How I Use the Singing of Hymns and Gospel Songs to Fight Depression
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I stared blankly through the laptop screen as though it did not exist. One negative thought—“there is no hope for you and this world”—came into my head and soon negative thoughts were dancing wildly in my mind. Soon after, feelings of loneliness and hopelessness gripped my entire body and made me feel as though the world was coming to an end.
I was not watching an apocalyptic movie, I was not having a nightmare, I was not watching a frightening news story. I was in my room and I was feeling what would soon become a relapse of depression.
This happened in 2000 when I was twenty-four-years-old. I’d worked at a Health Center, and written and passed the SAT and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). I had a dream of studying in America. However, after failing to mobilize the finances I needed to pursue my dream, I thought that was my end.
This was not my first experience with depression. When I was about seven-years-old, my peers often teased me for having no father. It made me feel as though a hot knife had been used to rip my heart out. I spent the subsequent days feeling sad and lonely, found it almost impossible to concentrate in class, and lost interest in playing soccer, my number one passion. I kept the pain to myself and bore it in silence.
The depression would come and go for the next nine years. When I was sixteen, it entered my life again. On this occasion, it was caused by my father. He had not visited me in about four years. Then out of the blue, he visited on one Saturday morning.
I was so happy to see him because I missed him so much. I almost fainted when I opened the front door and saw him standing there. I held my breath for a moment as my heart danced adowa—a Ghanaian dance—and tears of relief flowed freely.
I stood there and just stared at him as though he was a phantom. Quickly though, I became emotionally conflicted. I didn’t feel a connection to my father because he’d been absent for so long.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Dad, I’m fine.”
“Where is your mother?”
Unfortunately my mom was not around and he did not feel the need to stay and do what I’d hoped: converse with his son. He gave me bags of yogurts, a sort of atonement for his absence, and as he was leaving, he smiled at me. I smiled back feeling that this was going to be the beginning of a new life.
However, this was not so.
The following Monday, I heard the news that he’d passed on after a short illness. I was shocked. I craved the spiritual covering that a relationship with him would have brought. There is a belief in my tribe, the Ashanti people, that a father covers his children with his spirit and a strong relationship between a father and his children protects the children from harm and helps them succeed in life. I was not going to have this covering, and that hurt.
The next time depression gave me a knock was when I was in secondary school. Classmates bullied me by telling me that I was unfriendly and boring. They made me know I was not fit to hang out with them. I became lonely and majorly depressed for two years after. I found it hard to study, lost my appetite, and struggled to sleep at night.
After this, the beast left me alone until 2009, when I was diagnosed with an infection of the airways in my head, which, to this day, gives me very bad breath. The smell upsets people when I speak and has made me unemployable. That caused me depression and anxiety until I became a work-from-home writer.
My condition also stops me from socializing. I can’t converse with others or visit friends and family. I feel left out of life and that has caused deep sadness for ten years now. I’m worried that I may never marry. I can’t go to the weddings of friends.
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However, my job gives me some happiness. I truly enjoy sharing my experiences with others through blogs, as well as teaching, encouraging, and motivating people who are also going through challenging times.
On certain days, I’d try and imagine that I’d become a successful writer and yet, even my daydreams are tainted; I end up ruminating about not making enough money and eventually dying of hunger. The negative thoughts left me feeling very tired. I’d sleep so much that I’d find it hard to work and then I’d feel lazy and would make me feel worthless. I began to feel so much physical pain from these thoughts that it became hard for me to work. Eventually, I began hearing thoughts saying things like: “You are useless; commit suicide.”
However, on one night in bed when I ached all over, as my mind was being tormented by suicidal thoughts, I became frustrated and wondered what I could do to occupy my mind. My eyes fell on my hymn book lying on a table beside my bed. I picked it up, browsed through the index, and opened the hymn, “Fight the good fight.” Slowly, I started to feel hope.
It felt so good, I also started singing lines from Lenny Leblanc’s album “One Desire”: “Awesome and holy, a friend to the lonely.” The sound of my voice and the words soothed my spirit. Soon I began to feel less lonely. Minutes later I felt a sense of peace. Gradually my thoughts started to change. I began to think, “This feels good! I shouldn’t give up! Things can change for the better.” I reflected on this and saw hope—I felt that if I fought instead of giving in to negative thoughts, I could do something valuable with my life. I felt positive and the suicidal thoughts began to vanish.
Since then, I use singing as a sort of emotional and psychological therapy. For example, when I constantly ruminate about the worse-case scenario and start feeling hopeless, singing lifts my spirit and helps me to feel hopeful.
The hymns remind me that no matter how bad things are now, God loves still loves me and is a faithful Friend. They remind me to hold on and live because better days will surely come.
I also make sure to sing these songs loudly and with my body. I involve my whole being and focus one thousand percent on the words instead of allowing my brain to regurgitate my childhood memories. This helps to put my mind to rest—singing and ruminating at the same time seems impossible to me.
This strategy is even more effective when I combine it with feeling grateful as I sing. For example, hearing my voice when I sing out loud reminds me that I have something valuable and that eases my feelings of worthlessness. It makes me appreciate my life. I can feel the endorphins flood my brain as I sing.
Sometimes, singing is hard because I can’t always muster the motivation. But when I take the first step and start by singing a note, then another note, I am motivated to continue and eventually I sing my heart out.
Over time, I learned that singing made it easier to change my perspective on the world. When I sing, I remind myself that there is still beauty and happiness and something pleasurable to enjoy in this world. If that is so, why should I kill myself? The most practical lesson I’ve taken away is that singing helps me gain better control over my thoughts and emotions.
I usually sing in my room in the morning when I wake up and also at night before I go to bed because these are moments when I feel most vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Since starting, the intensity of my pain has reduced considerably and I can focus better on work and work for longer hours.
Now, when the negative thoughts start and tension mounts and the depression gets too much to handle, I sing. I don’t ruminate about hurtful comments people have made to me. The practice has helped me in very dark days and I believe it will help you too. And the great thing about singing is that all you need is your voice, which is free and readily available.