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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 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!

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Poker and the Spirit – Part One

Now this would seem to be an odd title for a blog by a psychologist and one might wonder, what on earth poker has to do with life lessons or wisdom of any kind. Let me begin by saying that one of my favourite authors in the field of psychology and self-help was M. Scott Peck who wrote the extraordinary book called “The Road Less Travelled”. If you haven’t yet read this classic, I highly recommend it.

Another book that M. Scott Peck wrote was a much lesser known book called “Golf and the Spirit”. It was a book that led the reader through a 9 hole golf course, with the actual layout of the courses created by M. Scott Peck and his son (who was a graphic designer). Each course provided a range of life lessons which M. Scott Peck described with his usual incredible wisdom. He obviously loved the game of golf and saw many parallels between his experiences playing the game and his work with people in his private practice as well as in his own life.

I have found very much the same thing happening to me when it comes to the game of Texas Hold’Em Poker (I will also refer to it as just Poker but I will always be referring to Texas Hold’Em as there are many other variations around today). This game has now become a major worldwide phenomenon. It is a game that finds young and old, male and female and every race, religion and nationality playing together and I would go so far as to say that it has become a worldwide sport. Some of this has been due to the incredible amounts of money people have won playing in events such as the World Series of Poker (WSOP)  and some of it is due to the way it is now shown on television with viewers being able to see the cards that the players have while the game is happening which makes for a much more exciting experience of watching the game unfold.

Matt Damon, John Malkovich, and Edward Norton starred in a movie called Rounders in 1998 which popularised the then little known variation of poker (Texas Hold’Em) which was about to take the world by storm. I did watch the movie around the time it came out but it wasn’t until 2008 that a friend of mine introduced me to the game and gave me a book to read about Poker strategy by Dan Harrington that opened up this incredible game to me and I have never looked back. Since that time I have played in hundreds of games. Home games with friends, pub games, poker league games including the APL (Australian Poker League) State Championships where I have played against a field of over 500 people to come 16th.  I have also honed my skills by playing hundreds of online games which recently saw me coming 4th in the 888 100K guaranteed weekly tournament out of a field of 650 players from all over the world. My fascination with Poker is as strong as my fascination about people and life and I guess you can see how these all come together and why I am writing a blog about it.

One of the first things I can imagine (or mind read) you are thinking right now is: Isn’t poker gambling? This is a question I have pondered very often and when I recently watched Rounders again I was amused to see that Matt Damon’s character tries to explain to his then fiancé the difference between the game of Texas Hold’Em Poker and gambling. I do not want to get into the whole debate as it is not of importance in this blog however I will just say one thing: If poker was truly gambling, how would it be possible for the same people to keep ending up towards the end of the major tournaments or for a range of them to consistently end up at the final table and winning money? There is only one reason and that is incredible amounts of skill. Some of the skills involved in this game are a combination of mathematical skill, emotional intelligence, perseverance, intellectual curiosity and the ability to take calculated risks. I personally have read over 15 books on Texas Hold’Em tournament strategy. What I didn’t see in these books however was the very obvious lessons that can and need to be learned in order to become a really good player in terms of psychology and indeed how these same lessons could then be applied to help you improve your life in general.

With that introduction,  I would now like to take you on a short journey into some of the aspects of playing the game and see if we can find some insights or correlations between playing the game of poker and playing the game of life.

You are unlikely to succeed in the game of poker or life without taking some risks

As I mentioned earlier, many people (including my ex-wife) believe that playing poker is gambling. And I might agree with that but only from the point of view that you are putting down some money and playing a game with the possibility of either losing that money or winning more money. And I will also concede that you generally cannot win without some luck. That is where the comparison ends.

My philosophy and belief about poker (and life) is that you will never get anywhere without taking some calculated risks. You take calculated risks every single day of your life. You know that when you walk out your front door there is a risk that you will get knocked down by a car, hit by lightning, mugged or any other manner of wonderful things that could happen to you. But, do you let these “risks” stop you from leaving your home each morning? Admittedly, depending on where you live of course, these risks may be very low and negligible, however there is still a risk.

Some people are very focused on “risks” and in psychological terms this can become what we refer to as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and as well as a range of other phobias. People with OCD and other phobias really struggle with pushing past these perceived risks. They may fear things like germs, being in wide open spaces or enclosed spaces, spiders, flying in an aeroplane, driving a car, public speaking or any other range of perceived “at risk” situations. Most of us, whilst we are aware on some level that these risks exist, do not allow them to stop us from living our lives.

In the game of poker, you may start out with a higher risk (luck) to skill ratio when you begin. I always say that when you first begin to play in order to win you would need 80% luck and 20% skill. However, as you learn more and more about the game, as you study the concepts involved and as your experience in playing the game against a range of different competitors increases, so does your skill to risk (luck) ratio. I believe that you can keep moving this ratio up and that you could possibly (if you were absolutely brilliant at the game) turn the ratio into 70% skill and 30% risk (luck).

Part of the reason I say this is different to gambling is that you are not playing against a casino or a machine, you are playing against other human beings. And other human beings can make mistakes! You may be dealt (in terms of luck) a really bad hand but your ability to read the situation around you and the people you are playing against allows you to force your competitor to “lay down” (meaning fold their cards) to a well-timed bluff by you. So here you have won the pot (the chips in the middle) without needing luck to help you do it. However, you have taken a calculated risk believing that if you bluff them in that moment they will fold their cards.

Cannot the same be said of life? If human beings never took any risks I believe the whole world as we know it would come to a grinding halt. No-one would every get married or have kids. No-one would ever start a business or invest in anything. No-one would ever try and create something. Thomas Edison took 10 000 risks before creating the light bulb. He “failed” 10 000 times but without his willingness to take risks and try we would all still be sitting in the dark – literally!

Sometimes you have to gamble and “bet” all you have on trying something new. For example, it could be leaving a job where you are being bullied or taken advantage of or it could be going to live in another country because the one you live in now is full of crime and corruption or it could be leaving your current partner because the relationship doesn’t serve you anymore.

What are the risks involved? In the first and third examples it’s that you won’t find another job or partner. In the second example the risk is that you will find it hard to assimilate and you will suffer setbacks due to having to start again from scratch in a new country.

So the question is: Do you take the risk or don’t you? “To be or not to be, that is the question” is the famous line that Hamlet asked. How do you make that decision? You certainly don’t know what the outcome will be…you don’t have a crystal ball do you? But what do you know right now for sure? Maybe it’s that you are unhappy. Maybe you are depressed. Maybe you don’t feel motivated in life or you just have this feeling that something isn’t right and something inside of you is urging you to take a risk and make a change but the only thing holding you back – the only thing holding any of us back is what?…. Fear of course. Fear that it won’t work out. Fear that you will lose everything you have. Maybe by that you mean your money, or your possessions, or your feeling of comfort and security. But as we continue to stay stuck where we are, we may start to investigate or at least contemplate our options. We would start to think about the pros and the cons,  weighing up the risks versus the rewards of taking action. Very much similar to what happens in every poker hand that you play. You have to assess the situation, use all the available information that you have as well as your own intuitive wisdom from your past experiences and then make a decision to take the risk or not. Your decision is a calculated one yes, but will it ever be a fool proof one or provide you with absolute certainty in terms of the outcome? No. However, people who succeed at Poker and in life in general are willing to take that chance because they know that the reward has the potential to outweigh the risk many times over and they also know how they will feel if they back themselves and win.

It was apparently Albert Einstein who said that in the Universe nothing happens until something moves. So, are you going to just sit there or are you going to move?

A chip and a chair

In Poker, there is a saying that most people who play the game are aware of and it is that you only need a chip and chair to win the game. I have been in that situation myself in a poker tournament on many occasions when I have taken a heavy loss and ended up with a very small amount of chips which – by all accounts – should have led to me being knocked out of the tournament. However, through sheer determination and taking a risk at the right time, I have come back to win the tournament. This would be something that most seasoned poker players would have experienced and hence why there is actually a saying about it.

I have often thought about this and loved the very real and clear connection it has to us in real life. I can certainly attest to this from my own personal life experience.

When life knocks us down and we get “a bad beat” – another Poker saying meaning when you do all the right things and someone ends up getting ridiculously lucky against you – we have two choices. Give up and throw the towel in and moan about how unfair it is or how unlucky we are or realise that as long as you are still in the game (alive) and you have the ability to think and act, you also have the opportunity to turn things around.

This reminds me of a book I read many years ago which speaks to this topic which was called “Tough times don’t last but tough people do!” by Dr. Robert Schuller. I think one of the most powerful attitudes to have in life is the attitude of never giving up. In that spirit, I would like to share with you one of my absolute favourite poems on the subject which I first came across at the age of 10 or 11 years old. It was a page in my homework diary that all kids were given at my school and it had a daily calendar and quotes of inspiration dotted throughout its pages. However, the poem called Don’t Quit was right at the front and I loved it so much that I cut out and pasted it into the very front of what later became my personal quote scrapbook. The poem was not attributed to an author, it just said “unknown’ but I eventually found out that it was written by Edgar A. Guest. Here it is:

DON’T QUIT

When Things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and debts are high,
And you want to Smile but have to sigh.
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out,
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow,
You might succeed with another blow.

Often the struggler has given up,
When he might captured the victor’s cup.
And he learned too late, when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown,

Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit,
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.

I still have that scrapbook of quotes today and at various times in my life when things have been particularly tough I would print out a copy of Don’t Quit and place it on my refrigerator or next to my mirror in the bathroom. I have never read this poem and not felt some relief, some peace of mind and also the resulting increase in motivation to take a breath and keep going.

Let me provide another example from my own life in terms of this attitude of not quitting. I practiced Tae Kwon Do for 7 years in South Africa from the age of 19. I had a coach who was like Mr. Miyagi from the movie Karate Kid but about ten times tougher on us. His name was Master Fabio Ghobadi and he was, at the age of 30 at that time, already a 5th Dan Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do.  He had also been the trainer of the French National Team. He had come from France to South Africa through a range of difficult and interesting life experiences and started a Tae Kwon Do school. He was very unorthodox and whilst he was a very caring and empathic human being, he was also a very hard task master and sometimes played favourites. There were many times that I thought of quitting Tae Kwon Do. Right at the beginning it was more from the tortuous physical training regimens we had to undertake. I’ll never forget my first lesson in the dojo where we had to run up and down, do push ups and sit ups as well as so many frog marches that I left the class, went outside into the parking lot, and threw up. My friend who had introduced me to the class came out and asked me if I was okay and I said “If I wanted to join the army I would have joined the army!” I wasn’t going to return but something inside me told me not to quit and so I did return for the next lesson and for the next 7 years. There were many times I wanted to quit throughout those years. Sometimes it was due to what I felt was the mistreatment and unfairness I received from Master Fabio but I knew that even though he always seemed to be delaying the achievement of my black belt, there was probably a method in his madness and I was continuing to improve anyway.

After 6 years, I did my black belt grading. It was a very proud moment however, very soon after that Master Fabio left the country and never sent my grading off to South Korea so that I could be officially listed as a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. After 6 years with him – and then carrying on teaching classes with another black belt for another year after that – I never received my official black belt or certificate. In 2004, I was told by one of the other black belts that Master Fabio had suddenly passed away from stomach cancer. I was deeply shocked to hear this and very saddened by his passing because even though I had struggled with some of his ways, he had been like a father figure to me for 6 years of my life and I had learned so much from him not only in terms of Tae Kwon Do but of his philosophy of life. What this meant was that I would not be able to get my official black belt. However, I continued to practice my Tae Kwon Do on my own when I emigrated to Australia and eventually, in 2008, I joined a Tae Kwon Do school near my work and had to regrade through each of the belts in order to prove I could do it and eventually after a year the Master of that school graded me to black and I finally received my official black belt certificate and designation from Korea. This was a very proud moment for me and as I think back to it now I can see that it indicated to me that not only was I was capable of achieving my goals but more importantly it showed me how very important it is to live by the philosophy of not quitting.

As I said, life can sometimes really throw you a curve ball and knock you off your feet. But, as Sylvester Stallone says to his son in Rocky Balbo – the final Rocky movie – “you, me or no one is going to hit harder than life, but it’s not how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward…that’s how winning is done!”

And so, when you get knocked down by life or suffer a setback always remember: All you need is a chip and a chair and the determination to keep moving forward and you can make it back, you can change your life around and get back into the game and succeed.

In the next part I will talk about something called Going on Tilt or how detrimental it can be to allow emotion to control our thoughts and behaviours.

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!

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