Natural Approaches to Treating Mental Illness 

I really can’t paint the picture enough to show just how severe my OCD was. People meet me today and say how “normal” I seem, and tell me they just can’t imagine another version. It wasn’t overnight, and not always easy, but my journey certainly was my own.  I did almost everything they said. Well, not really, but I did start with therapy. I was impressed with the statistics I found on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). But I was lucky; I had good health insurance and access to a therapist who I liked, who was taking new patients, and who was familiar with my condition. This is not often the case. I never tried SSRIs, though if my progress after therapy had regressed, I may have considered it. Diminished libido and weight gain were two side effects that dettered me. But really, those are the options most of the time… therapy and medication. I knew there had to be more, and there is. 

The thing is, mental health issues are often a combination of psychological inflexibility and physiological causes. Hormone imbalance, nutrient deficiency, genetics, traumatic brain injuries, chronic inflammation, infection and other diseases can all trigger or inflate psychological symptoms. Behavioral symptoms can then manifest including insomnia, eating disorders and addiction. Psychotherapy can truly do an incredible job at addressing not only stress reduction, but teaching self compassion and instilling invaluable skills to handle “spikes” in symptoms when they arise. Other ways to reduce stress include yoga and meditation. 

Now, to target the other piece of the puzzle, we need to find out what else is happening in the body. Testing and proper diagnosis of any underlying condition is important. Some of these tests can be ordered by a “regular” doctor, but a naturopathic doctor would be the one to order more specialty tests such as neurotransmitter analysis. This underlying condition (or physiological cause), if there is one, and/or chronic stress can contribute to neurochemical imbalance like low serotonin and dopamine.  Luckily, there are options for correcting these imbalances such as neurofeedback, targeted amino acid therapy, nutrition and botanical/herbal medicine. I’ll break down some of these options. 

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that uses EEG to get real time display of brain activity with the goal being to teach self regulation of brain function. Leads are placed on the scalp and a computer screen shows brain waves. The individual then can learn to slow down or speed up brain waves. It’s kind of like learning to be aware and regulate your breathing. Pretty cool, right? It can be useful for ADHD, anxiety, depression, autism, OCD, PTSD and epilepsy. 

Targeted Amino Acid Therapy is based on Pfeiffers Law which states that If a drug can be found to do the job of medical healing, a nutrient can be found to do the same job. Amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters and neurotransmitters are what become imbalanced with psychological inflexibility and a multitude of biological causes. Even gut issues can contribute to neurotransmitter imbalance because GABA and serotonin are made in the gut. Any condition that causes nutrient depletion can interfere with the production of neurotransmitters as well.  What is important to know is that this therapy must be tailored and targeted to the individual because neurotransmitter imbalance can look differently in everyone. For example, if we lined up 100 people with low tryptophan (the amino acid precursor of serotonin), we would see people with conditions including aggression, alcoholism, anorexia, ADD, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, and sleep disorders. 

Nutrition is one of the most foundational areas to look at when supporting someone’s mental health. I read a study many years ago, conducted in Australia. A link was found between sugar and anxiety! Makes sense, sugar is a stimulant and can even act as a hormone in the body. Food sensitivities and allergies also flare up psychological symptoms. 

There are many options available and the beauty is that when one thing gets better, often the rest follows. It sounds overwhelming, but I like to look at like an orchestra; when a few adjustments are made, the whole symphony sounds new. A tweak here and there, and we get brand new music! The journey looks different for everyone, but there is always hope and progress to be made. Essentially the goal is to increase one’s ability to tolerate psychological discomfort, address the biological contributors to the symptoms, and to alleviate as much stress and reduce triggers as much as possible to allow the person to heal tolerably and gently. 

Not everyone will respond to the same treatment because not everyone has the same factors contributing to the manifestation of their symptoms. The key is to embrace your own healing journey; to know there are more options out there than what was once traditionally prescribed and to not give up.

How “Should” Messes Everything Up

We say “should” all the time, but rarely at the appropriate time.  “Should” indicates responsibility in usually a critical way, and with anxiety disorders and depression, this occurs a lot.

“My life shouldn’t be like this.”

This statement hurts because what it really means is that life and who I am are not ok as they are.  I know OCD doesn’t feel ok, but hear me out. It’s that “I’m wrong and that if I made a different choice or acted another way, than everything would be as it should“.  “Should” makes us feel like we messed up, and what’s worse, if we truly have no or little control, then we are beating ourselves up for a crime we didn’t commit.

When I said this, my therapist asked me how my life should be.  Through the tears, I explained how I never thought I’d be this person.  He asked when I made the choice to get OCD, and I said it wasn’t my choice, and he said “exactly.”  He explained how “Should” was a trap.  Who decides what should and should’t be?  It’s when we feel like things should be a certain way, that we fall into it.

Next time you say “should”, think if it’s really appropriate.  It hurt less to say “I want my life to be different.” because this stems from a real emotion, and begs the question, “how can I improve my emotional state?”

Language can really cause us emotional downs, and here’s another:

“I don’t deserve to be happy”

“Deserve” means you have done something worthy enough to receive something else like happiness, for example.  O no.  I’t’s impossible for a psychologist to talk me out of this one.  They always respond to with “but, everyone deserves to be happy.”  Instinctively I know this is not true.  Evil people don’t deserve happiness, while kind people do, right?  What about people who go through insane trauma; did they not deserve happiness?

In short, no, I don’t deserve to be happy, nor do I deserve to be unhappy.

Wait!

The truth is that sometimes I will feel happy and sometimes I won’t, but that doesn’t reflect who I am.  Most of us strive to be descent people and happiness is not a reward system. Happiness is an emotion that stops by sometimes, and though I feel like it’s unfair that I feel anxious more than I want, it doesn’t mean that I deserve to be unhappy and I shouldn’t believe that it does? 😉

OCD – Going Numb

Watching my OCD symptoms diminish was the most incredible and empowering thing, but it scared me because as my compulsions slipped, so did my emotional sensitivity and I was left feeling numb.  

This is a frightening feeling.  I wondered what parts of my personality my OCD would take with it and I felt my identity threatened.  What if Van Gogh or other tortured artists never had their depression? Would they still be artists?  Do you need misery to fuel passion?  

I saw an episode of “House” where Dr. H discusses this in a great way:

“Miserable? You think that by taking meds you’ll lose your edge? Stop making the unique connections that make you a successful doctor?” 
   “If Van Gogh was your patient, he’d be satisfied painting houses instead of ‘The Starry Night’.” 
   “Van Gogh would still be making inspired paintings of the night sky. Just maybe not from the room of his asylum.” 
   “You don’t know that.” 
   “I know both his ears would be intact. And I know his life would be better.”

 

My therapist showed me to look at my numb feeling like a concert.  When you walk outside a concert where the music was blaring, you feel like there’s clouds in your ears and everything is quieter than it should be.  It’s not that the world suddenly spoke in a whisper, it’s that you get used to high volume and moving into a normal range feels quieter than it really is, BUT it eventually levels out and that “quiet world” starts to sound normal.  

With OCD you feel everything extreme in your emotional range.  Everything is severe, so when you start to turn down the volume on your emotions, it feels numb.  

After my OCD became asymptomatic, I felt euphoric, but then I crashed into an identity crisis.  Who was I without my OCD?  It felt wrong and bad not knowing who I was because I questioned everything in my life from my breakfast choices to my husband, but what I would tell someone else going through the same thing is that don’t beat yourself up during this search for the self.  You’ll find your identity, but it will take time.  

Today I am no longer the “OCD Girl”, but I am a girl with OCD.  My OCD is not the star of the show, but it’s a part of my story, and that’s ok.