Brain Health: Freedom from Anxiety and Depression
Kristen’s Story: Beauty from Ashes
I have always been what others might call a “sensitive” person. I feel things deeply. I am passionate about people, truth, justice and causes I believe in. I love deeply, feel others’ pain and feel compelled to help, which makes me compassionate yet more vulnerable.
I have also always been a committed learner and high achiever, I think initially to make my dad proud of me, and then it just became who I was. If there was more that could be done, I felt obligated and compelled to do it, to reach higher, strive harder, find the answers. This served me well in academics and work, and in finding answers for those I love, but I would often be too hard on myself and not rest my brain enough. I have probably dealt with some level of depression and anxiety since junior high. Valedictorian, tennis player and song leader in high school, summa cum laude college graduate, you would think I had a ton of internal confidence, but I didn’t. I remember periods of deep sadness, overwhelm and fear. I never felt like I was enough.
High achiever, highly vulnerable. My first experience with therapy was in my late 20’s when I became depressed, particularly about my work – an environment deplete of real connections, joy or my ability to ever feel adequate…a career path I took to please my dad. My therapist asked me what I always wanted to do when I was a little girl. I had never been asked that. I used to love playing teacher. I ended up going back to school to get my teaching credential and Masters in Education and became a teacher. I was happy, truly happy making a difference in a place where compassion was an attribute, and feeling the purity of love from children was a daily gift.
In the next ten years a lot of difficulties came my way: standing up to the school district about the sicknesses my students were experiencing in a toxic portable classroom, finding the hero of my life – my dad – dead on the kitchen floor when I was expecting his first grandbaby, pregnancy complications and long bedrest, and two children born with serious health issues. At age 39 I was put on my first antidepressant and went back to therapy. It helped some.
Preloading her brain. Dr. Bill notes: Kristen had preloaded her brain with what neuroscientists call “cognitive reserve.” Her years of education and serving grew her “brain bucket,” which not only took longer to overflow but also set her up to heal.
Other things helped more, like finding hope for my kids’ health to improve through education and whole food nutrition that Dr. Sears recommended, and a mission and new career that ensued, helping other families looking for health solutions.
I was grateful for God giving me a way to use all my past: my education and experience in business and teaching, the loss of my dad, my kids health issues and healing, my passionate heart to make a difference – all for a higher good. I gained what Dr. Sears calls the Helper’s High! I was able to work from home, be with my kids and speak in small groups and in front of thousands of people to offer hope and solutions. This was God’s promise to redeem pain for purpose. I was doing well, loved being a mom and was truly happy.
Down and out. And then about 3 years ago, the bucket overflowed. We all have stresses in our lives and we call on our inner reserve, faith and support of friends, family and doctors to help us. But sometimes the bucket is just too full – too many balls drop at once. This happened to me. My husband who had been our main financial support suddenly no longer had a job. The company he had devoted 20 years to laid off 1,500 employees.
We had two kids in private college. Our son, a senior then, was himself suffering from often debilitating severe anxiety and depression. Our deepest fear and constant prayer was that he would not give up. As her brother’s mental health was hanging on the precipice, our precious girl, a new freshman in college eager to pursue her own path and dreams, was suddenly not feeling well, fatigued, covered in rashes, and hospitalized, revealing crashing blood counts and her kidneys in danger. She was diagnosed with lupus nephritis. I had lost a young friend to the same disease and was devastated and scared for my girl and what this could mean for the rest of her life. We later discovered that her illnesses was triggered by prolonged stress.
More balls dropped. We lost 2 family members, including our 4 year old nephew to cancer. It was all too much. My children, our extended family, our finances…all experiencing pain and a decline I felt little control over.
My fear escalated and I experienced an anxiety and a depression I never had before. I could not sleep at night…night after night. I never knew anxiety this tormenting. I tried more talk therapy. Doctors changed my medication, added new ones and when those caused side effects, changed to different ones or added medications for the side effects. I ended up on a cocktail of medications and wasn’t compliant…all this playing horrible roulette with my brain chemistry. I had what one of my dear friends who has suffered through life-threatening anxiety and depression, calls “torture disease”. I got so sick I could no longer stay home. I had to be hospitalized. I lost myself and lost all hope.
Serve more, heal better. Thankfully I have a husband, family and community of friends that never gave up on me. Those who I had helped now helped me. They prayed fervently for me.
How I Recovered: “Skills vs. Pills” Therapy
How did I heal from that place that some feared I might never recover from? How did I move from not being able to laugh or see any hope, to waking every day with joy and hope and even laughter? How did I go from hardly being able to leave my home to speaking again in front of hundreds of people to give them hope, too? It was many things – all of which Dr. Sears recommends in his “Skills vs. Pills” therapy:
- Love. Love from a family, friends and community who did not judge me, but offered tangible help, real prayers and constant love, even when I felt completely unlovable. More than any other time in the almost 40 years since we met as 16 year olds in high school, my husband lived out his vows, “for better for worse, in sickness and health”. He loved me through it all and never gave up on me, never stopped searching for help. One friend, a fellow leader in our Juice Plus community, organized a train of people that knocked on my door 2-3x a week to take me for a walk, to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment, to just be with me. My friends and family lovingly ushered me out of bed when I didn’t have the motivation to get up and get going. There were so many times if not for that expected knock, I would not have gotten out of bed. This was love in action.
- Exercise and Nature therapy. Getting outside with my dog and a friend to walk on the beach or in the hills is mindfulness, natural endorphins, friendship and real connection all in one. I feel my mood lift every time, better than any anti-anxiety med.
- The belief effect. Doctors who believed my healing was possible and were willing to find the best medical therapies for my brain and carefully wean me off medications as I improved – thank you Dr. Sears and Dr. Fortanasce. Please note, I am not against medication and important therapies like ECT. They save lives and likely saved mine. There should be no judgment or stigma attached to those who need brain health medications to help restore balance to neurochemicals. We would not think of judging diabetics from receiving insulin or cancer patients about receiving potentially lifesaving chemotherapy. Why do we judge those whose brains are broken, suffering and experiencing a potentially life threatening disease? It’s very important to have a skilled neuropsychiatrist and to embrace tools like therapy, nutrition, exercise, meditation/prayer, nature, community, concurrently, so medication can be minimized as healing begins. Skills may be able to replace or lower the pills as Dr. Sears shares.
- Nutrition. I learned from Dr. Sears that 90% of my neurotransmitters are made in my gut! I took my nutrition to another level to help heal my gut and the myelin sheath around my nerve and brain cells. I got rid of inflammatory foods like all refined carbohydrates, added sugar in every form, and unhealthy fats and replaced them with more vegetables, healthy brain fats and healthy protein. I upped my smart supplements, especially Juice Plus Fruit, Veggie and Berry and Juice Plus Omega blends religiously. This same anti-inflammatory nutrition and targeted supplementation also helped give my daughter a whole new level of energy, vibrancy, improved blood work, health, and hope with her autoimmune diagnosis.
- Spiritual Support. My husband made sure we were in church every Sunday, even if I cried mostly all the way through. He had us join a Community group. These couples, some who had known us for 20 or more years, others new friends, prayed for me, loved me without judgment. Meeting with them became something I looked forward to. Our pastor even did a whole series on Anxiety and Depression to dispel the myths and offer practical tips and the hope that God gives us for healing. And my friends in our Juice Plus Community across the nation set their alarms to every day pray for me, claiming God’s promises for healing in a prayer written by my dear friend Kathrine Lee. They prayed until I was well again.
- Talk therapy. I hesitated on this, because I did not want to drudge up all the pain and feel it all over again, but our son, who had recovered from his own depression and anxiety, was insistent. For me I needed a therapist who also believed in God’s hand of healing and I found her.
- Work therapy. I started slowly, and then was able to more fully work again, sharing nutrition and health solutions. My Juice Plus business was my daily therapy; it was daily connection with people. It got me out of myself, into relationships, connected to my deeper calling and passion and made me feel productive and more like the Kristen who once was. After a health talk given by Dr. Sears, my husband heard me excitedly share the impact we had on the guests and said, “You’re back.” It was an extremely moving and powerful realization for both of us. The “Helper’s High” is powerful medicine.
- Turning Pain to Purpose. I now feel a calling to share hope, tools, connections with others who silently suffer from the pain and stigma of anxiety and depression. Suicide in young people is skyrocketing. These kids desperately need to know there is hope and they need skills/tools, not just pills. When our son had a setback earlier this year, I looked at him, and said, “You remember where your mom was and see where I am now. You WILL be ok.” And he dove into these skills instead of more pills and recovered. What a huge blessing to be able to partner with you, Dr. Sears, to give talks on Brain Health to kids, teens, young adults, mothers, fathers, seniors.
I am still sensitive, passionate, compassionate, a warrior for justice, driven to give and do my best, all of which are blessings and yet also make me more vulnerable for anxiety and depression. And I know as I age, more balls will drop. But now I have tools, skills, a support team, a growing and deeper faith in place. I want people who suffer from depression and anxiety to know that the darkness that overtakes them can lift and that they can experience a new gratitude, a real joy and healing they and others never thought possible. When it feels like there is no hope, that is a lie. There is always hope. God’s promise is true. There truly is “Beauty from Ashes”.
If you are interested in connecting with Kristen about her story and exploring how you can also take steps to help lift anxiety and depression, you can email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Whether you’re experiencing “normal” mental and emotional burnout or wrestling with a diagnosed illness, The Healthy Brain Book can help you thrive. It explains:
- How what we think can change how well we think
- The role of inflammation in the brain, and how food and activity can reverse it
- What drugs enhance and suppress the brain’s ability to heal itself
- Actionable advice to improve your memory, promote learning, and prevent common brain ailments
- How to personalize the book’s tools for your unique brain
Find out more about Dr. Bill’s newest book, The Healthy Brain Book here.