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Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression


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The Natural Way to Heal Anxiety and Depression

When I first wrote “Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression” and before I published my article about my story and my struggles with anti-depressant medications, I knew very little about some of the more natural ways of improving mental well-being. What I am referring to is not the natural tools of counselling, exercise, meditation and getting good sleep at night. I am referring to a whole world of possibilities that have opened up to me through suggestions from readers or my own ceaseless research and experimentation since that article went online in October 2013. As of this writing, that article has now had over 100K views (although after a refresh of the Mad in America site it shows only those views since 2016) and due to this and providing my contact details to readers, I have received hundreds of emails from people from all over the world for the past four years asking for guidance for either themselves or for a loved one whether it is a parent, child, sibling or friend. These people are often at a loss, confused, afraid and wondering where to turn for help. A consistent theme that comes up is their frustration with the medical professional who is either treating them or their loved one as when the issue of the drug being the problem or a tapering off is suggested, these medical professionals respond with anything from indifference to outright hostility towards their patients or suggest that they need to try another medication or take an additional one to stop the side effects of the first one! This is not a couple of people folks, this is a percentage of the world’s population who are being put onto anti-depressant medications for very different reasons without any thought as to whether medications are the right path to take or what the potential impact could be if the patient did have to take them. The World Health Organisation predicts that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, and its researchers estimate that

178 million people were suffering from depression in 2011. [1]

It is disturbing to note that in his book “Your Drug May be your Problem”, Dr Peter Breggin mentions that it was way back in March of 2004 that the FDA finally decided to acknowledge after years and years of professionals such as himself, Dr. David Healy, Dr. Joseph Glenmullen had been warning about the dangers of the SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) that anti-depressants have some major concerning side effects. They finally had to agree that anti-depressants were now “known” to not only cause agitation, anger and suicidality in teenagers but that in adult populations they were also now linked to: “anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia (my words: a big one I see with my clients and have experienced myself with SNRI’s when once being mistakenly placed onto a tricyclic anti-depressant by a senior chief psychiatrist who swore that he would give this to his own brother based on his 20 minute discussion with me), irritability, hostility, impulsivity, akathasia (severe restlessness), hypomania and mania”[2]. Stunningly, the very things that the anti-depressants are often prescribed to help with!

I am certainly not saying that what I will discuss here is definitive in any way. Healing comes in many forms and there are a whole raft of healing methodologies that I am aware of but have not tried or researched in any detail including naturopathy, reiki, sound healing, Chinese medicine etc. What I am primarily focusing on here is what is believed to be the key issue when it comes to anxiety and depression and that is lowered levels of serotonin and the brain and body’s ability to communicate effectively using the neurotransmitters we need to help us cope and feel good in life. These lowered levels may come about for a variety of reasons as will be discussed and what I propose is a dietary approach and vitamin and supplement approach that is targeted at both increasing the actual levels of serotonin in the body and brain as well as increasing and facilitating the brains capacity to communicate effectively within itself.

Part of the reason that I have kept researching and learning more and more about psychiatry, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications is my strong desire to get off anti-depressants completely but really a much larger reason is my drive to raise awareness not only within the general public but within our government health agencies and within the medical professions themselves – especially doctors and psychiatrists.

The natural health professions already know a lot (but certainly not all) of what I now know but I am consistently and very alarmingly shown how very little the medical profession really knows about the balance of pros versus cons of taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. In addition, they know little or nothing about some of the things I am going to talk about in this chapter with regards to exactly what produces serotonin and dopamine in our bodies and brains, how our bodies convert certain foods and amino acids into other forms which then become our happy and joyful neurotransmitters – dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin (noradrenalin has more of an energising/activating effect on us and is supposed to help remove the lethargy that comes with deep depression).

There are always consequences when it comes to taking psychiatric medications and I am referring to starting them, staying on them or trying to come off them when people feel they are ready. As an example, just one of so many, I had a client who recently came to see me after having had a breakdown due to his marriage being on the rocks and his wife being a functional but getting worse alcoholic. He had never been on anti-depressants in his life before and was now in his mid-forties. When I asked him how his sleep was he said it was very bad. I asked which drug he was on and he told me he was put on 75mg of Effexor XR (slow-release). Having had my own exposure to this wonderful drug (note the sarcasm), I asked him at what time of the day he took the drug. He said he had originally been taking it in the morning but had felt queasy and so had tried taking it at night. I went on to explain to him that Effexor is an SNRI (serotonin and NORADRENALIN reuptake inhibitor) meaning that it will artificially increase both of these vital neurotransmitters in your brain. I said, you are basically doing the equivalent of lying down to go to sleep and then giving yourself a shot of adrenalin! The look of surprise on his face showed me that his doctor had not even explained to him exactly what it was he was taking or how it would help – or not help in his case. Effexor is also known to be one of the most difficult drugs to come off because it only comes in capsule format and dosages of 37.5mg, 75mg and 150mg. These are incredibly hard if not impossible to breakdown into lower doses as you can with the tablet and water-soluble medications. I have had one client who successfully weaned off Effexor over two whole years by opening and counting the beads in each capsule and removing a couple each time! And she still endured some heavy withdrawal reactions.

I explained some of this to my client and mentioned that getting no sleep was only compounding his difficulty in staying calm and focused and that although people generally do have sleep disturbances during anxiety and/or depression, he was doing himself a huge disservice by taking it at night. I saw him two weeks later and he informed me that his sleep had improved. He could now get 4-5 hours’ sleep without waking. And that was an improvement! I know how it goes because I have been there, except when I was taking Effexor XR, which served a purpose for me but only for a very limited period, I had huge issues with not being able to fall asleep or falling asleep and waking two or three hours later and being “wired” and unable to fall asleep again. I transitioned myself away from Effexor and have never looked back.

In this chapter I will discuss exactly how anti-depressant medications work (supposedly) because even what we think we know as facts about the chemistry of the brain is being turned on its head more and more as time goes by. We used to think that it was a FACT that neurotransmitters are created and remain within our brains. We now know, that a large proportion of these neurotransmitters are created and can be found in the stomach and this has implications for a range of things to do with what we eat and drink as well as other medications we take such as anti-biotics. So, let us begin there shall we?

Antibiotics

It came as quite a surprise to me only recently whilst reading Dr.David Perlmutter’s brilliant books “Grain Brain” and “Brain Maker” to learn that anyone who has had to take antibiotics for a period of time may have lowered levels of serotonin due to the fact that antibiotics as we all know destroy good and bad bacteria in the gut, however, as it turns out, anti-biotics are also destroying and preventing the creation of serotonin in our stomachs as well.

As I was pondering this it suddenly occurred to me that when I turned 15 years old I got a really bad attack of acne. I tried all the soaps and just about anything I could to stop them but it just went from bad to worse. It didn’t help that I had recently got braces and glasses as well and so my poor self-esteem suffered something horrible during my teen years. But, more than that, I remembered that rather than being put onto Roaccutane the skin specialist recommended another acne medication called Minocycline. As an aside, the brand name Accutane (Roaccutane) was discontinued by its manufacturer in 2009 – Roche. A 2001 article in the New England Journal of Medicine linked Accutane to depression. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study examined 110 people who took Accutane and were hospitalized for depression or attempted suicide. Their ages ranged from 12 to 47. By the time Roche stopped making the drug, people who experienced Accutane’s side effects – as well as their families – had filed nearly 1,000 lawsuits against the company

I took Minomycin (Minocycline) as a teenager religiously for approximately four years. And so, I decided to look it up online and was surprised to learn that it is a broad spectrum antibiotic! Every day, for four years…as a teenager. If what Dr. Perlmutter says is true, and I have no reason to doubt his credentials or over thirty years of research into the food brain connection – then my brain was being starved of essential neurotransmitters during a crucial time in my adult development. Now, I am not saying that it was exclusively the reason that I struggled with anxiety in my young adult life (although on thinking about it I do not remember being an anxious child or anxious prepubescent). In fact, I was quite a naughty risk taker and would often land myself in hot water at home for jumping off roofs, throwing fruits over the fences at friend’s neighbour’s windows or smoking behind an old oak tree at the age of 10 or so.

I digress, however, it is part of the story of me never really having any major anxiety issues as a child. I was as scared as your average kid of clowns or what have you and when I reflected on taking antibiotics for all those years and then seeing in black and white that they can either destroy or prevent serotonin from being produced in the stomach, it really gave me pause to rethink just exactly where my anxiety in my late teens and early twenties came from. Nature or nurture or something worse – medical science in the form of drugs supposed to help us but unwittingly doing more damage than they are worth. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It really makes me wonder how many teenagers are suffering needlessly from anxiety and/or depression due to this issue. Going through puberty is hard enough without antibiotics screwing up your neurobiology!

The end result is just to be aware that if you are taking antibiotics, you MAY have a problem with lowered levels of serotonin and dopamine and as such it is just good practice to take a high potency probiotic. One strain in particular that Dr. Perlmutter recommends is that you ensure that the bacteria bifidobacterium infantis is present in your probiotic.

Foods that can help and foods than can harm.

You may be surprised to learn that eating a slice of whole meal bread could also be a contributor to lowered mood and changes in blood sugar levels and neurobiology. In fact, any food containing gluten has this possibility as our bodies were not made to process the kinds of grains we consume today – especially the wheat found in our breads, pastas, pastries and cookies. Since around the age of twenty four – about the same time I was put onto antidepressants for the first time – I started having trouble with dry skin. It seemed to just be something that I had to live with but it became embarrassing at times and the skin around my nose and cheeks would sometimes be red. It improved somewhat into my thirties but never really cleared up. It did seem to get worse in colder weather which is to be expected. It also appears to get worse if I don’t get enough sleep. However, none of these could account for the consistent red and dry skin. I tried once again any and every topical treatment I could find including cortisone creams which are really not good for you. But, after having read Dr. Perlmutter’s books, I went cold turkey on gluten. I had been thinking about doing this for some time as quite a bit of the research that I was finding had a consistent theme of avoiding too much gluten. It’s not so much carbohydrates that are the problem, we all need a good amount of protein and carbohydrates, it’s the gluten! When I started investigating exactly what I was eating in my diet that had gluten in it I was very surprised. Call me ignorant but I had no idea that oats are full of gluten and I would often have oats for breakfast thinking how healthy I was being. Out went the oats. Eggs on toast, out went the toast. I have found enough restaurants will now offer you gluten free toast anyway if you like so this is no biggie. To be honest, it really wasn’t that hard giving up gluten. You start to focus on getting more protein into your diet which as you will see in a moment is critical, but you also just start to think of meals that are fairly easy to prepare – such as baked fish with veggies and some roasted potato chips or rice (rice is safely gluten free – hooray for rice. As is all corn/maize based meals and snacks). However, do be aware that white rice in particular has a high sugar content. So, all in moderation.

What I found literally within two to three weeks of stopping gluten is that my skin cleared up. The angry red splotches just magically disappeared. No ointments, no medications, just no gluten and good enough sleep. I also notice that even after eating a meal such as spaghetti bolognaise with gluten free spaghetti (made from soy and rice flour), I never feel bloated the way I normally would.

Another reason I chose to go gluten free (even though I still cheat here and there and have something naughty – I don’t believe in the deprivation method of changing your habits) is that Dr. Perlmutter indicates in his books that gluten is now linked to higher incidences of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and diabetes.

A study that he mentions in his book “Grain Brain” mentioned a research study about a little island village in the Mediterranean that had the most centurions in the world (people who lived to see 100) as well as the lowest incidences of Alzheimer’s and dementia in both men and women. When looking for what caused this amazing outcome in this population the only thing they found radically different in the lives of these people was their diet. They drank red wine and coffee and had plenty of protein based meals such as fish and meat but very little if any breads. I’ll leave you to ponder that and also to think about whether your own little gluten free experiment is in order.

Dr. Perlmutter also indicates a direct link between gluten and inflammation in the body and brain. We can feel and see inflammation in the body with conditions such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis but we cannot feel or see (without a brain scan) inflammation in the brain that may also be caused by gluten. Either way, I decided to get off the gluten and my skin clearing was actually just a nice side effect. Way too many people in the western world are now dying from dementia and Alzheimer’s and I really don’t think our faster pace of life or higher stress levels can account for this phenomenon.

In addition, I’m going to tell you something you already know about your diet. Cut the sugar, reduce caffeine to one drink per day (preferably in the morning) particularly if you suffer with anxiety or sleep problems and certainly nothing with caffeine after 2pm.

Ensuring that you eat your fair share of green leafy vegetables is also advice as old as the hills in terms of diet and well-being advice but it’s funny how few people actually follow through on this. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of buying and chopping veggies every day then cheat by getting the super green veggie powders that are now commercially available in most major supermarkets and health food stores and make yourself a berry, banana, protein powder and super green veggie smoothie. Brilliant for your brain and energy levels.

And of course, drink loads of water, at least two liters per day (I can usually manage about one and a half per day easily), which is easily done if you carry around one of those 500ml bottles and just make sure you are refilling it a few times a day. This will be even easier and more necessary when we go through the section on supplements and vitamins as you will need to have your water with you anyway.

The last thing that I will recommend in terms of actual food intake or changes is to try and add more protein in the form of fish, eggs, milk (lactose free if you can get it) and meat. The reasons are many. One of the reasons fish is on that list is because certain fish are high in Omega 3 essential oils. When I tell friends or clients about the need to be taking Omega 3 every day some will say “But I eat fish in my diet!” Unfortunately, the amounts of fish you would have to eat to get the benefits we will talk about in terms of your brain are not reasonable or desirable for anyone.

This is where I end the discussion on diet and I believe this covers the essentials you need to know in your quest for removing anxiety and depression from your life naturally through diet. There are plenty other good books to be read completely dedicated to the subject.

Vitamins and Supplements that Can Help

This section will detail some of the most important vitamins, minerals and amino acids that you can take to assist you staying away from taking anti-depressants in the first place, feeling better while being on them or supporting you during a tapering programme. This has been, as I mentioned earlier, a four year odyssey for me both personally and professionally as I have tried various options as I learned about them, avoided others due to fear mongering online (only to find out there were other reasons certain amino acids were not commercially available), and am still in the process of investigating some others.

What I have learned and shared with my clients and those who write to me from all over the world has helped many people cope better with anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug withdrawal. When I think of the needless suffering that hundreds and thousands of people have gone through across the globe due to a lack of understanding and awareness of other viable alternatives to taking psychiatric medication for anxiety and depression I get pretty fired up as you could possibly tell from my writing. The number of young teens being put onto anti-anxiety and/or anti-depressant medications prematurely in some cases and completely unnecessarily in other cases makes me really angry. As they say, if only I knew then what I know now, and if I could magically have gone back in time to my twenty three year old self back in March 2000, I could have possibly saved myself 20 years of the difficulties of being on and trying to come off these medications. It’s not only what I have had to go through but what my family and some friends have had to go through too, and I know I am certainly not alone when it comes to not only medications but mental health in general when people struggle with anxiety and/or depression.

5-HTP (5- Hydroxytryptophan)

So, let us begin at the beginning, with the first supplement that was brought to my attention very soon after I published my story online in 2013 by one of the readers of the story. This particular person mentioned that once off the medications, a person could/should take an amino acid called 5-HTP. I had never, not once in thirteen years of experiencing anxiety and depression personally and as a mental health professional, heard about 5-HTP. Have you heard of it? I’m willing to be a lot of money that you haven’t and that your doctor and definitely your psychiatrist haven’t either. Why is that? What is 5-HTP?

5-HTP is a chemical by-product of the protein building block L-tryptophan. It is also produced commercially (and this is what you would be taking if you chose to try it) from the seeds of an African plant known as Griffonia simplicifolia. 5-HTP is the last step in the process of converting protein in your stomach into the essential neurotransmitters – serotonin and dopamine. Protein is the key building block required in your diet which your body uses to synthesize (using a combination of vitamins) into L-tryptophan and then 5-HTP. Having high levels of 5-HTP should lead to higher levels of serotonin and dopamine which should lead you to feel calmer, happier, more focused and generally more optimistic about just about anything in your life. Note that it can take a number of weeks to be effective and – once again – the dosage is variable (a typical dose of 5-HTP is in the range of 300-500 mg, taken either once daily or in divided doses. Lower doses may also be effective, although usually when paired with other substances). 5-HTP is used as a supplement (rather than tryptophan itself) to increase serotonin levels as tryptophan can be diverted into niacin production or protein construction whereas 5-HTP has the sole fate of serotonin synthesis. 5-HTP also crosses the blood brain barrier easily. [3]

Although this may seem like a scary way to approach taking something to help with anxiety or depression, I would prefer trialing various dosages of 5-HTP any day over playing around with an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. It’s certainly, in my opinion, worth trying the 5-HTP first.

Even though it is becoming more widely known that the chemical imbalance theory of mental health problems is actually no more than psychiatry’s little green man behind the curtain or the emperor with no clothes, rather than the objective-scientific truth, these neurotransmitters do exist and are responsible for many of the cases of clinical depression and debilitating anxiety (and in some cases panic attacks) in most people.

However, it is one thing to say that serotonin levels have been lowered and possibly caused by stressful life events which led to increased cortisol – a chemical in the body released during times of stress which may also reduce production of serotonin in the body – but it is quite another thing to tell a person that he or she has a “chemical imbalance“ in their brain and that they therefore have some sort of “disease” that is as incurable as diabetes. “Just keep taking your medications the same way a diabetic needs insulin” and shut up and don’t you dare challenge the established order of psychiatry’s control of medicating anxiety and depression or worry about the links between some in the psychiatric professional communities and the huge pharmaceutical companies which are making billions of dollars a year. Surely it can’t be as easy as getting their sales representatives to buy our doctors lunch and explain to them why this new wonder drug is good for their patients with depression and has even fewer side effects than the previous products or versions? You get the picture. If you want to know a lot more about all of this please visit Robert Whitaker’s brilliant site www.madinamerica.com and better yet get a copy of his seminal book “Anatomy of an Epidemic” as well as another book written as far back as 1988 (the very year Prozac was introduced into the market) by Dr. Elliot Valenstein called “Blaming the Brain”.

In blaming the brain, Dr Valenstein states the following in his opening chapter: “Throughout this book I will argue that the evidence and arguments supporting all these claims about the relationship of brain chemistry to psychological problems and personality and behavioral traits are far from compelling and are most likely wrong. The claim that psychotherapeutic drugs correct a biochemical imbalance that is the root cause of most psychological problems also rests on a very shaky scientific foundation. These ideas are simply an unproven hypothesis, but for reasons that will be explored, they are heavily promoted as a well-substantiated explanatory theory. Because these ideas have enormous implications, there is a great need to examine the evidence and basic assumptions much more critically than has been done up to now”.[4]

Coming back to 5-HTP, it was banned in America until only recently due to some bad batches that came out of a dodgy manufacturer in Asia which led to some major government concerns about its properties. I believe that it is now available in the USA and is certainly available in Australia through online purchase. However, interestingly enough, you will not find it in any pharmacy or even health food store because it just isn’t widely known. And I just have to ask why? Why would a naturally occurring food derivative (amino acid) that can help to increase serotonin in the least disruptive and invasive way not be on the shelves in pharmacies and heavily promoted by doctors? I’ll leave you work that one out. There are different opinions online about the efficacy of 5-HTP as there are about just about any product when it comes to mental health or well-being. And, we are all different. We all respond differently to different products and food substances so there is no one size fits all here of course. But, wouldn’t you say it’s worth trying something natural FIRST with no known side effects or major withdrawal issues before medically tampering with our body and brains neurobiology with so many unknowns?

One caveat here and this is where the story gets a little thorny. You are not supposed to take 5-HTP if you are already taking an antidepressant (SSRI or SNRI) just in case you end up with a case of serotonin syndrome which is where your brain/body overproduces serotonin and this can lead to potentially some harmful outcomes and even (as some sites will say) fatal results. There are very specific signs of potential serotonin syndrome though and so if you are starting to experience any of them you would just immediately stop taking the 5-HTP. It’s only our lack of knowledge of what is happening that is the problem. Once you know what to look for you are responsible to monitor how you are reacting to anything you take whether it’s 5-HTP or an aspirin. And ensure you have the support of a trusted medical doctor but only one who is willing to support what you would like to do with your own body, mind and life.

L-Tyrosine

L-Tyrosine is another amino acid supplement that assists with increasing – through natural means – our levels of dopamine and to some degree norepinephrine. I came across it while searching for natural ways to increase dopamine levels as I had discovered that serotonin could be increased using 5 HTP so I wondered whether something similar was the case with dopamine – and sure enough, if you seek you shall find.

L- Tyrosine is one of the amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. The body makes tyrosine from another amino acid called phenylalanine. Tyrosine can also be found in dairy products, meats, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, oats, and wheat. However, trying to get the amount of tyrosine you would need from food has the same issue as trying to get all the Vitamin C you need from oranges or all the Omega 3 Fish Oil you need from eating fish. Way too hard.

Several studies show that tyrosine improves mental performance under stressful conditions, such as military training, cold-induced stress, or noise-induces stress. In addition, tyrosine improves memory under stressful conditions, such as cold-stress or multitasking. Taking tyrosine seems to help people who have lost a night’s sleep stay alert. Also, early research suggests that tyrosine improves memory and reasoning in people who are sleep-deprived.[5]

Anecdotal reports from people who have tried L-Tyrosine that it helps increase energy, concentration and mood. Well worth giving it a try I would say. I have used it myself and have found it to be of benefit along with the other dietary changes and supplements mentioned here.

St. John’s Wort

I am not going to say too much about St. John’s Wort, firstly because I have not really had much experience with it other than to note it is widely prescribed in Germany rather than antidepressants. Apparently, German doctors and the German public in general prefer to use St. John’s Wort as a first line treatment for depression and various studies in Germany have shown it to be more effective as placebo, and other anti-depressants. Secondly, I don’t think it is easy to get results from St. John’s Wort as it takes longer to work and it is not clear exactly what dosage one would need to take for it to be considered “effective”. I suppose this would be the case with most medicines – medical or alternative – when it comes to healing anxiety and/or depression. Anyone considering using alternative methods for healing anxiety and depression or coming off anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications needs to be prepared to do their homework and then undertake a bit of experimentation. With regards to St. John’s Wort, anyone suffering from mild to moderate depression should probably consider trialing it for themselves but expect it to take a few weeks to work and to play around with different dosages to see what dosage is right for them. The best thing about St. John’s Wort is that there are little to no side-effects and it is a natural herb, therefore it is safe compared to taking any psychiatric drug.

Vitamin B6, B12 and Vitamin C

Most people are aware of the need to take a Vitamin B supplement. I remember as a teenager taking a multi-vitamin B during exam times as I had heard that it was good for stress. I have always equated the need to be taking a good Vitamin supplement with good stress management. However, I only found out in the last four years that they are also very important in the process of your body converting protein into Tryptophan. Most people are aware that Vitamin B12 is a key vitamin that should be checked if they are suffering with extreme tiredness or having difficulty with their moods. B6 is also important in this process. The same goes for Vitamin C. We should all be taking a good vitamin C supplement on a daily basis. I personally take 1000mg per day. In addition, taking a high strength multi-B complex is also highly recommended due to the body’s need for these vitamins during the synthesis of protein into tryptophan and then tryptophan into 5-HTP, serotonin and dopamine.

Omega 3 Fish Oils

I had heard about the benefits of taking fish oils in terms of it being good for joints as well as being good for the brain. What I never really knew was that Omega 3 and Omega 6 play pivotal roles in helping the brain function as well as ensuring a healthy environment for your brain cells and neurotransmitters to communicate with each other. Omega 3 Fish Oils are also helpful in reducing one of the withdrawal effects of tapering off an anti-depressant which is the very unpleasant electric “zap” like sensations that commonly occur when attempting a withdrawal. I still cannot believe how few doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists are aware of this. In terms of dosage, Fish Oils come in all shapes and sizes and it was through reading some of information from The Road Back Programme created by James Harper that understood that not all omega 3 fish oils are created equal. Jim is a very caring pharmacologist who has been helping people reduce or taper off anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications for over 16 years. Dosage recommendations vary and Jim mentions that the best Fish Oils are derived from fish such as salmon, herring and trout as opposed to tuna. Effective dose recommendations can range from 400-800mg per day. In order to avoid having to take 4-6 capsules, I just ensure that I buy fish oils from credible brands which have high EPA potency such as 240mg or more per capsule as opposed to the standard 180mg in most commercially available products. Ensure that the product is also mercury tested and says that it does not have a reflux effect. I wouldn’t enjoy smelling like fish breath all day long and I’m sure you don’t want to either!

Passionflower

This is another naturally occurring remedy that I found out about from James Harper. James not only researched products that could assist people with drug withdrawal but also sourced and created a range of his own natural products. I did try taking some of James’ other products at one stage and there may have been some benefit in taking them but I found the most useful was the Body Calm Formula which is essentially passionflower mixed with the skin of a very specific cherry called – the Montmort cherry. In addition, Jim has created a proprietary product called JNK, which he has trialed again in a recent study in 2016 showing very positive results for both anxiety and depression. For more information you can visit his site at www.theroadback.org

Magnesium

Most of us know the sage advice of having a glass of warm milk can assist us with sleeping better or falling asleep. One of the biggest reasons for this is the magnesium in the milk.

“Magnesium is an essential dietary mineral, and the second most prevalent electrolyte in the human body. Magnesium deficiencies are common in developed countries. A deficiency increases blood pressure, reduces glucose tolerance and causes neural excitation. Magnesium deficiencies are common in the western diet because grains are poor sources of magnesium. Other prominent sources of magnesium, like nuts and leafy vegetables, are not eaten as often. It is possible to fix a magnesium deficiency through dietary changes (or supplementation). If magnesium is supplemented to attenuate a deficiency, it acts as a sedative, reducing blood pressure and improving insulin sensitivity. Maintaining healthy magnesium levels is also associated with a protective effect against depression and ADHD.” The standard dose for magnesium supplementation is 200-400mg per day. It is best taken in the evening as it helps to relax the muscles and assists with sleep. When looking at the diets of persons suffering from depression, there appears to be an inverse relationship between dietary Magnesium intake and depressive symptoms.[6]

 Zinc

Zinc is one of the 24 micronutrients needed for survival. It is found in meat, egg, and legume products. Oysters are particularly good sources of zinc. It is an aphrodisiac and testosterone booster, but it will only raise testosterone levels if the user is deficient in zinc. Zinc is also very important for the functioning of the enzyme, hormone, and immune systems.[7] Zinc has two standard dosages. The low dosage is 5-10mg, while the high dosage is 25-45mg. The low dose works well as a daily preventative, while the high dosage should be taken by anyone at risk for a zinc deficiency. Secondary to an improvement in overall mood, aggressive symptoms have been noted to be reduced with low dose zinc supplementation.

Staying Active (an absolute must)

Bolster your internal resources with good nutrition, stress-reduction techniques, regular sleep — and especially physical activity. Exercise has a powerful antidepressant effect. It’s been shown that people are far less likely to relapse after recovering from depression if they exercise three times a week or more. Exercise makes serotonin more available for binding to receptor sites on nerve cells, so it can compensate for changes in serotonin levels as you taper off SSRIs and other medications that target the serotonin system. (http://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/going-off-antidepressants).

Summary

The above dietary and lifestyle suggestions are the ones I would most highly recommend regardless of whether you are still on or thinking about tapering off anti-depressant medications. In addition, I would say that anyone who is suffering with stress, anxiety or depression should go down the road of counselling, meditation, yoga, a gluten free diet with lots of protein, vegetables and probiotics, mild to moderate cardio-vascular exercise, supplements and counselling. Finally, connecting to those around you and building a strong network of supportive professionals, friends and family would also be something that I would say is a requirement for good mental wellbeing and enduring recovery from anxiety and depression.

 

 

 

[1] White, Ian. Beat Depression the Drug Free Way, 2011

[2] [2] Breggin, Dr. Peter R. Your Drug may be your Problem. Da Capo Press. 2007

[3] https://examine.com/supplements/5-htp/

[4] Valenstein, Elliot. S. “Blaming the Brain”, Free Press (1988).

[5] http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-1037-tyrosine

[6] https://examine.com/supplements/magnesium/

[7]https://examine.com/supplements/zinc/


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Lesson 8 – The Sun is Always Shining behind the Clouds 

Jerry walked into the MacDonald’s, went to the counter and ordered himself a big mac meal with a large bottle of Coke Zero. He waited while his food was being prepared and looked around at the other customers coming and going. There were some mothers with their little ones jumping up and down with excitement asking for a Happy Meal because (as he knew all too well) they wanted the toy more than the meal. He thought, so clever those buggers in the marketing department at MacDonald’s. He had read somewhere that their marketing strategy for decades had been called “from the cradle to the grave” and he could see how it was working like a charm. With his own children though both he and his now estranged wife at least agreed on something and that was to avoid junk food as much as possible even though they still allowed it as a treat on occasion.

Jerry had recently turned 27 and was feeling very frustrated with where life had taken him so far. He had tried to get into studying after high school and had enrolled in a college course in electronics but had found that he just couldn’t make sense of all the diagrams and mathematics needed to pass the course. He knew he was intelligent and had enjoyed maths at school (much to the surprise of both his parents and his friends), but when it came to the college course and studying electricity, he just wasn’t getting it or just not inspired enough to really focus himself into succeeding. This had all occurred between the ages of 19 and 21. After that, Jerry had drifted into doing some construction work and had enjoyed the physical aspect of it and it was then that he had met his wife – April.

They met at a barbeque one evening at a mutual friend’s house and starting talking about some of their favourite movies and found that they had many similarities. The chemistry was certainly there and so they agreed to exchange numbers and went on their first date which was remarkable because he had never felt so at ease talking to a woman and they ended up talking on a bench overlooking the sea until 1am in the morning. He felt his excitement growing as each date passed and was somewhat concerned about whether she felt the same as he did and he didn’t want to open up too quickly because he had been hurt in the past. However, after a few dates he decided to tell her how he felt and to his amazement she said she felt the same. His heart exploded with joy. They continued to date for another few months and then moved in together. After another year, which was mixed with a few up and down experiences, he proposed and they were married soon after. A number of his friends and family had asked him, “aren’t you a bit young to be getting married?”, but Jerry knew how he felt about April. He knew she was the one he wanted to be with for the rest of his life.

Today, as he sat eating his MacDonald’s meal, thinking how he should be following his own advice to his children but not really caring at the moment, he found himself in a state of misery and frustration. Over the past few months, things between himself and April had been quickly sliding down a slippery slope towards marriage failure. He couldn’t quite believe that she was the same person that he had met and in addition, he didn’t recognise the person he had become when they were having an argument. Jerry really didn’t like conflict and did as much as he could to do the right thing by April but it just seemed to him that nothing he ever did was quite good enough.

As their arguments became more frequent, the negative feelings became more intense and it seemed to Jerry that every minor incident now seemed to flare up in way that got out of proportion very quickly.

In addition to this, Jerry was being bullied at work by a few of the bricklayers on the construction site. He was not the tallest or strongest man around although he was very lean and muscular. However, Jerry was never one to engage in silly childish arguments like it was a school playground and he had been using his intellect and wit to try to avert the behaviour of the bullies and he had had some success but things just seemed to getting worse.

Financially, Jerry and April were not in the best position either. His wages weren’t that bad, and she worked as a nurse doing rotating shifts but together they were still struggling to make ends meet. This additional pressure was not helping their relationship and neither was the fact that they often worked different hours and so did not seem to spend much quality time together. These days, when they did have time off at the same time they would invariably end up in an argument. It had gotten to the point where Jerry was starting to feel very depressed about his situation and was struggling at times to get up and go to work. He had even had some ideas of just ending it all and that had scared the living daylights out of him as he had never contemplated such a thing in his life before.

Jerry stirred when he heard some teenagers laughing while they ate their meals at a nearby table and felt irritation flowing through his mind and body. They have no respect for the people around them he thought. He was dimly aware however that teenagers having fun and making a noise at a fast food outlet would never have bothered him in the past and he started to wonder if he was losing his mind altogether.

He picked up the remains of his meal, which he had hardly eaten, and threw them in the bin on his way back to his truck in the parking lot. He had never had problems with appetite before but he was not feeling much like eating lately and had realised that he had begun to lose weight and he wasn’t even exercising at the gym anymore.

As he got into his car to head back to the construction site, Jerry realised that he felt very alone. While he did have a circle of family and friends around him, when the issues had begun with April as well as the bullying at work, he had found himself withdrawing further and further from any social outings or offers by his friends to spend time together. Usually, he would have jumped at the opportunity to head to the golf range and hit a bucket of balls or to play soccer with his friends in the park after work. But lately he had just been going home, having a few beers and drifting off to sleep in front of the television. Sometimes he woke up at 2 or 3am and went to bed to find April turned over and sleeping away from his side of the bed. Realising that she didn’t bother to wake him or to try and engage him in conversation just made him feel worse. His friends had slowly stopped asking him and this made him feel even more isolated.

Jerry arrived back at the construction site, parked his car a block or two away and grabbed his hard hat and bright orange vest. He walked into the site having some images running through his mind of what it would be like if he was accidently crushed by one of the massive concrete slabs that were being hoisted above him by the huge cranes in the middle of the building site. He shook the thought off and headed to the lunch room or “mess hall” as his fellow workmates liked to call it. He wanted to grab a quick cup of coffee before heading back up to continue the installation of piping in the men’s toilets on the 7th level of the building.

When he walked into the lunch room he noticed one of his supervisors, Ed, standing making himself a cup of coffee at the counter. He tried his best to compose himself and headed over to the counter.

“Jerry, how’s it going mate?” asked Ed routinely.

Jerry didn’t know how to respond or what his voice was going to sound like but he just responded with, “Yeh, I’m ok thanks” as he grabbed a mug out of the cupboard, saw how dirty and disgusting it was and put it back and grabbed another one, hoping this one wouldn’t look like it was likely to give him a major case of gastro. He generally avoided having coffee in the lunch room for that very reason and he was not a big fan of instant coffee either but he just felt he needed more time to gather himself before heading up to work. He was also aware that he was going to have to walk past the bricklayers who had been calling him names and giving him grief over the past few months. He was worried that today he may actually snap and do something he would regret if they asked him one more time where Tom was and whether he was tired of the mean old cat chasing him around.

Jerry found a mug that looked relatively unlikely to cause major vomiting and made himself a cup of coffee with two spoons of coffee and two spoons of sugar. He felt like he needed a pick me up to feel better, even though he was aware that caffeine can make you feel more anxious.

Ed was watching him carefully out of the corner of his eye and when Jerry went to sit down at a bench on his own, Ed walked over to him and asked if he could sit down.

“Sure”, said Jerry, getting a little worried that he would have to engage in a conversation when that was the last thing he wanted to do right now.

“It’s been really hot these last few days, hasn’t it?” asked Ed.

Jerry looked up briefly and said, “Yeh I know, hasn’t been fun out there”.

Ed was a man in his mid-forties who had been working with the company for over ten years. He had been promoted to supervisor a few years before and although he could be really stern with the workers on site, he was also known for his ability to engage with staff at all levels. In addition, he had a strong interest in mental well-being at work and had requested training in how to support workers who were struggling as he had seen too many young men trying to self-medicate their problems away with alcohol and things generally ending up badly for them at home and at work.

Ed had been noticing that Jerry’s behaviours had changed over the past few weeks. He would usually walk around with a smile and was always ready with a joke or two. He enjoyed the banter with some of the other workers on site and was generally well liked. He generally prided himself on his appearance and would be clean shaven and yet Ed had noticed that there were quite a few occasions where his beard was starting to show and he looked like he hadn’t slept much. He was also one of the more reliable workers that Ed had worked with but Ed had noticed that Jerry had come to work late a few times in the past few weeks and was often trying to avoid talking to anyone, especially a senior.

“Mate, do you mind if we talk openly for a minute?” Ed asked.

“Um…yeh. Is everything alright? Hope I didn’t make a mistake with that piping this morning” said Jerry looking quite concerned as to why Ed was wanting to talk to him.

“No, the piping is fine. It’s just that I’ve noticed some changes in your behaviour lately. You don’t seem to be yourself mate. I’m just concerned that’s all”, Ed said. He had ensured that there was nobody within earshot who may overhear their conversation.

“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”, Jerry attempted to be relaxed and composed but something in Ed’s expression made him feel that he wasn’t going to be able to hold onto the façade for much longer.

“Well, Jerry. I can tell you that I’ve been in this business a long time. I’ve seen how tough it can be on a young fellow, especially a married one with little ones like yourself. Sometimes, things can get overwhelming and we don’t know where to turn and in our environment, it can be even harder, can’t it? Because everyone here has got all their stuff together, right? Nobody here feels any emotions? That stuff is for weaklings. We’re all tough strong construction workers, we do it tough and we don’t complain. And if we do then we are weak right?”, Ed said.

Jerry was taken by surprise to hear Ed speak about emotions so openly and to acknowledge the exact thing that he – Jerry – had been concerned about. Others finding out and thinking there was something wrong with him and that he was weak. He wasn’t sure how to respond and so he just shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his coffee which he could feel had started to get cold.

“Look, Jerry. I know something is bugging you. You can’t deny it. You’ve been coming to work late and that’s not like you at all. You’ve stopped joining in for anything social at work and I’ve noticed you’re just staying in the background and that just isn’t you. I’m not saying you need to spill the beans to me right here and now and you certainly don’t need to tell me but I want you to tell someone. You know we have an employee assistance counselling service that is free and offers you six hours of counselling over the phone or face to face?” Ed asked, as he pulled a card out of his top pocket and it handed it to Jerry.

Jerry took the card as a tear started to roll down his cheek.

“It’s ok mate. We all go through rough times. We’re all human beings and anyone who pretends that they are just sailing through life with no downs and only ups are either lying or the luckiest bastards in the world”, Ed said with an encouraging smile.

Despite himself and even how he was feeling at that moment, Jerry found himself utter a brief laugh and immediately started to feel a little better when he realised that Ed was not judging him and was only showing genuine concern.

“Thanks Ed. I’m not sure if I will go to the counselling, I may call them to have a chat or maybe come and see you in your office at some stage”, said Jerry as he turned the card over to see the phone number and services being offered by the counselling service which he hadn’t even known existed.

“That’s great Jerry my door is always open… unless it’s closed,” said Ed with a wink as he got up to put his mug in the dishwasher. He turned around just before he got to the counter and said, “Remember mate, the sun is always shining behind the clouds”, and he put his mug in the dishwasher and walked out of the lunch room into the bright September afternoon.

Jerry thought he had heard that saying somewhere before and wondered why Ed had chosen to say that particular one to him at this moment. He didn’t quite understand the meaning of the saying. So what if the sun was shining behind the clouds? If we are stuck underneath them, what good does that do us?

Jerry got up, feeling a little more hopeful than he had when he woke up that morning, and headed to the 7th floor to complete his work for the day.

As he lay in bed that night with April once again turned over facing away from him, Jerry stared at the ceiling and went through his options in his mind. Either he could tell April that it was over and that he couldn’t stand feeling like this anymore or he could first try and talk to the employee assistance people. He also needed to talk about the bullying and see if there was a way to get that to stop. The main thing that he was struggling with was how his thinking had changed and how different he felt from who he knew himself to be. Being down, negative and not finding enjoyment in life was just not who he knew he was at the core but he was worried that he had somehow been fundamentally changed by the ongoing stresses and pressures of the past few months.

 

As he eventually drifted off to sleep he remembered Ed’s words and the saying seemed to play on a continuous loop in his mind, “The sun is always shining behind the clouds…the sun is always shining behind the clouds…”

Jerry slept but his sleep was fitful and full of nebulous people and “things” that seemed to be after him. Each dream he slipped into seemed to involve his need to defend himself against an attack and he called out and even kicked out once or twice in his sleep, which woke April up and gave her quite a fright. She still really loved Jerry with all her heart and had been feeling terrible about how things had disintegrated between them but she just hadn’t seemed able to find a way to allow her negative emotions to subside long enough to allow her feelings of love towards him to come back to the surface. She tried to soothe Jerry as he had another fitful moment and he seemed to calm down.

The next morning, when Jerry woke up, April was lying on his chest with her arm around him. He was quite surprised and gave her a hug. She stirred and looked at him, “You were yelling out and thrashing around a bit in your sleep”.

“Oh really? I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t disturb you too much” he said, feeling a bit guilty but very happy she was lying next to him and that their conversation seemed to be more gentle.

“It’s okay….” she said and after a pause, “what’s happened to us Jerry? Why can’t we be like this all the time? What’s been happening with you because you don’t seem to be the same person I married and I want my Jerry back” she said as her eyes became watery with tears.

“I know babe. I’m not sure either but all the pressure has been getting to me and I have been feeling very down. I just don’t know who I am anymore and it scares me”, he said as he stroked her arm. It felt good to be lying there together talking in a way they hadn’t for ages and he felt the stirring of how he truly felt about April returning.

“I remember one of my dreams last night”, he said.

“Tell me about it”, said April, enjoying the feel of Jerry’s arms around her.

“I was running away from something terrifying and it was during the middle of a storm. The rain was coming down pretty hard and I was getting soaked. There was lightning and thunder every couple of minutes and I couldn’t make out who or what it was but something was coming for me and so I was just running down different streets to get away. I tried to ask a couple of people for help who I passed but they didn’t seem able to see or hear me. It was late afternoon but the rain and wind was fierce. As I turned down one more street I stopped and for some reason had this feeling that if I wanted to, I could fly upwards. I felt the certainty of this inside myself and I just pushed off and flew straight up at such a speed that I was almost terrified as I looked down at the street falling away below me. I went into the storm clouds but kept going through them and then very suddenly I was above them and the sky was an absolutely brilliant clear blue and the sun was shining on me. I felt its warmth and the air was cool and crisp. It was such a contrast to what it was like below the clouds I couldn’t believe it. That was when I woke up and felt you lying with me” he said, tears now slowly rolling down his cheeks.

“Wow, that’s an amazing dream. What do you think it means?” she asked.

“Well, it’s funny because yesterday Ed came and had a chat to me in the lunch room and mentioned that he was worried about me. He gave me a card for the employee assistance programme and although I was very embarrassed that he had noticed how I had been feeling, I was relieved that he understood and was willing to help me. Before he left the lunch room he told me to remember that “the sun is always shining behind the clouds”. I know my dream was my mind playing around with that but it was such a real experience and I think I understand what the saying really means now”.

“What do you think it means?” April asked, very surprised but also very pleased to hear Jerry talking about himself more openly than he had in months.

“I think it means that sometimes in life we can get really bogged down by the events and situations we are faced with and that sometimes those situations can start to press down on us and even alter how we think, act and feel about ourselves and our lives. I know that is how I have been feeling a lot lately and I have even thought that maybe this is now my reality and that I was somehow changed forever because I was feeling so bad I couldn’t see a way out of it…” he trailed off at that moment realising that April was looking at him with a lot of worry in her eyes.

“It’s ok,” he said, “I wouldn’t do anything like that because I would never do that to you or the kids but yes the ideas had started to cross my mind. But what I guess I am starting to understand is that life can throw us a lot of curveballs all at once sometimes and that this can change how we are but it is temporary and our true selves, who we are deep down, is just waiting for the storm to pass and then it will come shining through again. What I felt in the dream when I broke through was a sense of coming home, of realising that who I am has not changed and it was only the clouds and the storm that was making me feel a bit hopeless. And you know what, it made me remember another saying I heard ages ago that even nature cannot create a storm that lasts forever”.

“I like that”, said April with a smile. “Maybe we just need to put up better umbrellas or try to rise above these clouds we have been living under for the past few months and do our best to go back to how we were before?”

“I would like that and I think that’s exactly what we need to do. I want to find myself again and be the best version of me that I can and I want to be that person again for you and the kids. I will call the employee assistance service and I am going to speak to Ed about the bullying at work. Enough is enough” said Jerry with a growing feeling of hope and conviction that things could and would be changing for the better. He felt his spirits lift and decided that he was going to really focus on the fact that he knew deep down that he was a good person and that he deserved to be happy. He resolved to not allow the storms of life to ever again make him feel that the sun wasn’t right there waiting for him to rise above the clouds.

April laughed and gave him a kiss on the cheek, “You got all that from a one silly saying and a dream?!”

“I guess so…who would have thought it hey?” he said smiling.

Jerry turned towards April and pulled her closer, holding onto her and not wanting the moment to end. “I love you”, he said.

“I love you too”, said April.

 

 

 

 


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Lesson 7: Life is a Journey, not a Destination

You’ve heard it all before, life is about being in the moment. And you may be thinking: “Blah blah blah, and if one more person says ‘stop and the smell the roses’ to me I’m going to shoot them – including you Mr. Fox”.

But have you really contemplated what this means and what the saying “Life is a journey, not a destination” is all about? There is so much wisdom packed into those seven little words that if you were able to truly dig deep into their meaning and live by just that one saying every day of your life, your life would be transformed before your very eyes. As my favourite author and psychologist, Dr Wayne Dyer, used to say, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. Every time, without fail.

Our world is one of perception, interpretation and meaning. We first perceive something; whether it is a sound, a smell, a communication, an image, or our own thoughts and emotions. We then have to interpret these and finally provide meaning to them. When we are down and struggling with life and our minds are in anxiety or depression, our ability to objectively and rationally interpret the reality and experience of our lives becomes severely compromised. It is precisely at these times that we need to learn to disengage from our focus on the destination of life i.e. “where is this all going?”, and reengage with the experience and knowing that life is to be lived right now. And that if you can find something, anything to focus on – even if that focus is the blissful nothingness of meditation, then you will find the relief you are so desperately seeking from the pain and the struggle. Training the mind to find anything that will distract it from its own misery is a skill and something that we should all be practicing every single day of our lives. And the more we practice it, the more we find the great law of attraction bringing more thoughts, experiences and emotions like the ones we are deliberately trying to create. And as my new favourite inspirational speaker Esther Hicks would say: we are then building the kind of momentum that we would really want in our lives.

This is all certainly about our ability- or usually lack of it – to live in the now. To live peacefully with whatever is happening in our lives right now. I have often counselled people struggling with stress or anxiety to practice mindfulness. This word and practice is becoming as much as cliché to people these days as meditation but there is a reason that it has caught on and we now see endless adult colouring-in books in all the shops. It is because it works people! It is an eternal truth. We spend so much time looking at our lives analysing it to death that we completely miss the experiences we are having literally right before our eyes, ears and noses.

We live too much in the past and certainly too much in the future. We spend way way WAY too much time on the future in our minds. If what we are doing when thinking about the future is imagining a desired state or outcome then that is all well and good and it will lead you to what you want to be and where you want to go in life. However, where are most of us spending our mental time and energy? On pictures and words and imaginings of some terrible fate that may await us or our loved ones just around the corner or even in five, ten or twenty years from now. Can you see how unproductive and how “unwell” this can make you? Do you know that there are two specific distorted categories of thinking from cognitive behavioural therapy that are called “Fortune Telling” and “Catastrophising” and that we ALL get caught up in them? Yes, those with anxiety and depression get caught up in those mental traps more frequently and find it more difficult to break out of them or dispute those thoughts with more objective and positive reality. However, I know from my 40 years on this planet, and 17 years as a psychologist, that we ALL do it to some extent, every single day. And you know what, it doesn’t serve us one little bit.

I am not talking about thinking prudently ahead, watching for signs and perhaps taking some preemptive action to avoid an actual problem or danger. That is productive and what another author called “signal thoughts”. Thoughts about something that we actually need to do something about like complete our tax returns. But, what I am describing to you is more about what that same author called “noise”, every other thought that surrounds the reality. “Oh my God, what if I owe the tax office a huge amount of money?”, “What if I go bankrupt?” “What if I can’t make my mortgage payment or rent payment and land up on the streets?” “What if I can’t afford to send my kids to a good school?” “What if I end up lonely and alone for the rest of my life!?”

And I hear you saying, “But David, it COULD happen!” Yes, and you COULD also be knocked over by a bus in the street in an hour from now! And North Korea COULD decide to start a world war beginning with the invasion of South Korea and then they could launch nuclear missiles at all of us!

Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic for you. Well, how about this: “What if I stuff up at that interview next week and never end up getting a job?” “What if I go on a date with this woman or man and they don’t feel the same way I do and they reject me?” You get the point. The world is full of “what ifs” and I am here to tell you to CUT IT OUT OF YOUR LIFE! If you are going to play the “what if” game, why don’t you try something radical like: “What if he likes me and we hit it off and he ends up being the man of my dreams?” or “What if I just be myself at that interview and relax and feel confident that the job is mine and they see in me what they have been looking for and I get one of the best jobs I have ever had, working for amazing people!” or “What if I didn’t look at my age as a reason to stop this path I am on that isn’t working for me and head down a different road?” Meaning: a different career, a different relationship, or taking up a long held desire to learn to surf or study financial planning or whatever else you have felt you wanted to do deep inside you but just haven’t allowed? WHAT IF… you thought about, imagined and achieved those things? How would that make you feel? What would your life experience look and feel like then?

Enjoying your dreams and plans even before they have manifested and doing the best you can not to become disillusioned if they don’t happen “on time” when you expect them to is so important. You don’t plant seeds in the ground to grow a pumpkin and then immediately stamp on the ground demanding to see it grow and appear right now, because you know there is ALWAYS a time lag. And thank goodness for that because can you imagine what would happen if every thought and desire, good or bad, manifested immediately for you? One little thought of illness and you’re dead. One little thought of not enough money and you’re bankrupt! Of course it would be nice if you had one little thought of becoming a millionaire and then poof you’re a millionaire! That would be pretty amazing, but that is not how this Universe works. Somewhere deep down we already know that it is our own repeated patterns of thought and emotion that we practice, and have been practicing since you were young, that start to produce the outward manifestations of our lives. Haven’t you seen evidence of people who just seem to “attract” one calamity after another, one terrible relationship after another, one failure after another? And why is that? Are these poor souls so horribly unlucky that the source of all things decided they should live this way and others would thrive and be happy? How ridiculous! But, we somehow believe this don’t we? This nonsense that something is intrinsically wrong or “bad” about us and that is why we don’t get what we say we want.

Having goals is all good and well, but becoming a slave to your goals, or worse, not achieving something you had set down and then becoming frustrated and disillusioned will only hold it away from you even more. The key is truly to appreciate every moment, every step of the journey. It is in the process of creation that we find our greatest joy. To paraphrase Dr Wayne Dyer again, the point of dancing is not about where you end up on the dance floor, it’s about savouring that moment and enjoying your “beingness” with the person you are dancing with – even if the only person you are dancing and singing with is just you!

This doesn’t only have to apply to the fun things in life like dancing, singing, going on holiday or winning some great accolade for your work. Those are the obvious ones that would naturally make most people feel their enjoyment of life. However, it is in your moments of frustration when your path does not seem to be leading to the manifesting of your desires that you most need to learn to stop and refocus yourself into your NOW. We all have access to both what is wanted and what is not wanted. There is an abundance of negative things to focus on in your life or about the world around you or about the city you live in or your partner or your spouse, but there is a much greater and endless supply of things that are positive and just as real as the things that you perceive to be “bad” about your life experience. You truly have the most powerful capability in the world, the capability to choose what you focus on and what meaning you give to everything in your life. And in addition to this, you have the capability to choose to find something, anything to feel good about to help lift your emotional state upwards. And then just keep going and keep practicing that every single day. You cannot possibly do this and stay anxious. You cannot possibly do this and remain depressed. It defies law. You cannot simultaneously focus on two things at the same time. You may be able to flip very quickly between them but you cannot literally have two thoughts (good and bad) at the exact same moment. So choose which one you want to have. Do you want to feel good or bad?

Is it important to you to feel good? Then why aren’t you doing absolutely anything and everything to get you there? “Because I don’t deserve to feel good!” is what I hear you say. What a load of nonsense! You were born to feel good. God/Source/Spirit or whatever you want to call it did not manifest you into this world to feel bad. And if you have done things in your life that you are not proud of and are using that as a reason to withhold feeling good then you need to hear something and hear it well. NOBODY IS PERFECT. FORGIVE YOURSELF. Most of the saints started out doing things that we might refer to as “bad” or went down a path that was less than saintly and realised through their life experiences that they didn’t want to feel that way ever again and so they made up their minds to be “better than they used to be”. Dr Wayne Dyer himself stood up and apologised in public to his first wife for being less of a husband than he should have been. A man who I consider to have been one of the most advanced souls on this planet in our time – psychologically, spiritually and as a human being – and who has done more good through his books, talks and audio programs than we could possibly conceive, admitted to his own wrong doings earlier in his life. What would have become of Wayne Dyer if he had decided that he was inherently a bad person because of some past errors in his judgement? What if he chose to see himself as an unworthy person who didn’t deserve to be happy or successful? I will tell you what would have happened. Millions of people all around the world would have lost out on learning how to change their own lives for the better. They would never have been touched by his kindness, his generosity (he ended up donating millions), his amazing ability to write books that inspire and his talks and lectures that have elevated the lives of so many people. All of that good would have been lost if he had decided that he was not worthy. So, let us do our best to remove the “I am not good enough, worthy enough, smart enough, talented enough, good looking enough” from our lives forever.

It is also interesting to note how people like young Olympians can focus so intently and single-mindedly on a achieving a goal – winning the gold medal. And when they actually achieve it they find – at an age where most people are still trying to figure out who they are and what they want from life – that they are stuck because they believe they have achieved their greatest goal in life at the age of 17 or 18. This can happen anyone who achieves a significant life goal.  But if you can understand that there is always more to be done in life, and I am certainly not speaking about the achieving of material possessions but the eternal growth of who you are as a human being, then you would realise there is nothing to ever be bored about, nothing ever to be frustrated about due to the lack of something not having manifested in your life at this moment.

When you focus on this moment and make this moment the most enjoyable one that you can in whatever it is that you are CHOOSING to do, your life will become one of enjoyment of the ride and not so much about the destination. That doesn’t mean to wander around in circles aimlessly and not actually achieve anything that you deem to be worthwhile. It means set your intentions and ensure you remove the thoughts that would hold you back and enjoy this wonderful ride we call life. Enjoy it today, not tomorrow, or next week, or when you get that pay rise, or when you find that partner you have so desperately been wanting, or when you finally have a child or when you finally buy a house. ENJOY IT NOW. That’s all you really have anyway.


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Lesson 6: Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

Jesse Wolf had recently finished his last year of high school and had decided to take some time out before deciding which direction to go in life. During his second last year of high school he had played with the idea of being an accountant as he did enjoy working with numbers but overall his pull was towards working with people. Jesse found the world of psychology and helping others to be very appealing and he, as many who eventually become psychologists, had some of his own issues and demons that he wanted to overcome.

During this “gap year”, as some of his friends had called it, he had travelled to London and lived and worked there for a few months but had found the weather and people quite depressing and having being born and bred in the sunny climate of South Africa he had found it quite debilitating. It wasn’t so much the rain or the cold as it was the endless days and weeks of cloud cover during the winter where no one saw the sun. In the end, he had returned to Johannesburg earlier than expected and found himself searching for his next step in life. Coming back from overseas was quite an adjustment for him and having experienced what life was like in another country and culture for the first time, he had become somewhat anxious and this had also led into thoughts about his own future. Where was he going? Why did everyone else seem to be so clear about their direction in life and  halfway through their first year of either university or college? Jesse felt at a loss.

Being 19 years old, Jesse still lived at home with his parents and having only just got his license, he was loving the freedom of being able to drive around Johannesburg to go and see his friends and relatives. The use of the word “freedom” however was somewhat ironic when he thought about it. This was because he felt anything but free or more accurately “safe” living and driving around Johannesburg as a young 19 year old white male. Everyday felt like a game of Russian roulette to him. He would often wonder if today would be the day someone was going to smash his driver side window and point a gun at his head when he got to a traffic light. Or was he going to be attacked and hijacked from his car at night as he waited for the big black gate to open that led into his house. Jesse wanted to leave the country desperately but knew he had no hope of getting into another country without going as a skilled migrant and his parents certainly couldn’t afford for him to study at University in South Africa, let alone overseas. Be that as it may, he was determined to study further and dreamed of a career as a lawyer or psychologist someday.

Jesse decided to get a part time job as a waiter working for one of the local steakhouse chains, which had a notoriously difficult owner but he went for the interview and initial training anyway and got the job. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy work: the shifts were long, the boss lived up to his reputation of being a complete A hole and the tips were lousy but he stuck it out as he enjoyed the sense of independence it gave him to be able to buy the things he needed or to take a girl out on a date and not have to ask his parents for money.

Jesse also decided to enroll in studying economics via distance learning at the University of South Africa. However, after a month or two, he realised that distance learning was not for him and the only usefulness he found for his economics textbooks was to help put him to sleep at night . His parents were not thrilled that they had spent a little bit of money on a course that he was clearly disinterested in and he eventually told them he did not want to continue. This did, however have the positive outcome of completely dissuading him from the idea of studying a Bachelor of Commerce and he realised that he was much more passionate about the arts. Subjects such as psychology, literature, international relations, music and law seemed a closer fit and he started to think about applying to study at another University in Johannesburg the following year.

One evening he was out with some of his friends when his best friend – Guy –  mentioned that his older brother had come across a man who was starting a Taekwondo school not far from where they lived. All he knew was the man was a 5th Dan Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do and was only around 33 years old and that he had lived and trained in the East. He was a Frenchman who had also trained the French National Tae Kwon Do team for the 1992 Olympics. Jesse had long been interested in studying a martial art. He had always loved watching any martial arts movies and had large life size posters of Bruce Lee on his bedroom walls. He had tried Judo at a young age but had not continued for some reason he could not remember. He had tried Kung Fu when he was 13 years old but after 3 lessons, he was sparring with another kid from his school and he did a back kick which caught the kid by surprise who promptly stepped forward and punched Jesse in the nose. This was a completely illegal hit but the instructors didn’t seem too concerned about it so Jesse’s mother refused to let him return to the class.

Now, at the age of 19 years old and having not really followed through on any particular sport at school aside from tennis for a few years, Jesse felt ready to commit to something and achieve his dream of becoming a black belt in martial arts. At this time, he had not even heard of Taekwon do, but he was curious about the man his friend spoke about and wanted to go and see what the classes were like. His friend also told a story of how his brother had met the Taekwondo instructor. They had been out one night at a nightclub with some friends who had brought along this short, skinny looking man with dark features who they had recently met and befriended. Something had happened at the nightclub and the bouncers had tried to rough them up and when they approached the Frenchman – whose name was Fabio – he had apparently taken down two bouncers who were twice his size and weight in a matter of seconds. The bouncers didn’t know what had hit them. Jesse marveled at how a small man could do such a thing and became even more interested in meeting him.

And so, the next Saturday afternoon, Jesse and Guy went along to the sports field that was attached to an old country club. They walked up to a small group of people standing around underneath some willow trees and saw a diminutive character with dark eyes and olive skin smile and walk over to them. Guy introduced Jesse as he had already met Fabio before and Fabio bowed. Jesse was taken quite by surprised but bowed back out of respect. He didn’t actually like the idea of bowing to anyone as this was not a part of his own culture but this was the beginning of Jesse’s journey into understanding the eastern philosophy of martial arts. Fabio was very open and inviting and asked them to join the class for the afternoon to see if they liked it.

Jesse had not done any rigorous physical exercise for a few years since playing in his high school Rugby team when he was thirteen and fourteen years old. The class began with a 4-km run, barefoot on the streets, on a long circuit around the suburb and back to the sports field. When he was told to run barefoot, Jesse could hardly believe his ears because it was the middle of summer and the temperature was around 35 degrees celsius. The road itself would be even hotter. Jesse really struggled to make it past the first kilometer and had to take time out to walk between jogging. He couldn’t believe how unfit he had allowed himself to become.

After the 4km run, they came back to the sports field and continued with some other gruelling exercises including frog hopping across the field, doing forty situps and pushups and only then did the class begin. Everyone lined up from the highest ranked belt to the white belts. Jesse stood right at the end wearing his track suit pants and a white t-shirt. His feet were hurting from the run but he tried his best to ignore it and concentrate on what Master Fabio was talking about. Jesse loved not only the kicks but the discipline that seemed to be a core element of the way Master Fabio ran his classes. He was very firm with his instructions and Jesse was amazed at the dexterity and power he showed when demonstrating a kick to the class. Front kicks, sidekicks, spinning round house kicks and defensive back kicks. Towards the end, the class split up into groups to practice their “Poomse” or patterns which needed to be performed to perfection in order to progress to the next belt. The class had a mixture of young and old, males and females and everyone seemed to get along very well.

After the class, Jesse thanked Master Fabio and both Jesse and Guy said that they would like to attend the Monday evening class and begin training. Jesse knew he would have to pay for these classes out of his own money but he was happy to do it. He had found something that he could focus on and give him some purpose at least he thought for the year until he could begin studying at University.It would also help him feel a bit more confident that he could handle himself should he have to defend himself against a potential attacker, although he had no illusions that martial arts may not be a match for an AK-47 assault rifle! Nevertheless, should he find himself in danger, he would at least have some chance of survival.

The Monday night class, however, proved to be a large challenge for Jesse. The class ran from 7:30pm to 9:00pm in an unused Karate dojo not too far from where Jesse lived. Jesse made the mistake of eating dinner at 6:00pm and then going to the class which was even more intense and gruelling than the Saturday class. Half way through the class, Jesse had to run outside into the parking lot and he threw up what was left of his dinner into some nearby bushes. Guy eventually came out to check on him and Jesse said: “If I wanted to join the army, I would have joined the army! This is crazy!”

Doubts began to run through his mind whether he was going to be able to continue. He just wasn’t fit enough and the daunting task of going through such a gruelling physical regime and staying the course to eventually become a black belt seemed as reachable as climbing Kilimanjaro. He went back to finish the class, went home and fell asleep exhausted as soon as his head touched the pillow.

On reflection the next morning, Jesse decided that he wasn’t going to just quit at the first sign of trouble and so he returned again on Wednesday evening and found that he was able to handle the class a bit better and did not throw up this time having wisely decided to eat only a banana before attending class. He started enjoying the classes and getting himself to push beyond his boundaries with regards to his physical fitness – something which he had never really done before.

One day, as Jesse was walking down the passage in his house on his way to a Taekwondo lesson, he overheard his mother saying to some family friends in the lounge that her son, “never followed through or completed anything”. He waited a bit in the passage and then walked out of the house pretending he had not heard anything. Hearing this really upset him as it was often his mother who got in the way of him completing things either because of the costs involved or because she didn’t encourage him in any way to continue. Jesse made a resolution to himself that day that he was going to prove her wrong.

The year went by fairly quickly after this and Jesse applied for and got into the University of the Witwatersrand to study a Bachelor of Arts degree with his subjects being Psychology, Law, English and International Relations. He learned very early on that he did not like Law and so did not continue with it in his second year, electing to take additional psychology courses that were potentially required for him to go on to to do an honours and possibly master’s degree someday.

Jesse worked hard and loved learning about psychology. However, he did struggle with his first few exams in psychology and english and didn’t quite seem to understand what the teachers were after in the formatting of the essays. He began to get quite anxious about the possibility of failing his subjects and not being able to move on to second year. This was around the middle of the university year and after receiving his initial results he became quite despondent. The stress began to build.

By this stage he had become a green belt in Taekwondo and had been training with Master Fabio and the school for over a year and a half. He didn’t always look forward to going to classes every Monday and Wednesday night and every Saturday afternoon but he knew that he always felt less stressed, more focused and energised after the lessons. However, there were times when Jesse just felt like everything was too much. Attending university every day, going to Taekwondo and then having to complete essays and coursework in the evenings, not to mention all the reading that came with studying Psychology, English and International Relations. Sometimes he would see new people come into the Taekwondo class who seemed to have a natural athletic strength and ability which he did not seem to possess and who quickly became Master Fabio’s favourites. They would spend a lot of time together not just in the classes but socially as well. Next to them, Jesse felt that his own progress was very slow and he would become very frustrated at his inability to fight at the same levels that some of the newer students were able to.

One Monday evening, after a particularly frustrating training session, Jesse decided this would be his last lesson and that it just wasn’t worth it. Once again, the goal of becoming a black belt, especially within Master Fabio’s school, seemed like just a pipe dream. As the class were saying their goodbyes, Jesse asked Master Fabio if he could have a word and they went off to the side of the Dojo.

“I don’t think I can continue with Taekwondo anymore” said Jesse, feeling extremely nervous at the reaction that he might get from Master Fabio. He had seen him have a go at other students who had done something that displeased him and Jesse had tried to avoid such a fate for himself.

Master Fabio looked at him with what seemed to be genuine surprise in his dark eyes and said, “You cannot stop Taekwondo. Why do you want to stop?”, with an even tone in his voice.

“Because it’s all just too much. I’m not as good as the others and not even as good as some of them who have only been here a few months. I have so much work to do with university and it just doesn’t seem like I will ever get to black belt anyway, so what’s the point?” asked Jesse, trying his best not to let any emotion come through in his voice.

Master Fabio studied Jesse for a moment and then said, “Did you think that anything worth achieving in life was going to be easy? Everybody achieves at different paces and at different levels. Why do you compare yourself with others instead of comparing yourself to yourself?”

Jesse just looked down and shrugged his shoulders.

“Let me ask you something: are you better than you were when you first started here? You couldn’t even keep up with the class remember? You may not have the natural strength and flexibility of some of the others but aren’t your kicks becoming more accurate and powerful than they used to be?” asked Master Fabio.

Jesse reflected on this for a bit and then replied, “Yes, I can tell that I am much fitter than I have ever been in my life and I do have some really good kicks but there are others who have moved much quicker to grading to higher belts than me. There are others who are better at fighting than I am who have been here for much less time” he said.

Master Fabio studied Jesse’s expression and then said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, Jesse”

“Yes, but it’s just a silly saying”, said Jesse, clearly not in the mood for hearing a lecture from Master Fabio about Rome taking forever to be built. But he knew that he had to at least hear him out, possibly have his ear chewed off for a bit and then he would go home and not come back anyway.

“Many of these sayings have been around a long time and they may seem silly because we have heard them so many times but we should never forget that they have been around so long because they are essential truths. There were many times when I was growing up when I wanted to quit Taekwondo” he admitted.

“Really?”, asked Jesse with a look of surprise, as he had never imagined that Master Fabio would have ever let the thought cross his mind to quit Taekwondo at any stage in his life because he always seemed so passionate about it.

“I learned from my own Master that one of the greatest lessons we learn in martial arts is not how to kick hard but to stay committed to the process and prove to ourselves that we have what it takes to see it through. Of course we must also enjoy the journey along the way. It is not the fastest or the strongest who succeed in the end, it is the ones who stick to it, who keep going even though there are many reasons to quit, who eventually become the best martial artists in the world”, said Master Fabio.

This was not the blasting that Jesse had been expecting to receive from Master Fabio and he found that despite how he had been feeling even just a few short minutes ago, he was now seeing things in a slightly different way. His emotions had subsided a bit and he was able to reflect a little more clearly on the journey and what his intentions had been at the start. He reminded himself that he started off trying to prove to himself that he could undertake a large endeavour and see it through to completion. Learning how to kick really hard and fast and becoming fit were actually just the amazing by products of what his real intention was and that was to prove to himself (and to his mother if he was being honest) that he could do it. Yet, even now he realised that doing it for someone else or trying to prove something to anyone else but yourself was a waste of time and energy. In the end it wouldn’t really matter what his mother thought or whether she approved of it or not. It was Jesse proving to himself that he was worth the effort, that he deserved success and that he had it in him to reach the goal.

“I see what you are saying and I know that I need to prove this to myself but it has been overwhelming lately and I don’t seem to have any time for anything besides studying and Taekwondo” said Jesse, with a little less conviction in his voice this time.

“And what else do you need time for?” asked Master Fabio with a faint smile.

“Finding a girlfriend?” said Jesse with a smile.

“Plenty of time for girlfriends later…much later. Waste of valuable time and money now” said Master Fabio only half-joking.

“I suppose so”, said Jesse. He was still thinking it would be nice to have a girlfriend and he wasn’t going to give up looking for one but maybe he didn’t need to worry about it too much right now. Jesse remembered many evenings spent talking to one of his favourite aunties in her kitchen about the woes of his love life over a mug of hot chocolate and this made him smile again.

“I know I can be hard on some of the students sometimes, but some of them need it. Did you notice that I was never that hard on you?” asked Master Fabio.

Jesse had thought he had just been very good at not getting into trouble but he had also wondered on occasion why Master Fabio didn’t pay him more attention, even if that attention was getting yelled at.

“It is because I respond to each student differently. I know which ones I need to push and how far I can push them and I know which ones don’t need pushing but need to learn at their own pace. I know exactly how far you have come and I have watched your improvements with great satisfaction. If you quit now, you will always wonder. You will always look back and think, “what if I had just seen it through?” And if you do decide to keep going and you get your black belt, it will forever be a reminder of your ability to achieve any goal that you set your mind to no matter how hard it seems and how long it seems to be taking to get there. You are a tortoise, Jesse. That is not a bad thing and it’s just the way you are but you know the story and you know how it ends when the tortoise just kept on walking to the finish line”, said Master Fabio.

In that moment, Jesse had a flash of an image of himself standing at the front of the class and bowing to Master Fabio as he was handed his black belt and what this triumph would feel like. This image and feeling was very powerful and it became clear to Jesse that he wanted this more than anything.

“I will do it”, he said.

“I know you will, now get out of my Dojo”, said Master Fabio smiling.

Jesse laughed, picked up his tote bag and walked to the entrance of the Dojo, turned around, bowed (as was customary) and headed home with a renewed determination to succeed.

Over the next few years, Jesse had a few other moments where he came very close to quitting. He also had some very stressful times as he worked his way through his Bachelor’s Degree and then moved on to study Honours and Masters in Psychology. But, he always remembered his talk with Master Fabio and he held onto his vision of one day wearing the black belt and then one sunny afternoon, 6 years after starting Taekwondo, Jesse found himself standing before Master Fabio and the class and bowing to receive his black belt just as he had imagined.

As he tied the black belt around his waist and stood proudly with the whole class applauding, he felt the pride and conviction that can only come with having been through the ups and downs of striving towards a goal, falling down every now and then but getting back up, dusting yourself off and trying again and again until life can only yield to you what you have set as your intention to achieve.

David Fox is a psychologist and author of the book Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression. He is currently working on his second book called The Top 10 Sayings that can Change your Life!

Get his first book by clicking on any of the links below.

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Lesson 5: Birds of a Feather Flock Together

NOTE: This is the 5th and final FREE chapter from David’s upcoming book called “The Top 10 Sayings that can Change your life! – Life Lessons for teens and young adults”

To receive notification of when the final eBook with all 10 sayings/lessons becomes available please email me at david@foxpsychology.com.au. I hope you enjoyed the stories and welcome your feedback!

Angela

Angela swiped her access card and walked into the call center at exactly 7:55am and was at her desk and logged in by 7:59am and the day’s work began. She was now in her second month at her new job in a call center and was starting to enjoy her new environment and getting to know some her new colleagues.

At the age of 22, it hadn’t been an easy life and she had been through quite a few harrowing experiences including child abuse, experimenting with and struggling with illicit drugs as well as a few failed and abusive relationships. Some of these has been physical, some emotional – but either way it just seemed to her that life just didn’t want to give her a break or allow her to find a decent guy, who didn’t either end up constantly putting her down, cheating on her, or abusing her in some way.

She had also been struggling financially with some credit card debts and had done a few jobs as a waitress but had decided she wanted something more permanent and a career which could offer her some more financial stability and independence in her life. Her father had left her mother when she was very young and she did not know much about him or whether he was in fact living or not. At the moment she still lived at home with her mother and things between them weren’t going particularly well either. Either it was constant bickering or her mother would often moan and complain about her various physical ailments, how terrible her estranged sister was – Angela’s aunty who Angela was actually quite fond of – and in general how men could not be trusted and so she should be very wary of them. And, up to this point in time it did seem that her mother was indeed right – although Angela was aware in the back of her mind that she didn’t really want this to become her own belief system too about men.

Coming into work was generally something Angela looked forward to each day. She was learning new skills and she enjoyed the interaction with customers over the phone, even though she sometimes really struggled with the ones who would get really rude or abusive.

The call center that she worked at was a debt collection call center in the Western Suburbs of Sydney. This was not an easy environment to work in, and you needed to have the gift of thick skin to handle not only the customers but some of the staff and team leaders who worked there too. Typically, if an employee got rattled by a customer some of the more abrasive staff would mock them and Angela had seen that happen so many times that she would try and not show her emotions and would sometimes have to run off to the toilets to cry in solitude.

Aside from these difficult issues, Angela had started to make friends with some of the employees and they would on occasion go out together for a drink after work. She wanted to be popular and well liked and so she would often go out with some of the women and men who seemed to be very outgoing, exciting and who often seemed to win favour with the team leaders.

Invariably, after a typical night of excessive drinking, someone in the group would pull out some ecstasy or cocaine and pressure the others to have some.

Angela had been clean for the past year and it had taken her going into a drug rehabilitation center to get her back onto the path she was now trying to go down. However, the temptation was just too great – and wanting so much to fit in and be well liked – she would often give in. Needless to say, this started to affect her emotional well-being, her relationship with her mum deteriorated, and then her performance at work started to suffer too.

She found it harder and harder to handle the difficult customers. However, she was a very attractive woman and had caught the eye of one of the team leaders and he had been covering for her with management when she didn’t handle a call well or if she came late. Angela had become anxious and concerned as she moved closer to the end of her three month probation period as this was a crucial time for her because she could obviously lose the job if her performance or conduct was not satisfactory.

At the same time that Angela had started in the job, a new human resources manager had also taken up his new position overseeing the 100 or so employees at the call centre. Word had it that the previous HR Manager had left after only a few months because she couldn’t handle the culture in the company. The new HR Manager, Ray, had said hello to Angela and chatted briefly to her every now and then when they were in the office lunch area and he seemed to her to be a genuine and caring person.

One morning, after another long night out with her new circle of friends, Angela was late for work yet again and when she sat down at her desk at 8:30am, she was chastised by Brett – a team leader who she was not very familiar with. Brett took his role as a team leader seriously. He was known by others in the team as someone who was firm but fair and who would be willing to support you as long as you were open with him and put your best effort in.

Already feeling quite rough from the night before, with a headache and the stress brewing from her tardiness and then the dressing down by Brett, Angela was starting to feel quite anxious and emotional, and felt her confidence and insecurities began to unravel.

Thoughts started to rumble in her mind about how her life once again seemed to be moving in the exact opposite direction from the one she had intended herself to go down.

She had made such a firm commitment to herself after coming out of the drug rehabilitation clinic that she was going to turn her life around. Now, she started mentally beating herself up for being so weak and stupid. She couldn’t believe how quickly she had let herself go sliding down the old familiar pathway. As these thoughts began to swarm around inside her mind, she found it almost impossible to focus on her work or concentrate on what she had to say to the clients.

When an angry customer call came in at 10:30, she simply couldn’t handle it anymore. Angela cut the angry customer off mid-sentence, put her head-set down and ran off in the direction of the ladies toilets, barely able to hold back the river of tears.

Brett, immediately noticed her running off and went over to an older female team leader named Tahnee and asked if she wouldn’t mind going to have a check on Angela. Tahnee gave it a few minutes and then went into the toilets. She could see one stall door closed and could hear muffled sobs coming from the cubicle.

“Angela? Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m… fine… thanks. I will be out in a second”, said Angela trying as hard as she could to sound confident but not doing a very good job of it.

“It’s okay if you’re upset about something honey, you don’t have to hide in the cubicle. Come on out”, Tahnee said, hoping Angela would hear that she was being sincere and trust her enough to come out.

Angela decided it didn’t matter now, if she was going to get fired then too bad. That’s just the way her fate-filled life always seemed go, no matter what she did. She wiped her blotchy eyes with some toilet paper, stood up and slowly exited the cubicle.

Tahnee could see immediately the sadness and fear in Angela’s eyes as she opened the door and stepped into the main area of the toilets.

“What’s going on honey? Brett and I are concerned about you” she said.

“It’s nothing. Just something going on at home that has put me off today”, she Angela.

“We all have things that affect us that we bring with to work sometimes. We’re only human. Brett and I have noticed that you started off so well and seemed to be enjoying it here but then something changed and you have been coming in late a few times and also running off to the toilets every now and then” said Tahnee.

Angela recognised the genuineness of the look of concern on Tahnee’s face and made a snap decision that she would trust her.

Tears again welled up in her eyes and she told her a bit about what had been going on. She didn’t say anything about the drugs but told her of the late nights drinking, trying to fit in and struggling with the myriad of rude customers.

When she was finished, Tahnee gave her a quick hug and advised her to take the rest of the day off but that she must first ensure that she made an appointment to speak to Ray, the HR Manager.

Tahnee explained that she had had a few discussions with Ray since he started and was very impressed with his way of handling people and situations. She also felt he would be a good source of support for Angela.

Still feeling embarrassed, Angela said “If it’s okay with you I will try and stay at least until lunch time. I don’t want the team thinking there is something wrong and then we can say that I had to go home because I wasn’t feeling well?”

“That’s fine. I will let Brett know. But just pop past Ray’s office. I am sure he was free when I walked past earlier” said Tahnee and she turned and went out of the toilets.

Angela felt quite relieved and surprised at the response she had gotten. She was really thinking that she was going to lose her job and was still very worried that this would be the case given her recent drop in performance and now admitting to Tahnee that she had been going out drinking with the others quite often.

Angela went out of the toilets and walked straight to Ray’s office.

Ray was focused on his computer screen when Angela walked into the office. The office had a bookshelf filled with human resource and psychology books and an L-shaped desk with two chairs in front of it.

“Hi Ray. Tahnee suggested I come and talk to you. Can I chat to you for a minute… or make a time to come and see you?” she said.

Ray noticed her demeanor and immediately got up and motioned her to sit down as he closed the office door. “Of course Angela, that’s what I’m here for. Have a seat”.

“Thank you” said Angela and sat down in one of the chairs while Ray went back around and sat in his chair.

“What’s happening?” asked Ray.

Angela hesitated for a moment, looking down at her hands and twisting the tissue she had been holding around and around. “I am struggling with a few things at the moment and I’m worried about passing probation. Some things have been happening and I’m not sure how to handle them or change them” she said.

“Well, why don’t we talk about it? I will keep everything confidential and between us unless there is something illegal happening at work in which case I have a responsibility to take action. Is that ok?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s fine. It’s more personal and outside of work, but as I said it’s impacting on my emotional state and my performance” she said.

Angela’s eyes happened to look behind Ray for a moment to some of the certificates on his wall and she saw that one showed he had a degree in psychology. She immediately started to worry about how much to say.

Ray noticed where her eyes had gone and smiled, “Don’t worry I’m not going to psycho-analyse you or ask you to lie down on my couch. As you can see, I don’t even have a couch”.

Angela smiled for the first time that day. She relaxed a little more and again decided she would trust that talking about what was happening would be better than trying to pretend everything was alright.

“Well, things haven’t been easy for me in my life so far. I’ve been through a few things and the last few years I have been trying my best to straighten things out and get my life back on track. Getting this job was a huge step in the right direction for me and I was so excited when I got the offer. I  don’t have a lot of friends and so I also liked the idea of making friends with some of the others here and I did and started to join them socially when they would go for drinks after work. I have been trying to avoid alcohol and to exercise and stay healthy and fit but it all seems to be unravelling now. This has impacted on me at work. I’ve come late a few times and my performance hasn’t been what I know I’m capable of plus I have been struggling with some of the clients when they react badly” she said. She couldn’t bring herself to mention anything about the drugs at this stage.

“Well, firstly let me just say that this isn’t an easy work environment Angela. So number one, don’t be too hard on yourself. It takes quite a thick skin to not be affected by how some of the customers can react to the work we do. We do suffer from high turnover rates in the call center, it’s something that I was asked to address as part of my role here. Second, this is new for you and it will take time for you to get the hang of how to deal with these situations. We can definitely look into getting you onto a course on how to deal with difficult customers if you’re interested?” he asked.

“Thanks, that would help” said Angela.

“Okay I will speak to your team leader about it. So, what do you feel might be the best thing to help start turning things around for you, especially in terms of this group of employees you are spending time with after work?” asked Ray.

“I don’t know Ray, I want to make this work but I also want people here to like me and I have enjoyed being social again after withdrawing from people for a while” said Angela.

“Well, I get that. But here’s the thing; birds of a feather flock together and sometimes we need to take a closer look at the people that we are spending time with and think more carefully about whether they are the right sort of people we want to associate with. Does that make sense?” said Ray.

“Yes, it does. But I always seem to gravitate to people who aren’t good for me somehow. Even when I am trying to change my life, it seems these people keep showing up who at first seem right and then I end up in a bad situation” she said, looking a bit defeated.

“Well, I know this may sound weird but you know this is a very common occurrence that we keep attracting the same kinds of people into our lives because maybe we haven’t learnt a lesson from before about who we are and what we really want and deserve. Sometimes it is because we have some belief that we can only attract certain kinds of people into our lives” said Ray, wondering if Angela was now thinking he was the one who should be analysed.

“I guess I have heard stories about women who keep leaving one abusive relationship and think they have found someone different but that person ends up being abusive too. Or people attracting partners with similar character traits”, said Angela. She had read a bit about these kinds of cycles after having gone through her previous relationships.

“Exactly. So it becomes really important as we go through life and start to understand more about ourselves and who and what we seem to be attracting that we think and believe about ourselves is a big part of who and what keeps showing up.

“In some way, we are attracting or even just allowing those kinds of people into our lives. Sometimes, we think we have figured it out and then someone shows up and we start to see, or mostly refuse to see, the same issues we had with someone else before. But we still allow those people to be in our lives or for a relationship or friendship to develop with them. And somewhere down the track we realize we are right back where we started or we are living the same relationship over again” said Ray.

Ray continued watching Angela closely – he suspected there was more to her story and it was not merely friendships she was concerned with, but potentially impacts from a negative or abusive relationship from the past. Angela continued to listen intently to what he was saying and he could see she was relating it to her own experience.

“So are you saying I need to end the friendships with the group that goes out drinking?” she asked.

“Well, I’m not saying you have to do anything. I am saying that you need to think about the kinds of people who may be good for you and who can support you on the new path you say you want to go down and also the kinds of people who are likely to be the opposite of that. I’m not saying you have to just cut them off, you could still be friendly to them at work but maybe not go out with them too often. Cut back on it and start to look around and see if there may be others in the call center you can start to build friendships with” said Ray.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s going to be hard though and some of them might start to avoid me or treat me differently” said Angela, thinking about the team leader who liked her and had been covering for her.

“I know it won’t be easy but you have support here too. You have Brett and Tahnee and you have me too. I have the feeling this might apply not just to your work but other parts of your life too. So maybe it’s a good lesson to learn now that will stand you in good stead for the future. Especially in terms of your work and career” said Ray.

“Yes, but I don’t want to feel uncomfortable at work. What if they say something to me or do something to me?” she asked.

Ray considered her question for a moment.

“You know, we all want to be liked – well most of us anyway. Most people want to be accepted and liked and this is why high school can be such a difficult time for so many people. Trying to find out exactly who you are, going through changes and moving from your youth through your childhood to an independent adult is challenging. Throw in trying to deal with peer pressure and fitting in and you have a recipe for disaster for many people’s self-esteem and ability to be individuals” said Ray.

Ray continued, “Seems to me that once people leave high school and go on to other environments they come into their own and feel much more able to just be who they are. University or College is usually a good place for that. But sometimes, people go into work environments and the same dynamics play out. You can’t avoid the dynamics of human interactions in groups. Hierarchies, politics, who is seen as “popular”, unfortunately this does still happen in the workplace. But you don’t have to conform to this Angela. There was a famous psychologist named Abraham Maslow who studied people who were seen to be very successful in their chosen fields. He called these people ‘self actualisers’ and said that those people who self-actualise in life – in other words they become the full potential of who they can be – are mostly people who are ‘independent of the good opinion of other people’. Notice he said, the good opinion of other people because they don’t even care if people think they are good or right in what they are doing and they certainly don’t care if people think negatively about them. This is not an easy thing to achieve but you can see examples of these types of people all over. Steve Jobs was one of them” said Ray with a smile, lifting up his iPhone.

Angela was absorbing all that Ray had been saying to her and felt a lot better about herself and the relief now showed in her face. She could see how she had fallen into the trap of wanting others to approve of her and how that had often just led to frustration, heartbreak or worse. She also realised that if it’s true that birds of a feather flock together then she should probably think more carefully about what kind of bird she was or wanted to be.

“Thanks Ray. I really appreciate your help. Going to try my best to think about what you have said and start implementing it more in my life” she said.

“You’re welcome Angela. I’m here if you need moral support while you make these changes. You have potential and talent. Brett and Tahnee have both said this to me” he said.

Angela looked quite surprised and she smiled. “That’s really nice to hear, thanks again. And thanks for not judging or analysing me Ray – God knows I’ve had enough of that in my life”.

“Like I said, no couch to lie on here and besides if there was I may end up on it myself and you may have to counsel me so best I stick to a desk and chairs”.

Angela smiled and walked out of the office with a feeling of hope that maybe, just maybe, things could finally start to work out for her.

 

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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Lesson 4: Where there is smoke there is (usually) fire. 

Twenty year old Sheri Dyer walked into her apartment sobbing. She threw down her back pack and ran into her bedroom, slamming the door closed.

Layla, her older sister by 5 years, looked up from the book she was reading in the lounge with surprise. Sheri and Layla had always been close and had been living together in an apartment while they did their studies in Sydney’s eastern suburbs so that they would be closer to the university they both went to. Layla was finishing her degree in veterinary science and Sheri was studying sociology and psychology.

Layla put her book down and went to see what may have gotten Sheri so upset. She wondered if it was one of the results of the exams she had recently taken. She knocked on Sheri’s door gently.

“Sheri, are you okay? Can I come in?” she asked, hearing the muffled sounds of Sheri crying.

“Yes” came the almost inaudible reply from inside.

Layla opened the door and stepped into Sheri’s room which was a bright and sunny east facing bedroom. Sheri’s study desk was on the right-hand side of the room with some of her books and trinkets lying on it and in front of it she had a white board with various pictures, sayings and timetables attached with colourful magnets. Layla noticed that some of the photos had been taken off the whiteboard and lay torn up on the desk. She started to realise what may have caused Sheri to be so upset.

“Is it Gary? Did something happen?” she said as she sat down on the bed next to Sheri. Sheri was lying on the bed weeping into her pillow face down. She was wearing her gym outfit as she usually went for a gym workout after her lectures at the university gym. Her auburn hair was tied up in a ponytail.

“Yes”, came the muffled reply.

Layla sat there, rubbing Sheri on the back to comfort her. “Tell me what happened. Do you want a cup of tea or something and then we can talk about it?”. Sheri and Layla’s grandmother would always offer cups of tea in times of distress to anyone. This had now become their own little tradition that Sheri and Layla had continued since living on their own together and seemed to always lighten the load a bit.

Again a muffled, “Yes”.

“Okay, I’m going to make us some tea but I will need you to remove yourself from that cushion so I can actually hear what you say and not have to interpret it through your Emoji pillow”, said Layla, trying to lighten the mood a bit. Sheri had recently bought the Emoji pillow with the smiley face and tears of laughter coming out of its eyes which she was currently sobbing into. Layla had a quick thought of that being somewhat ironic as she went to make two cups of tea.

When Layla came back into the room five minutes later with the two cups of tea, Sheri was sitting up on her bed cross legged with the Emoji pillow on her lap. She was blowing her nose with a tissue.

Layla set Sheri’s cup of tea next to her on the bedside table and then sat down next to her blowing into her own tea to cool it down.

“Okay girl, give it up. What’s happened between you two?” Layla asked.
Sheri threw the tissue into the wastepaper basket next to the bed and grabbed a few more tissues from her bedside table. “He’s cheated on me”, Sheri said and broke into tears again.

“Oh no sweetie, that’s terrible.” said Layla and put her own cup of tea down on the side table so that she could give Sheri a hug. Sheri cried for a little while longer and then pulled away to blow her nose and wipe her eyes again.

“I saw some messages on his phone today while we were having a drink at the juice bar next to the gym. He had gone back into the gym to ask some questions about putting a hold on his membership and left his phone behind. While I was sitting there his phone beeped and I saw a message from a girl I haven’t seen before on his Facebook messenger. I didn’t want to pry or invade his privacy but the message was right there in my face, so I clicked on it and then I saw the whole history. She’s someone from his philosophy class. They have been chatting for the past two months and it’s clear that something is going on between them. Some of the messages are very explicit” Sheri said.

“I’m so sorry”, said Layla. She wondered whether this may not come as a complete surprise to Sheri based on some of the things Sheri had been telling Layla she had noticed about Gary all along since they first met about six months ago.

“I’m such an idiot,” said Sheri, throwing the tissues she had in her hand forcefully into the bin. “Why did I believe him when he said that he wasn’t interested in someone else? I told you three months ago I had noticed changes in his behaviour and that I had a feeling something was up. Why didn’t I listen to my own intuition?” Sheri said in frustration.

“You’re not an idiot! Do you know how many people do exactly the same thing as you? Do you know how many couples get into a relationship for the wrong reasons and ignore their intuition? We all know the saying where there is smoke there is fire Sheri, but we choose not to notice those signs or if we do notice them we rationalize them away. We all do it sweetheart so I don’t want to hear you say that you’re an idiot or any other self-blaming label okay? This has everything to do with who he is and nothing to do with you, okay?” Layla said.

Sheri picked up her cup of tea – a South African herbal tea called Rooibos – and took a sip of it. It did seem to calm her down a little. She took another sip and then held it in her hands on top of the smiling Emoji pillow.

“Yes, where there is smoke there is usually fire, so why didn’t I pick it up earlier? Why did I stay in the relationship when I felt so insecure so much of the time? He was always looking at other women when we were together and when I would confront him about it he would just make excuses or say that everyone looks at the opposite sex. I know we all do but he was clearly doing more than just noticing, he was fixating on some of them and his head would literally turn sometimes while I was with him. I mean it’s one thing to do that when I’m not around but with me right there! And I ignored it so much of the time, telling myself it was normal and that maybe I was overreacting to it. Even my counsellor was trying to help me work through the thoughts and make sure I wasn’t just reading into everything”, said Sheri.

“I know. But you cannot blame yourself. If you take responsibility for the behaviours of others or what happens outside of your own control then you are doing something called personalising. Have you covered that in your psych classes yet?” asked Layla. She had come across something called “the ten distortions of thinking” in her elective study of psychology as part of her degree and had found the use of cognitive behaviour therapy concepts to be very helpful in her life. She had been practicing the use of CBT ever since.

“No, we haven’t come to that yet”, said Sheri.

“Well, personalising just means that sometimes we take on too much personal responsibility for things that we did not have any actual personal control over. You couldn’t control his thought processes or how he chose to behave. Yes, you could bring to his attention what you didn’t like about his behaviour and ask him to not look at those other women the way he did but that’s all you could have done, aside from breaking it off with him”, Layla said.

“There were other signs as well,” said Sheri, thinking about a few other instances where she had noticed something about what Gary had said or done that she had felt was out of place or just struck a chord of discomfort in her.

“What other signs?” Layla asked. She had known about some of the issues Sheri had raised but there were clearly more she hadn’t mentioned.

“Well, he would sometimes do things that I felt uneasy about. He would walk out of a store sometimes holding something that he forgot to pay for and when I said we should go back he would laugh and say that it doesn’t matter and that it happened to stores every day. I always felt uneasy about that and always tried to get him to go back but he would just look at me like I was mad”, said Sheri.

“Wow, okay you never told me that one. Definitely a bit worrying in terms of his moral compass for sure”, said Layla looking quite surprised at this new revelation. She had spent some time with Sheri and Gary together over the past few months and had also had a strange feeling about him that she just couldn’t put her finger on. She also hadn’t wanted to alarm Sheri unnecessarily and felt that it was best for Sheri to make her own decisions and come to her if she wanted to talk about anything that was bothering her. They had always promised to be there for each other and this was no different.

“You knew that I shouldn’t have stayed with him didn’t you?” said Sheri as more of a statement than a question.

“Well, no that’s not true. I didn’t know anything for sure and you are the only one who is living your own life and who knows how you feel about what is going on in a relationship. Of course, others might be able to see things more objectively but not always. Family and friends will usually back you up anyway in what your own thinking is. That’s why I suggested you go see the counsellor a few months ago so that you could hopefully get a clearer and more objective view from someone who is not involved emotionally in your life”, Layla said. She finished her tea and then set it down on the bedside table.
Sheri looked down at her own tea which she had hardly drank but she was enjoying the warmth of the cup in her hands.

“Why didn’t I listen to my own intuition? I noticed these behaviours, I even saw how often he commented on other girl’s Facebook posts and how we would often comment that they looked nice and I would get upset about that and tell him. He would tell me I was just overreacting. Yeah, right! I just want to punch him in the face!” she said, picking the Emoji pillow up and punching it.

“Don’t take it out on poor Emoji! He didn’t do anything wrong,” said Layla with a smile. “Actually on second thought, maybe punching a pillow is not a bad thing, get that anger out a bit”.

Sheri laughed a little at this. “Yeh, maybe I need to enrol in the boxing class at the gym for a few weeks” she said.

“Not a bad idea, and if he happens to be at the gym he would see you in there and probably realise if he knew what’s good for him he should not be around when you come out of that class!” said Layla.

“Yes!” said Sheri with a look of defiance and glee in her eyes.

“Well, anger is certainly a more powerful emotion than despair so feeling that is okay. Just don’t stay in anger too long gorgeous because in the end it will be you who continues to feel the pain and suffer the consequences of maintaining your anger and not him”.

“What do you mean? I need to hold onto this anger! I can’t just let him get away with it and be all Zen about it like nothing happened!” said Sheri.

“Well, think about it. What good does anger do you? Will it solve anything for you? Will it make the relationship repair itself or make Gary a better person if you take out your anger on him? Most importantly, will it make you feel good about yourself?” Layla asked.

“I guess not,” said Sheri, contemplating what her sister was saying to her, “but I still prefer feeling angry at him for now. What he did was wrong”.

“I’m not saying what he did wasn’t wrong. I’m not condoning his behaviour but I’m trying to get you to a place of acceptance of what has happened and also to a place of learning.” said Layla.

Layla had been through two significant relationships in her life and had done a lot of reading around the subject as well. She was fascinated by the way people came together, what attracted them to each other and what made for significant and long lasting relationships. Having seen how some relationships seemed to be full of conflict and how some people seemed to stay together regardless of how bad the relationship seemed for them, she wanted to make sure that she never made that same mistake. She had decided she would never settle for anything less than a relationship she felt was perfect for her. She wasn’t looking for a perfect person, just someone who was perfect for her.

“What do you mean learning?” asked Sheri.

“Well, I mean it has taken me a long time to work through some of this stuff about relationships and like I said earlier I have come to really understand what it means – in terms of relationships – that where there is smoke there is usually fire. I say usually because it’s not always the case and we need to monitor our own issues and triggers to make sure we are not overreacting to things. But, I also know that when we start to notice things about someone we are dating or looking at getting into a relationship with and we start to try and minimize those things or rationalize them away, then we may be getting ourselves into trouble. Remember when I was dating Justin and we kept butting heads and fighting about so many different issues?” asked Layla.

“Yeah, I remember.” said Sheri.

“Well, I kept telling myself that we were just two very strong personalities and that the attraction we had for each other was more important. I hadn’t felt that kind of attraction before with a guy and although we clashed and fought nearly every other day, I rationalized it away and said that we would eventually iron out all our differences and see eye to eye. I thought that if we could just do that, then it would be the perfect relationship. Not that I think any relationship is perfect but I really thought he would change. I also thought I would be able to change myself and adapt myself to him so that we could be the perfect couple. But, as you know, it just didn’t work out that way. He wanted what he wanted and was not really willing to adapt his behaviours. He said he wanted to and at times he seemed to get it right and change his behaviours but in the end he always reverted back. And you know what, for the most part so did I. After we broke up I had to come to the acceptance that what we wanted in a relationship and who we were as people just didn’t match. I have also had to learn that I need to pay more attention to my warning signals earlier into dating someone and not try to squash them down or ignore them because every time I do that it doesn’t seem to go well” said Layla.

“Yes, I guess I can now definitely relate to that one. It’s so hard isn’t it? It makes me wonder why we do that so often in life as human beings” Sheri remarked.

“Well, we are certainly complicated creatures! Our ability to think rationally can so often conflict with what we feel emotionally and even spiritually at times. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to know which part of ourselves we need to listen to. But, little sis, one more thing I can say I am starting to understand is that our emotions are our greatest guidance system. I guess people who are struggling with anxiety or depression may need to realise their emotional system may be completely off and should not believe what they are feeling is reality. However, if we are doing well emotionally and we sense something in our emotional reaction to a situation, a thought or a person – we should listen more intently. If what we really feel is good then we can act on our good feeling with trust. If what we feel is discomfort, fear or frustration – we should probably think more carefully about what it is we are truly feeling so uncomfortable about and then do something about it.”

“I guess I learned my lesson!” said Sheri.

“You may have a few more goes at it before it’s truly learned, it’s certainly not an overnight skill you can magically develop. But then again, what important skill is?” said Layla.

“Thanks sis. You know, for a 25 year old Loskop (Afrikaans slang for someone who is a bit ditsy), you’re pretty wise”.
Layla stood up, smiled as she went to leave the room and said in the best imitation voice she could, “Much to learn you have, little Jedi”.
Sheri smiled and threw the Emoji pillow at her. “Whatever, Yoda”.

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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Lesson 3: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink!

“I’m really worried about my friend Amy, I think she is getting more and more depressed and doesn’t seem to realise what’s going on.”, said Gwen.

Her school counsellor, Mrs. Wright looked at her with some concern and asked, “What makes you think that she is depressed Gwen?  Have you noticed something different about her lately?”

“Well, she used to be very outgoing and social. She would come to all the school parties and loved going out on the weekends but lately she just says she doesn’t feel like it and is staying at home a lot”.

“Ok, that is a possible sign of depression, but is there anything else you have noticed?” Mrs. Wright asked, sitting forward in her armchair and writing down a few notes from the conversation.

Gwen was a very intelligent sixteen year old girl with ginger hair and bright green eyes. She had a kind and caring nature and was quite sensitive to the behaviours and emotions of others and so had come to see Mrs. Wright originally because she was suffering from some social anxiety. She had a propensity to really worry about what other people thought about her and spent hours agonising over whether she had said the wrong thing or looked or sounded stupid in front of her friends at school.

It always amazed Mrs. Wright over the past 16 years that she had worked in counselling how many people would do this – both teenagers and adults – and never question the validity of their own assumptions about what other people were thinking. It so often led to feelings of poor self-esteem and disengagement with people socially when there was no real reason for it. So many people at the core of their psychological issues seemed to her to have the underlying negative belief that somehow they aren’t good enough.

Mrs. Wright had been teaching Gwen some CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) to help her challenge her thinking and to engage with people without worrying about what they thought about her too much. This had allowed Gwen to express herself more and she had begun to enjoy socialising again and had indeed developed some close friendships in the school.

“Well, you know last year when I was feeling quite depressed about my social circle and you told me about some of the signs of depression?”, Gwen asked.

“Yes, I remember us talking briefly about it”, replied Mrs. Wright.

“Well, Amy has lost a lot of weight lately, I hardly ever see her eat at school. She brings lunch but takes a few bites and that’s about it. I think she has lost about 5 kilograms at least. And it isn’t from exercising or netball because she has pulled away from that too. She used to run two or three times a week and I asked her the other day how the running is going and she said that she hadn’t been feeling up to it lately”,  said Gwen, her concern for her friend showed clearly on her face.

“Yes, another possible sign of depression. As we discussed last year, generally people’s weight can fluctuate up or down with depression but when it gets to be moderate or close to severe it tends to lean more towards people losing weight because they start to not bother and that can be very concerning. You also mentioned a loss of interest in activities that she used to enjoy and this is another major sign of depression. When people withdraw from life and that withdrawal can be from exercise, social activities and very importantly from things that they usually gain enjoyment from then this is a sign that something is wrong and we need to be on the alert for the possibility of depression. Has anything happened in her life recently that could have caused her to feel this way?” asked Mrs. Wright.

“Well, she broke up with her boyfriend last year but she seemed to be recovering okay from that but then her grandfather passed away quite suddenly a few months ago. I know she was very close to him, they would talk on the phone almost every day and she confided everything to him about her life, he was a big support to her”.  Gwen looked down at her hands, a tear began to roll down her cheek.

“I guess you know how that feels Gwen and I can see how much you empathise with her,” said Mrs. Wright moving the box of Kleenex closer to Gwen who took a few tissues and wiped her eyes.

Gwen had lost her mother when she was 9 years old and although that was now 7 years ago, she would still struggle with the loss from time to time and be triggered by certain events or situations. They had discussed this as part of the counselling process over the previous few months and although Gwen had had some previous counselling before she had still needed some more closure as part of her counselling. This had also helped Gwen with some of her social fears as she came further out of her introverted shell and began to engage with the people around her without fear of judgement. She was now becoming quite popular with her school friends and building a strong social circle.

Gwen continued, “Yes, it does touch on that place of sadness inside me but I feel I am handling that better now and I want to reach out to Amy and help her. I can see that she is spiraling and it’s really hard to see her going through this. I have suggested to her that she come and see you but she won’t do it. She says counselling is for crazy people and she’s not crazy. I did laugh at that and say ‘thanks for that’.  When she realised and remembered I had come to see you she laughed a little and apologized but still won’t come”.

“You know Gwen, as hard as it is sometimes to accept, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”, said Mrs. Wright with a look of understanding and concern for Gwen but also for Amy.

“What do you mean?” asked Gwen, not quite sure what the saying actually meant or how it applied to this situation.

“Well, it’s a saying that has been around a long time and like most of those simple sayings we’ve heard so many times before, there is a power in them. If we take the time to really understand what they mean and apply them to our lives they can help us cope better with some of the events and situations that life can throw at us sometimes. I can’t tell you how many people have come into counselling and told me about a friend or a relative who really needs help and support but who for some reason or another won’t go and get that support. Men are usually worse than women when it comes to this as they think counselling is for sissies, or they have grown up being told real men don’t cry. But we know that it’s the opposite and that real men can access and understand their emotions and know when to reach out for help before it’s too late. Unfortunately it seems women are not immune to this either as you have seen with your friend Amy”.

“I am still a little unsure about the saying though” Gwen smiled as she brought her counsellor back on track. This could happen from time to time with Mrs. Wright but she liked her quirkiness.

“Oh yes! Well, it is absolutely true of course that you can literally lead a horse to water that is thirsty and needs to drink in order to stay alive, but you can’t make it drink. Imagine trying to grab a horse by the mouth or neck and pushing its head to the water. No matter how hard you push, if that horse doesn’t want to drink, you aren’t going to achieve anything aside from maybe straining your muscles and being incredibly frustrated!” said Mrs. Wright.

Gwen couldn’t help but smile at the image of someone trying to force a horse to drink water.

“And so it is with people too Gwen. We can tell them what we know is good for them. We can give them information and material to read and explain how others have been helped by doing certain things but all the best intentions and efforts in the world will amount to nothing if the person is not ready to get help. If the person is not ready to admit they need help and then seek that help, there is not much we can do but just be a gentle reminder to them and keep reaffirming the message that help is available when they are ready”.

Mrs. Wright thought of another client she had helped a few years before who had come to see her only after he had been driving drunk and had ‘wrapped his car around a tree’ and miraculously survived. It was only then that the young twenty-three year old had decided that he needed to do something about his depression before it took his life. Mrs. Wright chose not to share this story with Gwen as she didn’t want her to worry unnecessarily about her friend.

“Do her parents know what is going on?” she asked.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure but I think they must know as they would have seen her withdrawing from netball and social outings. I guess I could try to talk to her mother if I get a chance when I am at her house?” Gwen asked.

“That may be a good idea, you may know things that are happening with Amy at school that they don’t but be prepared for Amy to not be happy about it. However, if you feel it will be in her best interests then go ahead”, Mrs. Wright suggested.

“The other thing I noticed is that she is sleeping a lot and always seems exhausted even though she tells me she has more than 8 hours of sleep a night and will often sleep in on the weekends” said Gwen.

“Yes, another major sign of moderate to severe depression Gwen. The problem with that being that unfortunately lethargy breeds lethargy. The depressed person has lost energy, pulled back from physical and enjoyable activities and thus feels less active and less energetic and so wrongly feels that more rest or sleep will help. Sometimes they don’t want to face the world and sleeping is a way of escaping. But this is what I call one of the major traps of depression. You must keep trying to encourage Amy to get out and do something, anything to get her out of the house. Unfortunately, what happens when people get depressed is their friends and family don’t know how to handle it so they stay away and that is the worst thing that you can do as a friend. This only increases their sense of isolation”.

“What if she gets suicidal?” Gwen asked, frightened by the prospect of this or even having to broach the subject with Amy.

“I know it may seem a very hard thing to do Gwen, but as a close friend, if you feel there is any possibility that she may be thinking about it, you must ask her. Just ask her if she has had any thoughts of self-harm. We call these thoughts ideation. They are very common with moderate to severe depression and while alarming to the people around the depressed person and sometimes quite alarming to the depressed person themselves, it is not unusual. It’s a cry for help. The time to get worried is if you ask the next question which is if they have a plan to carry out their ideation and you know they have the means to do it. If the answer is yes you need to get them immediate help from a doctor and psychologist. It doesn’t sound like Amy is at that stage of things but it doesn’t hurt to check. This is what you can do as a concerned friend if she is not yet willing to get help.”

“What if she doesn’t get help?” asked Gwen

“Another saying I like Gwen is: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’. She needs to be ready. She may need to hit bottom before she realises that she is the only one who can change her life by getting the help and support she needs. You can certainly reaffirm how counselling has helped you and that it has made a difference to you and helped you get on with your life. Sometimes a bit of self-disclosure can help because people realise they are not alone and that plenty of people go for counselling. Everyone needs to talk to someone who is not emotionally involved in their lives and that includes us psychologists! Someone who they can tell their deepest darkest secrets to or just say anything they need to say and express their feelings without fear of being judged or preached to”.

Gwen noticed Mrs. Wright was getting a little worked up on this point.

Mrs. Wright realised too and said, “Sorry, that’s my little soap box speech for the day” and smiled.

Gwen smiled too. “You’re right though, Mrs. Wright”. They both laughed at that.

“Okay, so how about you have a talk to her…” said Mrs. Wright.

“But I don’t know what to say to her, I don’t want to set her off” Gwen cut in.

“Well, it may be best to approach it by saying that you are concerned about her and that you have noticed some changes in her behaviour and any other changes you want to acknowledge. She may not even realise that people have noticed some of the changes. Then you could tell her again that you found counselling to be really helpful and how it has helped you get through a difficult time in your life. Tell her that you care about her and maybe offer to talk to her whenever she wants and encourage her to take up some running or netball sessions again. Explain to her how this will improve her mood because it will increase her serotonin levels which could possibly be part of why she is feeling depressed”.

“What are serotonin levels?” Gwen asked

“Serotonin is one of the chemicals in our brain and body that is involved in the creation of feelings of peace, happiness and enjoyment in life. Another important one is called Dopamine.”, explained Mrs. Wright.

“So are you saying Amy may have a chemical imbalance?” asked Gwen.

“Goodness no! This is a big issue in the field of psychology and psychiatry at the moment Gwen and it is so important to understand that depression and anxiety can be healed through natural means. And just because someone may have lower levels of serotonin does not mean they have a chemical imbalance that requires correcting through drugs. There are so many more options available to people before they should consider taking something like an anti-depressant” said Mrs. Wright, clearly showing this an issue she had some fairly strong views on.

“Like what?” asked Gwen.

“Well, there are so many things really. Most doctors and psychiatrists would not think of suggesting these things to people but I really recommend that you do mention them to Amy. She may feel more comfortable trying these natural ways first anyway and it is certainly the better way to go. We know through scientific evidence that cardiovascular exercise, something like jogging, swimming, cycling or anything that gets the heart rate up and works up a sweat will help to combat depression by increasing serotonin levels. Most people know this but it can be hard, as I said before, for depressed people to get going and do this. But it’s still very important and they only need to do this for 15-20 minutes, two or three times a week. This has been scientifically proven to increase serotonin levels so that’s always a good start. There are a few nutritional things that people don’t usually know about that can also contribute to depression. When we have been under stress for a long period due to any number of stressful life events, our levels of serotonin can be lowered. Stress releases cortisol into our bodies and this chemical can lower serotonin levels over time. The stress reaction can also deplete our levels of the essential B vitamins, especially Vitamin B6 and B12. These are essential for healthy brain function and are actually involved in the body and brain’s process of creating serotonin out of protein. So you could definitely recommend that she start taking a high potency Vitamin B complex” said Mrs. Wright.

“Oh okay, wow I didn’t know that. Maybe I should start taking Vitamin B too?” Gwen asked.

“Absolutely, it’s important for all of us. I take it every day without fail,”, said Mrs. Wright. “the other thing that is essential for effective brain function and mood regulation is getting enough Omega 3. The best way is through high quality fish oils and people who are depressed need to take about 600-800mg of EPA everyday”.

“I feel like I’m in biology class! This is a lot of information,” Gwen laughed.

“Yes, I know. I will write it down for you if you like.” Mrs. Wright offered.

“If you could that would be great. What is EPA?”

“Each capsule of fish oil has both EPA and DHA in it which are both types of fatty acids our brain and bodies need. It’s not really important what it stands for – I couldn’t pronounce it even if I wanted to! –  but most of the commercially available ones have only about 180 EPA per capsule. People with moderate to severe depression need 600-800mg a day so they need to take about 4 capsules a day. There are higher potency ones with more EPA in them so you don’t have to take so many capsules. I take them each day at mid-morning with a fruit and then again after lunch. Best to take them with some food in the stomach”.

“Right. Well, that’s another one I will think about trying myself too” said Gwen.

“She should begin to see some results within a week or two but if not, she may need to add in exercise and counselling too. But again, you can take her to the water, you can tell her what will help her but unless she recognizes the need for help or trying something to help herself, it may not work. But Gwen, I want you to really get this. You can only do your best to help her. You can even go and buy her some fish oil capsules and Vitamin B but you can’t force them down her throat, just as you can’t force the horse to drink”

“Yes, I guess I can just try be there for her as you say and make sure she knows I am there to talk to whenever she needs”, said Gwen – looking a little more encouraged about what she could do to help her friend.

“That’s all you can really do and that may make all the difference in the world to her too. Never underestimate the power of having even one person show kindness, interest and caring towards someone who is suffering in order to help them heal and recover from emotional difficulties”, said Mrs. Wright.

“Absolutely. Once again Mrs. Wright, you are so right”. They both laughed again.

Gwen got up, stretched and thanked Mrs. Wright. She spontaneously gave Mrs. Wright a hug on the way out of the counselling office. Mrs. Wright blushed a little but was very touched and thought once again how lucky she was to do the work she did every day. As tough as it could be at times, making a difference to someone’s life always made it all worthwhile.

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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