what you have to say seriously, and validates your struggle. You need someone who can give you a reality check on a rough day, someone who cares deeply about your mental health. That person could be a therapist, spouse, parent, sibling, or friend. If you haven’t anyone like that, and you haven’t the time to find someone, remember that volunteers staff the crisis lines 24 hours a day because they care and want to help, and often have been where you are now. Reach out to them.
If your life is in danger, call 911; first responders are trained to help you. My daughter, who is enroute to becoming an EMT, said, “If you need help, you should call us. If you don’t know if you need help, you should call us. If you think someone else needs help, you should call us… You will not be charged a fee just for calling for us to come check you out. We WANT to be there for you. Your life is important. You are important. We want you alive. The world is a better place with you in it.”
In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give in. Never, never, never, never…” He never gave in to depression. You don’t have to, either.
Instead, use these five strategies and tactics to fight depression and win, just like he did.