A deadly killer is ravaging the hearts and minds of people from almost every sector of society.
It’s the leading cause of disability for people above the age of five worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. About half of those affected get no treatment whatsoever. There is no known cure, but it is treatable. I’m talking about depression.
I’m not a doctor or therapist, I’m a survivor. After a decade of chronic suffering and failed attempts at therapy and medication, I have now been recovered for two years.
You’re probably wondering how I did it.
But let me first talk about the conventional treatments for depression. Many studies show that antidepressants are only as effective as a placebo for non-severe cases of depression (Fournier et al, 2010). Medications cause a variety of side-effects, including anxiety. However, for severe cases, medications and/or electro-convulsive therapy can be quite effective (Khalid et al, 2008). In non-severe cases, medication or therapy or a combination can be effective as well (Fournier et al, 2010).
Even for successful treatments, many relapse, suffer from side effects, and are forced to take a medication—sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Why? Why do people get depression? Has it always been like this?
According to a study in 1988, people born after 1945 were 10 times more likely to suffer from depression than those born earlier (Seligman, Buie, 1988). This shows that the root cause of most depression is not genetic. The American Journal of Psychiatry found that major depression rates for American adults increased from 3.33 percent to 7.06 percent from 1991 through 2002. Now we’re at nine percent (cdc.gov).
I believe that depression is increasing due to cultural changes which affect our lifestyle.
Our bodies and brains have evolved to equip us for a very different world; the world of several thousand years ago. It was a world where we lived our lives outdoors with plenty of sunlight. We moved our bodies and exercised all day, ate fresh food and socialized with our tribe.
In the modern world, we are more likely to spend most of our day sitting at a desk drinking Coca-Cola, and we probably don’t even know our next door neighbor’s name. But it goes deeper than that. We seem to have lost wisdom from our tribe about the energy that flows through all of us—the energy called emotions.
According to anthropologist Angeles Arrien, if you went to a Native American shaman with the problem of being depressed, they would ask you four questions…
When did you stop dancing?
When did you stop singing?
When did you stop being enchanted by stories?
When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?
Allow me to tell you my story of recovery.
I grew up an introverted and intellectual kid, I had friends and I socialized, but I also had a tendency to spend a lot of time alone thinking. Thinking is a gift that allows us to interpret our world, but when it is done compulsively, it can be torture. As a teenager I was tortured by life’s big questions, and after plenty of books and still no answers, I tried the psychotropic marijuana to expand my consciousness. This led to a hospitalization and medication for panic disorder.
One of the medications gave me temporary relief, and the other caused rage attacks. It was later taken off the market for minors because it was linked to increased suicide in young people. I tried therapy, but my therapist seemed distant and judgemental. It felt more like a medical examination than confidential sharing. I experienced relief when I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail for seven days with my family.
It’s interesting: the hospital, the doctor, the therapist—none of them told me that it would help me to be with my family, to be in nature or to exercise.
The next decade I had functional depression. I was able to have relationships and jobs, but I would have extremely low moods and intense mental and emotional suffering on a regular basis. It became so “normal” that I didn’t even think of myself as depressed; it was just me. I would often look for ways to improve my mood as a sort of hobby for myself. It wasn’t until I hit bottom with a severe physical illness and a breakup with my fiancee that I realized I had a problem.
With the help of different mentors, coaches and professionals, the process of recovering after that realization didn’t take long. This is partly because I had learned so much over the years about what was helpful to improve my mood.
If I already know what worked, why didn’t I recover before? It’s because I hadn’t realized the root cause of the problem. The root cause was me. This was both humbling and liberating. This is the paradigm shift that I pray will occur for everyone suffering from depression and any other issue in life…that you create your life through your thoughts, feelings and actions and that you have the power to change them.
It’s what I call the point of conscious evolution, because after that point you can consciously learn, grow, change, and adapt without blaming others or your circumstances. You are no longer a victim of your conditioning; you direct your feelings, thoughts and actions toward your life’s purpose.
Taking responsibility is only the first step.
Then you have to take a lot of actions to make yourself healthier. This involves bringing in the healthy stuff and taking out the toxic stuff. We have heard that physical health is bringing in nutrients and excreting toxins.
Your body and mind are one, whatever you do to the mind has a direct effect on the body and vice versa, so a healthy diet, sunlight, clean air and water, and exercise is critical for mental health.
So we have to bring in the good stuff, and take out the bad stuff. But there’s more that we digest in our life than physical food. If you’re a mentally healthy person, you take in positive impressions from your environment which cause positive thoughts and feelings. These are such things as nature, order, cleanliness, positive communication with others, positive media, music, videos and reading. You avoid the toxic stuff—the negative emotions and thoughts, the chaotic environments and relationships, and the media with negative content of violence and pessimism.
Hopefully, now you have a model of how everything that we accept into our minds and bodies is either a mental/emotional nutrient or toxin.
Now let’s focus on thinking.
Thinking is like breathing—we can do it consciously, but we also do it automatically all the time. If you have a thought that causes you to suffer, you can tell it is a toxic thought—one that is not healthy for you.
You can keep it from recurring by questioning it and exploring other modes of thinking. Just because a thought appears does not mean you have to believe it. As my mentor Gary Weber, the non-thinking modern mystic, says: consider thoughts like a delivery man knocking on your door. You do not have to accept the package. Your brain is offering one perspective. If you (the one who is aware of the thought) don’t like that perspective, you can choose another one. You could even thank your brain for offering that perspective.
Your brain is just a computer giving you data that you can choose to utilize or not. By deconstructing beliefs and choosing more empowering ones, it’s as if you are rewriting the software of your brain that was running on windows 95 and badly needed an upgrade.
So, mental health is the process of getting rid of the bad thoughts and embracing the good thoughts. The same thing is true for emotions.
What are emotions? You know how I mentioned all of the different stimuli we accept into our mind and bodies, sounds, media, music, thoughts, impressions of the environment and physical food? It’s my view that the physical feeling we get when we digest that stimuli is an emotion.
We have an option every time we experience a stimulus. We can try to hold or block the feeling, or we can let it flow freely. It’s my view that when we feel a strong emotion such as embarrassment and want to cry, but we hold the feeling back, we are storing that energy in our physical bodies. But we’re supposed to bring the good stuff in and take the bad stuff out.
Holding the “crying energy” in is like holding in toxins. Part of the process of recovery is learning to process emotions as they come up. We can let them flow freely through our bodies and also release stored emotions from the past. There are many techniques to facilitate this.
You are intimately aware of some of these techniques.
Thank you Native American shaman. Singing, dancing, laughing, and crying all release emotions. Some others you may not have considered are massage, yoga, qi gong, EFT, acupuncture, acupressure and exercise.
Remember how everything in the mind has a direct correlation to the brain and vice versa? Well, another way to release the past emotion is through the mind’s access to those emotional memories. Those can be accessed through talk therapy, EMDR therapy, hypnosis and other means.
The ability to be aware of thoughts and emotions and to use your free will to change them and release them has to do with your ability to concentrate or be aware.
Most of the time we are reacting from one programmed thought to the next. The ability to focus is a skill that can be gained with practice. Eastern traditions have known this for thousands of years. Practicing increased concentration (mindfulness/meditation) results in the increased ability to change our thoughts and feelings. You can only change something when you become aware of it.
The goal in life is happiness, which is the regular flow of positive emotions. I’m not implying that you won’t have challenges or experience difficult emotions once you recover. A master of the changing nature of life has emotional release practices, which they can use to skillfully ride the waves of stormy emotions.
The formula for good mental health is simple:
Health and Happiness = Good Thoughts + Good Nutrition + Friendship + Nature + Exercise
If it’s so simple, why aren’t we all happy?
Modern lifestyle can make it difficult to attain some of our most fundamental needs. The prevalence of processed foods, chemically treated water and indoor anti-social sedentary lifestyles contribute toward depression.
With so many ingrained habits, it is quite a process to start the type of lifestyle that delivers happiness, but it is possible.
Although I want to empower you to lead yourself through your healing journey and help you realize that you create your life, you do not have to do it alone…just the opposite. Someone who is really committed to their recovery gets help and support from family, friends, coaches, health care professionals and therapists.
May your healing journey be fun and exciting. I would say “Good luck,” but you don’t need it. All you need is the ability question, learn, and grow, and we were all designed to do that.
Author: Sean Morgan
Editor: Catherine Monkman