The Upside of Feeling Down
Depression. If you’re like most people, you probably wanted to pull away at the sight of the word. Our memories and associations remind us that depression is an unpleasant state of being. In fact, depression is often defined, above all, by the absence of pleasure. That’s not a very nice place to be. At the very least, our experience of depression is uncomfortable and, at worst, debilitating and for some even life-threatening. What it is to be depressed will be different for all of us. Our subjective experience of it will always be exquisitely personal and intimate.
Depression is broadly characterised by feelings of despondency and dejection. It’s often accompanied by a sense of worthlessness, emptiness, hopelessness and despair. If we believe the figures, few of us are immune to depression. It’s estimated that one in four women and one in six men will develop an episode of depression during their lives. Interestingly, the word comes from the Latin deprimere, which means to “press down”. There’s a clue in that. What is it that we are all so busily pressing down? Many therapists believe it’s unresolved grief and unresolved anger.
Where there is depression, there will often be anxiety as well. The two quite happily co-exist like partners. Anxiety, though, has a different quality of energy. Depression has a heavy energy to it: an almost palpable gravitational pull that draws you inwards and downwards. Anxiety, on the other hand, makes you feel uptight, panicky, scattered and ungrounded. The literal meaning of anxiety is “twisted rope”, and that’s often how we feel when we’re apprehensive about the future or feeling out of control.
The anxious person will often find himself or herself easily agitated, quick to anger and very impatient. Anxiety is always produced in relation to time; that is, in regard to concerns about the future. Our thoughts naturally tilt us forward into a supposed or imagined future. What lies at the core of anxiety is our anger and frustration at not being able to control the world or to create it as we would want it to be. Shamanic healer, therapist and psychologist, Paul Perfrement, believes anxiety is also the fear of having to process something that hurts or is potentially painful.
Roots of mental illness
Why are we so fearful and unwilling to experience the feelings we are burying away? One reason is that as individuals and as a culture we’re uneasy with intra-psychic pain. We don’t sit well with it. In fact, we’ve become a little pain-phobic. We resist it and pull away from it. Some of us may even develop a lifelong habit of withdrawing from experiencing our innermost suffering. Perhaps we’re more willing to live with depression and anxiety than to take them as a sign there’s inner work to be done.
Our modern culture colludes with our tendency to avoid pain. To have depression earns us an unflattering image. There’s still a huge stigma around mental illness. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons we put off seeking help. A recent study of 1212 British men found that more than two-thirds had experienced depression and/or anxiety in their lives. One in three men admitted to being too embarrassed or ashamed to seek help for a mental health problem, while 17 per cent of those who had experienced depression said they suffered in silence.
Sydney GP Dr Vicki Howell says almost all the women she sees in her practice have some kind of anxiety issue. It might be generalised anxiety, panic attacks or some kind of addictive behaviour. “It can even be as simple as addictive materialism, addictive shopping or compulsive doing. There are all kinds of anxious behaviours.” She believes many women have become high on anxiety. The “busy” lifestyles these women pursue keep them from ever experiencing the feelings that hide beneath their tension and fear; it keeps them from recognising what’s really going on inside.
“As a society we don’t acknowledge pain. We think we need to have this perfect life with the perfect partner, the perfect job and the perfect kids where pain doesn’t happen. Even when someone dies the grief process has to be over and done with within the year or there’s something wrong with you.”
When you experience this kind of pain, you may deny it to your friends, to your family and, most of all, to yourself. It’s tempting to numb out on alcohol, drugs or other addictions — to fix it and fix it quickly! We may even be seduced by the promise of peace in a pill. To that end, the pharmaceutical industry has been very accommodating. Anti-depressants are now a multi-million-dollar industry.
In Australia, it’s estimated that a prescription for psycho analeptic drugs (anti-depressants like Prozac and Zoloft) is filled every two seconds. For a minority (about 1-2 per cent of Western populations) of sufferers whose depression is biological in origin, anti-depressants are a very real option and should always be considered in their treatment. In many instances, though, it’s worth looking beyond modern medicine’s preoccupation with reducing illness to a disease state and examining a more holistic approach to mental illness; one that embraces the spiritual dimension of suffering. A soul-centred approach does just that. It offers the opportunity to see some value and meaning in our suffering. We may even, just for a moment, entertain the possibility that there’s an up side to being down.
A soul-centred approach
There’s no doubt that the pain of depression and anxiety is uncomfortable and even unbearable at times. However, pain is also the most powerful motivator for change. M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of the best-selling book The Road Less Traveled (1994 edition), writes: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
Paul Perfrement says the contemporary view of depression is it’s a bad thing, that you shouldn’t be feeling this way and that “I should be other than I am”. In fact, what you may be doing is contributing further to your angst by creating a secondary depression. You become depressed about being depressed! When you buy into the concept that all depression is a disease rather than a state of being you will undoubtedly limit your opportunities for personal growth and spiritual development.
“Most people in this kind of pain just want to get over it. What we need to understand, though, is that often the only way to get over it is to go into it and then through it.” Most spiritual traditions teach that any feeling-oriented issue, like depression or anxiety, should be regarded as a doorway rather a problem.
In traditional Shamanic cultures, depression was regarded as an initiation: a rite of passage for the soul. According to Perfrement, “It was viewed as a necessary precursor to spiritual transformation and growth. It was understood that depression would arise from the loss of connection to the soul. A broken heart, for instance, could lead to soul loss and a Shaman would journey into the underworld to reunite the sufferer with their source of power and to help them reclaim their soul.”
The great psychotherapist, Carl Jung, considered in some literature as a contemporary Shaman himself, viewed depression as a burden on the soul. He’s quoted as saying no person ever really healed a condition like depression without some kind of transformation as a consequence of it.
The notion of transformation is also found in Buddhist spiritual traditions. The Buddhist perspective is that an underlying selfishness or egotism is often the root cause of our suffering. “We become attached to our personality’s habit patterns, to the notion of ‘me and mine’,” says Sydney-based Buddhist psychotherapist, Chris McLean. McLean says depression often arises when we “don’t have any confidence to deal with the afflictive emotions at the core of our suffering”. Buddhism offers us teachings and methods, referred to as “skilful means”, to help manage those emotions from a place of equanimity, curiosity and compassion.
The practice of mindfulness, for instance, allows us to companion or “sponsor” the uncomfortable feelings without attaching to them. When we regard them as guests rather than war against them, we are freed from the misconception that we are those feelings. Mindfulness helps the depressed person see that “I am not a depressive. Rather, depression is in my state of awareness right now.” Buddha taught that all things are impermanent. When a dark cloud has descended on you, it’s liberating to be reminded that “this too shall pass”.
The soul has a kind of intelligence and a keen instinct to heal. If we neglect our emotional health for too long, it may inevitably throw out a depression as a way to call us inwards. Celebrated writer and spiritual commentator Thomas Moore, in his essay The Gifts of Depression offers hope and faith for those weary from the painful emptiness, desolation and despair of depression when he poses the question: “What if depression were simply a state of being, neither good nor bad, but something the soul does in its own good time for its own good reasons? Just as winter is to the cycles of the seasons, depression may be to the cycles of the soul. If we are willing to quietly cultivate an appreciation for the darker aspects of the soul, we will indeed be sowing the seeds for our own rebirth.”
A soul-centred approach to mental illness allows you to create a new relationship with it, one that opens a compassionate dialogue within you rather than dividing yourself against it. You may begin to understand your depression or anxiety a little better and be able to grow from “the gifts of the soul that only depression can provide”. When as individuals and as a culture we are willing to recognise and honour the work of the soul, we may be less tempted to pass the gift on unopened.
Included here are some suggestions and therapies that may help you to work with the experience of depression and anxiety, encouraging you to take an active role in your own recovery and healing journey.
THERAPIES FOR MENTAL ILLNESS
To medicate or not to medicate
If the pharmaceutical industry had its way, we might all be prescribed an anti-depressant at the first sign of a dark cloud. For some people, though, they are a necessary part of their recovery. While anti-depressants are the best option for those with a biologically induced depression (about 10 per cent of all sufferers), they can also be used alongside other forms of treatment.
The most popular types of anti-depressant medications are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They’re thought to work by increasing the amount of available serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the feel-good neurotransmitter that promotes in us a sense of wellbeing. Scientists believe that early life trauma or chronic stress may affect serotonin levels in unpredictable ways.
Though anti-depressants may give us a sense of control over our symptoms, it’s important to remember they don’t cure depression. They mask the underlying feelings rather than resolve them. Indeed, research shows high rates of relapse following cessation of medication. If you do plan to stop taking your medication, though, always discuss it first with your doctor, as withdrawal must be managed.
Let your food be your medicine
Unfortunately, many people in the Western world are very out of touch with the effect food can have on their emotional and physical state and tend instead to let basic cravings dictate what they reach for. A coffee and a chocolate may taste good, but they will wreak havoc with your blood sugar levels and your peace of mind.
If you suffer from anxiety and depression, we recommend you make the following key dietary changes:
Eat a wholefood and low GI and GL diet. This means getting back to basic fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meat and chicken, fish and eggs. Swap your white bread, white rice and white pasta for wholegrain varieties. Avoid packaged foods as they often have added colours, flavours and preservatives. Changing your diet in this way may require spending more time in the kitchen, so make the extra time in the kitchen a therapeutic and healing process. Enjoy the colours, smells and aromas of cooking your own food and visualise the healing impact your meal will have within your body.
Avoid or reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine can increase anxiety in many people. Swap the caffeinated coffee for a dandelion coffee. Although it’s called coffee, it’s actually not related to coffee and doesn’t have any caffeine. Dandelion coffee is good for the liver and makes a lovely substitute as you can still enjoy the ritual of brewing a cuppa without the caffeine. Also explore the array of herbal teas available. Teas like chamomile and peppermint are time-honoured favourites but there are many many more, with new blends popping up all the time.
Avoid or reduce alcohol intake. While sometimes used as an emotional crutch, alcohol can actually exacerbate depression and anxiety and can potentially deplete important nutrients, including B vitamins, that are vital in maintaining a sense of wellbeing. Having a healthy social network is very important and an occasional glass of wine with friends shouldn’t be a problem, but try to keep it to a minimum — nothing will exacerbate depression more than a morning-after hangover.
Reduce saturated fat intake. Turn instead to mono- or poly-unsaturated fats contained in seeds and nuts. Avoid deepfried and fast food and instead turn to homecooked lean meats and vegetables. Snack on nuts and seeds rather than fast-food snacks.
Identify and control any food allergies you may have. This could require testing by a healthcare professional followed by expert dietary advice.
Borderline nutrient deficiencies can predispose individuals to depression. The correction of relative deficiencies is critical to increasing the feeling of wellness. Deficiencies in minerals such as calcium, selenium, zinc or magnesium can result in a reduced sense of wellbeing. Depression can also be a symptom of deficiency in certain vitamins; for example, one of the first symptoms of experimental scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) is depression, and a vitamin B5 deficiency can result in depression, fatigue and a sensation of burning in the feet.
B vitamins as a group are casually referred to as the “energy vitamins”, which is a reflection of their importance in energy production on a cellular level. A good multivitamin and mineral supplement has long been a cornerstone in a naturopathic approach to general good health. It’s interesting that this practice has been validated in a recent study showing a multivitamin and mineral supplement (containing calcium, magnesium and zinc) resulted in clinically significant reductions in anxiety and stress. The benefit of a multivitamin/mineral supplement is it contains a wide spectrum of different nutrients, though often in only relatively small amounts. There’s also some interesting information supporting the use of certain single B vitamins.
B6 is necessary for the body to make the neurotransmitters, serotonin and noradrenaline. Because of this, it’s thought that a deficiency in B6 may be linked to depression. It’s also thought that vitamin B6 may be beneficial in depression associated with PMS in women. Folic acid (B9) has a mild anti-depressant action and has brought about remarkable results in some depressed patients who were low in this vitamin. This beneficial effect was particularly noted in studies on elderly depressed patients.
Vitamin B12 has been found to be low in a significant number of hospitalised depressed patients. A recent study conducted in women over 65 years of age found that those who were B12 deficient were twice as likely to be severely depressed. The exact role of B12 in depression is not known, however.
Inositol is also considered a member of the B group vitamins and it, too, plays a significant role in depression and anxiety. Inositol is thought to help re-sensitise serotonin receptors, making the body more responsive to serotonin. Recently, inositol has been found to be effective in treating depression, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder without the side-effects of some pharmaceutical medications. Impressively, one study also found inositol to be more effective than Fluvoxamine (a pharmaceutical medication) in treating panic attacks.
Fish oil is very high in omega-3 fatty acids and its role in reducing anxiety and depression should not be ignored. Not only has fish oil been found to significantly reduce depression within three weeks of use, it’s also effective for bipolar disorder and major depression. Even more encouragingly, fish oil was shown to significantly improve depression in a study of depressed people who were not improving on standard anti-depressant treatment.
S-adenosylmethionine, also known as SAM-e, is a long name for a very impressive supplement. SAM-e is involved in many reactions in the body and in depressed patients has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine as well as several key phospholipids of which the brain is composed. SAM-e is great for general depression and has also proved particularly effective in post-natal depression and depression associated with drug rehabilitation.
Healing with herbs
There’s a wide range of herbs available to support sufferers of anxiety and depression. All these herbs have variations in their actions, making them more or less useful depending on your personal experience. Some may experience sleep deprivation, some may sleep excessively and some may experience breathing difficulties, anticipatory diarrhoea or IBS-type symptoms. All these symptoms need to be taken into account when choosing the correct herbs to support you individually.
St John’s Wort
This popular herb actually ranks in the top 10 of most commonly used herbs in the Western world. St John’s Wort is the common name for Hypericum perforatum. St John’s Wort has a long history of use as an anti-depressant and tonic for the nervous system. Its popularity and effectiveness have attracted much scientific attention in recent years and so our understanding of it has deepened. It’s thought that St John’s Wort increases the effectiveness of serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. Serotonin is related to feelings of optimism, wellbeing, self-esteem, relaxation, security, increased ability to concentrate and ability to sleep well. Correct levels of noradrenaline and dopamine are associated with feelings of alertness, wakefulness, assertiveness, increased energy and sharpened thought processes.
Numerous scientific studies have confirmed the effectiveness of St John’s Wort, particularly in assisting with mild to moderate depression. An important point to note is that it can reduce the effectiveness of certain pharmaceutical medication. If you’re taking any medication it’s important to talk to a fully qualified naturopath or herbalist before starting on St John’s Wort. It’s also important to let your doctor know you’re taking it.
Oats (Avena sativa) has long been used to combat nervous exhaustion, debility and depression. This herb is known as a nervine tonic, meaning it’s gently nutritive to the nerves and helps to restore and “feed” an exhausted nervous system. Oats can be combined with either calming or stimulating nervine herbs, as it will always work to strengthen the depleted system. This quality makes oats helpful for both anxiety and depression.
Valerian is most widely known for its use as a herb to assist with sleeping. The beauty of valerian is that it doesn’t leave you feeling groggy in the morning. Clinical trials have shown valerian improves sleep quality, reduces the number of night awakenings and improves insomnia. Valerian also has anti-anxiety properties and can be taken during the day for this purpose.
Valerian should not be used in conjunction with benzodiazepines, barbiturates or other sedative-hypnotic medication. It should also be noted that it has been observed clinically that in a small proportion of the population, valerian can have the opposite effect to that intended. It’s not fully understood why this happens but it may be dose dependent.
Zizyphus Spinoza originated from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Within TCM, zizyphus has a long history of use for anxiety, palpitations due to anxiety, excessive sweating and insomnia. Clinically, this is a lovely herb, as it eases anxiety but also acts to alleviate some of the associated effects of anxiety. Notably, this herb is thought to lower blood pressure, which may be elevated in ongoing anxiety. In Chinese medicine it’s thought to nourish the heart and calm the spirit.
Polygala tenuifolium is another herb with a long history in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s used in cases of insomnia, palpitations, anxiety and restlessness. What’s also interesting about this herb is its affinity for the lungs. Energetically, the lungs are thought of as the organ associated with grief. Often depressed people can have a posture that appears collapsed in the chest and, classically, anxiety is associated with rapid and shallow breathing. For these reasons, polygala’s affinity for the lungs is significant when treating anxiety and depression.
Damiana (botanical name Turnera diffusa) is used in Western herbal medicine as a nervine tonic and as a gentle anti-depressant. It’s often prescribed for nervousness, anxiety, depression and nervous dyspepsia. Damiana was used as an aphrodisiac by the ancient Mayan civilisation. As a lowered libido is very common in many cases of anxiety and depression, this herb can be a lovely inclusion for those who may feel their anxiety/depression is perhaps forging an emotional gap between themselves and their loved one.
Rosemary is a wonderful herb for mild depression as it’s a gentle stimulant to both the nervous and circulatory systems. Interestingly, it also has a calming effect on the digestive system and has a long history of use in colic and nervous disorders, among other conditions. It’s also highly antioxidant and increases cognitive function. Some depressed people respond very well to the invigorating quality of this time-honoured herb.
Homoeopathy: energetic healing
Homoeopathy is an energetic form of medicine that can act on both physical and emotional spheres within the body. The correctly chosen and applied remedy can have a profound effect on a broad range of conditions, including anxiety and depression. There are literally thousands of different homoeopathic medicines available and your homoeopath needs to obtain a good picture of both your mental/emotional symptoms and your physical symptoms to correctly prescribe your remedy.
It’s helpful for your homoeopath to know what factors make your symptoms better or worse, what time of the day various symptoms occur, whether anything else occurs at the same time (for example, anxiety with palpitations) and how long ago these symptoms started. These and other details will help your homoeopath arrive at the correct remedy.
Some examples of possible remedies for anxiety and depression, and the type of person who will benefit from them, include:
Ignatia — for problems with sleeping, depression, nervous symptoms, deep sighing, being easily startled, changeable moods, sensitivity and grief.
Aurum met — used in cases of melancholia and hopelessness, feelings of not being good enough, being emotionally closed and feeling separate from the world. Often used in intelligent, hardworking and successful people who feel despondency and dissatisfaction with life.
Lachesis — for melancholia, sadness and lack of confidence, and complaints cause by fright, disappointed love or jealousy. Also for people who have no feeling for family members or where there’s a persistent lack of peace with family members. May be useful if the person becomes jealous and vengeful.
Arg nit — for those who are nervous, anxious, impulsive, experience fear of social situations or fear of appearing in public, have low self-confidence, mental weakness and often digestive complaints.
Arsenicum — for anxiety, restlessness, deep-seated insecurity and dependency on other people, a need for reassurance and support, possessiveness about things and people (may be generous but with an expectation of receiving something in return), those who are compulsively fastidious and obsessed with cleanliness and order, and fearful of death.
Sepia — used for anxiety that something bad will happen, lack of feeling for partner and family, and anger. This patient may be resentful towards the family with a feeling of exhaustion, may not feel the natural affection for her children, may logically think her husband is nice but not have the attendant feeling for him. May be frightened by the internal feeling that she does not care, which may cause weeping.
Bach flower remedies
Bach flower remedies were developed by the English physician and homoeopath Doctor Edmund Bach during the 1930s. He believed the origins of disease can be traced to mental and emotional disturbances. There are 38 flower remedies in all, which can be used singly or in combination (up to five remedies in total) to help correct imbalances in either personality or temperament. Each bottle of flower essence contains the energetic imprint of the flower, which has its own unique properties applicable to specific mental or emotional conditions. They can be used alongside other treatment modalities to gently and effectively support the healing process.
Bach flowers for depression and anxiety
The following flower remedies are recommended for different conditions and are intended as a general guide rather than being specific to any individual. You many want to seek out a trained Bach flower therapist for remedies tailored to your individual needs.
Mustard — for the types of depression that descend like a dark cloud but have no identifiable cause.
Gentian — for depression for which there is a known cause. This may include setbacks that cause discouragement, disappointment or loss of faith.
Elm — used for both anxiety and depression; indicated if you have a sense of being overwhelmed by life’s pressures, a feeling of not being able to cope.
Holly — for depression and anxiety underpinned by deep feelings of anger, jealousy or hatred.
Star of Bethlehem — for depression underpinned by feelings of grief or sorrow.
Cherry Plum — for irrational thoughts and fear of the mind giving way. Particularly useful during times of increased stress.
Impatiens — highly effective for anxiety, especially where there are issues around time such as not having enough time or always being short of time or having impending deadlines. It’s also very effective for insomnia when combined with White Chestnut.
White Chestnut — classically indicated for worry and mental arguments that interfere with rest and peace of mind.
Aspen — for anxiety of unknown origin. Is useful for generalised anxiety disorders.
Rock Rose — for panic attacks, terror, nightmares and frightening thoughts.
Larch — for those whose depression or anxiety is characterised by low self-esteem or by a frail sense of self.
Walnut — useful for when depression is triggered by resistance to change or too much change.
Rescue Remedy — a combination of five flower essences including Star of Bethlehem, Rock Rose, Clematis, Cherry Plum and Impatiens. Useful for acute conditions.
The transformative power of exercise
Exercise is one of the best anti-depressants there is. There are now numerous studies citing the benefits of regular exercise in the treatment of depression and anxiety. For example, researchers at Duke University found that even as little as 30 minutes of brisk walking three times a week is as effective as, and in some cases more effective than, anti-depressants in alleviating the symptoms of major depression.
Rhythmical sustained activity like taking a brisk walk or light jogging, cycling, spinning, swimming and even salsa dancing will all up your serotonin levels, increase your body’s endorphins (natural pain-killers), boost your immune system, alleviate the symptoms of stress, reduce weight, enhance body image and improve quality of sleep. There is no magical distance or speed you need to achieve. Find a state of “flow” where you can sustain a level of effort within the limit of your capacities.
At first, it’s useful to focus less on the ground you’re covering and more on the ground itself. In other words, if we become attached to how far we have run or walked, we risk missing the experience. All exercise practised mindfully can become a moving meditation. Remember, one of the reasons exercise works so well is it temporarily distracts us from our worries and the negative thoughts that feed depression.
Yoga: taking therapy to the mat
Thousands of Australians are turning to the yoga mat to help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Early findings from the first Yoga in Australia Survey reveal “increasing numbers of people are self-prescribing yoga to treat stress and mental health issues more than anything else. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times.”
“Yoga teaches us how to ‘self-soothe’,” says Stephen Cope, psychotherapist and author of Yoga and the Quest for The True Self. Through the yogic principles of non-judgement, compassion and self-acceptance we learn to unlearn the negative personality habits that bind us to our suffering.
The yogic view of depression is that there’s a fundamental depletion of prana (vital energy) in the body. Prana is carried to the cells of the body on the breath. When the breath is shallow, as is often the case when you’re depressed or anxious, your life force is compromised. You can see it in the way a depressed person carries their body: there’s a heaviness to their gait, the shoulders may round forward, the chest collapses over the heart and the eyes appear dull. Regular yoga practice can become your best ally for managing stress and anxiety.
Through asanas (physical postures) you are invited to reconnect with your physical body in a more positive and pleasurable way. You learn to nourish and nurture yourself and in the process become more deeply embodied. Through the quieter, more reflective practices of yoga, such as visualisation and pranayama (breath awareness), we learn to bare compassionate witness to our inner process and to create a sense of equanimity or “right distance” from the slurry of painful feelings.
Minding the mind
One of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety is right under our noses: the breath. For most of us, breathing is an entirely unconscious process, but when it’s used as a focus for meditation, it has the power to transform the way we think and feel.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes meditation as a gift to the self. “It’s probably the only thing we do in life where there is no goal and no expectation.” Mindfulness, sometimes called “insight meditation”, is essentially the practice of observing your inner experiences, your thoughts, body sensations, emotions and sensory impressions from a place of non-judgement. Studies show it’s an effective way to reduce panic and anxiety symptoms.
Other classical meditation techniques involve focusing the mind on a single object such as a candle flame, a mantra (repeating sacred words or sounds), or on the breath.
In recent years, meditation has attracted serious attention from modern medicine and has earned a valued place in the treatment of mental illness. Numerous studies show that meditation is highly effective in treating obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression and panic attacks.
Very often, when we are stressed, anxious or depressed, the mind and body become separated. According to yogis, the breath lies precisely at the interface between the two and holds the key to restoring our sense of oneness. There’s an easy meditation taught by Buddhist scholar, Thich Nhat Hanh. It can be practised anywhere. Begin by focusing on the rise and fall of your breath for a few moments and then, as you inhale, repeat to yourself: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” Try it now.
Seeking meaning in creativity
Experiential therapies such as expressive writing, art therapy, music therapy and dance therapy are positive ways of getting in touch with buried emotions and feelings. Artistic talent is not a requirement but curiosity and an attitude of non-judgement certainly help. It is not the end result that counts, it is the process. Grab your crayons and get drawing!
Dr Karen Baikie, clinical research psychologist at the Black Dog Institute and the School of Psychiatry at UNSW, says creative writing “helps connect people to their emotions, moves them forward over time and then helps them change the way they think about it”.
When you are depressed or anxious, asking for help may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. For most people, it will be the first step in their healing journey. You’ll need to be ready and willing to acknowledge that you need support and are prepared to take an active role in your recovery.
There are many psychological therapies available for treating depression and anxiety. Broadly, they include structured problem-solving, assertiveness training, relationship-based therapies (interpersonal therapy and family therapy), counselling, psychotherapy, and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Psychological therapies can be used in addition to medication or other alternative approaches to the treatment of depression.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is considered one of the more effective therapies for managing and preventing anxiety and depression. Dr Sarah Edelman, psychologist and author of the best-selling book, Change Your Thinking, says CBT teaches people “to be aware of their thinking style and to recognise how their thinking contributes to upsetting emotions and ultimately to learn to evaluate their thoughts and develop some scepticism in their automatic assumptions about how they view the world."
Regardless of what type of therapy you ultimately choose, it’s important to look around. It has been said that a good therapist is to a depressed client what a good midwife is to a baby struggling to make its way into the world. You have to have faith and confidence that what ever “stuff” arises in the course of your healing will be safely and competently held by your healthcare provider — whether that’s your GP, a psychologist or some other kind of therapist. Psychologist and transpersonal healer Paul Perfrement says” "It is human nature that part of our healing requires that we feel received and accepted for who we truly are."
Prayer and faith
For many people, prayer is a natural and instinctive response to the challenges of life. It would appear to be part of us regardless of our concepts of religion and faith. One American study found that 91 per cent of all women pray, as do 85 per cent of all men. Yet, the subject of prayer is often politely avoided in doctors’ rooms and is undervalued by modern medicine. “Prayer is an embarrassment to the medical profession. I don’t know any other way to put it,” says Dr Larry Dossey (The Power of Meditation and Prayer, Hay House, 1997).
Dossey’s pioneering research on prayer has demonstrated its powerful healing effects. While it matters less how we pray, what is important is that we develop a style that suits our individual personality and temperament. For it’s only when we are entirely honest and earnest in our intentions that we may begin to open to receive support from a greater source.