The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdomby Henry Emmons, MD
The classic book that New York Times bestselling author Dr. Larry Dossey called “a valuable guide for anyone wishing to find greater exuberance and fulfillment in their life,” The Chemistry of Joy offers a unique blend of Western science and Eastern philosophy to show you how to treat depression more naturally and effectively, and what you can do TODAY to create a happier, more fulfilling life for yourself.
The Chemistry of Joy presents Dr. Emmons’s natural approach to depression—supplemented with medication if necessary—combining the best of Western medicine and Eastern teaching to create your body’s own biochemistry of joy. Integrating Western brain chemistry, natural and Ayurvedic medicine, Buddhist psychology, and his own joyful heart techniques, Dr. Emmons creates a practical program for each of the three types of depression: anxious depression, agitated depression, and sluggish depression.
The Chemistry of Joy helps you to identify which type of depression you are experiencing and provides a specific diet and exercise plan to address it, as well as nutritional supplements and “psychology of mindfulness” exercises that can restore your body’s natural balance and energy. This flexible approach creates newfound joy for those whose lives have been touched by depression—and pathways for all who seek to actively improve their emotional lives.
"The Chemistry of Joy is a valuable guide for anyone wishing to find greater exuberance and fulfillment in their life and who doesn't?"
Larry Dossey, M.D., author of The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things
"The Chemistry of Joy is simply the best book I know on depression. And I do not speak lightly, having battled this disease myself. Henry Emmons is not only a skilled physician he has the heart of a healer. May you find, as I have, that in the midst of depression's deadly darkness, his words offer light and life."
Parker J. Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness, Let Your Life Speak, and The Courage to Teach
"What a joy it is to read Dr. Henry Emmons's book, The Chemistry of Joy. If you're ready to overcome the pain of depression and really feel great again, then this book is for you."
Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., best-selling author of Meditation as Medicine and The Better Memory Kit
"What a thoughtful and caring road map out of depression. The Chemistry of Joy is a true gem of understanding that offers a beacon of hope for those wanting alternatives to medication. Emmons combines several powerful modalities and distills them into clear and useful tools."
Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D., author of Potatoes not Prozac and The Sugar Addict's Total Recovery Program
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Read an Excerpt
Surely joy is the condition of life. -- Henry David Thoreau
Imagine for a moment a cardiologist seeing a new patient. The man smokes, is forty pounds overweight, and subsists on a diet of pizza, french fries, and Big Macs. He works at a stressful job that leaves him agitated at the end of every fourteen-hour day, and his most strenuous exercise is walking from his office to the parking lot. He has a family history of heart disease, and his blood pressure and cholesterol are through the roof.
"Okay," says the cardiologist after he reviews the results of the tests, conducted by the nurse and a junior associate. He himself has spent just ten minutes with this patient, and already he's late for his next appointment. "Here's something to help your cholesterol go down, and something for your pressure. You shouldn't have many side effects, though you might experience some memory problems, and, of course, a loss of sex drive. But I wouldn't worry about it. Good luck, and I'll see you in three months when your prescription runs out."
You don't even have to be a first-year medical student to see what's wrong with this picture. Wait a minute, you say. Why didn't the doctor tell his patient to stop smoking, eat better, get more exercise, and find some strategies for coping with stress? Why isn't he monitoring the patient more carefully? And why is the patient's only option medications that, while they may save his life, will make it even less pleasant?
At this point, we'd never think of treating heart disease in such a limited fashion. It may have taken a while, but both the medical community and the general public have finally adopted an integrated approach to this potentially fatal illness. Yet depression -- once viewed entirely as a psychological or spiritual problem -- is now treated almost exclusively with medication alone by the vast majority of the medical establishment. While it's hard to imagine the cardiologist who would treat a heart patient in the way I've described, some version of this scenario would be not at all unusual for a harried psychiatrist at an HMO, under pressure to find the quickest and most cost-effective treatment for depression, nor for the family doctors who prescribe antidepressants while ignoring their patients' diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Even responsible, caring physicians -- psychiatrists as well as general practitioners -- are unaware that depression requires a "brain-healthy" diet and lifestyle to mirror the "heart-healthy" regime that we've come to know so well. Even well-meaning psychiatrists tend to see depressed patients as brain chemistry gone awry rather than as a complex integration of mind, body, and spirit. And many patients who try to eat well, exercise frequently, and live a healthy life remain ignorant of the specific diet and lifestyle choices that might cure their insomnia, lift their moods, soothe their anxiety, and generally ease their depression.
Depression is a holistic illness that affects every aspect of who we are as human beings. It only makes sense to address it from every available angle, both with regard to our bodies and brain chemistry and vis-à-vis our psyches and spirits. So in this book, I offer you a revolutionary model for treating depression, one that integrates physical, mental, and spiritual approaches to help you discover "the chemistry of joy" -- that mysterious mix of body, mind, and spirit that Thoreau called "the condition of life."
I believe that no matter how much pain each of us is given to endure -- and for some of us, the burden is considerable -- we can also always access the joy that is our birthright. But to find the joy we're all meant to experience, we need to understand ourselves fully, including our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. A program for overcoming depression that omits any one of these aspects of our humanity is almost certain to fail.
A Three-Step Program to Creating Joy
My approach to overcoming depression and creating joy is based on two decades of work as a psychiatrist who has also studied Jungian psychology, Christian theology, Buddhist philosophy, Ayurvedic medicine, and the groundbreaking mindfulness approach to physical and mental health pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli. In developing the program I'll share with you here, I've drawn on the latest developments in Western biochemistry to help me understand the elegant and complex interactions that take place constantly within our extraordinary brain. I've refined my understanding of diet, exercise, and lifestyle through the Ayurvedic Mind-Body medicine I learned from my study with Deepak Chopra. And I've deepened my approach to psychotherapy by incorporating a Buddhist Psychology of Mindfulness. Together, Western science and Eastern wisdom have enabled me to create this three-step program.
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 Omega-3 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.
Step One is also where I'll introduce three types that you'll continue to encounter throughout the book, although they may appear slightly different each time you meet them. 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. When you take the quiz in Chapter 7, 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 overactivity, 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.
My Journey Toward Mindfulness
My own journey toward a more integrated approach to depression began almost as soon as I had entered medical school. To some extent, this effort to integrate physical, emotional, and spiritual treatments comes from a lifelong habit of liking to synthesize, to bring apparently separate concepts into a single, dynamic framework. But I also had a very practical reason for seeking a new approach. It seemed very clear to me, from the moment I began my studies, that our treatment of depression was sadly lacking. People were suffering, and the conventional approaches to their condition just couldn't help them -- not enough. The kinds of medications that were offered, the kinds of therapy that were traditionally done, just weren't solving the problem. And the suffering went on.
Throughout my training, I'd sought for ways to integrate a psychological and spiritual approach into the predominantly biological worldview I encountered. I studied Jungian psychology, family systems, and a type of pastoral counseling called "spiritual direction," which I explored at a divinity school in Rochester, New York, the town where I was also doing my psychiatry training.
After I finished my residency, I returned to my native Midwest and took a job at a large HMO in Minneapolis, where I had the opportunity to treat literally hundreds of people. It was a fantastic learning experience -- but I eventually came to see it as a rather industrialized approach to medicine. It ultimately wasn't satisfying for me, and I didn't think it was very good for my patients, either.
For a while, I joined another practice, but I kept encountering the same assembly-line mentality and reductionist philosophy. For a field that had begun with such a broad view of human nature, psychiatry seemed to have devolved into a mechanistic vision of brain chemicals and medications.
Then one day I happened to catch a Bill Moyers special called Healing and the Mind, featuring the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. A researcher and scientist, Kabat-Zinn had realized that medical science was missing an important aspect of healing. He developed his "mindfulness-based stress reduction program," which eventually became an extraordinary eight-week course integrating Buddhist principles with medical science. Jon's focus was on chronic medical concerns, but I saw that his approach would be extremely helpful to psychiatric patients as well.
I was lucky enough to be one of the first doctors to train with Jon, who has gone on to teach his course to literally hundreds of physicians and health professionals. It's not an exaggeration to say that he and his colleague Saki Santorelli have transformed U.S. medicine, particularly as it approaches chronic diseases. Jon demonstrated that meditation could not only help reduce stress but could also affect the course of a disease, not to mention a patient's experience of his or her condition. I've spent over a decade now teaching mindfulness-based classes in all kinds of different settings. Gradually, I've developed the three-step method that I share in this book, an integration of Western biochemistry and Eastern wisdom that offers a radically new approach to overcoming depression.
Why is this integrated approach important? First, because the Western biochemical diagnosis, while crucial to understanding the nature of depression, goes only so far. Although we know something about the physical needs and personality types that corresponded to these biochemical categories, Western psychiatry's focus has become limited to an understanding of chemistry.
Second, each of the Eastern perspectives adds a different dimension to our understanding of the three types of depression. Ayurvedic Mind-Body typing is based on an elaborate set of dietary, exercise, and lifestyle prescriptions -- recommendations that I soon found were of enormous help to my patients. Once I began thinking of my patients as Air, Fire, or Earth types, I could offer them suggestions that corresponded to but went far beyond Western-based recommendations for nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. I could also bring a spiritual perspective to my suggestions, seeing Air types as needing to be grounded, Fire types as needing to be cooled and soothed, and Earth types as requiring stimulation and movement. I found this imagery helped me hear my patients' stories on a deeper level, while better directing my own attention to the question of what would help them restore balance in their lives. Even when I'd only considered Western biochemistry, I wanted to help my patients balance their brain chemistry. Now I was able to put that intention into a larger framework.
Likewise, having access to the Buddhist notions of Emotional types helped me to further articulate the issues with which my patients struggled. Buddhist psychology helped me form diagnoses even as it helped my patients approach their problems in a new way. While I continue to make use of the Western psychological tradition, I have come to rely equally on the notion of mindfulness and its focus on the observing self. If you can observe yourself -- even in distress -- without blame, without judgment, and then choose, calmly, a wise response to whatever situation you're in, you begin to see that depression, however painful, is not insurmountable. Helping my patients replace automatic, unconscious reactions with intentional, conscious responses has opened the door to many people who could not be helped by traditional psychotherapy -- or who could be helped more when mindfulness was added to the mix.
Finally, integrating all three perspectives has enabled me to distinguish between a short- and a long-term approach to depression. Now when patients come to me in the throes of depression, I offer them immediate intervention in the form of physical changes -- diet, exercise, supplements, and the like, as well as medications if they need them. I help them refine their lifestyle choices, using the well-articulated Ayurvedic Mind-Body system to extend their understanding of what their bodies need.
But the mental and spiritual aspects of Ayurveda are already pointing toward the future, in which Buddhist psychology and mindfulness practices can become a long-term strategy to prevent future episodes of depression by reorienting a person's entire worldview. To my mind, depression is a profound learning experience, offering us the opportunity to reconsider the choices we've made and strike out for new goals. But in order to be enlarged rather than diminished by the experience, we need a spiritual perspective. Buddhist psychology and the practice of mindfulness seemed to offer such an outlook.
The Enemies of Joy
The incidence of depression has been increasing at an alarming rate. According to the Cross-National Collaborative Group, the number of people struggling with depression has increased by about 10 percent every decade since 1910 -- and despite the pharmaceutical explosion of the past two decades, the increase shows no sign of slowing. If anything, the rate is going up faster than ever, making depression the leading cause of disability in the United States.
When I report this alarming statistic to the physicians, social workers, and other health professionals who attend my classes and workshops, I'll usually hear someone say, "Oh, it's not that depression itself is increasing, but only that people are reporting it more often."
But in fact, the statistics are not based on either patients' self-descriptions or doctors' diagnoses. Rather, researchers over the years have investigated the U.S. population from an epidemiological viewpoint -- seeking evidence for the existence of depression out in the community rather than in statistics from clinics, doctors, or hospitals. The data come from a representative sampling of the population with whom researchers have done structured interviews designed to ferret out the symptoms of depression: low mood; impaired sleep and appetite; loss of energy, interest, motivation, and pleasure. In other words, no matter how individuals described their own psychological condition or whether they had ever been formally diagnosed, researchers have been able to infer that the incidence of depression was on the rise.
Not only is the rate of depression higher but it is occurring at an ever-earlier age. The problem is spreading worldwide, too, so that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression will be the single greatest cause of disability worldwide by the year 2020. WHO attributes the epidemic to the fact that more and more nations are "Westernizing." Clearly, something about our modern way of life is making us sick.
What, then, are the enemies of joy, the factors in our lives and our society that literally depress us? In my opinion, they are three:
1. Physical Imbalance and Toxicity. Even though I come from a psychological and spiritual perspective, as a physician, I can never ignore the role of the body. I know that we're all born with a certain genetic makeup that may cause more problems for some of us than others. Our inborn levels of resilience are simply different, and people with low levels of resilience can more easily fall into depression.
But beyond what we're born with come the choices we make and the world we're surrounded by. The poor quality of food available to most of us -- vegetables and fruits grown in mineral-depleted soil; animal products laced with hormones; processed foods laden with refined sugars and saturated in unhealthy fats; industrial, agricultural, and environmental toxins -- threatens our mental as well as our physical health. Our brain is literally affected by the poisons that surround us, which promote inflammation, impede adrenal gland function, and burden our brain chemistry in a thousand different ways.
As if that weren't enough, our speeded-up economic life subjects most of us to enormous levels of work-related stress, while the lack of social safety nets means that most of us are constantly worried about money. Lack of sleep, tension at home and at work, the insistence on a constant round of activity unrelieved by rest -- all of these are major contributors to depression.
2. The Mind Runs Rampant. Depression is not only a disease of the body, however. It's also a disease of the mind. If our minds are allowed free rein, if they are allowed to run away with us, fretting endlessly over worries about the future, seething constantly with resentment against real or imagined grievances, or shutting down entirely in response to stress, we will sooner or later pay the price in depression.
Moreover, most of us don't understand our mind's role in creating our emotions, our experience of life, our mood, and even our physical health. Our lack of awareness means that we can't find good strategies for dealing with our fearful, angry, or confused minds. Instead, we confuse our mind's perceptions with reality, and we allow our unwise mental strategies -- worry, anxiety, blame, retaliation, denial, confusion -- to determine the course of our lives. It's a depressing way to live -- and we are, accordingly, depressed.
3. The Illusion of Separation. At the most profound level, we're only human in community. Think of a poor, isolated soul on a desert island, with no one to talk to for years at a time. Do you imagine that person -- even if he or she never had to worry about food, shelter, or basic survival -- would survive such an experience mentally, emotionally, and spiritually intact? It doesn't seem likely. We're meant to be part of one another's lives, and we need to share in each other's humanity. But in our modern culture, with its focus on individualism and separate achievement, we lose the sense of connectedness that keeps us sane -- and depression is often the result.
It's not only connectedness to other humans that we need. We're part of the natural world, and losing that lifeline can also depress us more than we realize. We need, too, a link to the divine -- to the universe itself -- a sense of the higher purpose of which we are a part. Without the sense that the universe is a friendly place to which we belong as to a family, we have great difficulty not to become depressed.
I don't want to romanticize the past. Certainly the world has always been a violent and frightening place, and the extended families and tight-knit communities that once characterized most of humankind were often claustrophobic, repressive, and cruel. Perhaps there is no healthy alternative in the past -- but that doesn't mean the present is healthy, either. Our isolated, alienated world is a breeding ground for depression -- and the rapid rise of this painful disorder is the sad result.
Surrounded as we are by these enemies of joy, outside as well as within us, we need healing more than we ever have. In my observation, the kind of therapy usually offered in our modern system of HMOs and short-term treatments is simply not enough for many people. Given the crisis in our health-care system -- a crisis that extends to both patients and the system itself -- shouldn't we be looking for creative solutions to these thorny problems? Integrating Western science with Eastern wisdom is my own attempt to find a new paradigm within which we might seek healing.
The Chemistry of Joy
When I first explained my three-step program to my patient Melanie, she balked at considering her depression in terms of brain chemistry. "I hate thinking of myself as just a collection of chemicals," she told me bluntly. "I'd like to feel as though I had more control over my life and emotions than that. 'Put in one chemical, and I'll react one way; put in another chemical and I'll react another way' -- it makes me feel as though I'm just some puppet, some victim of my own brain."
My patient Martin had the opposite reaction. A man with a great respect for science, Martin found profound relief in understanding the role that physical factors played in his depression. But he didn't understand why I suggested that he meditate, practice conscious breathing, and engage in "heart-opening" exercises.
"Just prescribe me the meds I need, tell me what to eat, and I'll be on my way," Martin told me. "I'm not interested in all that spiritual mumbo jumbo."
I tried to explain to both Melanie and Martin that my approach was based in an integration of body, mind, and spirit. Indeed, my best understanding as a scientist is that how we feel, what we eat, the choices we make, and the levels of biochemicals in our brains are all profoundly interactive. True, low levels of the chemical serotonin are correlated with certain types of depression, as we'll see in Chapter 2. But what causes the low levels of serotonin? Diet, genetic background, exercise habits, life events, early childhood experiences, and our daily habits of thought all play a role in the level of this vital chemical in our brains. Moreover, each of these factors affects every other factor. The right diet can give us more energy to exercise; a new meditation may motivate us to change our diet; a productive therapy session can, at least temporarily, flood our brains with helpful chemicals indicating that, at least for a while, we've found a measure of calm and well-being.
Likewise, Martin's resistance to "mumbo jumbo," while understandable, leaves out the profoundly transformative role that our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs can have on our brain chemistry. To take a trivial example, consider the experience of a long, boring, indefinite wait, perhaps in a stuffy airport or out under the blazing summer sun. Standing in line under such circumstances can be excruciating if our thoughts have nothing better to do than bubble with annoyance -- and our serotonin levels would drop accordingly, in response to the heat and stress.
Now imagine the same long wait with a long-lost friend or a fascinating mystery novel to help you pass the time. Suddenly your awareness of the physical discomfort vanishes because your mind has another focus. And the pleasure you take in talking or reading will likewise be reflected in your brain chemistry.
So when we think of all the different factors that go into creating or overcoming our depression, we should think less of a row of dominoes, set off by a single push, and more of a complicated pinball machine in which several balls are released in response to the first pull of the trigger. Picture the way a pinball machine seems to take on a life of its own, the way each little movement of the ball triggers a half-dozen other bells, lights, and new balls. You don't have complete control over what happens -- if you shake or hit the machine, it will simply turn off. But you do have some control over keeping the balls in play, and you can learn -- at least to some extent -- to "dance" with all the simultaneous actions instead of trying to slow down and analyze each event.
Our brains -- and our lives -- are more complicated than any pinball machine, and we're only beginning to understand all the different factors that create our energy, our well-being, and our mood. In this book, you'll have the opportunity to learn more about some of what I've come to consider the key factors -- brain chemistry, diet, exercise, mental outlook, and openness of spirit. Working with any one of these factors can make a huge difference in overcoming your depression. Working with all of them at once can create a kind of quantum improvement that may, over time, astonish you. This potential for both slow transformation and quantum leaps is to me the true value of the chemistry of joy.
Copyright © 2006 by Henry Emmons
Meet the Author
Henry Emmons, MD, is a psychiatrist who integrates mind-body and natural therapies, mindfulness and allied Buddhist therapeutics, and psychotherapeutic caring and insight in his clinical work. Dr. Emmons is in demand as a workshop and retreat leader for both healthcare professionals and the general public.
Rachel Kranz has written numerous books on science, health, and psychology. She is the author of a novel, Leaps of Faith, and lives in New York City.
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I'm so tired of the "smile, act happy" books. This was a refreshingly different way to look at depression. I appreciated the varied approaches suggested to lift depression. His suggestions on the use of vitamins was especially helpful.
This is a well-organized, easy to follow, and thorough description of depression. Combining the wisdom of both Western and Eastern remedies, the author does an excellent job of providing the reader with a multi-faceted approach to combating depression. The author's approach also implicitly gives more power and control to those who suffer with depression by recommending techniques that can be done almost anywhere, anytime, and without a prescription. I highly recommend, especially for those who are leery of medication.
This is hands down one of the best, most insightful books about depression and a more holistic approach to the treatment of it. It has become a guide in which I utilize daily to assess my life and my intentions and my inner self. I thought this book was so revolutionary and well-written that I bought it for my boyfriend and intend to buy another one for my mother as well. I cannot recommend it enough. It is definitely worth a read and I have already ordered The Chemistry of Calm as well (no thoughts on that yet because I have not started it). If you are looking for a new way to understand depression, get a different view on yourself and improve your life, then you should read this book.