When Yoga, Meditation, and Diet Aren’t Enough to Cure Depression

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I thought I had it all figured out.

I even had a book title picked out: Whole-ish — On Healing Myself Naturally from Depression and My Messy Path to Well. And I had outlined some of the chapters:

  • Why restoring your gut health and generating good intestinal bacteria will improve mood
  • The science behind optimal nutrition and how certain foods reduce inflammation of the brain, while others (sugar) send a message of distress to your immune system, affecting your entire nervous system
  • How green smoothies help eliminate disease states
  • The therapeutic faculties of yoga and how it primes our parasympathetic system
  • Mindfulness meditation and neuroplasticity

And then the floor beneath me dropped out and I fell into a dark, ominous abyss — a life-threatening place that was more frightening than any depressive episode of my past, where the suicidal thoughts were so intense and so constant that I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t be around to celebrate my daughter’s 13th birthday. In the last seven months, I have never been so scared for my life, positive that I was going insane and that I was destined to follow the path of my aunt (who was also my godmother), who took her own life.

What started out as a good and right endeavor became a dangerous dance in which I made a few critical mistakes that almost cost me my life.

Doing Everything Right

Two-and-a-half years ago, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get rid of my death thoughts after being on so much medication for so many years. So I dove into the world of integrative and holistic medicine.

I took every saliva, blood, and stool test that exists to measure my cortisol, hormones, gut status, nutrients, and food intolerances.

I transformed my diet and eliminated gluten, sugar, caffeine, and dairy (I’d already cut out alcohol).

I did extensive research on which supplements to take and added vitamins B-12, C, D, and E; probiotics; turmeric; omega-3 fatty acids; alpha lipoic acid; amino acids; magnesium; coconut oil; and iron.

I drank two green smoothies every day.

I took the eight-week intensive Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program based on Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s work at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, and started to meditate each day.

I immersed myself in hot yoga, practicing five or six times a week .

I committed myself to helping others, trying to transcend my pain that way, creating two online forums dedicated to people struggling with treatment-resistant depression.

I attached myself to the new science called epigenetics, the study of genetic changes that aren’t caused by a change in DNA sequence. Pamela Peeke, MD, best-selling author of The Hunger Fix, explained it to me this way: “If you can change certain key choices — your diet, how you handle stress, your physical activity — it’s like writing notes in the margin of your genome, and you can flip the switch to support and protect your health.”

Epigenetics is closely related to the concept of neuroplasticity that says we aren’t stuck with the brain that we were born with: We have more room than we think we do to direct our health toward healing and wholeness.

Thinking in Black and White

I wanted to believe more than anything that I could cure myself of my bipolar disorder and my treatment-resistant depression with the right diet, exercise, stress reduction tools, and meditation.

All of my actions over the course of nine months were able to deliver me to a place where the death thoughts ceased.

So I assumed that the medications I had been taking really didn’t do anything but cause or contribute to a host of chronic illnesses I had developed over the course of 10 years: connective tissue issues (Raynaud’s phenomenon), thyroid disease (nodules), a pituitary tumor, inflammatory bowel disease (small intestine bacteria overgrowth, or SIBO), and heart disease.

That’s where I went wrong.

Black-and-white thinking.

Raised in an alcoholic home, I have always struggled to achieve a nuanced perspective.

I stopped working with my psychiatrist because I believed I could naturally heal from my mood disorder with the help of a holistic doctor. An excellent integrative physician, he has successfully guided my general health (all of the conditions mentioned above). But a mood disorder as complex and severe as mine requires psychiatric expertise, which he is without. I began to taper off of my psychotropic medications too aggressively. The tapering coincided with some other stressors.

And I fell into the abyss.

I fell harder than I ever have.

A New Perspective From My Daughter

Resolved to find a non-drug solution, I tried transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive procedure that stimulates nerve cells in the brain with short magnetic pulses. Approved by the FDA in 2008, TMS involves a large electromagnetic coil that’s placed against your scalp. The coil generates focused pulses that pass through your skull and stimulate the cerebral cortex of your brain, a region that regulates mood.

While I did feel an initial lift from my depression following TMS treatment, my anxiety worsened, creating suicidal thoughts that were even more intense and compulsive — as if there was a very thin veil between life and death, and I didn’t know how long I could muster the self-control to stay on the right side. The series (45 sessions in all) sent me into a dangerous, mixed state of mania and depression — something that can happen if a bipolar person does the treatment without enough of a mood stabilizer.

At one point halfway through the series, I was crying when I picked my daughter up from school. I couldn’t quiet my painful ruminations even when I was with her.

“I feel like you are never going to get better,” she said, starting to cry herself.

She paused and then said, her breathing broken, “I just feel like someone is going to die.”

She began to wail.

As much as I didn’t want her to be right, I knew she was.

My little girl has always been extremely intuitive, and she could feel it in her soul that I was not far away from the grave. Two weeks after she said that, we lost a family member to suicide.

His death forced a new perspective.

Living With a Life-Threatening Illness

I realized I had to do absolutely everything I could to protect my life. In a pursuit to heal myself naturally, I had been flirting too closely with death, and I couldn’t say how long I could survive doing this dance. I was finally ready to accept chronic illnesses and tumors and nasty side effects in order to stay alive.

For the first time since my aunt and godmother took her life 30 years ago, I saw the life-threatening angle of my illness and knew that, while I can certainly improve my symptoms with natural remedies and possibly reduce the amount of medication I need, there is no escaping entirely from my mood disorder.

In the harrowing months since Thanksgiving, I’ve learned three key things that I hope I never forget as long as I’m battling bipolar disorder:

  • It is absolutely critical to be under the right care.
  • Medication can be lifesaving and is sometimes necessary.
  • While we can all hope to heal ourselves in the wider sense of the word, some of us simply can’t cure ourselves entirely of our conditions; at best, we can manage them with a variety of treatments, both natural and traditional.

I returned recently to my former psychiatrist who had managed to keep me stable for 10 years, as well as to my therapist, whom I’ve worked with for nine years. Feeling a little bit like the prodigal son, I thanked her for her excellent care in years past and asked for her help in getting well once more.

We’ll get there, she said.

We’ll get there.

Join Project Hope & Beyond, a new depression community.

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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29 thoughts on “When Yoga, Meditation, and Diet Aren’t Enough to Cure Depression

  1. I needed to hear this. I’ve been worried about the effects of my meds on my physical health (a valid worry IMHO), but I am glad to get this reminder of where I’ve been in the past and what I have to thank for not being there now (meds).

    1. A family member with treatment resistant depression tried TMS, and also received very little relief. We were considering ECT and went to see an ECT psychiatrist. Before doing that we went to see Dr. Karen Schwartz at the Mood disorder clinic at Johns Hopkins. She prescribed a high dose of a new anti depressant. This has worked very effectively ! There is HOPE. As of 2 years ago, never considered ECT again and the depression is MUCH better. Some medical side effects … but in a much, much, better place. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND HER !!!!!!

  2. Thank you for sharing this, and I’m so sorry that TMS didn’t work so well for you, I had such hopes that it would make a difference to you so feel sad on your behalf. When I’m having a good day I feel like I’m cured and a fraud for even seeing my doctor regularly but on the bad days I think I’ll never get back any quality of life and all my days will be stained with sadness and tears. I think we have to remember that not all treatments work all the time and one of the hardest things I have found is trying to tell the difference between a relapse and a bad day or group of days. Plus our bad days are much worse than those of the mentally healthy. It sounds like you have been through some pretty tough personal stuff so I don’t think that now is not the time to be throwing babies out with bathwater if you don’t mind me saying. I think the book sounds like a brilliant idea and that you should seriously consider writing it since it is clear that much of what you do has made a difference for much of the time which I think means it has the potential to help a good many people. Love to you during this difficult time.

  3. I’m so sorry that the past seven months have been so difficult for you and your family. Reading your posts so often reminds me of my own journal entries, and this one resonates especially with me. I trust your doctors–both traditional psychiatric and holistic–will be able to help you regain some sense of balance. Please know that we members of the Project Blue sisterhood and brotherhood are pulling for you and sending our thoughts to you and your family.

  4. Oh dear Therese…..Thank you so much for sharing this post and for your honesty. I have, also, felt the frequent absorbing thoughts that I am just too tired to keep up this battle with treatment resistant depression—–known to me as a fluctuation between terminal depression and depression. I grew up in an extremely abusive household and never knew what the next crazy event would be, administered by my father and the excuses given by my mother that ‘he’ was such a good provider we couldn’t leave the home. I remember feeling crazy and like my mind was coming apart as a young child. Too many traumas to even think of reviewing here—–but, it is so very, very, very difficult to continue to take a host of medications, then focus on ‘healthy’ changes in diet and exercise, try to sense a supportive love from my Christian beliefs—–then ending up right back in the same spot—-asking myself “Why continue this exhausting battle?” I know, for me, there is a very long list of direct relatives on my father’s side of the family with severe mental illness, suicide and living an entire life in a state facility, protected from stress and from really living. I remember what one of my counselors told me once and that is—-my children (all grown with their own families) will have an increased possibility of coming to the same conclusion if presented with a deep depression and an inability to cope. I think that is what makes me try—–one day at a time—-to choose to live another day. But, it is so exhausting and after years of medication and still feeling the same, so often, I wonder—-“Why am I taking these meds?” Thank you for reminding me—-even if it is just for today. Blessings to you.

  5. Oh, I have not been able to keep up with all your posts and was just thinking about you and wondering how you are doing. I’m sorry things have been such a struggle! Your messages are always right on target for me. Thanks for continuing to write as you are able. You bring so much wisdom, balance, and compassion to the conversation. ❤️

  6. Dear Therese, Your strength and resolve is inspiring. All those various alternative healing modalities you incorporate into your routine (and a book would be welcome) I feel if I could copy I would be so much better. I have tried many individually but don’t seem to have the energy or focus (fibro/chronic fatigue) to sustain them. My current psychiatrist wants me to try ECT but I don’t feel I trust her enough and I am terrified. It seems you have never tried it, may I ask why? I have done the meds and multiple therapies my entire adult life (I am 65) to very little success and it seems to be getting worse to the point of scary. Have you or anyone out there noticed a decline in coping skills as you age? It is almost dismissed by the medical profession. You have calmed me with your renewed attempt at psychiatric and psychological interventions. I just have to admit this is reality and I can never be without that type of support. Thank you so much for you.

  7. Therese – I know you are not asking for pity, but my heart aches for you nevertheless. Thank you for sharing this sort of report with the same compassionate objectivity you reported on more hopeful developments. It may take time for these holistic treatments to have a lasting effect, for physiological and neurological reasons we cannot begin to imagine.

  8. Therese, your life matters. Hold on to that. It matters to Me and we have never met. I am in the dark place now, myself. I, too, believe it is chronic and I will fight for the rest of my life. I agree that no one thing is enough for some of us. We need an arsenal. With love, Teresa

  9. Thank you for sharing. You are courageous and honest which is so appreciated. I pray that your journey is uphill from here.Day by Day.My depression is not totally controlled by medication. The only one that works is the Tricyclic Clomipramine which is linked to Alzheimer’s.I figure I have to survive now to work and raise my 19 year old son who has been affected by the recent death of my husband and my long standing depression.My faith in God sustains me..God bless you and give you strength to keep moving forward!!!!

  10. Dear Therese,
    Our Lord weeps with you and holds you in his tender, loving arms. You will never be abandoned by him as you continue on your journey. You have my prayers for the next steps you are taking with your health team. God is with you and he will never let go of your hand.
    Loving thoughts, Deborah

  11. I read your pages all the time a derive hope in my journey from iatrogenic illness perpetrated by psychiatrists. I hate that you are in agony still but I must say you clearly stated that you tapered to fast from the drugs and added stressors. I don’t see how one can heal the brain with these chemicals and or after long exposure that tapering to aggressively is wise. If we want healthy brains we must give it time to heal, maybe you don’t have it but what else is there in order to heal. There are thousands of survivors out there that are winning the battle against chemical induced depression. I am on that journey and if I were to ingest another drug I would likely die. I worry for you and love your inspiration but don’t you think healing a brain takes years. Blessings and discovery.

    1. Your post is a dangerous one and clearly misguided. I am a long term advanced practice nurse working in end of life care as well as mental health. I specialize in evidence based treatment modalities. I too suffer from long term chronic and at times treatment resistant depression. It runs in my family as well and we too have completed suicides in my family. In medicine if you are having chest pain do we contemplate diet exercise and yoga before urgent medical treatment? Of course not. Life long medications are life saving and help not only us but our loved ones as well who are devastatingly affected by our disease. Once the crisis is over we add healthy lifestyle options but we must keep these patients on heart medications to keep them alive and give them quality of life. There is no difference between a severe acute clinical depression and heart disease. And anyone who recommends weaning off meds without any clinical background is irresponsible . We are not talking about garden variety sadness. We are talking about life threatening illness. Research is evidence based, scientifically sound and ethically justified. You are perpetuating the stigma and shame felt in our community. Especially for those that are the n the throes of great pain and thus highly vulnerable.

  12. Amen, and Hallelulia!
    some times medication are required. I’ve been taking them for 20 years. still looking for a good therapist.

  13. Hi Therese, so glad to see this update from you. I’ve wondered so many days how you were doing, really doing. Your testament is proof why there is no cure, so simple solution. The illness is complex and always seems to find a way to rear it’s ugly head, no matter how hard we try. I am thankful you are back in the care of those that know you and will help. Thanks so much for sharing everything and not holding back. You are a lifeline for us and I hope our comments back act as a lifeline for you.

  14. Mate! You’re back! I’m so relieved and thankful. I knew you must’ve been going through the worst and I have been dreading losing you as you are the one constant goodness in my life. Keep going and keep writing. I’m thanking God you’re still here.

  15. I discovered your blog on Belifenet 10 years ago when I was in a dark abyss. You gave me great comfort and hope. I’ve been well now for many years and am deeply grateful. I did have a relapse after going off meds about 7 years ago. I had myself on a lot of nutritional supplements that were supposed to keep me well. When I relapsed I refused to drive by Whole Foods for about a year! All the exercise, yoga and fish oil in the world aren’t enough to stop a full-blown clinical depressive episode. Time, the right meds and a good therapist got me back on track. Recently I had an episode of shingles–extremely painful. But in the midst of the worst of the pain I was grateful for physical pain over mental pain.
    Please feel my hand reaching out and grasping yours with love, gratitude and compassion. Thank you for staying alive for all of us who need your wisdom and honesty. Blessings.

  16. I’m so sorry you endured such pain, Therese. I understand how setbacks can seem magnified after hopes of discovering a simple, natural answer are dashed. I hope you are in a better space, today.

    Nine days ago, I was doing a search (fairly typical for me) on “sugar, allergies, immunity, depression, anxiety”. I came across a blog, written by you, from June 2015, “Could Depression Be an Allergic Reaction?” There was something about the combination of informed content, personal experience, open, gentle style and your nice smile that inspired me. I thought, “I wish there was more of this on the web.” And was immediately slapped with the idea, “Maybe, it’s your turn?” So, I’ve joined PH&B, and am testing my toes in that water.

    In the mean time, I try to read one of your archived blogs per day (not in any particular order). This one gave me concern for you and your family. I hope that you continue to be on the mend.

    A question occurred to me, which may or may not be relevant to you. Do you think that sugar may have played a role in your latest relapse. I ask because for me, especially in periods of higher stress, I could not handle even one banana smoothy per day, without risking a setback. I am open to compare notes, if you wish to send me an e-mail. If not, I wish you well, and hope I can maintain the courage and motivation to post further blogs on PH&B, as your example has inspired.

  17. I had been wondering for so long what happened to you ever since you signed off from your FB page in January. I am so sorry to read all of this. I told my story on Project Hope & Beyond a long time ago, but I have unipolar depression (MDD). we both seem to be on the same timeline this year. I started really going downhill in January and have not been able to pull myself out of it. Last Friday, I woke up in the early morning hours of my birthday and I just started crying. I took a break from therapy for two months because I was tired of feeling like a chronic “patient”. I am going back next week. My psychiatrist is fighting to get approval for TMS from my insurance company (I see that it did not work for you, but I figure any port in a storm) and I am also seriously entertaining thoughts of doing ECT. I wish I had something encouraging to say, but since I am not in a good place either I can’t come up with anything. Take care.

  18. Hi. I am going through neuro feedback, and hope to hell it works. I’m on my meds too. Doing positive thinking, meditation, focussing on goals. I have good days, and then I’m right back down. In January of this I had ECT as I was suicidal and the meds weren’t doing much. The ECT bought me out of the worst of it, but it’s definitely not a cure. If anyone here does do ECT, please stay with someone who is very supportive and emotionally strong. You will not be aware of what you are doing, and it will be tough on your care taker. Also, you will suffer memory loss. I”m believing that something will work.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Monica!! Great advice and wondering who you are working with for all of your supportive techniques to help with the depression? Did you seek out help for a variety of sources—if so where? All of it sounds so helpful!!

  19. What can I say. Reading what you snd others have to cope with in somd small way makes md feel both ashamed and blessed. Ashamed that I actually feel anger and frustration over my mild episodes of depression – I have it great compared to others! And simultaneously feel grateful that my suffering is do mild and manageable, despite its aggravating endless cloud hanging over my day to day life.

    As a writer, what amazes me is that you succeed in articulating your feelings and experience in such a vivid manner despite your struggle. THAT is a gift!

    Thank you for sharing.
    Yoel, Jerusalem, Israel

  20. You are amazing!!! I felt so much relief just to see the situation and the fear put into words. There has been depression and chemical issues forever. people were locked away, hid in their homes, put in sanitariums…. we should be so thankful for such a miracle, just like we are for cancer cures, and cardiac surgery. I think because it can’t be so easily measured or tested, the person sees it as a failure on their part. The sad thing is, that so many people , like myself, lose years of their lives trying to control it on their own. I am so thankful for the help and control medication has given me. It gives you your life back!!!

  21. I’m writing about this on my blog as we speak if you’d like to have a read. Honestly my heart sank when you said the natural methods just aren’t enough. I still refuse to believe this. I believe we can heel ourselves. Most of these diseases are self inflicted from our own thoughts, our frazzled lives, or some childhood trauma. I have to hold on hope no matter what.

  22. Dear Therese,
    How brave and courageous to tell your very personal story so that others will have hope. I’m praying for you today! May God bless you and give you the desires of your heart. May you walk straight ahead on a safe path and may God give your friends and family loving intuition to help you and guide you on your hard days. May you forgive yourself of any guilty feelings and be set free. In Jesus Name

  23. Therese,
    It sounds like the “abyss that you fell into” was actually Protracted Antidepressant Withdrawal syndrome also known as PAWS (Post acute withdrawal syndrome). Many of us who have tried to get off of antidepressants after many years on them are victims of PAWS and Psychiatry, which denies its existence. Many of us are unable to get off antidepressants and other psychiatric drug coctails, even with a long taper. These drugs cause permanent or semi-permanent changes in neuronal receptors of brain cells. The way they actually work, is by CREATING A CHEMICAL IMBALANCE and not fixing one. When you try to get off antidepressants after many years, many people, including me, are faced with a mental illness that is far worse than what they experienced in the first place, as well as additional physical and mental disorders that they’ve never had before. The best resource for this is http://www.survivingantidepressants.org
    I highly doublt that it was the TMS that worsened your symptoms, it was the protracted withdrawal. Psychiatric drugs often turn transient depressive episodes into a persistent chronic illness. That’s what happened to me, and countless of others whose stories I’ve read.
    I would be curious to know, at what age where you first put on antidepressants, and what were your symptoms? You mentioned that you grew up in an alcoholic home, were you ever treated for that trauma Before being medicated?

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