The Calming Power of Pets

One adorable “Emotional Therapy” dog

Anybody who owns a pet, especially a dog or cat, knows this — they brighten our lives. Who can ignore a warm curling, purring cat on the lap or the smiling wag of a dog at your door?

Science has started backing this up. Owning a pet can actually help fight depression. And it all goes back to our little happy hormone, Serotonin.

“Stroking a dog or cat can lower blood pressure and heart rate and boost levels of serotonin and dopamine,” declares an article on this very subject on Psychcentral.com.

Caring for a pet can help our mood and stave off depression in several ways:

Pets offer a soothing presence by helping lower blood pressure as mentioned.

They offer unconditional love and acceptance. For example assisted living and nursing home residents have shown to be less lonely when exposed to quiet time with a dog.

Pets, dogs and cats especially, alter our own behaviors as we respond to their licks and affection. Our breathing, speech and minds slow down during these interactions.

Pets do a great job of distracting us – even more than social media, movies and books – by taking us out of our head.

Taking good care of a pet makes us responsible. Responsibility to another promotes mental health by building self-esteem and giving us purpose.

At the same time, the caring of a pet, dogs especially, opens up increased opportunities for exercise, outdoor play, and socialization – all positive health factors in many ways.

A friend and student of mine in her mid-20s was having depressed feelings and lack of direction. Her life wasn’t leading to even the most realistic goals she had set for herself. She was at the time feeling unloved and not surrounded by supportive family. She seriously began to feel that life wasn’t worth living.

Out of the blue, an older cousin gave her a puppy from her dog’s litter. It was probably an accident pregnancy, as the puppy was an unusual but adorable mix — rat terrier and dachshund. The dog turned out to be a most beautiful accident for my young friend. She began caring for the puppy, buying her all the right food, small toys, even cute sweaters. She shampooed her and took her to the vet for check ups and shots. She made a cozy crate for her pup to sleep while away at work. They always played and walked.

She called the puppy her “Emotional Therapy Dog” and she got back her self-esteem and, with it, the sparkling, fun-loving personality she was known for.

Not everyone can or wants to own a dog or cat. They take time, especially dogs, and are best for certain periods in our lives. Many rental apartments and homes sadly do not even allow pets or charge high deposits for them.

But volunteering at a shelter one day a week can give mood boosts, too. Shelter pets also need touching, loving and exercise – and you can brighten your day together. Or offer to walk a neighbor or friend’s dog from time to time. Even better, start walking with that friend and their dog. You will all get a boost from the emotional power of pets.

#dogs #cats #emotional therapy #depression #health #shelter #Petsmart

The Depressed President

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Today, February 12, is the birthday of our 16th president whose Civil War order, the Emancipation Proclamation, freed the slaves from the Confederate states.

In his theatlantic.com article, “Lincoln’s Great Depression,” writer Joshua Wolf Shenk proposes that the tall, frail statesman from Illinois experienced at least three stages of depression or “melancholy” as it was then known. First at age 26, his close female friend Anne Rutledge died from a sudden illness. When he was 33, he reluctantly married Mary Todd who had her own emotional problems. In subsequent years the Lincolns lost two young sons.

The author contends that Lincoln transformed his personal struggle into a struggle for universal justice. During the Civil War, President Lincoln wrote, “I expect to maintain this contest until successful or, till I die.”

In addition to this article, you can learn more about our greatest president’s struggles and victories in Shenk’s book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy – How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness”:

Abraham Lincoln endures as a beacon of hope on many levels through the ages.

Mental Illness & the Oscars

Last night was a huge night for celebrating depictions of mental disturbance on the screen. Nominated Best Picture film “Pain and Glory” focused on a revengefully obsessed director looking back on his life and the slights he perceived from actors and lovers, as well as a traumatic childhood.

The Best Picture winner “Parasite” revealed three tiers of families struggling with external inequities and internal pressures leading to bizarre behaviors and dark outcomes.

But most extreme of all was Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of an alienated man who angrily transforms himself into the character called the “Joker” – out to battle everyone around him.

 “Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow,” said Joaquin Phoenix, closing his acceptance speech with a quote from his elder brother who died from a drug overdose.

My worldly cousin, formerly of the New York publishing industry and who has extensive personal experience coping with depression and other disorders, explains what he perceives the character, the Joker, is going through, as vividly portrayed by Phoenix.

“Well, obviously he’s got a borderline personality and some sort of dissociative disorder. And he’s severely clinically depressed. But what I found so moving about his performance was the way he was able to brilliantly capture the despair and hopelessness that so many people currently feel in our society—that they are forgotten, lost, unheard, and invisible.”

To produce a riveting story line and reach the biggest audience, film makers often portray mental illness at its most extreme. Who wants to view a depressed person frozen on their sofa for 2 hours? On the other hand, viewers should watch out for common myths about mental illness in movies:

The charismatic savior – think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “Girl, Interrupted.”

Mentally ill people are violent and homicidal – like the mysterious psycho killers of “Friday the 13th” and “Silence of the Lambs.”

The mentally ill are all geniuses – such as “Rain Man” and “A Beautiful Mind.” According to MentalHelp.net, just in case you’re wondering, only 10% of mental health sufferers can be classified as savants.

In looking for movies starring more relatable characters dealing with depression, I found these two films which I’m looking forward to locating: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (16-year-old boy checks himself into psych ward and ends up making friends, falling in love) and “Perks of Being a Wallflower” (high school freshman suffers from losing his older best friends going off to college).

If you would like to suggest more movies in this genre, of any approach, please do.

Throughout cinematic history, human mental disturbance has been a fascination to great directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Frederico Fellini. Now on my second week of tapering my antidepressant, I am feeling more balanced, yes.

But I’m definitely not ready to watch “A Clockwork Orange” again. Not now, not ever.

Depression’s Guru, Day 8

If there is a face to the story of mental depression in the past half century, it is that of William Styron, the great American novelist whose works include “Sophie’s Choice.”

Mr. Styron brought depression into the open through his confessions and his writing. He suffered two severe episodes but also lived a brilliant life. This article illuminates the subject of depression since the 1990s and the dark yet courageous life of one of our most powerful literary figures.

Can Pickles Perk Us Up? Day 7

First, I want to start off today by confessing that I personally am probably dealing with a milder form of depression than many people. I was able to alleviate most of my symptoms – anxiety and insomnia – pretty much right away and with a relatively low dose of 75 mg daily of Effexor. That was 7 years ago. Now I am hoping that my body and mind are beyond the state I was in at the time I started.

Many people suffering depression are dealing with more serious and multiple conditions. I am not here to say that the health remedies I explore will stop all people from feeling depressed. At the very best, healthy alternatives might simply assist your antidepressant and other therapies.

One alternative that is gradually being recognized are probiotics, the healthy bacteria in our gut. We’ve heard a lot about this topic, mostly from supplement makers, who position probiotics as a tablet for general, overall good health.

A special group of probiotics, called psychobiotics, is good bacteria that could potentially help to treat a range of mental health conditions, including depression, and boost your overall mood. Healthline.com, whose editorial is produced with consulting medical professionals, presents an excellent article on this topic: “Can Probiotics Help With Depression?” It’s worth looking up, for more detailed information, but here are some key points:

The connection between the gastrointestinal tract and your brain is called the gut-brain axis (GBA).

Microorganisms, including probiotics, living in your gut produce neurotransmitters (including serotonin) affecting appetite, mood and sleep. They also help reduce inflammation which can contribute to depression, and they affect cognitive function and stress responses.

Experts are currently working to identify particular probiotics that might have mental health benefits. A small study in 2016 found that people with major depression who took a probiotic for 8 weeks had lower scores on the Beck Depression Inventory, a common method of evaluating the condition. Also important here is that the supplement used contained three specific bacterial strains: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

While much more future research is needed, you may want to try a probiotic supplement, which is generally safe but should be discussed with your doctor. Look for blends including the bacterial strains listed above, often called just Lactobacillus and Bifiodobacterium. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for dosage.

You can also try adding more probiotic foods to your diet.

Yogurt & fruit a la mode on pumpkin bread

The most common fermented foods that naturally contain probiotics, or have probiotics added to them, include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread and some cheeses, according to “Healthbeat,” the Harvard Health newsletter.

Either way you consume probiotics, they cannot totally replace medication and other therapies. I’m going to start by eating more of the foods, as I reduce my dosage of Effexor. Later, I will probably add a supplement.

For now, a pickle a day might keep my depression at bay. But even if it doesn’t, my lunch is so much zestier.

How Long Will This Take? Day 5

I have heard a wide range of how long tapering off an antidepressant will take. Before even jumping into this process, I had heard that Effexor is the hardest of its drug type to stop taking – this from a young ER resident. A retired physician friend also told me it took her a full year of gradually separating the tiny beads from her Effexor capsules before finally letting go.

Why are we never warned before starting this drug? I admit, I was pretty desperate and exhausted when I started 7 years ago, after years of severe insomnia from menopause and post-menopause. Being able to be less anxious and sleep again was a miracle.

Yet most of us have no idea what we are getting into.

My cousin, a retired NYC book publicist, a hectic high-pressure profession, said this about his experience with these “psychotropic” medications: “I have been on every single antidepressant that has ever been on the market since 1980. It took years to find the right combination of them to help me and not debilitate me further. I hated Effexor. The more information people have about both the benefits AND possible dangers of all of these medications, the healthier they’ll be.”

After suffering a concussion, skull fracture, and fractured spine from a terrible fall, another friend told me she was diagnosed Effexor because she was very tearful. She took it for two years and, if she accidentally missed a dose, she felt like she had the flu. “I remember getting the medicine and opening the bottle and swallowing the pill right there in the store. No water!” She finally decided she did not want to be a slave to a drug.

“I got off after two to three months. I knew I had to do it slowly, not based on my doctor’s orders, but on my own research and tolerance.”

Still another friend tells me that she was on Citalopram for 13 years. It took her over a year to wean off the tablets by “taking less and less as time went by while at the same time doing things that made me feel better, like eating healthier and working out more.” When she finally quit, she was able to weather her divorce without falling into the depression “swamp,” she says.

Finally, I just heard from another friend on FB that I haven’t seen since junior high, who had taken Celexa for years and has been slowly trying to taper by reducing dosages in various ways. “I would love to get off it. The docs don’t know how.”

My own doctor prescribed starting with a half dose (37.5 mg) of Venlafaxine (Effexor) every other day. My pharmacist was shocked and immediately revised the order. I am now taking the half dose TWICE a day, am and pm. Even this change has its effects, such as mild agitation and irritability. The sleep impact has improved from the first night, as my body adjusts to the lowered release of medication. After 2-3 weeks I will move on to taking this half dose just once every day and am bracing for more powerful symptoms.

I am grateful for the kind input of personal experiences I have been given. If you are experiencing this situation and would like to share your story, it would be most helpful for me and other readers as we journey forward to freedom.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Manic Monday, Day 4

This is not just another manic Monday for my hometown, a mid-sized city whose metropolitan area famously straddles the two states of Missouri and Kansas. Contrary to the president’s congratulatory tweet last night, the Kansas City Chiefs football team is based in Kansas City, Missouri – not Kansas! Last night in Miami, when they won the Super Bowl Championship in a miraculous 4th quarter finish, it was the city’s first Super Bowl win in 50 years. Yes, that is 5-0.

Kansas City is an attractive, pleasant place to live, but it is not often what one would call world-class exciting. Last night the city was practically stunned into all night celebrating in the streets. In two days, hundreds of thousands of fans will converge on the historic Union Station area to form a sea of red representing the victorious Chiefs Nation. In a city like Houston or Los Angeles, this would be a fun triumph, but in a city like ours it connects everyone in town with strong feelings of camaraderie, pride, and good fortune.

The victory was spearheaded by a young, humble, highly talented quarterback, just 24 years old, Patrick Mahomes. His personality of confidence, leadership, and generosity has been a beacon of good will beyond football. This afternoon he is touring Disney World with a young boy from Austin, Texas, whose Make-a-Wish request came true. Mahomes has not slept a wink all night. But knowing what he can do in bringing light to a dark situation (last night the Chiefs were down 20-10 vs. the San Francisco 49ers in the 4th quarter going on to win 31-10 and, two play-off games ago, were down 24-0 by the 2nd quarter to go on to score 51 winning points), this handsome, young hero will make their day in Orlando one they will both forever remember. And inspire the younger boy to stay strong and have hope.

This kind of encouragement on some level comes to us everyday. We need only be open to it. After sharing a single FB announcement of my blog, distant friends have come forward with personal words of inspiration. If the days become too bleak as I taper off, I will treasure these messages and keep going toward my own goal of being free from the influence of Effexor – and being a truer me.

Super Sleepy, Day 3

Today being Super Bowl Sunday 2020 and living in Kansas City, there is a lot of expectation to be up and ready to party!! My night, however, was energy depleting, waking partway and being trampled by a highway of zooming thoughts.

I’ve decided to call this my de-cluttering period. Much of this thinking concerns the past, categorizing relationships and licking old wounds. Some of the thoughts are more prosaic like writing texts to friends and choosing the most creative sequence of emojis. None of it really seems at all productive, but I have decided to trust my brain’s purpose as it emerges from the fog.

Today I have the benefit of bright light all around me, as it is a rare sunny February day here. As discussed yesterday, this benefit can possibly aid in my production of serotonin, the Happy Chemical. I’ll get out soon to walk with my dog, stare at the sky, and listen to the birds, confused that it might be spring already!

The Happy Chemical, Day 2

“Venlafaxine is used to treat depression. It is also used to treat general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Venlafaxine belongs to a group of medicines known as serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI). These medicines are thought to work by increasing the activity of a chemical called serotonin in the brain.” — Mayo Clinic

So what is this scintillating source of joy and well-being? And why can’t we get more of it in other ways?

Nicknamed “The Happy Chemical,” serotonin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that assists several of our daily bodily functions, including digestion, bone health, sex, and sleep. It’s the advance scout to melatonin that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. And recently, gut bacteria was found to be the producer of the Happy Chemical. Hence, “feeling it in your gut”!

Your SSRI (they’re also known as Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors) such as Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft, Effexor, and many others blocks the absorption and drop of serotonin as well as norepinephrine and dopamine, other feel-good hormones. It’s still unclear whether low serotonin levels cause depression or whether depression causes a drop in serotonin, according to everydayhealth.com.

Ongoing research may someday soon answer this question. According to an article in The Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, a long time ago – November 2007, “In the future, genetic research will make it possible to predict with increasing accuracy who is susceptible to depression.”

The article’s authors call for more studies of non-pharmaceutical ways of raising brain serotonin. It suggests 4 areas to research:

Meditation

Exposure to bright light

Aerobic exercise

Diet (especially tryptophan relative to other amino acids)

If the pharmaceutical industry can spend over $70B a year in R&D, we consumers need to demand that more NIH studies look at non-drug ways to alleviate depression. After all, the condition affects some 30 million in America.

Today my serotonin level is no doubt dropping due to my new lower Effexor dosage. Fatigue and mild confusion are setting in – but not nearly so much as I expected and feared. I’m happy that the sun is shining, I took a walk with a friend and our dogs, I’m having some quiet time writing, and I can always try turkey and milk for a relaxing snack!

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