Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Depression and 'Lost Connections'

Today's blog post and podcast is really a rave book review of Johann Hari's new book, "Lost Connections". I've mentioned him in a previous blog post, when I talked about his amazing TED talk, "Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong", in which he said that "the opposite of addiction is connection." 

Now he's turning his attention to depression, both the causes and the solutions, which he's found are very different from the 'brain chemical imbalance' narrative we've been getting from doctors (and drug companies) for so long. Depression has social and psychological causes, and it is possible to make huge changes in levels of depressions without ever taking a pill. To demonstrate this, Hari mentions the Hamilton Scale, which is the way psychologists measure depression. It goes from 0, skipping around happy as Larry, to 50, the lowest deepest depression. You can make a 6 point leap on the Hamilton Scale just by improving your sleep patterns. Extensive research has shown that anti-depressants make an improvement  on average of 1.8. So it's worth looking at other ideas, however out-there (or lacking in profit) they might be. 

This book is helpful and relevant for everyone, because even if you've never been diagnosed with depression or taken anti-depressants, everyone knows what it feels like to be unhappy. Hari does state that depression and unhappiness are not the same thing, but he's come to realise that they are related, on a spectrum. He says that "depression and anxiety are only the sharpest edges of a spear that has been thrust into almost everyone in our culture", and I believe many people will connect to a lot of the causes of depression that he discusses. It also feels very relevant to people struggling with addiction - so many of the symptoms and causes of depression and addiction are the same, and in the end we often use substances to mask unhappiness and numb pain. Which means that many of the solutions will help those with addiction issues as well. 

In the first section of the book, Hari discusses 7 disconnections that he's found to be key causes of depression. They range from disconnection from other people, from nature, from meaningful work to disconnection from a stable future and from status and respect. As I was reading, I thought about times in my life when I've felt deeply unhappy or depressed, and realised that I could identify a lot of these disconnections in those times. They also coincided with the times I was drinking or smoking a lot. 

The solution is to reconnect, and Hari provides examples of people who have made great improvements to their mental health by reconnecting with people, nature, a stable future, and so on. When I think of the happiest times in my life, like my first year teaching diving, the year I spent in Canada, or this last year of living in the van, I again realised that these were times when I was reconnecting in these ways. The times when I had the most connections were when I felt most happy and secure. 

Get your hands dirty and make your brain happy! (photo Benjamin Comb)

Obviously there are still some areas I need to work on, reasons that I still feel unhappy. I often feel very lonely - since the lifestyle I've had means I move around a lot I'm not often in a place long enough to make connections that lead to long lasting friendships that can stand the test of FaceTime. Apparently feeling lonely can cause the same amount of stress as being punched in the face by a stranger (you'll have to read the book to get the research info on that one!), and I can believe it. So I'm seeking out connections that will help, like trying to build a community and being better at replying to messages! Self-compassion is another area I'm working on (which I talked about in the last episode), and one of the solutions Hari suggests for this is to cultivate sympathetic joy, or happiness and compassion for others, by practising loving-kindness meditation. So that's what I'm doing in my daily meditation now.

At the beginning of the book, Hari shares a story about how he nearly dies from food poisoning in Cambodia, and asks for medication to stop his nausea. The doctor says no, the nausea is important, it's telling us something and we must listen to it so we know what to do. Depression is the same - it is painful, but we need this pain. It is a message, and it's telling us that there's something wrong with the way we live. Rather than medicating the symptoms so we no longer feel anything, we need to hear what it is trying to tell us, and make some serious changes. 

One of the things I liked most about this book was that he didn't shy away from making those big suggestions. He states that depression is in general a collective problem, so the solutions need to be collective too. Our culture is sick, and what's worse is that huge corporations profit from that sickness by peddling us a 'cure' that is ineffective for the majority of people, and doesn't do a thing to address the real causes of depression. "You aren't a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met...You are not suffering a chemical imbalance in your brain. You are suffering a social and spiritual imbalance in how we live." Some of the solutions may seem radical, but so did every social revolution before it started. It's time for radical thinking, so we can start to make a dent in this enormous issue that affects so many people. If you feel like it affects you in any way, the best thing you could do right now is go out and get a copy of this book. It will blow your mind (in all the right ways!)


If you can relate to what you've just read, let's continue the conversation! Sharing stories is one of our most powerful tools, so leave a comment below, check out the FREEDOM junkies' facebook page, or join our group.

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