A Book Review: The Instinct to Heal by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D. Ph.D.

The media is full of reports on the two celebrities who took their lives.  It comes as I finish the book, The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety, and Stress without Drugs and without Talk Therapy by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph. D.  While I see everyone saying check on your friends, I think it’s even more important that we take the time to educate ourselves.  Often people can’t express or explain their depression.

I have struggled with depression on and off for years.  My most recent bout came this winter.  I wasn’t even aware of it.  For me it’s a slow transition where the world dims and I become overwhelmed by all that is wrong in our society.  Everything weighs on me.  Still I smile, but inside I wonder why I even try.  It can take months for me to realize that I am depressed.  If I can barely recognize it, how do I expect others in my life to?  Reaching out to me with “Are you okay?” won’t resolve my feelings of depression.  We need something more than checking on each other.

As I read The Instinct to Heal my gears started spinning.  The first thing that struck me was the definition of depression.  Depression is defined, above all, by the absence of pleasure, more than by sadness.   Depression isn’t something that others can solve for us.  We have to do it.  Having a support group of those who love us can help.  But many people that commit suicide have a loving family and friends.  It doesn’t stop the emptiness that consumes everything.  We have to take responsibility for it.  As a society we need to create changes that make it so our culture doesn’t promote depression and anxiety.

What can we do?  The Instinct to Heal is full of information to help us create a path to well-being. It even includes a chapter at the end of the book to help you “get started” and “building your own plan” to heal from anxiety, depression, and stress.

Doctor David starts by explaining our emotional brain and how while we can understand something intellectually this doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting us emotionally.  We have two brains and they don’t always get along.  When this happens it can wreak havoc on our system.  He spends a number of chapters discussing heart coherence and how ignoring our heart can have serious repercussion like heart attack and even death.  Heart meditations can be a great way to gain heart coherence.  For those who are interested in heart coherence I’d recommend a visit to the HeartMath® Institute to discover more (or reading this book).  https://www.heartmath.org/

Another interesting therapy is called EMDR which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.  It’s a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.  This would be if the anxiety or depression stems from certain events in your life.  I recommend you read the book if you’re interested in this option as it contains a lot of information and case studies.  You can also visit www.emdr.com to find out more information.

Diet plays a big role in anxiety and depression.  You need to feed your body well.  If you suffer from anxiety or depression I recommend you look into the Omega 3 / Omega 6 connection.  Our bodies need fats, but a certain balance is required for our well-being.  The current American diet does not support a 1:1 balance of Omega 3 / Omega 6 fats.  Our diet tends to be rich in Omega 6 and lacking in Omega 3.  An overload of Omega 6 causes inflammation and studies are beginning to connect inflammation with depression (along with a host of other diseases).  If your anxiety or depression could be so easily fixed by little changes in your diet wouldn’t you want to know?  When I discovered this information within days I was doing things to bring this part of my diet into balance and I felt immediate changes.  I am on a plant based diet, but I need to supplement with flaxseed oil.  The low fat approach of this diet appears to contain too little fat for my body currently.  Each person is unique and will need to create a diet that is best for them.

Another important factor is exercise.  Various studies show that the minimum quantity of exercise needed to affect the emotional brain is 20 minutes, 3 times per week.  The duration seems to matter, but not the distance covered, nor the intensity of the effort.  If you sustain the effort to the point where you can still talk, but not sing that is plenty.  20 minutes of exercise, 3 times per week.  Everyone can find a way to fit that into their schedule.  You can even make it fun! Exercise you enjoy means you’ll keep doing it.  Get moving!!!

It is important to note that the benefits of exercise may be proportional to the dose. The more the severe the symptoms of depression or anxiety, the more regular and intense the exercise required.  Five sessions are better than three.  An hour of spinning is more effective than 20 minutes of steady walking, but if you can’t spin then the walking is vastly more effective than nothing.

There is too much information in this book to share everything  in one review as much as I would like to.  Additional items discussed are how light affects our well-being, the benefits of acupuncture, and the benefits of pets and unconditional love.  The last few chapters focus on learning how to communicate our emotions and needs to others in a constructive way and learning how to listen with our heart.  Doctor David outlines a couple of methods for effectively communicating with others.  To discover more information about these methods see the notes at the end of this post.

These are the things that will help us deal with depression and anxiety and prevent us from losing more of our fellows to suicide.  We need to be sharing this information so we can help each other.  We need to create a society where we are taught this information at home or in school.  We need to create a world where applying these concepts doesn’t make us the black sheep, criticized, or an underachiever, but instead a beacon of light to inspire others.  This should be our goal.


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