Dr. Caroline Leaf – Human mental health is infinitely complex. We all battle in different ways, we all struggle, and we all need to learn how to cope, process, feel and experience life’s ups and downs. The fundamental way we do this is by listening to the signals our brain and body send us, like anxiety and depression, and by getting to the root of what these mental and physical symptoms are telling us about the imbalance in our life.
In this podcast (episode #208) and blog, I speak with holistic board-certified psychiatrist, acupuncturist and yoga teacher Dr. Ellen Vora about how it is possible to learn to understand and manage our mental health by embracing these signals and listening to what they have to say, how facing the root of our fears and anxiety helps us find true healing, what a functional medicine approach to mental health looks like, why the current system of mental healthcare needs to change, the relationship between psychotropic medication, withdrawal and mental health, and more!
As Ellen points out, progress in mental healthcare is always about the why: understanding the root cause(s) of why things are out of balance and why we experience what we experience. If you are a mental healthcare professional, you have to show up as a beginner with each new patient or client. Never walk into a room thinking you know what is going on or how to fix the issue. Be an infinite learner—even if you are just someone listening to a loved one describe their struggles. Show up with generous deep listening and become comfortable with the fact that you may not know what the problem is and that you have a lot to learn. Mental health is about people’s unique narratives, not just their biology, and this cannot be learned in classroom textbooks.
Indeed, mental health is all about taking a good look at our internal lives. As a culture, we have become emotion-phobic. We try to suppress our feelings or apologize when we express what we are dealing with and cry, but we really need to let our emotions flow, not hide them. No emotion has ever successfully been pushed away. Resistance is a dance against our feelings.
Issues like depression and anxiety are often symptoms of unprocessed thoughts and issues, which change the way we feel, mentally and physically. As the saying goes, what we resist, persists! Only when we surrender and feel what we are feeling can we resolve it. Our feelings are trying to tell us something we need to hear—we need to let down our guard and listen. Anxiety, depression and other types of mental distress are not diseases. They are symptoms telling us something is out of balance, and we need to explore this “why” and find the root cause(s).
Unfortunately, our current system of mental healthcare tends to focus on reducing or suppressing these feelings and their biological repercussions, to the detriment of getting to the root of the issues. If you are very symptomatic, psychiatric medication may narrow the range of affect, which some people may find helpful for a certain period of time. However, these medications are not a cure; they are a bridge that may help you get to a place where you can heal. (For more on this read my blog on chemical imbalances in the brain, read the book Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker, and check out the Mad In America website).
However, for many people, psychotropic drugs do not meet their mental health needs and have many unwanted side-effects. These people often find it incredibly difficult to stop taking them, and need help during the withdrawal process, which can be challenging. Withdrawal from psychiatric medication is what Ellen calls a “silent epidemic”. There is no one system in place to help people withdraw from these medications, and professionals are often not taught how to support their patients or the best way to help them withdraw. In fact, not a lot is known or published about the best way to taper off psychotropic medications, while many professionals tend to deny the validity of people’s struggles when they are in withdrawal, often confusing this process with “relapse”, which further distorts the situation and can make the person’s mental distress more chronic and acute.
But going through a withdrawal does not mean you are broken or helpless. These drugs change your brain, but the good news is that you can change it back! If you decide to withdraw from a psychotropic drug, you want to do it gradually with the help of a medical professional, so your brain and body can learn to compensate and adapt over time. You also want to support this process by changing your lifestyle and including helpful practices like a good diet, regular exercise, mindfulness and meditation, yoga, breath work, acupuncture, appropriate supplementation and so on. Why? Withdrawal needs to be paired with targeted action to calm down the nervous system and keep it at a comfortable baseline so that the withdrawal process will be more bearable and less symptomatic. Also, keep in mind that the actual pace will be unique to the individual and will take time.