In Part 1, we looked at some of the significant findings and publications that sound alarm on the prevailing take-a-pill approach to mental health (and health in general), and certain forces responsible for fueling an epidemic of mental (and physical) illness in the last decades, curiously unique to the United States.
In the next post, Part 3, we consider five essential strategies that studies show reduce anxiety and depression naturally. Here, we first consider five factors that can elevate stress in the mind and body to toxic levels, and that must be addressed in treatment to successfully eliminate or lower the toxic levels of stress that can feed anxiety or depression.
The position of this therapist is that depression and anxiety are serious problems with affect regulation that are learned neural associations or chemical-reaction patterns, rather than genetic diseases. You may disagree, and question the ‘scientific’ value of this view. If so, you are on the side of the majority.
This approach has several strengths, however.
- It is good news. If neural patterns are programmed learning, that means they can be unlearned! One of the most exciting recent findings in neuroscience is that the human brain is designed for a lifetime of growth, wiring and re-wiring, known as plasticity, or the ability of the brain to change. It can heal, wire and re-wiire itself, given certain conditions.
- It puts the responsibility for your health and wellbeing squarely in your hands. From here, you experience the power of your choices. You are no longer waiting, for example, for the discovery of a ‘pill’ that will absolve you from making wise-self choices.
- It makes you realize instead that taking care of your health is inseparable from your happiness, and thus, perhaps your most important responsibility. Everything else you do, your dreams, the people and relationships you most care about, and so on, all depend on your health in some way or another.
- It reminds you how vital it is to get to know your self, your physical brain and body, your needs, and your emotions as a communication system, as a key way to enrich your relationships and better understand others and life.
In therapy, taking this approach also imbues both client (and therapist alike) with a sense of hope and optimism, emotional states that are critical to not only healthy brain functioning, but also optimal results in therapy, as studies show in the field of positive psychology, led by Dr. Martin Seligman and others.
Factors that elevate stress in the body and mind.
Five main factors often work together to set the stage for debilitating states of anxiety and depression. These agents can be caustic on their own, however, in cases where they produce toxic levels of certain fatty acids or stress hormones that, in turn, promote chronic inflammation in the brain and body. This can occur either directly via toxic foods or substances the body ingests – or indirectly via emotional-command brain circuitry that unnecessarily activates the body’s stress response or parasympathetic nervous system (automatically, with increased frequency and intensity).
Naturally their effects are more deleterious when all or most are present, as is frequently the case in elevated states of depression or anxiety. They are:
1. The American Diet
- It not only lacks the nutrients the body needs from foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, it contains toxic substances that disturb glandular functioning.
- It consists of a high concentration of foods that cause inflammation in the brain and body, such as processed sugar and other simple carbohydrates, trans-fats, and artificial sweeteners, which are some of the main culprits.
2. Lack of regular exercise
Exercise is also a critical component that factors into your level of mental and physical health, as well as happiness. It is not a mere option or lifestyle alternative.
Until recent findings in neuroscience, scientists hadn’t fully understood how exercise allows neurons in the brain and body to fuel themselves. In contrast, lack of exercise puts you at risk for major health problems. Without exercise, it’s a missed opportunity to:
- Relieve extra tension and stress levels that naturally build in day-to-day activities.
- Regularly replenish energy and oxygen supplies to all parts of your body to help all systems run more efficiently.
- Lower anxiety and depression symptoms, risk of heart disease, diabetes and keep dementia at bay.
- Strengthen bones and muscles, and prolong life and mobility in later years.
It does wonders for your brain’s thinking, memory and learning functions. (With so much research in the last decade that links mental performance and exercise, it’s mind boggling that no action has been taken to make daily exercise mandatory in K-12 schools. It was required prior to the 1980s.)
Truth be told, the body is designed to move and stretch and go. A healthy body does not merely look better, it feels better, and for good reason. Aerobic exercise releases feel-good hormones throughout the body, that also nourish the cells, and pump oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body. In addition to feeling great, when your body looks great, this also boosts your feel-good sensations. And, yes, it’s quite healthy to want a trim, healthy, fit body.
(With so much attention on the social pressures to be thin as negative or dangerous ( i.e., anorexia, bulimia), it’s helpful to keep things in perspective to avoid either extreme. As serious as anorexia is, it is still rare. In comparison, nearly half the population is literally dying from overeating and lack of exercise, which go hand in hand. It’s also a misconception, perpetuated by media, to think of anorexia as a result of ‘pressure on women to be thin.’ Human beings do not give up their fight for life, emotional safety and survival so easy! It is more helpfully viewed, in my opinion, as a fight for emotional survival, more often by an intelligent, talented, goal-oriented young woman, who otherwise feels invisible, powerless, and anxious about whether her voice will be heard, valued in relation to those she loves.)
3. Sugar Addiction
- Persons addicted to sugar have the same symptoms of withdrawal, for example, and a sugar addict faces the same inability, as an alcoholic, to handle a small quantity of the substance without being triggered to binge.
- Interestingly, Dr. Human notes that, “recovering alcoholics often switch to another easily available drug: sugar.”
- Clinical studies have linked sugar to emotional disturbances of depression, anxiety, suicide, irritability, anger outbursts.
- The research of addictions counselor, Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons, author of Potatoes Not Prozac, found a link between sugar addiction and depression, anger and irritability.
- A recent cross-cultural study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry linked refined sugar consumption to mental illness reports that sugar appears to suppress a key growth hormone, BDNF, which is essential for healthy memory and learning.
Other studies have linked sugar consumption to obesity, all-consuming cravings, food compulsions, binge eating, and food addiction in general. Author and physician, Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum has identified four types of sugar addiction, which are discussed in his popular how-to book, Beat Sugar Addiction Now!
The high consumption of sugar is a problem of great magnitude that warrants special attention. Conceivably, the prevalence of sugar addiction may largely explain the exponential increases in mental (and physical) illness in recent decades. Despite medical advances, chronic illness has been on the rise, for example, one report shows chronic illness in children has quadrupled in a generation.
As it is not likely that the human gene pool has suddenly gone wild, we must seriously consider environmental factors. The exponential growth of sugar consumption runs parallel to that of mental and physical illness, and all are unique to the U.S (among developed nations).
- It is also likely that, while these feelings are real, they are at levels that can be considered separate from what is going on in your life or any issues you may face at present.
- In fact, you may have even wondered: Why am I so unhappy or anxious when my life is wonderful in so many ways?
Toxic thinking patterns are ones that unnecessarily activate your body’s stress response, or ‘fight or flee’ system. They are not only toxic, but also addictive in nature.
Why? Toxic thinking patterns are characteristically compulsive in nature, associated with defensive strategies that your body activates in response to a stressor. These operate subconsciously, that is, they are automatic.
- Similar to addictive substances, they stimulate pleasure and learning centers of the brain.
- They are protective strategies that get activated in response to what triggers you, and thus driven by fear.
- They are addictive in nature because your body subconsciously associates them with pseudo “feel good” feelings – in other words, ‘tried and true’ ways that it uses to lower your overall stress in the moment, albeit with ineffective, quick-fix ways.
- They are also habitual, ‘comfortable’ ways of responding, which also produces ‘feel good’ hormones.
Thus, as with addictive substances, it can feel like we ‘need’ them. They feel comfortable. And, because your body activates them at subconscious levels, it can feel as if you cannot stop or control them. In a sense, you cannot – at least not until you take some action to bring the systems of your body back under the charge of your sympathetic nervous system (therefore out of the control of the parasympathetic nervous system). In short, if your body thinks your survival is at stake, your autonomic nervous system is hardwired to take control (a coup d’état of sorts), and block you and your higher cortex self from taking the reins.
When chronic, these reactive thinking patterns can zap your body’s energy supply. How?
- They cause intense feelings of fear, despair, rage, shame or guilt, and so on.
- They habitually forecast disaster, perpetuate worry, instill doubt, obsess on perfection, or blame, etc.
- They paint images of self and others, events and life, with colors of fear, lack, doubt, and, among others, gloom or failure.
Toxic thinking is spawned by underlying limiting beliefs. Beliefs are limiting when they unnecessarily intensify one or more of your core survival-fears, such as rejection, abandonment or inadequacy, and so on. These emotion-laded beliefs exacerbate fears and spawn anxious ways of relating.
Albeit well-meaning, toxic thinking is a life limiting defense strategy. These patterns limit your higher thinking capacity by replacing real thinking with automatic black-and-white or either-or thinking patterns, which by the way are useful to you, but only in real crises situations, such as a physical attack. They lower your tolerance or resiliency to frustration, boredom, discomfort – all of which you need to be able to manage your energies to consciously think, to image, and to to make choices that are aligned with your aspirations.
5. Pandemic of affect regulation problems
Though uncomfortable or painful, feelings of anxiety or sadness, are not unhealthy emotions in and of themselves. In fact, like other painful emotions, they are vital messages from your body that, in some way or another, let you know where you are in terms of your inner emotional needs or drives to live a fulfilling life, i.e., to meaningfully connect, to contribute, to matter in relation to life and others, and so on.
These are universal drives. If you think you know people without these drives, think again. They are hardwired, and shape most every human behavior.
The ability to regulate painful emotions is one that allows you to deal with a stressor, and feel upsetting emotions, without getting triggered or activating your defenses. Emotion dysregulation, in contrast, is a problem related to a learned inability to understand, utilize or benefit from the information your body is sending. Emotions are the language of the body.
Starting in infancy, learning how to regulate affect in response to stress is critical to health and development. Without this ability, ego-strength lacks the resiliency needed to face day to day challenges or difficult events.
Like other needs in early childhood, however, children are dependent on caregivers. Recent findings on the brain and attachment research show a young child’s brain depends on caregivers’ brains to regulate stress, and eventually to learn to self-regulate. Human brains are designed to change, learn, wire and re-wire one another’s brains in relationship contexts. And, emotions are the meaning-laden language that connects and forms a child’s relationships with key others.
Without question, a parent’s ability to regulate their own emotions, in other words, to remain calm, confident and present, particularly in emotionally challenging situations, is not only the best way parents can teach children to soothe themselves (and to be soothed by others) during upsets, but also the most effective way parents can help children learn how to modify their behaviors.
Clinical studies show, for example, that secure attachments are a primary defense against emotional problems in response to life stressors, big and small, whereas attachment disorders can be antecedents to antisocial patterns even violence.
Children who experience a secure base with an emotionally available parent are more likely:
- To learn to self-regulate their emotions in stressful situations.
- To develop healthy emotionally reciprocal relationships as adults.
- To have the resiliency and ego-strength needed to cope with stress resulting from adversity or trauma.
- To develop pro-social mores, values and ethics.
- To establish a positive sense of self.
- To have empathy, compassion, and greater awareness of state of others.
So why a pandemic of affect regulation? Perhaps because of widespread cultural mores that view painful emotions overall as weaknesses, pathology or defects that need to be fixed, and so on. From this position, it makes sense to learn to avoid, deny or strongly react with anger or overwhelm to the discomfort of these feelings.
These beliefs are also associated with a value system that supports physical force and spanking in the rearing of children, and associated practices of intimidation, shame and, guilt, etc. Wittingly or unwittingly, these values are passed down from one generation to the next. Studies show a majority of parents in the U.S. value these methods as ‘necessary’ in socializing children to obey authorities.
The overwhelming evidence shows spanking is ineffective and dangerous, however, because it can:
- Teach children that their parents are not in control of their own emotional states.
- Send an underlying message that violence and bullying are legitimate ways to solve differences between people.
- Put parents at risk of losing control of their anger and harming children physically, mentally, emotionally.
Naturally, a parent who believes force, angry outbursts or humiliation are ‘necessary’ to socialize children is not only more likely to use punitive tactics, but also more likely to lose control. Studies link parents’ own reactivity to stress to children’s emotional dysregulation as well as problem behaviors.
When these do not work, and they often do not, a parent is more likely to intensify force and frequency, and interpret a child’s disobedience personally, which puts children at risk. Alvin Pousaint, M.D., states that:
In The Case Against Spanking, by Irwin A. Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives, also makes clear the connection between spanking and rates of child abuse. Citing Sweden, a country that made spanking illegal in 1979, he notes, “In 1981, only 26 percent of parents supported spanking. The support rate is currently less than 11 percent… [and] Sweden went from a family violence-related child death rate of 18 percent in 1970 to 0 percent in recent years.”
Sadly, despite overwhelming evidence that punitive practices in raising children are harmful, and the proven successes of more than a dozen countries that have legally banned spanking in the last few decades, a majority of parents in the U.S. continue to believe in practices that, essentially, not only block them from learning how to regulate their own upsetting emotions, but also prevent their children from learning how to self-regulate.
Most of us have experienced the effects of having one or more parents who have difficulty regulating their own affect during upsets, much less our own. Thus, you may say the widespread inability to handle emotional distress is in some ways a national pandemic.
It’s no easy road, with tough choices.
Problems that arise from day to day stress, as well as more serious issues, are often related to difficulties in managing painful or uncomfortable emotions in response to stressors. Emotions are the language of your body. The ability to self-regulate upsetting emotions in challenging situations is vital to living a happy and healthy life.
What you put into your body, however, can either support your efforts or hinder them.
Simply put, you are a combination of what you eat, what you drink, what you think, what you do, what you feel (express, emote, etc.). You are also what you’ve learned to believe, how you interpret events, etc., as your beliefs shape how you relate to your self, life around you, and upsetting emotions, your own or others.
All of these factors are agents, or energies with particular effects that cause chemical reactions, which can structurally affect the brain and body at molecular levels.
Addressing or eliminating what elevates anxiety and depression to toxic levels must be part of a broader program to restore mental health and wellbeing. It will involve tough choices between quick-fix-sensory thrills and what guarantees lasting health and happiness. Make the latter your bottom line.
In Part 3, five strategies to take a proactive approach to reduce anxiety and depression naturally.