Slow Medicine for Depression

sad woman sitting alone

If you struggle with depression, chances are that you suffer from any or all of the following: difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, insufficient energy to function, profound sadness, self-isolating tendencies, lack of motivation, loss of appetite, suffocating feelings of doom and gloom, and suicidal thoughts. Your life may in turn be adversely impacted by a profound struggle to care for yourself – including the basics of eating, bathing, and grooming, as well as working, socializing, and engaging in physical activity. You may end up feeling extreme loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness, to the extent that it is a challenge to even think about reaching out for help. Each of these challenges is likely to feed into each other, exacerbating your struggles. They even may create a chain reaction of events that send you spiraling downward, perhaps endangering your very survival.

What is the conventional medical response?
Conventional medicine views depression as a neurological disorder – both a result of various neurochemicals failing to cross synapses in the brain or to be absorbed (taken up) normally by adjacent cells, and possibly as a result of deficiencies of these molecules and other cellular nutrients, like vitamin B12. Conventional doctors prescribe antidepression medications, which are designed to compensate for whatever is lacking or functioning suboptimally. They also may prescribe psychiatric or psychological counseling or consider dramatic treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy in severe cases. Counseling attempts to understand and treat the biopsychosocial contributors to depression and resolve them via talk therapy. These therapies have also been shown to lead to changes in brain chemistry that may explain part of why they’re helpful. Electroconvulsive therapy can be very effective, especially in those who have tried many other treatments unsuccessfully. While the exact way it works is still unknown, it causes dramatic release of a variety of different chemicals in the brain and causes the brain to change the way it uses energy.

What are the pros and cons of the conventional response?
With the right drug and dose, pharmaceuticals have the power to quickly and effectively alter the brain in ways that enable someone with debilitating depression to function, as well as feel significantly better. In this way, pharmaceuticals can bring people back from the edge and save lives. On the flip side, it often takes a lot of experimenting to get the drug and dose right, and the process can be highly distressing and may in some cases get worse before it gets better – leaving one in disconcerting mental and emotional states, during the interim. In addition, pharmaceuticals may leave some feeling “flat” or numb and can cause a litany of side effects – including nausea, double vision, headaches, and other ailments that may intensify the depression. Some antidepressants even have the “side effect” of increasing suicidal tendency, making the point clear that this approach is far from perfect.

Through talk therapy, psychiatric and psychological counseling, individuals can identify emotional factors contributing to depression, which in turn can be ameliorated through cognitive behavioral techniques and lifestyle management. In addition, psychiatric counseling may incorporate pharmaceutical interventions. With the right practitioner, this approach is more “care-ful,” as it facilitates and maintains a close personal bridge between the practitioner and the person in distress. That said, this approach is often entirely practitioner-dependent.

What is the Slow Medicine approach to depression?
Slow Medicine not only pays attention to the symptoms and physiological causes of depression, but also addresses the whole life and whole being of the person who is suffering. This approach recognizes depression not as a generic set of symptoms, but rather, as a constellation of symptoms that are unique to each individual. To this end, Slow Medicine refrains from the catchall diagnostic word “depression” and instead sensitively focuses on the particulars of each individual’s life – including physical, environmental, psychosocial, and relational circumstances that may be contributing to the symptoms one is experiencing.

In this regard, people are recognized to be unique, even though many of their symptoms are similar. For those with severe symptoms, it might be advisable to utilize a pharmaceutical intervention (at least initially), complemented by Slow Medicine – which may help to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals necessary over time. For those with mild or moderate symptoms, it is more often effective to begin with Slow Medicine.

Here’s how the Slow Medicine approach works:

Through a gentle, step-by-step process, Slow Medicine guides you in identifying and incorporating into your life everything that activates your body’s healing response mechanism and returns your body to balance. Slow Medicine optimizes the food you eat, the amount and quality of time you spend in nature, the outlets you have for creative self-expression, the fun physical activities you do, the environment inside and outside your home, your daily spiritual practice, your engagement in healthy relationships and communities, the pursuit of your life’s purpose, and more. While identifying and incorporating these lifestyle pieces may seem like a tall order, you get to do it slowly, on a timeline that works for you – whether over the course of a year or a decade.

Slow Medicine is what you might call the “long game” for treating depression.

When you design and live a life you truly love and in which you fully rejoice, your body will have many of the building blocks it needs for optimal health – inducing the release a biochemical cascade of wellness throughout your body. Your body furthermore will be free from stimuli that compromise its ability to function and heal and that may be contributing to the symptoms you are experiencing. A very simple example is reducing or eliminating your intake of sugar, which several studies have suggested may stimulate and exacerbate the symptoms of depression.

How can I start utilizing Slow Medicine to heal from depression?
Here are three steps that are a good starting place for healing:

1. Find people who can help.
Reach out to a friend, family member, community member, spiritual leader, and/or support group where you can find a caring heart and listening ear – someone who can help you function and get professional help, as well as make sure you are safe, when you are really struggling. Let this person know what is going on with you, and ask for help, even if it scares you. Remember that if your first attempt at outreach does not go as you had hoped, you can keep trying with different people and circles, until you find someone who is capable of offering support.

If you are facing severe and life-threatening symptoms, or if you do not know where to go for help, you can call a local or national suicide prevention hotline, which you can find through doing a search online or calling the telephone directory. Not only can you talk about your struggles with the counselor who answers, but you can ask for guidance about where to go for ongoing help in your area. If you think you’re an immediate danger to yourself, you should call 911 for help.

Lastly, look for an integrative medicine doctor and therapist who will give you the time that is necessary to comprehensively address your condition and who have in their toolbox both conventional and holistic options for helping you heal.

2. Eat wholesome food.
As much as possible, eliminate processed foods, artificial foods, and sugary foods. Conventional supermarkets now carry fresh, wholesome foods that are ready to go – such as prewashed vegetables for salads and stews, fruit cups with no additives or sugars, and hearty frozen meals that just need to be heated up. You do not need to be a good cook or put a lot of effort into making nutrient-dense meals. Feed your body the nutrition it needs, to activate its innate healing process.

3. Move your body outdoors. 
The body needs movement and natural light in order to function well. For this reason, any outdoor activity during the daytime – such as a slow walk around the block – can improve how you feel, cope, and sleep. Even if you have the sensation that you are dragging your body behind you, commit to engaging in this healthy and helpful activity. It is a fundamental step to getting better.

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