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I have noticed a funny thing happening over the last few years.  Many of my friends have an anxiety problem.  Is is because of me?  Perhaps I am contagious?

My suspicion is that once you start talking about your own experiences of anxiety and/ or depression, is gives other people the opportunity to admit that they may have had similar experiences.  Somehow it no longer signifies failure, lack of self control or negativity. It isn’t something to feel ashamed of, and in fact you may find out that your good friend suffers from the same problem!

My friends are without fault a glorious bunch.  Many have had some tough times, and there is something wonderful about knowing people who have struggled with life, but are coming out the other side.  We laugh a lot, and for me that’s what makes all of this worthwhile. 

Take a look at this:

Kingston, ON) – Surprisingly, people with mild depression are actually more tuned into the feelings of others than those who aren’t depressed, a team of Queen’s psychologists has discovered.
“This was quite unexpected because we tend to think that the opposite is true,” says lead researcher Kate Harkness. “For example, people with depression are more likely to have problems in a number of social areas.”

Personally, I’ve always believed that people who are prone to depression — myself included — tend to be more socially receptive. That isn’t to say that we’re more social, but rather that we are particularly sensitive to the feelings of others.

What do you think?

Take a look at this article from today’s Washington Post.

Up to 25 percent of people in whom psychiatrists would currently diagnose depression may only be reacting normally to stressful events such as a divorce or losing a job, according to a new analysis that reexamined how the standard diagnostic criteria are used.

[…]

The new study, however, found that extended periods of depression-like symptoms are common in people who have been through other life stresses such as a divorce or a natural disaster and that they do not necessarily constitute illness.

The study also suggested that drug treatment may often be inappropriate for people who are experiencing painful — but normal — responses to life’s stresses. Supportive therapy, on the other hand, may be useful — and may keep someone who has been through a divorce or has lost a job from going on to develop full-blown depression.

Read the rest.

I’ve been meaning to post this Time article for a while. It covers a wide variety of topics but is centered around the “recent discoveries” that the human brain is amazingly adaptive. For example, changing the way you think literally alters your brain chemistry. The article also explores a few of the methods that people have successfully used to rewire their brains (including meditation) and it makes mention of anxiety disorders and depression. As time passes and the research continues to pile up, the “anxiety is a disease” camp grows ever smaller. Research has consistently shown that most forms of anxiety and depression can be effectively treated with a shotgun approach that includes cognitive therapy, medications, and meditation or other forms of “brain rewiring.” In other words, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

The whole “chemical imbalance” stuff is a misinterpretation of the data. It’s your anxiety that causes the imbalance, not the other way around. Your serotonin and noradrenaline problems are real and medication can treat them, but treating the imbalance by itself is only treating the symptons and not the causes of your anxiety and/or depression; therefore, such treatment is only part of the solution.

At the risk of going off on a tangent about my own personal bias for such approaches, I’ll just let you read the article and decide for yourself. Here’s an excerpt:

FOR DECADES, THE PREVAILING DOGMA IN neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have. Yes, it can create (and lose) synapses, the connections between neurons that encode memories and learning. And it can suffer injury and degeneration. But this view held that if genes and development dictate that one cluster of neurons will process signals from the eye and another cluster will move the fingers of the right hand, then they’ll do that and nothing else until the day you die. There was good reason for lavishly illustrated brain books to show the function, size and location of the brain’s structures in permanent ink.

[…]

But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity”–the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. These aren’t minor tweaks either. Something as basic as the function of the visual or auditory cortex can change as a result of a person’s experience of becoming deaf or blind at a young age. Even when the brain suffers a trauma late in life, it can rezone itself like a city in a frenzy of urban renewal. If a stroke knocks out, say, the neighborhood of motor cortex that moves the right arm, a new technique called constraint-induced movement therapy can coax next-door regions to take over the function of the damaged area. The brain can be rewired.

Don’t just sit there. Read this! This new way of thinking about the brain is already beginning to make waves among psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Your doctor is following this stuff and so should you.

Matthiew Ricard The Independent, a UK paper, recently published an article about Matthieu Ricard. Here’s an excerpt:

To scientists, he is the world’s happiest man. His level of mind control is astonishing and the upbeat impulses in his brain are off the scale.

Now Matthieu Ricard, 60, a French academic-turned-Buddhist monk, is to share his secrets to make the world a happier place. The trick, he reckons, is to put some effort into it. In essence, happiness is a “skill” to be learned.

[…]

…Ricard, who is the French interpreter for Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, took part in trials to show that brain training in the form of meditation can cause an overwhelming change in levels of happiness.

MRI scans showed that he and other long-term meditators – who had completed more than 10,000 hours each – experienced a huge level of “positive emotions” in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with happiness. The right-hand side, which handles negative thoughts, is suppressed.

I’d love to quote more but I don’t want to step on any copyright toes, so just read the article. It’s short. Science is only now beginning to confirm what Buddhists (and some other meditation-based groups) have known for millennia: happiness is achievable by anyone who is willing to work for it. While there may be many routes to achieve such things, meditation is the most proven.

I do take one issue with this article in that it refers to meditation as teaching “mind control” and “suppression.” This is wrong. I’m unaware of any Buddhist tradition (or non-Buddhist tradition) that attempts to control the mind or suppress negative feelings. In fact, meditation is exactly the opposite. Meditation is a method of allowing negative feelings to enter the mind without judgment. We don’t solve problems during meditation, we just see them so clearly that we let go of them. We allow them to dry up and disappear.

Many people misunderstand meditation as mind control. Meditation is not mind control. Mind control is impossible. Meditation is simply a way to train the mind to see through all of our bull. It allows us to see how we treat ourselves and others without entering into an internal dialogue as to justify our actions. It’s a way of looking at ourselves to discover the painful truths which we consistently hide from, and, eventually it’s a way to discover that true happiness comes in the revelation that all of life is transient and is to be cherished while it’s here. It teaches us to live right here, right now, in this very moment, because it will soon be gone.

This is something we can all achieve. It is not magical, mystical, or reserved for hermits who sit in caves for years on end. This is something you can do on your own, just as you would exercise every day if you wanted to lose weight. And there’s the caveat: it requires diligence, practice, and persistence even when it feels like a waste of time. In this respect, it is very similar to physical exercise: we have to be willing to do it on a regular basis and suspend our desire for immediate results. If you’d like to learn more on meditation or Buddhism, check out my list of recommended books. Two in particular: Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg, and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. These two books have taught me more about meditation, life, and happiness than anything else I’ve ever read.

I heard a few interesting stories this morning on NPR about magnetic pulse treatment, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, as a potential last-resort treatment for depression. The concept behind this treatment is to provide the brain with a magnetic pulse that stimulates neurons. It’s similar to another treatment which works in the same fashion but uses small electrical currents as opposed to magnetic fields. You can follow the links above to hear two short audio clips (from NPR) about this treatment.

I’m a skeptic, but hey, as long as it doesn’t hurt anything…

"Drag your thoughts away from your troubles... by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it." -- Mark Twain

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