And there you have it. What do you think of the healing mural we just painted for you?
A quick review. Looking back over the entirety of this review, there are at least ten major themes that stand out:
- Hope in the possibility of deeper healing
- Learning and making small and large life adjustments
- The big three—nutrition, physical activity & sleep
- The other big three—mental diet, mental exercise, and mental rest
- Inner work of trauma & forgiveness
- Working with emotions in a new way
- Working with thoughts in a new way
- Nourishing community & emotional support
- Deeper sense of purpose & meaning, God & identity
- Growing freedom, less dependence
There are, of course, different ways to slice and dice up these results. For instance, we can talk about several overlapping processes:
- Some kind of process of learning and gaining new insights
- Some kind of process of adjusting external patterns and changing behavior—physical health, etc.
- Some kind of process of adjusting internal patterns and working with thoughts and emotions differently
- Some kind of deepening and improvement in how we relate to others around us—connecting more, at a deeper level, serving others, etc.
- Some kind of grounding in a place deeper or higher than our own thoughts and feelings—with many speaking of connecting spiritually and strengthening that connection.
- And as we just finished reviewing, it was common to hear people describe paring back and reducing their dependence on substances they had previously been trusting to be emotionally stable or well.
This lines up well with what we often tell people participating in our recovery apps at Impact Suite:
- Keep hopeful.
- Keep connected.
- Keep learning.
- Keep growing.
- Keep getting back up again.
Cross-cutting patterns. It’s worth asking how well these line up with other kinds of similar studies? Going back to Dr. Kelly Turner’s cancer findings, here’s a broad-brushstroke comparison:
- Both reflect the crucial importance of having some kind of “hope in the possibility of deeper healing.” Hope matters for all kinds of healing.
- Different kinds of learning and changing are central to the process of healing. Both cancer and depression healing reflect a willingness to learn new things and make small and large life adjustments.
- But these changes are not just as a passive follower of what someone else tells you—instead, coming to “own” your progress by “taking control of your health” and “following your intuition.” Deeper healing, then, isn’t done ‘to’ people—it always involves their own active participation and a sense of ownership in healing.
- Sustainable healing involves external shifts (behavior)—especially, the big three of nutrition, physical activity & sleep, which are important for both depression and cancer healing. In some cases, this includes “radically changing your diet” and being open to taking herbs & supplements
- This is not—and never will be—only about external changes. Sustainable healing also relies on internal shifts of heart and mind, thoughts and emotions. This includes the diet and activity we give our mind, as well as working with both thoughts and emotions in a new way. Both kinds of healing found central value in “releasing suppressed emotions” and “increasing positive emotions.”
- Some kind of central support from loving relationships is important to healing.There is power in nourishing community and embracing deeper emotional and social support.
- Where past relationships and experiences have been painful and harmful, this also involves work to heal from trauma and extend forgiveness
- A deeper sense of purpose and meaning that reflects having found a “strong reason for living” is also important. In many stories, this includes a deepening spiritual connection and relationship to God.
- Especially with depression, the sense of growing freedom, and less dependence seems critical. And in both cases, similar to stories of religious reconversion, those who find deeper healing often experience a moment that disrupts the previous narrative that had led them down the previous treatment path they were traveling.
- Lastly, all these changes and the healing process itself most often happen gradually over time.
A comprehensive approach. This kind of approach to healing requires careful attention and tender care, as Jada summarized well:
In the years I spent towards my healing, many moons ago, I realized the mind and heart can be extremely delicate without the foundation of a formidable spirit. What I eat, what I watch on TV, what music I listen to, how I care for my body, my spiritual practice, what people I surround myself with, the amount of stress I allow, and so on … either contribute to or deteriorate my mental health.
She added, “Mental health is a daily practice for me. It’s a practice of deep self-love.” (78) Ashley underscored the importance of this same comprehensive approach:
I believe in a holistic and balanced approach to treatment, and I don’t think just one path of treatment works. You have to look at it from every angle, because the disease affects every single part of your life and the way you feel about it. (75)
Sometimes it boils down to the little things you may otherwise be overlooking. As William said, “The determining factors of depression are oftentimes the little things that we are not even aware of. knowing your triggers and being mindful of your mood are key to curing your depression.” By learning these patterns, people can “discover how to take control of your life and get out of all that horrific pain.”
By moving towards your own set of targeted interventions, this person suggests “you can engineer happiness.” (100)
This is not to say that comprehensive efforts are always what leads people to a better place. The seeming fruitlessness of even a wide range of things attempted by some is mind-boggling. As Jane said:
I tried going to church, going to school, going to the gym, going to the beach, drinking less, not drinking, reading self-improvement books, listening to inspirational tapes, attending motivational seminars, and taking trips. I tried nutrition….community involvement, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, crime, violence, avoiding my parents, seeing my parents, working, not working, being sweet and docile, being a raging maniac, but nothing ever made me feel better for long. In fact, most of these extreme behavior shifts exhausted me and sent me back into depression. (10)
Even when people have lots of options, then, it’s only if they’re able to see that and feel encouraged to seek them that those options matter. This points to higher level answers. As Johann said, “I believe we should not—must not—talk about solving depression and anxiety only through individual changes…the solutions have to be—to a significant degree—collective, too. We have to change the culture so that more people are freed up to change their lives.” He elaborated:
Up to now, we have put the onus for solving depression and anxiety solely on depressed and anxious individuals. We lecture or cajole them by saying they have to do better (or swallow the pills). But if the problem doesn’t originate from them alone, it can’t be solved by them alone. As a group, together, we have to change our culture—to strip out the causes of depression and anxiety that are causing such deep unhappiness. (21)
Larger take-aways by participants. I was especially touched by some of the “moral of the story” lessons shared by people who had found deeper healing. As one person related: “The mind-bending effects and the darkness of my depression were most certainly the hardest chapter of my life. It was a horrific and painful experience that I do not wish on anyone. Fighting that war inside your head every day…is not a good place to be in.” However, they added: “Though you may not see it as such just yet…depression is an opportunity to restructure your life for the better”:
Depression is your body’s healthy response to unhealthy circumstances. It’s a signal for you to notice that something is terribly awry in your life and that it requires change or your mind and body will keep shutting down. It’s an opportunity in disguise.
This idea of growth from the pain is fascinating. Listen to these similar comments from others:
- Jada calls depression the “terrible place that allowed me to come back stronger”—with her own emotional “rock bottom” becoming a foundation on which she could come back stronger, thanks to a “long journey” to heal. (78)
- Another individual’s story illustrates how “to make sense of their pain and suffering and use it as a basis for transformation.” (73)
- Melissa said, “Despite living with darkness, despair and the relentless drumbeat of mortality pounding in my head, I had still miraculously discovered a way to channel pain into positivity and live meaningfully.” She added, “I had learned firsthand that darkness didn’t have to emanate from darkness, and we all had capacity to turn pain into promise.” (38)
This is a cool reframe of a problem as a possibility. What can our depression/anxiety/addiction help us to offer the world? Mendek asked:
Could it be that the suffering we endure on this planet is the very thing that forces us to raise ourselves to a higher state so that we can overcome the limitations of time and space and become one with the original creative force? Is it the hungers within us that create our need to return home to the source of our being? (44)
He admitted, “Yes, there are still nights when the fear creeps back, but when that happens, I don’t despair. I know that fear is part of my humanity.” Yet coming out of the darkness, he prayed, “may the storms of my everyday existence—my sadness, loneliness, and fear—become the springboard to awaken me to a wisdom greater than my own, so that I may learn the lessons of love, joy, and freedom forever and ever.” (44)
Douglas shared this as a final lesson:
I learned that falling apart is not necessarily a bad thing. In chemistry there is a phenomenon called “spontaneous transformation” in which open systems disintegrate into a state of “creative chaos” and after a time reorganize themselves at a higher level than before. I believe that what is true on the physical level is also true on the psychological and spiritual level. So-called breakdowns can be a precursor to breakthroughs. Deaths can be followed by resurrections. As survivor researcher Julius Siegel put it: “In a remarkable number of cases, those who have suffered and prevail find that after their ordeal they begin to operate at a higher level than ever before … The terrible experiences of our lives, despite the pain they bring, may become our redemption.” (4)
As you can see here, so much of this up and down emotional stretching can lead people toa pointedly positive place. “The pain and suffering” one person endured led him “to a new sense of enthusiasm, compassion, and love for the human experience.” William even claimed that “depression is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” (100)
As Tina Knowles Lawson has written, “We aren’t meant to dwell in the dark. But darkness can be an indicator helping us to ask the tough questions and take one faithful step at a time toward being all God created us to be.”
Juanita similarly admitted, “I have felt that the depression that started all of this journey was absolutely the worst that could have happened to me. At times I have said I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” She continued, “Yet the warmth of the tears on my face are witnesses that God is in this and that I can feel God’s love even here. The suffering is a reality to me here, but so too is the awakening to what is and perhaps most hopeful, what can be.” This woman then shared her conviction:
I had to descend all those days and nights into the darkness or I never could have known this ground of my being…I came to see that this whole process was more than a physical and mental diagnosis…this was about helping me build a life I wanted to live, a life present to God who desires that I would live fully into love…The crash was not just about depression but about spiritual awakening, spiritual transformation. (47)
She referred to the 15th century leader, St. John of the Cross, who wrote about the “dark night of the soul” as something that “invites us to know and be fully known to ourselves and to know God in ways that perhaps we had never imagined.” Juanita added, “The dark night was for me the beginning of freedom” -comparing her own experience as “a phoenix rising from the ashes.” (47)
Catalysts, turning points, and upward spirals. As you can see above, solutions are not linear—just like the problems aren’t. Left to its own devices, depression can be a vicious cycle that feeds on itself indefinitely. This is partly about learning “how to interrupt its flow and uniformity.”
Consistently, we saw in many stories that tell-tale signs of an exciting “upward spiral.” For instance:
- Brooke remembered, “I decide to quit drinking for a year. I stop all at once and don’t tell anyone about my decision. I immediately notice that I can’t tolerate dating the men in my life without drinking, so I also stop dating and avoid the bars.” (80)
- Mark spoke of a number of converging factors– seeing his identity more clearly, the assistance of timely support around him, medication shift—“It all worked together to initiate the early days of reversing my pattern, of triggering an upward spiral of recovery.” (25)
I once visited with a family whose depressed teenager felt unable to commit to anything except getting a little more sunshine. After two weeks of getting outside more to play sports with his father, this young man felt enough energy to experiment with adjustments to his diet, which triggered other improvements and a new momentum of gradual healing. (15)
Thomas described how adjusting what he took into his mind had rippling benefits for other areas of life: “I started to be choosier about what [media] I watched, and who I hung out with because I had a really clear sense of how it was affecting me. And that influenced my sleeping cycle. And I started to rest more; and I realized I felt really good when I exercised. And I noticed what foods made me feel good and what foods made me feel sick.” He described these changes as a “domino effect … that cascaded into other fortunate turnarounds.” (11)
None of the changes described above, of course, needs to happen all at once. Neuroscientist Alex Korb writes that “one small change at a time” can reverse the course of depression by creating an “upward spiral.” As Dr. Korb explains: “In complex systems like the brain, even a little shift can change the resonance of the whole system. For example, exercise changes the electrical activity in your brain during sleep, which then reduces anxiety, improves mood, and gives you more energy to exercise [and interact with others]. Similarly, expressing gratitude activates serotonin production, which improves your mood and allows you to overcome bad habits, giving you more to be grateful for. Any tiny change can be just the push your brain needs to start spiraling upward.”
One man described the gradual progression as you heal, “You start every day with a normal bottle of energy—you start your day with a tiny little bit in the bottom” but in her experience, a “little challenge at work, stressful call—can completely empty your bottle.” As Caleb described it, he gradually made adjustments to her lifestyle, “so every day I woke up with a little more energy—and reinvested that energy in the rest of my life.” (108)
While emphasizing the comprehensive and gradual nature of healing, it can be easy to think that every adjustment only adds a little—with progress only happening slowly. This isn’t the case. As we saw in many accounts, one particular physical, mental, social or spiritual adjustment can sometimes unleash the floodgates of healing. Take, for instance, Caleb’s story of stopping to eat legumes, and suddenly feeling dramatically better. All else he had been doing to that point, like continuing to learn, serve in meaningful ways, and keeping his mind and brain free of any dependence was helpful. But it wasn’t until this catalyzing puzzle piece fell into place that he felt truly better. (108)
What could be that big catalyst (or small puzzle piece) for you? Douglas felt to add an important qualification to their own story:
As I read over the description of my recovery, I feel moved to add an important postscript. Just because spiritual intervention was a catalyst for my recovery, it doesn’t mean that this is the path for everyone. For some people, healing may come from finding the right medication or nutritional supplement; for others, it may be through falling in love or pursuing a passion. Since the majority of people who are treated for depression eventually get better (i.e., most depressions are episodic), if you can endure the pain and set a strong intention to get well, you will likely be graced by some healing modality that works for you. (The key is to hang on until the pattern of the illness shifts.) (4)
Don’t stop hoping. One resounding message from so many people was to plead with others still grappling to hold on and stay hopeful. As David said, “I can see that people across the world need something very badly right now, and that is HOPE.” (59)
Just as despair can spark despair, so also can hope spark hope, as one person attested. Two readers of these same texts write:
- My son has told me, “Mom, I just want to die.” Marilyn’s testimony has given me insight into the mind of a person who suffers emotional pain, and hope that my son, too, can win the battle! (50)
- “To read this book is to understand how a life is built. In dark, there is light. Everything in Marsha’s life and remarkable memoir uncovers the dark—the hell of the unhappy self and the hell of inadequate help—and brings us into the light, with humor and detail in describing her grappling and growth.”
- “Anyone reading her book will gain valuable insight into what it is like to struggle with serious emotional and mental disorders, as well as receiving a most precious gift—reason to believe that such a harrowing journey can lead to hope and healing.”
- “This book needs a shout out. It needs to be out here and more people should read it. When people are in depression or any such health issues sometimes they feel directionless. Such books where the author herself has gone through this ordeal and have healed, the steps mentioned can at least show a day of light to needy ones.” (99)
The same sentiment came directly from the narrators themselves:
- Nyla said, “It is my greatest wish that readers will find this hope, acceptance, and renewed strength through my sharing.” (61)
- Michael said, “If you are in the dumps about a mental illness, please do not give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I know it may seem hopeless at times—it may seem like a darkness that never ends. But you can get through it. In fact, you might just be at the beginning of the final corner before the road turns to health, freedom and happiness. Please, do not give up. You can do this. (30)
- Moni said, “I would like to encourage people diagnosed with [some form of depression] to overcome their fears and doubts and believe in themselves. I know that healing is possible. We just have to be willing to do the hard work to get there.” (46)
- “It was hard work. But it worked. It still works. It was so very worthwhile….I believe that almost everyone is capable of doing the same mental/emotional/spiritual work God led me through to get healing…[not] temporary feeling good…but real deep lasting authentic healing. Do you want that? You can get it. You’ve got to work for it. It is so worth it. It takes time and isn’t easy. But it works. And if you do the work I believe you will receive healing.” (69)
- Jonathan said, “I would love to give people hope that you can indeed find the light at the end of the tunnel and while there will always be highs and lows life is definitely worth hanging around for.” (96)
“Are you one of us?” a patient once asked Marsha, who had become a respected therapist. “Because if you were, it would give all of us so much hope.” (43)
Even in the middle of difficult emotional problems, Juanita said reassuringly, “we can learn to live into new realities that bring freedom” and may even come to gain growth and insight that are “worth the descent into hell.” (47) Matt reflected:
I do not know the magnitude or difficulty of anyone else’s experience. I understand that my journey and the solutions that have helped me aren’t a mirror image for anyone else. Rather, they are more a sympathetic resonance that hopefully sheds light toward holistic self-care that is uniquely your own, and an encouragement to keep trying and discovering. (6)
One individual underscored:
Never, in a million years, did I think I could climb out of the hole depression had buried me in. I was drowning. I promise this [approach] will work if you just read about the steps and start following them. Force yourself to get out of bed and do the work every day. No matter what. You are worth the effort! (2)
Newly confident, David said, “I know that if I exercise I get the benefits of the endorphins and the serotonin boost. I know that if I get enough sleep, meditate, connect with good friends, eat a diet designed to maximize my physical and mental health, and take certain supplements, I will continue to be free. (59)
Like Dr. Turner, we likewise want to “collect as many cases of healing as possible” and then do what we can to connect those struggling with others who have healed. As Marsha described her motivation to “Get out of hell and get others out” (43), we too are engaged in what another person rightly described as a “crusade of hope.”
Photo by Gabriel Silvério on Unsplash