Step One: Understand Your Brain
Step One is your first line of defense against depression, the techniques to which you turn when you’re in the throes of a depressive episode and need immediate help. It’s based on the understanding that just as the heart patient needs a “heart-healthy lifestyle,” so do depressed patients need a “brain-healthy” program that includes diet, exercise, and a healthy relationship to natural cycles-the ultradian, circadian, and seasonal rhythms that affect us more than we think.
Although by now even fast-food addicts have the guilty sense that french fries and pizza aren’t exactly good for our health, very few of us realize that these poor food choices are also disastrous for our mood. Too many refined carbs and unhealthy fats play havoc with our brain chemistry as well as our weight, working against our efforts to overcome depression no matter how much medication we take. Depending on our individual system, even apparently healthy diets can be bad for our brains. I recently met a man in his fifties who worked out regularly and had a lean, healthy physique. He ate mainly home cooked, low fat meals featuring high quality proteins and fresh fruits and vegetables. But he wasn’t getting the complex carbohydrates that he needed to overcome a lifelong serotonin deficiency, nor the healthy Omega3 fats that his brain craved. As a result he suffered from anxiety, insomnia, and a tendency to depression. When he added more whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables into his diet, his mood, sleep, and well being improved almost instantly. In Step One, you’ll learn how to tell if you, too, are eating exactly the wrong foods to balance your brain chemistry, with concrete suggestions for how to switch to a “brain-healthy” diet.
One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made in my practice is the way Western biochemistry, Ayurvedic Mind-Body medicine, and Buddhist psychology have all identified three distinct types, each of whom needs a different physical and emotional approach to overcoming depression. In Step One, we’ll start with a Western scientific explanation, based on the balance of biochemicals in the brain. Our mood, energy level, and outlook are determined to a remarkable extent by the relationship between our levels of serotonin-a soothing chemical-and our supply of dopamine and norepinephrine, which stimulate us. When these chemicals go out of balance, we become depressed-but different types of imbalance result in different categories of depression, which seem in turn to be tied to different personality types:
· Anxious Depression: People with low levels of serotonin often feel fearful, inadequate, and nervous, always worried about the future and their own inability to measure up to life’s demands. They tend to hold on too tightly and may become dependent in relationships.
· Agitated Depression: People with high levels of norepinephrine/ dopamine, possibly combined with low levels of serotonin, frequently feel angry, resentful, bitter, and despairing. They’re often judgmental, demanding, and highly critical in relationships, with a tendency to push away anyone who doesn’t meet their high standards.
· Sluggish Depression: People with inadequate levels of norepinephrine and dopamine tend to slow down, sleep way too much, and have trouble concentrating or motivating themselves to work. When depressed, they often become confused and “absent,” even-or perhaps especially-in their most intimate relationships.
Because Western scientists developed these categories in terms of depression, each description represents the most extreme, unhealthy versions of each type. But all of us have tendencies in one or more of these directions, whether we’re talking about an occasional “blue day” or a diagnosis of clinical depression. Thus, all of us can benefit from the diet and lifestyle recommended for our “type,” once we’ve identified which it is. So in Step One, you’ll find out what kind of diet your brain chemistry type requires, as well as the exercise, daily schedule, and sleep patterns that can help keep your brain chemicals in balance. Even if you’ve never been diagnosed with depression or don’t think of yourself as depressed, you can benefit from identifying your particular brain chemistry needs and then following the recommendations in Step One.
Step Two: Make Use of Mind-Body Medicine
Step Two is your next line of defense against depression, a further effort to rebalance your system once you’ve begun making the diet and lifestyle changes in Step One. It’s based on the principles of Ayurveda, an ancient system of Mind-Body medicine used for centuries in India and neighboring countries. Since this healing system has been around for several centuries, imagine my surprise when I realized that it basically offered more a spiritual and poetic version of the same three brain chemistry types that Western medicine had identified-complete with diet and lifestyle suggestions that correspond with remarkable similarity to Western prescriptions.
When I began using these Mind-Body precepts to treat my patients, I discovered that they went beyond conventional science to help me fine, tune my recommendations for nutrition, exercise, and other brain healthy activities that could help my patients rebalance their brain chemistry. As a result, I now routinely identify each of my patients’ Ayurvedic type to help me better tailor my suggestions to their needs. You can identify your own Ayurvedic type and go on to adopt the practices that are most beneficial for you.
- Air Types are most prone to the Western disorder known as “anxious depression.” People in this category are typically thin, wiry, and fine-boned – sensitive and quick. If you’re an Air type, you’re frequently on the move, like a breath of fresh air or a cooling wind. You’re probably an excellent communicator, with an active mind that moves easily from one topic to the next. You may also have a tendency to be spacey and ungrounded, with difficulty digesting the knowledge you acquire-as well as the food you eat. Because Air types can exhaust their energy through over-activity, you need foods, spices, and activities that will help center and ground you. In fact, the diet that I’d recommend for a serotonin deficient patient is remarkably similar to the nutritional advice for Air types in Ayurveda.
- Fire Types, by contrast, are most vulnerable to the Western disorder known as “angry or agitated depression,” marked by excess dopamine and norepinephrine, and probably with low serotonin levels as well. People in this category are usually well-muscled, warm, and energetic. If you’re a Fire type, your friends would probably describe you as dynamic, sharp-witted, and “fiery,” an active person who tends to engage in life with great enthusiasm and mental clarity. Yet your very sharpness can also make you irritable and angry, while your enthusiasm can morph into competitiveness. To soothe your fire, you need cooling, calming foods, activities, and spices. Once again, Ayurvedic prescriptions can fine-tune, extend, and enhance Western medical advice.
- Earth Types are prone to “sluggish depression,” caused by a shortage of the stimulating chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. (People in this category may also suffer from a serotonin deficiency.) Earth types tend to be solid, large-boned, and fleshy. If you fit in this category, you’re stable and earthy, the kind of person who is reliable and soothing to be around, the “earth mother” (or “earth father”!) on whom everyone tends to rely. However, your very stability can sometimes lead you to get stuck in a rut. So if you’re an Earth type, you need stimulating foods, activities, and spices to stay motivated and active.
- Combination Types: Some people are a combination of two Ayurvedic types, and so they need to figure out the diet, exercise plan, and activities that are most balancing for them. And some people partake of all three types. When these “triple combination” folks get depressed, they might suffer from anxiety, anger, and sluggishness, as their brain chemicals fluctuate and their mood varies. Even if you fit clearly into a single type, these categories are not absolute. To some extent, we all share qualities from each type, just as many patients seem to blur the lines among Western categories of brain chemistry. But I’ve found it enormously useful to help my patients identify their basic types (or combinations) and to choose food, exercise, and activities accordingly, particularly when they’re under stress, feeling out of balance, or struggling with a depressive episode.
Step Three: Understand the Psychology of Mindfulness
Once you’ve balanced your physical self with the suggestions in Steps One and Two, you can go on to the psychological and spiritual issues that can help you create a long term strategy for overcoming depression and finding joy. Toward this end, I can recommend no better approach than mindfulness, the cornerstone of Buddhist psychology. The practice of mindfulness is based on the theory that the way to achieve joy in life-even in the midst of suffering-is to be mindful: aware, in the moment, and responding with intention.
Unfortunately, most of us fall short of that ideal much of the time. Instead of responding with intention, we react automatically, unconsciously, and often to issues in our past rather than to what is happening in the present moment. So prevalent is our tendency to respond with automatic reactions that Buddhist psychologists have identified three basic patterns of reactivity. Once again, I was astonished to discover that the Buddhist Emotional types correspond to both Western and Ayurvedic categories:
- The Grasping or Fear Type: If you’re prone to the Western diagnosis Of “anxious depression/low serotonin,” you’re probably an Air type-and a Fear type. Your tendency is to react to stress with fear and anxiety, based on the worry that you’re “not enough” and that the world doesn’t contain enough to satisfy everyone. Your stress may also take the form of greed, envy, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy, all reflections of your core belief that you must constantly grasp after “more”-whether in the inner or outer realm. You have what the psychologists of mindfulness would call a “wanting mind,” the feeling that if you could only get more or be more, you’d be safe and secure. To overcome the feeling that you’re “not enough” and don’t have enough, generosity is your special route to joy.
- The Rejecting or Anger Type: This type corresponds to the Western biochemical pattern of excess norepinephrine and dopamine (and possibly also low serotonin), a condition usually diagnosed as agitated depression. In Mind-Body terms, you’re a Fire type. In Psychology of Mindfulness terms, you have a judging mind, and when you’re stressed, you often react with anger, frustration, aggression, or hostility. Your automatic, unconscious response to a setback is often seeking someone to blame-others, yourself, or both. Your path to joy involves developing the antidote to anger – compassion.
- The Adrift or Denial Type: People who are prone to low dopa/norepi levels and “sluggish depression”- what Mind-Body medicine calls Earth types – are likely to react to stress with confusion. These are Denial types who feel frequently adrift. If you’re a Denial type, you’ll notice that difficult situations often inspire you to “turn off,” “numb out,” or freeze, seemingly without emotions or opinions. Awareness is your route to joy, waking up to life’s many possibilities and to your own vital nature.
Although most of my patients have no interest in Buddhism per se, they’ve found it useful to think in terms of these types, and so have I. Whatever your religious or spiritual orientation-including those of you who have no particular interest in religion-I think you’ll find these types useful as well. Knowing your Emotional type can help you identify patterns in your reactions to stress, while learning the Psychology of Mindfulness and the strategies it employs – meditation, conscious breathing, and other techniques – can empower you to choose wiser and more conscious responses.
As with the Mind-Body categories, you may find that you fit more than one Emotional type. You may also discover that in some situations, you tend to respond with fear, while others set off your anger, and still others provoke confusion. In that case, mindfulness offers you a whole repertoire of strategies to help you respond to whatever type of depression you’re struggling with. But mindfulness offers far more than simply overcoming depression. It is also an important component in the chemistry of joy.
Reference: (extracted from) The Chemistry of Joy: A Three Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom, authored by Henry Emmons and Rachel Kranz, A Fireside Book, published by Simon & Schuster, 2006, New York