I had a black dog

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The following 4 minute video was produced by the World Health Organisation in collaboration with the writer and illustrator Matthew Johnstone. It simply and powerfully depicts the struggles of depression along with the importance of getting outside help:

It was Churchill who first referred to his depression as his ‘black dog’. It is a useful metaphor as it helps the individual to separate themselves from the negative feelings they are going through.

The author C.S. Lewis’ description from his children’s book The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe describes Narnia under the white witch when it is ‘always winter, but never Christmas.’ That explains a dark bleak time with no apparent end in sight. It also captures something of the emotion and sentiment of the darkness of depressive thinking.

Other descriptions of depression I have heard include
– like being pushed into a pit you can’t climb out of.
– like being lost in a fog
– like drowning in quicksand

Some important points to consider:

1. Depression is a growing world wide concern. Depressive disorder is expected to overtake heart disease as the biggest health issue worldwide by 2030.
The experience of depression is so ubiquitous that it has been called the common cold of emotional life. It truly is an equal opportunity employer affecting people of all social and economic backgrounds.

2. There is no one size fits all approach. Medication can be of great benefit to some, but others may need a completely different approach.

3. Being emotionally genuine and authentic with those who are close to you can be powerfully beneficial. However, it is important that you feel safe to open up to such people.

4. Accepting the ‘black dog’ as part of your life can also help to reduce his power in your life.

5. Beware of the effects of tiredness and stress on making you feel more down. (See the post The Difference between Talking to Your Heart and Listening to Your Heart.)

6. Regular exercise can be very beneficial. (Also see post and video What is the Single Most Important Thing I can do to Improve my Physical Health?)

7. Journalling your mood and keeping a gratitude list can be very helpful in gaining perspective.

And perhaps most important of all is to maintain hope, that in time, with the right support and help, those dark days can pass.

Quoting Matthew Johnstone:

“I wouldn’t say that I’m grateful for the black dog, but he has been an incredible teacher. He forced me to re-evaluate and simplify my life. I learned that rather than running away from my problems it’s better to embrace them.
The black dog may always be a part of my life, but he will never be the beast that he was. We have an understanding. I learned that through knowledge, patience, discipline and humour the worst black dog can be made to heal.”

 Psalm 42:5 from the Old Testament also captures this sentiment when the psalmist cries out:

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”

But the verse goes on in determination:

Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my saviour and my God.”

In depression events around us are interpreted in a personally negative way and we look at that as pervasive (that is affecting all of our life) and in a permanent way. So when something goes wrong I don’t just say I did a bad job, but I lose the ability to separate myself from my performance. I start to think I am a bad person and I always will be.

(I talk about my own personal experience with depressive thinking in the video ‘Just As I Am’.)

But perhaps most fundamentally depression is a form of anger – a frustration with life and life’s circumstances that is projected rather than outwards to others, inwards onto the self.

What are your thoughts on this metaphor of the black dog and these ways of looking at depressive thinking?

6 thoughts on “I had a black dog”

  1. A big black whole in which my future disappeared and stopped me being able to see it. Have a long term view on things has always been important to me. I use this now, when I remember (!), to help me keep everything in perspective. I wholeheartedly agree with keeping life simple and appreciation. I have some very interesting resources to share with you on hope too. I’d not thought about depression being a form of anger before – could you say a little more please?

    1. Thank you for your comments Tracey.
      In terms of depression as anger directed against the self, this has been talked about as a consequence of a fear of externally expressing the anger. This in turn may be because of the fear of rejection or the consequences that may result. Hence the anger is directed inwardly. It can at times be denied and so the only place the feelings can go is back on the self. For a much fuller explanation see the following link:

  2. we should recognise this black dog in early stage of life so that our lives not lost in it but over come it. I found regular exercise and friendly counselling are very helpful in it.

    1. Thank you Sunil Kumar
      Yes there is much to gain from self-awareness and strategies to cope with negative feelings.

  3. Point 4 is powerful. Getting locked into an entrenched battle with the black dog can give him an importance and a focus which he doesn’t deserve, and which keeps him around even longer…

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    This information is for educational purposes only, and is in no way intended to be personal medical advice. Please ask your physician about any health guidelines seen in this blog, as everyone is different in his or her medical needs.