Monday, 19 November 2012

The Balance:depression and meditation

Our bodies need to be in balance for life to continue. Apparently our endocrine systems (glands, mate, and not just the two you are probably most interested in) work continuously to sustain the balance of our systems. When the balance slips, we get ill. White blood cells/red blood cells. Sugar/insulin. Etc. 

One crucial balance is between movement and stasis, energy and tranquillity. It seems that when people suffer from depression, the sort that is induced by stress and exhaustion, this is what happens: the limbic system in the brain that controls our moods, is unbalanced because it is overloaded. We are trying too hard, we want to please, to get things done, to validate ourselves. Bang. It's too much. The fuse blows. The mood sinks down and down.

Seretonin, the hormone that is important in connecting up the tiny neurotransmitters in our brains, can't do its job properly. Slump. Tears about nothing in particular, exhaustion, and at its worst, Sylvia Plath's "Bell Jar." You can't connect to a world deprived of meaning, you can only see it through the glass. You are disconnected, and isolated. 

To use a modern term, depression really, really sucks. And it is widespread; it seems endemic in our culture. It is a real fully-grown illness, not just a bad mood; if you are suffering from depressive illness and a well-meaning friend tries to tell you get a grip, it'll pass, pull yourself together, try and muster the energy to tell him thanks, but just piss off. It's like telling someone with with a broken leg  to get a grip and hurry up.

(Any neuroscientists/doctors reading this can stop sniggering please and go and read something else; I'm doing my best...besides, my real point isn't hormones, it's balance.)

People who suffer from depressive illness, argues - no, demonstrates - Dr Tim Cantopher in his outstanding book "Depressive Illness: the curse of the strong" - may feel they are weak, they have failed. Not so. It is their generous strength, their sensitivity, their outpouringness, the high standards they relentlessly apply to themselves, that got them depressed.

One thing such people do is worry like mad about upcoming things, and worry like mad that they haven't done something as well as they should have done. Dammit, that's just exhausting, isn't it?

What mindfulness meditation can help you do is to live in the present. Doesn't stop you planning and achieving, doesn't stop you doing things well. In fact it will help you do so by keeping you in balance, saving your energies, preventing it happening again. It will lessen your worries, ease your anxieties, find The Balance. You'll still be sensitive, hard-working, generous, but in balance more of the time.

This isn't snake oil, I know it works. You may need anti-depressant medicines, but the meditation will come in longer term and stave off your system's tendency to get out of balance by doing too much.

More about The Balance next time - yes, watch out, I feel a miniseries coming on...

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