Exercising the demons

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The Observer (UK): For millions of Britons suffering from depression, therapy and pills are a first-stop solution. But when conventional treatment failed him, Dan Roberts chose to play and pray.

As anyone who has experienced severe depression knows, it is a hellish state. Your confidence, self-esteem and energy are eviscerated by anxiety, self-doubt and a darkness from which there appears no respite. Symptoms commonly include insomnia, acute anxiety, loss of appetite, libido and energy, with even the most minuscule task taking on Herculean dimensions. In its severest form, depression is crippling, rendering the sufferer unable to lead a normal existence.

Depression is becoming the affliction of our time – one in four people in the UK suffer from it at some point in their lives. For the past 11 years I have been among that 25 per cent, laid low by bouts that can last for weeks and which have ranged from mild to severe.

Depression runs in my family. We are all hugely driven, highly motivated people, prone to often scathing self-criticism. We feel deeply, but vent our emotions poorly, especially anger. As in any good Jewish family, guilt is second nature and (one of the key components in any depressive personality) we expect a great deal – from life, love, the world. When our experience fails to match our lofty dreams we fume, often turning that indignation in on ourselves.

My own cycle of emotional boom and bust began with the untimely death of my father in 1992, when I was 25. I was travelling and hadn’t seen him for two years, so I never got to say goodbye – it was as if he just vanished from my life…

I returned to England and eventually entered counselling to help with the bereavement. I spent the next five years in individual and group therapy, but with hindsight, I believe this examined every dark corner of the past too minutely. Having become disenchanted with therapy in 1997, I spent a year battling my demons alone and, after an especially brutal episode (in which, for the first and last time, I came close to suicide) I visited my GP. She recommended Prozac, but I did not trust antidepressants – I felt it was like taking aspirin to cure a broken leg. A year later, I again bottomed out and was referred to the Tavistock Clinic, where an old-school psychiatrist assessed me and frostily recommended analysis – four times a week. I was working full-time and had a young son, so it was out of the question. Once again, my GP suggested Prozac. Again I refused, and in light of the increasing evidence about the potentially harmful side-effects of SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) such as Prozac and Seroxat, I’m glad I did.

Eventually, like millions of others, I discovered Dorothy Rowe. Her book, Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, spoke with greater simplicity and truth about the causes of depression than any therapy session. Her assertion that depression is a choice made at a very young age, and that we construct the ‘prison’ of depression through rigidly held belief systems, struck a profound chord with me. If, however unconsciously, we choose to be depressed, we can also choose not to be.

Rowe also asserts that regular exercise is a key tool in combating depression. I recently contacted her to seek clarification. ‘Exercise is very helpful,’ she said, ‘because the depressed person is doing something to benefit himself, instead of constantly punishing himself. The decision to do something for yourself, even if it is the tiniest thing, can be the starting point of change and coming to value yourself.’

The precise physiological reasons are not yet clear, but exercise is believed to alter neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine in the brain; the changes are similar to those produced by antidepressants. Better documented is the release of endorphins during and after working out, which provide a natural high.

Whether the effect is mental or physiological, it works. I exercise almost daily; running, swimming, playing tennis and kickboxing. In the weeks where I let my regime slip, my self-image worsens, I feel sluggish and lethargic, and often end up depressed.

The other key component of my anti-depressive programme is meditation. As Rowe says: ‘The depressed person might appear to an outsider to be inactive, but inside, the person’s thoughts are churning around. Meditation, or just learning to centre yourself and relax, can quieten these thoughts.’

This is an oft-ignored aspect of depression – the anxiety and whirling clouds of noxious, self-destructive thoughts that precede and/or accompany it. I meditate daily and find it provides an invaluable aid in my battle with the blues. Meditation taps into a hugely powerful resource – that of an inner calm, strength and resolve which survive any external assault. Depression and psychological turmoil are nothing new, and people have been self-regulating their psyches for millennia through prayer and meditation.

I am not claiming that my approach will work for everyone, but it works for me. I have come to accept that depression will probably be a lifelong, though unwelcome, companion; but never again will I consider suicide. Never again will it suffocate me for weeks on end.

I have learnt how to live with and manage my depression. Perhaps one day I may even free myself from its shackles for good.

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