Thursday, 31 July 2014

Therapy for Mind, Body, Energy and Spirit

For more information on Mindwork, see here.

I like models that shed some light on who we are as human beings and help to explain what we do and why. At the back of my well-thumbed and annotated book Integral Psychology by Ken Wilber there is a collection of charts that compare levels or stages of human development as hypothesized by a variety of psychological and spiritual leaders. It is as fine a summary as I know, collected into a single resource. 

What isn’t there, however, is a model which clarifies the relationship between mind, body, energy and spirit, and how/why a particular “therapy” applies better in one situation than another when dis-ease arises. (Dis, of course, is a Latin prefix meaning “apart from” or “against”, and ease means comfortable. Thus dis-ease is against or apart from comfort.)

I recently read Idris Lahore’s book The Three Secrets of Reiki Tao Te Qi, and there I discovered a succinct and insightful clarification of this issue that seems to me simple and very helpful. If you think of each of us as made up of several “layers” or “levels” of different densities, beginning with solid and ending as very ethereal, and the appropriate “treatment” for “dis-ease” at each of these layers, you have something like this:

At the densest layer, is the body itself: structural, physical, cellular. When there is injury or dis-ease that originates at this level, the most appropriate treatment is biomedical, biochemical, and/or physical therapy. In short, if you break your leg on the ski slopes, see your doctor.

Emotional dis-ease exists as a less dense layer of self without physical presence (you can’t see it, or weigh it) but often there are strong physical symptoms. For example, think about how you would feel before speaking to a large group of strangers, or standing on a high bridge before launching into a bungee jump. For most people, just the thought can bring up the sensation of butterflies in the stomach and a shortness of breath. For most of us, these are unusual events and not worth “treatment,” but for those prone to emotional trauma on a regular basis (say, someone with arachnophobia—fear of spiders, or someone who suffers from chronic anxiety or depression), treatment may be appropriate.

Intellectual or cognitive dis-ease, caused by disruptive or disturbing thoughts, habits, or dreams is, in a way, less “solid” than emotional dis-ease. Physical symptoms are likely to be less clear-cut than those caused by emotional dis-ease, and the “problem” may not even be regarded by a person as a dis-ease, or even a problem. Yet someone suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who can’t stop checking the door ten times to be sure it is locked, or someone who cannot stop thinking about or dreaming about some event in the past is not at ease. For both emotional and cognitive dis-ease, some form of psychotherapy is the most appropriate therapy or treatment.

Energetic dis-ease is caused by some disruption or distortion in the body’s energetic centres or energetic pathways. Mainstream Western allopathic medicine tends to dismiss the body’s energy system as not worthy of consideration and treatment, but Eastern tradition takes this body essence very seriously. Energy imbalances sometimes manifest in the body as headaches or backaches or tiredness or other chronic manifestations that have no obviously physical cause. Energetic health and treatment modalities such as yoga, massage, qi gong, Reiki, and acupuncture can help the body’s energy centres and pathways remain strong and clear when practiced regularly.

Lahore calls the next layer “relational systemic” and suggests dis-ease at this level is generated by one’s relationship with family members, social groups, work colleagues, or with the ancestors—one’s place within a system. The concept that one’s social relationships can contribute to psychological dis-ease is well accepted by psychologists and counsellors, and is also well understood in many cultures where one’s role and acceptance or rejection by others is acknowledged to have significant implications. In addition, from our parents and family we learn our value systems and many patterns of thought and behaviour that impact on our life choices. As with cognitive and emotional dis-ease, psychotherapy and family constellation work are useful to resolve issues here.

The final and most ethereal layer in Lahore’s model is that of spirit or spiritual essence. Dis-ease here—rarely identified by an outsider, but rather something felt from the inside—can be addressed with a wide variety of spiritual practices that may include yoga, meditation, shamanic journeying, travel, writing or journaling or other creative practice in art or music, and religious or solitary retreats.

Lahore points out that the most effective therapy occurs at the primary source of the dis-ease, which is almost always the most subtle layer at which it occurs. Thus the prescribing of antidepressants (biochemical treatment) for a patient who is in the middle of a messy divorce (relational systemic level) is not likely to resolve his or her divorce issues, just as stomach stapling surgery for a person with emotional eating issues may not be the best-choice “fix”.

Ken Wilber, in the aforementioned book, supports that observation. He writes, “Therapy at one level will usually acknowledge and even use all of the therapies from lower levels, but rarely from any higher.” Wilber, of course, goes into this in much more depth and from a somewhat different perspective. And thereby hangs another tale...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Will DOC's Dumping of 1080 on New Zealand Forests Save the Birds?

beech trees
The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) is just now commencing their biggest aerial drop ever of the controversial toxin 1080 over some 700,000 hectares (about 1.7 million acres) of forest land at a cost of some $25 million. Heralded earlier this year with a campaign called “The Battle for Our Birds”, the Conservation Department claims if we don’t drop enough poison, we will have a rat plague this year of “Biblical” size, thanks to a beech mast. 

A mast is a natural phenomenon that occurs on a cyclic basis with many plants, not just beech trees, and occurs when plants produce more seed than usual in a given year. It is theorized that masting might be connected with climate or weather changes. The last big New Zealand beech mast occurred in 1999-2000, although Northern Hemisphere beech are estimated to mast ever 5-10 years. Ironically, while DOC paints a masting as a catastrophic event, in the UK, a mast year is seen as “a great opportunity to experience nature at its best.”

The problem with beech masting in New Zealand, according to DOC, is that extra seeds mean extra food for rodents, and their argument is that the rat population will grow larger than normal this year (in fact, become “a plague of Biblical proportion” according to the July 14 DomPost), and that when the beech mast food supply runs out, the rats will turn to birds as their food source. 

I’ve written about 1080 use in New Zealand before, most recently in January when this DOC project was first announced, and earlier about 1080 in general. It’s pretty clear I am no fan of 1080. It used to be possums that were held up as the scourge of New Zealand and the reason 1080 needed to be broadcast through our forest. Now possums get nary a mention, and suddenly it is rats and stoats who are the villains. The fact that masts are a natural phenomenon that happen on a regular basis and haven’t been seen as cause for alarm in the past, and now are suddenly given as a reason for a massive increase in poison use, is puzzling. The fact that 1080 is toxic to everything that breathes makes its wanton use in virgin forests inexplicable. The fact that rat population recovery after a 1080 drop is relatively quick paves the way for further drops in the future. 

It’s winter. Folks “on the ground” observe that the beech masting in New Zealand is now over. Any uneaten seeds have sunk into the ground or composted, adding to the nutrient level on the forest floor. Actually, some suggest it wasn’t really much of a “masting” to begin with. (Notice the “Save Our Birds” campaign was already ramped up well before the masting even occurred.)

Meanwhile, not only will rats and mice be killed by the poison that rains down on them from the air, but so will deer and wild pigs, weka, kea, tomtits and morepork. Not to mention the countless insects and the other critters that help keep our forests alive. I don’t know how many birds will be “saved,” but no doubt DOC will come up with a number, and will argue that any birds that died as a result of the poison drop are fewer than those that would have died if they didn't drop 1080, and who could prove otherwise? Daft. Sad, and daft.

I can come to no conclusion other than this campaign is DOC’s way of keeping their budget up and staff in employment! They're not saving birds, they're saving themselves.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

What is the Difference Between Anxiety and Depression?

For more on Mindwork see here.
   In a nutshell, depression is caused by looking into the past with regret, and anxiety is caused by looking into the future with apprehension or fear. We tend to treat both anxiety and depression as “things”, like diseases, as if they have a life of their own, and the pharmaceutical industry encourages this medicalization because it’s good for their business. However, depression and anxiety are in fact mood states we create ourselves because of particular thinking patterns. People who create depression often also create anxiety and vice versa.

Blue Nude by Henri Matisse
What else affects mood states?

   There is a caveat to the idea that we create our own mood states from thinking patterns, however. Various drugs, both prescription and illegal, can affect the way we feel and think regardless of our thinking patterns. This is true not only when taking the drugs, but also when withdrawing from them. A classic example we are all familiar with is alcohol. Although alcohol is a depressant officially (and who wants one of those!), many of us like the way alcohol allows us to relax and enjoy ourselves, especially in a social situation. Have a glass of wine or a couple of beers and like magic, the difficulties in our lives feel less imperative and the present moment becomes more enjoyable. Cheers! Yet have a few too many drinks and you may wake up the next morning with a sore head and a grumpy demeanour—“Whadda mean the sun is shining? Work? Ugh!”

   And of course personal tragedy or grief or loss can certainly generate both depression and anxiety, and that’s a natural response. The loss of a loved one, for example, not only leaves a hole in the present but may create a sense of regret for things not said or done before in the past, and may also affect one’s future in uncertain ways. Lack of stability is great fun if you’re playing with an inner tube and waves at the beach, but becomes a lot more stressful when your home, family, health or livelihood is threatened.

Can anxiety or depression be good for you?

   Some would argue that these states are a wake-up call. Your internal sense of harmony is out of balance, and something fundamental in your life needs changing. This may be something external (maybe I need a different job...) or something internal (I need to stop thinking about that all the time...) If you harken to these undesirable mood states and accept them as a signal that something needs to change, and you take steps to make those changes, then the anxiety and/or depression is a valuable signal for you. On the other hand, if these states are not perceived as a call for action...

What can you do about anxiety and depression?

   Firstly, it’s important to accept that neither state is a significant problem on a short term basis, especially if a clear cause can be identified. If your faithful family dog passes away and you feel weepy for a few days, that’s a natural and appropriate response. If you feel anxious about going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, that’s likewise temporary and natural. Feel the moment and accept it. You know it will pass with time.

   According to the DSM-IV[i], clinical depression can be diagnosed if at least five significant symptoms linger for more than two weeks and a medical cause is ruled out. See here for the DSM-IV definition of depression, and here for the DSM-IV definition of anxiety.

   Psychiatrists and medical doctors often provide anti-depressant medication for both depression and anxiety, and many people choose to go this route because (superficially, at least) it’s quick and easy and relatively cheap. However, anti-depressants do not address the issues that may be causing the depression or anxiety.

   In 2010 I completed my master’s thesis on antidepressant use and withdrawal, and for that I gathered information from over 500 antidepressant users, ex-users, and a control group of non-users. I found no overall increase in well-being created by antidepressant use, and problems with side effects and withdrawal were reported by the majority of study participants with antidepressant experience; in some cases these were debilitating. 

  Clinical trials of antidepressant drugs (mostly 6-8 weeks long) demonstrated minimal mood improvement with  use, which researchers Kirsch and colleagues deemed “negligible” given the placebo effect evident in their analysis of the data supplied to the US Food and Drug Administration. The placebo effect is how thinking a medication will help often means it really does help, even if the "drug" is a non-active fake. (for more on this, see their excellent book The Emperor's New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth).  Personally, I wouldn’t choose to take anti-depressant medication—it’s like taking a pain killer for a rotten tooth: it might diminish the pain but it won’t fix the problem. I’d rather fix the problem.

   Therapy, provided the patient and therapist don’t spend a lot of time focussing on the “whys” of the problem, can be very useful in getting rid of depression and anxiety, and provides a valuable opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) both have very good track records for dealing with depression and bringing about lasting change. Helping the client set clear goals and recognize things like his/her thinking patterns, past/present/future orientation, and the relationship between values, thoughts, behaviours, and moods enable positive changes to occur. Several NLP processes, in particular, allow clients to resolve internal conflicts and release negative emotions attached to events from the past quickly and easily, creating the opportunity to move forward into the future in more positive ways.

For more information on psychiatric drugs and alternative ways to understand and resolve anxiety and depression, see my new book Reframing Mental Illness.

[i] Manual compiled by the American Psychiatric Association that classifies mental disorders.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Carbon Tax and Climate Change

Green Party leader Russell Norman posted a link on Facebook the other day about the merits of imposing a carbon tax. I was one of half a dozen people who posted responses to his post, and my response has led to several other fairly heated responses about the “facts” and “hypotheses” surrounding this issue. Here's my take.

A carbon tax is a tax imposed by government for the burning of fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal) to encourage the development and use of cleaner energy sources such as solar energy, wind, and hydro-electric that do not increase the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. CO2 is one of several “greenhouse gases” implicated in what used to be called “global warming”, and is now called “climate change.”

[Following this tangent for just a moment, measuring global temperatures is a difficult task at best. The traditional method involved taking temperature readings at various locations, mostly located in urban land areas in the Northern Hemisphere and comparing them year after year. A general rise of about 0.8˚ C since 1800 has been noted by this method. Since 1979, satellite readings have given a more global perspective, and these show stable earth temperatures from 1979 to 1997, a significant jump in temperature in 1997-1998 (El Nino years), and then a levelling off. The global temperature has been stable and perhaps slightly declining since 1997-98. Hence “global warming” has kind of disappeared from the popular radar, but the idea that humans are the primary force negatively impacting the earth’s climate has not. And “climate change” is even more vague and hard to measure than global temperatures.]

From the article linked above

But back to the carbon tax issue. I believe that a carbon tax is primarily a revenue-gathering exercise likely to have little if any real impact on climate change. Here’s my reasoning:

Fact: An estimated 0.04% of the earth’s atmosphere is composed of CO2
Fact: An estimated 4% of that 0.04% of atmospheric CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels
Fact: CO2 levels have increase by about 40% since the 1880s
Fact: Global temperatures have increased by about 0.8˚ C since 1880 (nothing like 40%)
Hypothesis: The earth’s climate has been relatively stable until recently but now it is changing (Change is a vague term and difficult to quantify—how do you prove this?)
Hypothesis: Mankind’s burning of fossil fuels has upset the planet’s CO2 level (Has anything else done so?)
Hypothesis: Increasing CO2 levels have an adverse effect on climate stability (How do we know?)
Hypothesis: Decreasing our use of fossil fuels will help stabilize the climate (Only if the above hypotheses are true)
Hypothesis: Taxing Kiwi users of fossil fuels ($3/litre for petrol, anyone?), will cause citizens to decrease their use of fossil fuels, and this will have a significant and positive impact on the planet’s climate. (You're kidding, right? China alone accounts for 42% of global emissions.

This is science presented to the public in a shoddy way. The facts are fine, but too many folks are talking about the hypotheses as if they are facts, or as if they are the only hypotheses out there. Personally? I think the biggest driver of climate change is the sun and her impact (or lack thereof—notice a paucity of solar flares during what is supposed to be a grand maximum, meaning the earth’s magnetic shield is weak and getting weaker by the day) on the planet. As supporting evidence that the main driver of climate change may be the sun not man, consider the profound changes occurring on other planets in our solar system where humans are not interfering (see here and here for examples).

What’s more, it seems just as likely that warmer earth temperatures may encourage the planet to generate more CO2 rather than the other way around. And although the current CO2 level is very high, it should be noted that during prehistoric periods it was much, much higher.  Also,CO2 is good for plants. Some scientists believe increased levels of CO2 may make crops and forests grow faster, and that can be of benefit to all life on the planet.

Furthermore, water vapour and methane are much more prominent greenhouse gases than CO2 and they almost certainly—just due to their greater concentrations—have a greater effect on climate than CO2 but are harder to “tax” or control. Realizing that CO2 only plays a small role among the large cast of participants on the climate stage, and that the proportion of CO2 that we humans are responsible for belching out into the atmosphere is even smaller is a first step.

Ultimately, I am all for anything that can help us clean up the planet because frankly, we’re making a mess of our world. I ABSOLUTELY believe that cleaner energy sources (especially solar) are the way to go. However, I do not believe that imposing a carbon tax in New Zealand will make a significant difference to our planet's climate. What it will do is make almost everything more expensive, from petrol to toilet paper to roads to home heating. And the people who will be hurt most by this are those at the bottom of the economic food chain. Come on Russell, what are you thinking?

I’d like to end this blog post with a really worthwhile summary of the CO2 connection to climate change, as presented by Ben Davidson earlier this year.  His passion and dedication into research on this topic and the sun/earth relationship is extraordinary.