Although the roots of the phrase itself can be traced back to a variety of origins, we’ve always — or at least since the early 20th century — attributed the phrase “The Black Dog” as a metaphor for depression to Winston Churchill.
And folks who suffer from, work to manage, and live daily with depression know this phrase — this description of a wild, ominously colored constant companion, growling and baring his thick, razor-sharp teeth — to be a fairly accurate metaphor.
They also know that, if not leashed in time, their own Black Dogs will snap, lunge, and eventually sink in their teeth.
Fortunately, every Black Dog has a collar. Why? Because depression is a manageable, treatable mental illness. What you have to figure out is how to snap a leash on that collar, and regain control, when your Black Dog breaks loose.
Step 1: Stop. Stop and listen, just as you would if you really were enjoying a hike through the woods or wandering along the streets and heard an animal growling. Don’t move, don’t talk, and don’t panic – just stop and listen.
Can you tell from which direction the growls are coming? Can you tell how near the animal is? The goal here is to figure out how much time you have to work with.
Fortunately, because you’re just now hearing the growls, you probably have – maybe not a great deal of time to take action – but enough time so that you’re not overcome, i.e. curled into the fetal position and wondering what the hell happened.
Step 2: Evaluate your surroundings.
What you do now is determine two things:
- What you’ve done to offend your Black Dog (or, what’s going on that’s triggered your depression).
- What tools you have to eventually leash him (or, what steps you can take to regain management of your depression).
If you were dealing with an actual wild beast, you’d probably look around for some sort of warning you missed. A “Beware of Dog” sign you didn’t see or even a junkyard with an open gate you unwittingly wandered past. You’d probably glance around for someone to help you or someone who had the means to call for help. Maybe you’d even search out a weapon of some sort, or something that could slow down the dog if it started to attack.
In this sense, dealing with depression is no different: You have to look around for what triggered it. Have you been skipping therapy appointments? Could your medicine need adjusting? Are you fighting with a loved one or upset over not getting a job promotion? Has it been too long since you nurtured your social life? Have you been ignoring your usually healthy sleep schedule or neglecting your meditation?
In other words, what changes took place before you started hearing the growls?
Step 3: Make a plan. Now that you have an idea of your Black Dog’s proximity and your surroundings, think about your next move. Do you climb a tree? Do you hide in a Dumpster on the corner of Tenth Street and Third Avenue? Do you run?
No. You don’t do any of these things. You find your leash.
Your “leash” is your plan – your way of regaining control of the dog. Think back to the second step, the point at which you evaluated your surroundings and figured out what changes caused the growls. Now’s the time to figure out what changes you can make to silence them.
Naturally, your leash will be specific to your situation. If you currently manage your depression with therapy and medicine, maybe your plan will consist of increased sessions and medication adjustment. If a balanced lifestyle full of exercise, time spent with friends, and plenty of sleep helps you keep things under control, maybe your plan will consist of getting back on that schedule.
Step 4: Approach the Black Dog. Now that you have your plan — or your “leash” — it’s time to face your Black Dog.
As you’re approaching him, you’re taking the first steps toward carrying out your plan. Whether that means taking a different medication, spending more time with friends, or breathing life back into your exercise routine, you’re dealing with your depression triggers.
Know that this probably won’t be easy. You might even be scared at first. But if you stick to your plan — keep a tight grip on your leash — you’ll soon hear the Dog’s growls start to soften. He’ll begin to cower, and you’ll feel yourself growing braver. He’ll see you’re coming for him, and you’ll both know you can take him.
Step 5: Snap the leash. After you spend some time approaching the dog – maybe leisurely, maybe with full force – you’ll find the two of you face to face and you’ll know it’s time to snap the leash on his collar. He might struggle a bit at first – maybe whine or let out a few final, weak growls – but you’ll continue with your medicine, your counseling, your workouts, your meditation, or your nights out with friends, and before long, your Black Dog will tire out and you’ll regain control.
Maybe you’ll lead him to a cage or tie him to a tree. Maybe you’ll walk him along with you, keeping a tight grip on him and continuing to work toward the day you can release him for good.
What you do with the black dog is specific – and entirely up to – you. However, if ever again his leash starts to fray or the snap gives way, you’ll know what to do.
Sparks, A. (2010). When The Black Dog Starts Growling: 5 Steps to Leash Your Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/when-the-black-dog-starts-growling-5-steps-to-leash-your-depression/0003659
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.