Taking Care of Yourself: Start With the Obvious

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Why do some people adapt easily to change while others become bogged down, overwhelmed and depressed? In the midst of difficult experiences, why do some people adopt an attitude of optimism and hope, while others become trapped in cycles of negative thinking? The adaptable folks are demonstrating resilience, or the ability to readily recover from misfortune or adjust to changing circumstances. Where did their resilience come from? Are they just lucky to have been born that way?

Henry Emmons, M.D., a psychiatrist and consultant with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, offers the hopeful message that resilience is not just for the lucky few, but that it is actually a quality inherent in everyone. It is our nature as human beings to be resilient.

For those of us who haven’t been able to tap into it, Emmons proposes the heartening news that resilience is a skill that can be learned and practiced by anyone who is willing to sit still. Literally. Learning how to calm both the body and mind is a key component for developing the skills needed for soothing and regulating emotions, calming negative or frantic thinking, and supporting a healthy brain. In his book, The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom, Dr. Emmons outlines an approach to understanding and improving physical, mental and spiritual health.

For Emmons, good health results when we understand ourselves fully — mind, body, spirit. Thus our brain chemistry and body type, our psychological processes and our spirituality are all included. “We’re all built differently and the idea that the same medication is right for everybody or the same diet, even the same kind of exercise, just isn’t accurate.” The kind of program that works best for the treatment of any mental or emotional disorder is one that considers all aspects of our humanity at the same time.

My problem with medication is that we often don’t think clearly enough about using it“I do believe that there are often biological problems that need to be addressed.” Emmons notes. “There’s something going on with the brain chemistry. There’s something going on with the diet. People need some kind of support for their serotonin system or perhaps something else needs to be addressed.” Working toward feeling more connected to others, however, and increasing our ability to calm and soothe ourselves are equally important in achieving balanced and sustainable health.

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Medication use receives the same thoughtful consideration from Emmons as other aspects of his program. “I have no objection to someone using medication to support their brain chemistry, if it’s working,” Emmons says. “My problem with medication is that we often don’t think clearly enough about using it.”

Emmons cautions that relying on medication as the only treatment or prevention strategy is a mistake. “I’m concerned about people getting on medication long term for a problem that’s really short term,” he says. Medication changes how the brain is able to utilize the chemicals that affect mood and self regulation. But since it doesn’t actually produce more of these chemicals, it is important to incorporate lifestyle changes along with medication for long-term effectiveness or any treatment program.

Emmons explains that the body is constantly regenerating itself. Within 6-12 months, all of our cells have been replaced with new cells. If someone is taking medication or using a drug or other substance for that time, virtually all of their cells will have been produced under the influence of that drug. This explains in part why it can be difficult to discontinue or change the use of a particular medication. The new cells that are produced in the absence of the drug are different, and the body and brain need time to adjust to the difference. “It needs to be gradual and it needs to be supported,” says Emmons. “The brain needs to be supported with other things like good nutrition and exercise which boost serotonin levels. Medication helps to stabilize serotonin levels and free us from those thought cycles that just take us right back down.”

For some, substance use and abuse began as a course of self medication in an attempt to treat an underlying mood or emotional problem. This strategy often creates brain problems of its own. Ultimately, when the individual takes steps to stop using the substance to medicate their mood, the original problem still has to be dealt with. Emmons reiterates, “individuals will be best off using a variety of really holistic integrative approaches in the early stages of recovery, especially because their brains are not functioning the way they used to.”

It’s not saying ‘I’m not joyful because it’s my fault,’ it’s saying, ‘I lost my way, but I can get back to it. It is still there for me.Treating an emotional disturbance from a biological perspective alone is not likely to be successful without also treating thought patterns and bad thinking habits. Cognitive therapists have known since the 1970’s that not only does depression lead to pessimistic thinking, for example, but negative thoughts can bring about depression as well. One of the skills Emmons reassures people they can develop is mindfulness, or increased awareness of ones own mental processes. Sitting or walking meditation, contemplative prayer and compassion practice, are all means to gain distance from our negative, self-absorbed thoughts, and to increase our awareness of a bigger, more connected self.

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In addition to health brain function, and more disciplined thought processes, Emmons includes the development of a sense of connectedness and belonging as critical to good overall health. In fact, this is how Emmons’ defines joy. Joy is not an emotional state subject to the ups and downs of daily life. Joy is an enduring state that we become aware of when we feel truly connected — to ourselves, to those around us, and to life itself. “I think it is always there, ” he says, “but for various reasons many times we can’t access it. It is in our power to do, but we just can’t do it.” For Emmons no one is to blame for this. “It’s not saying ‘I’m not joyful because it’s my fault,’ it’s saying, ‘I lost my way, but I can get back to it. It is still there for me.'”

Dr. Emmons’ program is hopeful and pretty straightforward. It is simple, but not easy. “If you are taking something into your body that is toxic and you stop that behavior, you will soon feel better. Not right away, but soon.” Emmons notes that it is obvious to many people that ignoring proper nutrition can create a toxic environment, but so can taking in toxic news or remaining wrapped up in our own toxic thinking patterns, among other things. “The most obvious place to start,” he explains, “is to stop doing harm.”


Cyndie DeRidder, LICSW, has worked as a psychotherapist and led classes on Dr. Emmons’ book.

This article first appeared in the November 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you.

Last Updated on December 10, 2021

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