The 4 Spiritual Principles That Helped Me Overcome Anxiety & Depression
At 23 years old, it looked like all my dreams had come true. I was the creative director of Bullett, a popular high-fashion magazine that I had co-founded with some of my friends. It was a glamorous life, and I was constantly exposed to New York’s elite tastemakers. There were parties and drugs, and the background track of my life sounded like thumping music and laughter.
It was all fabulous. My outfits were fabulous. My shoes were fabulous. My dates were fabulous. It was all in keeping with the standard of success society told me I should aspire to. On the inside, however, something was crying out for attention. A feeling. A knot. I kept trying to ignore it, hoping it would go away, but something wasn’t right. Every morning I would wake up to a nagging ache in my chest, and it wouldn't go away with any amount of coffee or nights out with friends.
When depression took hold of my life and how I faced it.
I kept pushing it aside and going about my life, thinking, "This is New York! Who doesn’t have stress and anxiety?" I eventually turned to more drugs and more alcohol, hoping the sparkly surface of the party life would numb out the incessant pestering of this feeling inside.
I told myself that it was fabulous to be fucked up! This is the classic sexy rock star archetype! The artiste! Cue violins—there he sits in designer skinny jeans. Looking so sexy. Yes, he is struggling with depression. But he is still fabulous! It took years to figure out that no amount of fabulous could make this ache go away. Depression is something you can't run from.
It was relentless in its gnawing at me, and it took complete control over my life the day I was bought out of my company. The transaction had happened rapidly and without my consent. Suddenly, my whole world turned upside down. All of the markers of success I had accumulated, all of the dreams, time, and enthusiasm I had devoted to my business vanished before my eyes. I was empty. Everything felt meaningless. Depression won, and I became a shell.
I was standing in the midst of the rubble of what I once thought was real and permanent. It was a terrifying place to be. Most of all, it was lonely. The thing about depression, though, is that like so many other mental illnesses, it's more common than we realize. Over 43 million Americans—1 in 4—experience mental health illness in a given year.
It took me five years to learn how to work with my own mental illness. I studied with meditation teachers, healers, scientists, and spiritual masters around the world, all of whom guided me on the internal journey of understanding myself, my mind, and how to cope with the human experience. I returned from my spiritual journeys abroad to places like India and Nepal equipped with an arsenal of tools that I was eager to share with others who didn't have the opportunity to take such a trip.
While every mental health journey looks a little different, these are the lessons that helped me through mine:
Your suffering is nobody's fault—especially not your own.
There is a growing body of research that says that traumas and adverse experiences can be passed down from generation to generation. It turns out that those who have family members who have experienced trauma or adverse life events may have a lower threshold for emotional pain and a higher likelihood of suffering from stress or mood disorders. Sure, this may not be a relief to hear, but it's a powerful reminder that mental disorders are bigger than just us.
The breath is a powerful thing.
The breath controls the nervous system, and you control your breath. After studying with yogis and meditation masters who are adept at manipulating the breath, I found that breathing exercises really do have the power to calm us down. By using them to stimulate the vagus nerve, a nerve that runs down along our spine and monitors our unconscious body procedures, we can effectively steer ourselves away from panic mode. Learning some simple breathing techniques can be enormously helpful when the going gets tough. Here is a 60-second one to start with.
We do not have to make a commitment to perfection.
Healthy gut, healthy mind.
I was shocked when I learned about the biological components of mental illness and examined the link between our mental state and our diet. An anti-inflammatory, plant-based diet filled with nutrient-rich whole foods can help both our physical and mental health.
You are not your mental illness.
It took a while for me to realize that my struggle with depression and anxiety did not have to define my life. Using mindfulness practices like breathwork and meditation, I learned that it is possible to objectively examine your struggles rather than simply react to them.
It’s not pleasant to take a good look at our imperfections, but once we do, we find we are not alone. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, anxiety and depression will be among the most common disorders in the world. By recognizing that this is a struggle that many of us go through, I have been able to cultivate compassion for myself and others in my life and tweak my lifestyle to support a more positive mental state.
We do not have to make a commitment to perfection. We just need to make a commitment to begin, to fail, and then begin again. This is a practice of remembering to keep trying, to keep going despite obstacles and setbacks, shitty days, and bad moods. It is a practice of self-acceptance and of self-forgiveness.
These 4 small changes can do wonders for your mental health.
And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.