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Hear Me Out

July 18, 2011

A few years ago I thought all self-help stuff was totally hooey. All that crap about positive energy sounded like a total scam. I’m not saying now I believe in all self-help strategies and every non-western medical/therapeutic practice (or that all self-help programs aren’t scams or totally bullshit — some really are), but I am saying that the brain is really powerful and can do a lot of cool and helpful things with and without you really knowing it.

Even I rolled my eyes a little when I typed “positive energy” but hear me out! I’m not a hippie (hippies are totally ok — I’m just definitely not one).  I love science, citations, replicatable results, data, and logic.  There is a lot of data and citations behind positive psychology and alternative medicine, but most books just dive right into the vernacular that makes me cringe.  I don’t want to realize my “authentic self” or follow the “five steps to emotional healing.”  That may work for some people, I’m just a cynic, a skeptic, and a general curmudgeon.  There are some books out there, steeped in science and reason, that have actually set me on a path of healing and relief.  I haven’t abandoned by antidepressant/antianxiety medication, but I use some of the techniques I’ve learned from these books to supplement medication.  I have also learned that sometimes you have to be open to different approaches in order for something new to work.  If you’re not ready, then it might be too difficult to make any change these books suggest.  But if you are open and if you are ready, a new way of thinking about your brain, body, and life can make a big difference.  That being said, a healthy skepticism is a good thing.  Some of the books and programs out there are totally bananas!  Example: Suzanne Somers injects “bio-identical hormones” into her vajay in addition to a lot of other pseudo-science batshit “treatments” (seriously).  DON’T DO THAT.

Some books I have enjoyed:

 The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom by Henry Emmons and Rachel Kranz

By far my favorite of the three books I recommend.  What I love is that it combines western science with eastern practices in a format that is clear and engaging. It can be difficult for many people to get on board with alternative medicine and therapies, but this book presents non-western medicine alongside western medicine, plus anecdotes if you need a human touch to the actual evidence. This book has so many options (daily schedule suggestions, diet plans, and exercise and meditation practices) that are targeted to your specific ayurvedic type — plus a quiz to determine what type that is.  For me the suggestions in this book weren’t life-altering, they were things that I already preferred but never really thought about.  When I looked at the list of foods for pitta (fire) types, it completely made sense that those were the foods that would help me stay balanced.  This especially comes in handy over the summer when pitta’s are most out of balance.  I am always, always, always overheated, but this book gave me some suggestions of food and activities (and a schedule!) to help me not be such a miserable mess.  I also really enjoyed reading about breathing techniques, which I use to this day to keep my chronic daily headaches at bay.  The book is divided along the ayurvedic types, which was handy and meant that I didn’t need to waste my time reading about vata (air) types, with which I have absolutely nothing in common.

Emmons is also the consulting psychiatrist at Carleton and has a new book out called The Chemistry of Calm.

The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Depression Rapidly, Naturally, and Permanently by Jeffrey Rossman

This book is divided into two sections: working with your body and working with your mind. There are self-assessments and quizzes throughout to help you get the most out of the book, and keep you engaged in the content.

At the end of the chapter on the importance of exercise (and the author expressed a reluctance to call it “exercise” because of the myriad connotations) it says something that is rare in a chapter about exercise: it can be really, really hard to get going when you’re depressed. Followed by two important words, “don’t worry.”  He’s not going to make you feel lousy about not exercising like you should, like most people should.  Baby steps, because it’s freaking hard.  In semi-related news, this book doesn’t place an emphasis on losing weight.  It does, though, acknowledge that many people eat and gain weight because of stressors and imbalances, and some people lose weight in the process of implementing the mind-body mood strategies.  Just as some people don’t eat and lose weight when depressed — that’s not the point though.  The point is how you feel, and how your body feels.

My main beef with this book is that it has an extensive bibliography but lacks any kind of in-text citation (nerd alert). While I don’t necessarily doubt the validity of many of the statements in the book, there’s no way I’m buying the whole “in a recent study” bull. Just put a little number there! Most people won’t read the footnotes, but I certainly will. And this man has a Ph.D. — he should be used to it by now.

Rossman also advocates supplementation, but sometimes doesn’t fully acknowledge the effects of those supplements.  For example he talks about using magnesium to help promote restful sleep (it’s also generally recommended if you suffer from migraines).  He neglects to mention that while some people can handle magnesium, it might make other people feel really sick.  This happened to me.  My doctor recommended (I think) 400mg for migraines taken at night.  I started at half her recommended dose, but soon I had to halve that because it made me feel so incredibly ill.  I tried taking it at various times of the day, with and without food, always feeling really sick. Additionally even though I don’t think he would recommend something could be toxic when taken in high doses under the wrong circumstances, I still like to have that information.  This is something a doctor can provide, and I don’t think Rossman stresses enough that you should at least talk to a medical professional before starting a supplementation regimen.

Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way: Creating Happiness with Meditation, Yoga, and Ayurveda by Nancy Liebler and Sandra Moss

This book is definitely the least scientific of the three.  If you’re interested in your ayurvedic type, I would recommend reading The Chemistry of Joy first.  This book has a lot of information about Ayurveda, but the information is geared toward what type of depression you’re experiencing and not your general type.  The first two books also cover a wider range of approaches to depression and anxiety, where this book delves more deeply into meditation, yoga, and, to a lesser extent, an ayurveda diet.  For me, the strongest section was about yoga.  They have some pose and salutations suggestions in addition to suggestions about each ayurvedic type should approach their practice.  There’s a resource list but no bibliography.

A few more thoughts:

  • Do not read anything by Deepak Chopra, because, as the Bad Astronomy blog put it, he can’t grasp reality with both hands.
  • Approach anything endorsed by Oprah with extreme hesitance.  In the case of The Secret, definitely do not read it. Once on a road trip I listened to a CD of one of the author’s lectures and it was ridiculous.  I believe the phrase “rocket ships of desire” was mentioned, possibly in the context of being “birthed.”
  • Do talk to a doctor if you are thinking about taking supplements.  In addition to providing a cautionary voice, they might have some good suggestions!
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