A New Perspective on Anxiety + Depression (How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan)
Depression and anxiety are more common than ever, but “traditional” treatments (talk therapy combined with medication) are becoming less effective each year – so what’s next?
Michael Pollan’s latest book, “How to Change Your Mind,” offers a new perspective of the possible sources of depression and anxiety, as well as some unexpected treatments.
If you’ve read some of my previous writings, you know that I have a long personal history with both anxiety and depression. They both started to surface when I was in the 5th grade and my parents got divorced. After graduating from high school, I worked a full-time job for almost a year, went to college for one semester, and then basically lost my mind.
When I say “lost my mind,” it wasn’t a big, dramatic event – it was a slow, steady decline, culminating in the deep-seated belief that my life had no value, I had nothing to offer the world, and the feeling of being physically crushed by life on a daily basis must simply be what adulthood is like.
After 6 months of watching my life fall apart one piece at a time, I began talk therapy and, within a few months, I was prescribed Lexapro. It was never my goal to be on medication long-term – I saw it as a mere tool to help me figure out WHY I hate myself, and how to change that.
I took Lexapro for 7 years and, thanks to years of self-introspection, research, and Yoga, I stopped taking the medication. That was almost 10 years ago.
Since then, my life has not been all candy and flowers. If anything, the past 10 years have been a whole different type of difficult than my life on Lexapro, but I’m happy to say that I’m in a place where I don’t believe I’ll ever need medication again. Recently, I began doing talk therapy again and I’m looking into EMDR therapy (if you’ve had an experience with it, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!).
When I was younger, I rarely heard depression and anxiety discussed together. Instead, they were often treated as polar opposites, and I found it quite odd that I suffered from both of them.
I’ve been a fan of Michael Pollan’s writing for years, having read many of his books. “How to Change Your Mind” is spectacularly researched and reading it was a journey in-and-of-itself. Looking for insights into depression and anxiety, the book didn’t disappoint:
[Andrew Solomon in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,] quotes an expert on anxiety who suggests we should think of the two disorders as “fraternal twins:” “Depression is a response to past loss, and anxiety is a response to future loss.” Both reflect a mind mired in rumination, one dwelling on the past, the other worrying about the future.
It’s often said that depression focuses on the past while anxiety focuses on the future, but something about HOW this was phrased hit me hard. I had one of those light-bulb moments.
My depression began around when my parents got divorced – a significant loss, in my eyes, even though it was a “clean break” between the two of them, and I still saw my father every day. The initial spark – or bruise, which is how I envision it – spread throughout my whole life, and that’s when my isolationist tendencies really started to form.
Being “fraternal twins,” it’s no surprise that anxiety began to crop up as well. Without truly accepting my parent’s divorce (and given no clear tools or methods to do so), I began to feel helpless about the future, which gave birth to raging anxiety. Naturally, it all came to the surface when I was fully responsible for my own life and had absolutely no clue what to do with it.
So the sources of my depression and anxiety now make a lot more sense (and maybe yours do too). While I don’t experience the intense depression and anxiety I used to, I do still experience bouts of low self-worth and fear of “stepping into my power,” as the New Age-y phrase usually goes.
While I understand the external sparks that can cause depression and anxiety, I wanted to know more about what’s happening inside our brains to cause those specific reactions. To fully understand it, there are two terms we need to define first.
Default Mode Network (as described by Michael Pollan): “A set of interacting brain structures, first described in 2001. The default mode network, called that because it is the most active when the brain is in a resting state, links parts of the cerebral cortex with the deeper and evolutionary older structures of the brain involved in emotion and memory.”
The Spectrum of Cognitive States (as described by Michael Pollan): “At the high-entropy [defined as surprise or uncertainty] end of the spectrum, [Robin Carhart-Harris] lists psychedelic states; infant consciousness; early psychosis; magical thinking; and divergent or creative thinking. At the low-entropy end of the spectrum, he lists narrow or rigid thinking; addiction; obsessive-compulsive disorder; depression, anesthesia; and finally, coma.”
Hopefully, this will help them make more sense:
[Robin] Carhart-Harris suggests that the psychological “disorders” at the low-entropy end of the spectrum are not a result of a lack of order in the brain but rather stem from an excess of order. When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades our reality. Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state of mind (sometimes called heavy self-consciousness or depressive realism) may be the result of a hyperactive default mode network, which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops of rumination that eventually close us off from the outside world … Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from a whole range of disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thought – including addiction, obsessions, and eating disorders as well as depression [and anxiety] – stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest.”
That might have been a lot to swallow. For me, it felt enlightening and a refreshingly new perspective on something that has been a persistent force in my life.
I value my mind more than anything. In my younger years, I was exceptionally detached from my body, even though I played numerous sports (track and field, volleyball, swimming, basketball). Even when I was writing or painting, I felt like my mind and body were two separate entities and I couldn’t make them communicate in harmony.
Now, at age 34, I’m closer than ever to having them work in-sync, but the practice continues. Specifically, my studies with Yoga and meditation have helped me to become less attached to the concept of “me” or “I”, which ironically have helped to merge my body and mind into a more cohesive existence.
The idea of taking a psychedelic (Pollan’s book specifically focuses on psilocybin/magic mushrooms and LSD) initially filled me with incredible anxiety – fear of the future, right? I didn’t start drinking alcohol until age 30 because I never wanted to be without my mental faculties (that’s some hardcore attachment, folks!)
While I haven’t taken psilocybin or LSD, after reading Pollan’s book, I can say for certain that I would be open to taking either, as long as it were in a medically controlled setting with an experienced guide. “Recreational” use of illegal substances is still something I don’t endorse, but let’s just say that Pollan’s book is powerfully eye-opening, especially in terms of why certain drugs are illegal and others aren’t.
Understanding WHY you’re depressed or anxious is only the first step in helping you train new thought patterns and habits that don’t reinforce your struggle. The idea that there are even more possible methods of creating those new neural pathways, especially by giving your entire brain a reboot via one session with psychedelics, is exhilarating.
As someone who enjoys a good experiment, the idea of rebooting my own brain is massively intriguing. Maybe someday I’ll have the chance. Until then, I’ll continue to question my own default beliefs and behaviors, because that is the best way to learn.
Ask Why, and keep asking.
Don’t settle for a safe answer when asking hard questions.