Millions of Americans have accepted that they will be struggling with depression or anxiety for the rest of their lives. Some of us have rejected the diagnosis as a life-term sentence and have begun to examine everything about the way we live and what is contributing to our mental and emotional anguish. As for me, I know I am only at the beginning of a winding trail toward wellness, but I wanted to share all that I have learned in my self-exploration with you so that your path is less cluttered if you reject the notion that your brain is broken.
I am a 43-year-old woman who was prescribed an antidepressant back when I was 23. It was to “treat” anxiety that had ensued after a troubled relationship had rocked my ideas of trust and commitment. Instead of dragging that baggage into the good relationship I was then in, I’d sought a counselor to clear my emotional confusion. After a few sessions with her, I was referred to a psychiatrist, who promptly gave me a prescription for Zoloft.
Roller Coaster Ride
I filled the prescription and the rollercoaster ride began.
The ride wasn’t all bad, all the time. For several years I felt amazingly well, followed by years when I felt numb and emotionless, probably due to the medication “pooping out” on me. Luckily, my dosage always stayed on the low end of the range and I never was up for adding any other meds into the mix to bolster its effects.
The hardest part of the ride for me arrived after stopping. My doctor advised me to take the pill every other day for two weeks and then that would be the end of it. I began to feel better than ever before being plunged into the freefall that is withdrawal. Again, no doctor seemed to know the proper way for me to wean off these drugs, or to acknowledge the physical dependence they had created.
Pain and tension spread throughout my body and became a constant companion. Strange buzzing and tingling sensations soon became normal. Uncomfortable symptoms of a urinary tract infection lingered for a month, even though the labs came back negative. I asked what was happening to me and the general answer was that my physical anxiety had returned after quitting. No mention of the word “withdrawal.” I was utterly alone.
I am angry that I was prescribed this medication and wish my counselor had told me bluntly, “That guy in your past was a jerk and you will never let yourself endure such abuse again.” That might have stopped my anxiety in its tracks without the fallout that comes from depending on a pill for your sense of safety.
I wish I had been more informed. I wish I had been more skeptical of what it meant to take a psychoactive drug. I have come to wonder about how little the doctors knew then (and now) about the ramifications and side effects and how difficult it is to ever get off of these pills.
Later in my withdrawal, I would find validation within a few truthful books and solidarity in an online support forum on antidepressant withdrawal. These changed the game for me. I went from being alone to knowing there are so many people out there in the same situation. Beautiful, wonderful, smart people from all over the world, helping others as they have been helped, a repository of lived wisdom. For many, including me, this withdrawal has been one long, dark night of the soul. But the lights of others have kept us going when our own light and hope for relief have dimmed.
The brain and body become physically dependent on these drugs, and I am, still, in the midst of a withdrawal that will last an unknown amount of time. Not fun at all, but I have come to see it as a healing crisis that has made me consciously take stock of all that I wish to leave behind and all that I wish to pursue on the road to health.
I am now eight months antidepressant-free and it is a struggle, but one that I am fighting with many others. I have tried unsuccessfully to wean off of this medication in the past, but this time around I have more tools, more knowledge, and a team of healers around me. Though I am not out of the woods yet myself, I feel I have to share what I have learned on this journey.
If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, I believe it is necessary to attend to all of your bodies—your physical body, your mental body, your emotional body, and your spiritual body—in order to achieve wellness. My personal and professional experience as a nurse has taught me this is the only way to address health: holistically. Current medicine addresses mental health simplistically and mechanically and that is where we have been failed. No part of us exists as an island unto itself and it shocks me that medicine still treats illness in this outmoded, deleterious manner.
So, onward and upward! It is in our hands now so grab on, be your own best friend, and together we will become empowered in the process. Let’s look at the four bodies and see what might be worth exploring as you try to get at the roots of your mental and emotional suffering.
The Physical Body
These are but a few of the physical causes of depression or anxiety that might be worth looking into:
Nutrient deficiencies: Low B vitamins, low omega-3s, and low vitamin D levels can cause low mood and/or anxiety.
Thyroid issues: When the thyroid is struggling, whether pumping out too much or too little thyroid hormone, it can affect us both mentally and emotionally.
Gut dysfunction: As science is discovering, gut health can be a big factor in our mood. The gut has its own nervous system and also produces some of our neurotransmitters (serotonin, for example).
Hormonal imbalance: The hormonal balance of our cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone (among others) is a very important player in mood stability.
Inflammation: Inflammation can stem from low-grade infections, stress, a diet high in processed foods and omega-6 fats, and too much sugar. Food sensitivities can also lead to inflammation. Some of the common culprits in our diet can be gluten, dairy, corn, and soy.
Caffeine and other drug/medication side effects: We are all familiar with the highs and lows of the caffeine carnival ride. Caffeine stimulates our adrenal glands, releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to alternating feelings of anxiety and depression. This cascade also messes with our blood sugar stability, contributing even more to that mood fluctuation. In addition, some medications for other illnesses can affect mood.
These are a few, but not all, of the physical contributors that can be playing into mood instability. On my journey toward wellness, I have considered these and made changes where I can, knowing that everything gets better when we “eat cleanly” and try to minimize the artificial “foodstuffs” we have come to see as normal American fare. If you are trying to address these physical contributors, your doctor can be of help. I have found that functional medicine practitioners are better versed in many of these than your traditional allopathic doctor, as they are more holistic and optimistic in their view and treatment of the body.
The Mental and Emotional Bodies
How do we think about things? Do we have negative thought patterns that are on a continuous loop and have they changed our brain function for the worse? I am guilty of being so self-critical and never cutting myself a break, and I am sure many of you share the same habits. That’s what they are—habits. And we can learn to break them. There are many strategies to help us learn self-compassion: meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, counseling, and support groups to name a few. These thought habits can be so ingrained that we have to learn to catch ourselves in the act of a negative thought and then reframe it in a way that is loving and allows us to be human. It takes work but is well worth it, and it may just lift your spirits or calm down your worries for the long term.
How do we experience emotions without being overwhelmed by them? How do we establish a healthy balance of logical thought and emotional swirl? What if we are numb and don’t feel much at all? How do we get those feelings back? If uncomfortable emotions come up, do we fight them, repress them, or judge them?
I don’t think I have ever processed emotions in a healthy way. And now it has caught up with me. I have been a perfectionist and “goodist” my entire life, meaning that it has been an internalized value of mine to be OK only with positive emotions. I never had the faintest notion of what to do with anger, fear, sadness, or guilt. Most certainly, I suppressed those or repressed them and therefore thought they didn’t exist for me. But they were there whether I knew about them or not. What I have only recently learned is that your physical body holds on to these feelings and they can manifest as symptoms of illness. I can’t help but wonder if a large contributor to my back pain is holding onto instead of letting go of uncomfortable emotions.
Many illnesses and pain syndromes cannot be thoroughly explained on the basis of physical or structural abnormality but understood only by recognizing the mind-body connection and its impact on health. There is still a mental health diagnosis that labels an illness “psychosomatic” if the doctor finds no medical explanation for the patient’s symptoms. This label has acquired a negative stigma and seems to further injure and invalidate the person’s real experience of symptoms. The books I am reading about the mind-body connection normalizes the psychosomatic label and informs me that a large number of our maladies are impacted by our unprocessed emotions and negative thoughts. There is nothing abnormal about this process—it is just a fact of life and doesn’t need a psychiatric label. I might be late to the game in embracing this concept, but of course, now that I have learned about it, it makes great, validating sense.
So then, what is the alternative? In my reading, I have learned different ways to accept and experience my emotions so that they are not running the show or hiding under the rug only to show up as sickness later. The first step is acknowledging what you are feeling without judging yourself for it. This process is simply getting in tune with the fact we are human, and that our emotions are normal. I know I needed reminding. Just saying to yourself or writing, “I am sad…I am fearful…I am angry…I am jealous…” is helpful in itself because your rational brain is identifying and playing a role in your experience. To be thinking about feeling is a good thing; it is healthy processing and keeps us from being overwhelmed emotionally.
The second gem is to allow yourself to experience the emotion, but not to let yourself “live there.” Do whatever you need to do as long as it is safe—cry, scream, punch your pillow, exercise some of that energy out. Write a purge letter where you do not hold back, whether it is addressed to a person or a situation in which you find yourself. Then tear it up or burn it safely and release yourself from its psychological bondage. Onward and upward. You can engage in meditations directed at this type of emotional cleansing, or you can talk to a counselor about how to process the inevitable crap that comes up in life or the past that never got resolved. I did not know how to move through or get beyond certain things and needed someone to tell me how to do this and how to get unstuck.
“You grow through what you go through” is really a wonderful statement and has inspired me to look at hardships this way—an opportunity for growth through pain if we address it rather than avoid it. Sometimes it takes a quote or another person’s help to reframe a situation that we would just label as crappy, or another in a long list of failures. And that quote or another’s perspective can change the whole game! I found I needed coaching with these emotional skills, reframing techniques, and cognitive-behavioral therapy and I am 43! And that’s perfectly OK. It is never too late to learn and change your life.
The Spiritual Body
Spirituality is more encompassing than religion and it is a need that I am actively embracing these days. I have always felt the most connected and at home whenever I have been in natural settings. I have always loved animals and felt them to be kindred, sentient beings with more going on than we could ever measure or appreciate due to our own limitations. I am completely in awe of and amazed at the natural world. What I was lacking, however, was the notion that there is something much larger than me at play. Not everyone may need this spiritual perspective, and I had not realized that I did, either.
This recent October, a friend asked me to join her in attending a holistic and spiritual fair at our local convention center. There were booths with local health coaches, yoga teachers, Reiki masters, and crystal sellers, mediums, and body-talk practitioners. On a whim, I signed up for a 10-minute session with an intuitive Reiki practitioner. I had no preconceptions and did not know what to expect in the slightest.
The nice woman told me about myself and offered suggestions to clear the negative energy that I definitely knew I was carrying around with me 24/7 due to a toxic work situation. That took up the first seven minutes I had signed up for. Then I mentioned I would like a little Reiki for the last three minutes. I think she placed her hands on my upper back while I was seated in a standard metal, foldable chair. What followed next was feeling the most intense heat, which could not be explained solely by one person’s transferring their normal body warmth to another. I also felt this strong, pulsing vibration in my core that was circling like a tornado. Then the time was up. And I was left asking, “What just happened here?” to the practitioner. She went on to explain that Reiki is a Japanese energy-healing modality centered on the existence of universal life energy around us and within us. She is able to channel it, as we all can, after undergoing a process called attunement.
My Reiki session made me cry. In a good way. It allowed me to experience something unfamiliar that suggested there is more to this life than I knew. I needed that awakening, I guess I’ll call it, and the possibility that there was something that I had not been tapping into previously that might help me in some way. These spiritual philosophies and energy practices had been foreign and unknown. The idea of synchronicity was also news to me when I learned about it, and it has reassured me in a big way. There are so many new things that I find myself open to just because I had that 10-minute experience on that hard, metal chair. It doesn’t have to be complex. I just needed to be told that we are made of energy and it is all around us and we can learn to affect it for our own good.
I have no directions to offer others as, yet again, I am a beginner. But I believe you should try to do more of what makes your soul happy, when your sense of time disappears, and you are in the flow, as they say. Life can be very perfunctory some days. Some years, just trying to get by is the theme and joy takes a back seat. Hope for more takes a back seat and feeling mediocre takes the front seat. Yet so many things can bring you back to life in small but cumulative ways—tending a garden, growing your own herbs, getting a cat or dog, volunteering, meeting new people, learning to draw even when you’re older, learning calligraphy, feeding the birds and squirrels, carving out 10 minutes for meditation, starting a blog.
What has helped me to heal and grow is to explore and fulfill my spiritual needs. We all have them: the need to know that we are connected and that we are a presence. The need for mystery and wonder. The need for growth and expansion. The need to know that we can effect change on a larger scale. That we matter. Again, I have come to feel and believe that there is literally more than the physical plane of my experience. There is an energetic component, the life force, that is getting stronger in me every day and is medicine for my soul. It might just be true that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
What I have written here is borne of my struggle to get at the roots of my anxiety and back pain. I know of many others who are on their own journeys to feel better, who are doing their own research because help has not come from outside. Wellness is an inside job, indeed. It is a pursuit that is often difficult and requires changing ingrained habits that we have had since early childhood. We can be fully-grown adults and just learning how to process emotions and how to think in a healthy way. There is no time limit to our growth and development. So many chances at a new beginning or a better ending.
Please take what you want from this essay, and I wish you the very best on your soul path.
…In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.