getting through depression, anxiety + insomnia the ayurvedic way

Maxine Shorto is an Ayurvedic therapist who is offering online consultations to support our wellbeing. in this blog Maxine explores Ayurveda as a holistic approach to our physical, mental and emotional health.

One can be forgiven for feeling depressed and anxious right now: it’s February, it’s lockdown, it’s – as Pema Chodron describes – one of those times when we are nailed to the present moment.  Depression often gets a bad rap in our culture, and is framed as something to get rid of at all costs. I have experienced it myself and I know how shattering it can be. I also understand that it has a purpose and place in my life.

I never really believed the idea that I was dealing with a chemical imbalance that could be corrected by drugs. This is our society’s approach to healing and alleviating the symptoms of depression. It works for some, and medication can and does save lives. However, deep from my intuitive, female self I knew that I am not just a physical being with malfunctioning chemical messengers, but a spiritual one, and depression was my rite of passage towards this spiritual dawning of my essential self.  I often ask myself whether I would have taken up meditation, acupuncture, Ayurveda, without it. Or more importantly, would I have reached out to others? Others who held my hand, and gave me the sanity, and hope that I just couldn’t give myself at that point.

I don’t for a minute belittle the sheer hell of depression, but I feel that if we looked upon it differently we could also care for it more holistically. Natural health pioneer John Douillard says that depression is a “mind that has driven the body into exhaustion in the name of control and self protection.” This exhaustion in turn can lead to anxiety, as the body and mind need energy to stay calm, and regulate moods. It is also as Francis Weller describes “our unexpressed sorrows, the congested story of loss that when left unattended block our access to the soul.” We live in a grief phobic culture, where we are not allowed to show our vulnerable, emotional, wild hearts.

This may go some way to explaining why 7.9 million people were prescribed antidepressants in the UK in 2018. The book “The Sedated Society” gives detailed evidence to suggest that the chemical imbalance research is both flawed and fraud, and shows how psychiatry is financially indebted to the pharmaceutical giants. My personal feeling is that medications may have helped me when things were really bad, but I very much doubt they could ever truly heal me, or get to the root of the problem. They can create other side effects that can actually make it harder to recover. There is also the problem of coming off antidepressants which can be a difficult process, although with support such as that offered by Ayurvedic herbs this process can be easier.

The symptoms of depression vary from person to person, but generally sadness, anxiety, insomnia and mental confusion are all present. From an Ayurvedic perspective, depression, anxiety and insomnia are a sign of Vata imbalance. Vata governs the mind, nervous system and pranic body. Vata is ruled by wind and air and is the subtle energy that governs breath, and movement in our bodies. This is why when our breath begins to suffer our bodies and emotions suffer. The Vata energy is subtle, cold, light and dry, so to bring it to balance we need to ground ourselves with warm, soft, heavy and moist foods. Warm oils like sesame oil, and maharayanan oil are also used with massage to bring moisture and warmth to the body and to enliven the senses. Shirodhara is another ayurvedic massage technique, where warm oil is dripped onto the third eye, the pineal gland, calming the nervous system and the mind.  Herbs that bring the energy back to the digestive centre also help, because when Vata is imbalanced it triggers a loss of enzymatic activity in the metabolism and creates stagnation, or loss of appetite.

Once the digestive fire is balanced, and the appetite returns and the anxiety can begin to calm, sleep becomes easier. Our bodies know how to sleep, but insomnia can become a mental obsession and the fear of it can keep us awake.  From an Ayurvedic perspective, the only way around this is to keep calming the Vata, and accepting that there may be some lost sleep in the process.  Acceptance and facing the fear is the first step towards recovery.  Keeping a regular daytime routine, not over stimulating the mind, and coming back to the breath also help to keep Vata in check.  Within an Ayurvedic framework, sleeping pills and sedatives can actually prolong insomnia because they interfere with the body’s natural circadian rhythms.

Ayurveda and its plant medicine feel like a soft embrace in the arms of nature. Just the smells alone remind us that the earth is our mother. Ultimately, perhaps depression is something to get through and not rid of; it passes in its own time. It says, I am going to demand that you slow down, that you be still, that you cry, that you open up. That you lean on people. That you let the sadness move through you. That you fulfil the primary needs for connection and participation. My experience is that there is always a message, a newfound strength, and a deeper self-love and compassion on the other side of it.


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