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The Instinct to Heal    by David Servan-Schreiber order for
Instinct to Heal
by David Servan-Schreiber
Order:  USA  Can
Rodale, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Depression degrades the quality of life for so many individuals and their families. Here's a book that offers solutions 'Without Drugs and Talk Therapy'. Dr. Servan-Schreiber tells us that 'Neither talent, nor glory, power, money, or the admiration of women and men can make the essence of life fundamentally easier', and that some people are more resilient than others to life's hardships. The author studied medicine in major N. American and European universities, as well as with 'Tibetan doctors and Native American shamans'. He tells us that the credibility of psychoanalysis is dwindling, and that, though psychotropic drugs can ameliorate depression, patients often relapse once treatment stops.

The book presents seven natural treatment approaches that 'capitalize on the mind and brain's own healing mechanisms for recovering from depression, anxiety, and stress' and are illustrated by vignettes of patients who have benefited from them. The author reviews how the 'emotional brain works, and how it depends on the body for its healing' - this section is informative and interesting in its own right, especially a discussion of the physical relationship between brain and heart, measurable as 'cardiac coherence'. The 'Coherence Training Method' essentially uses meditation and visualization techniques to stabilize the autonomic nervous system. Apparently biofeedback software can help speed up training. However, the author emphasizes that though Coherence leads to inner calm, it's not a relaxation technique, but rather is intended to facilitate action.

Second is 'Eye Movement Desensitization', applied to treat posttraumatic stress disorder. The technique seems to somehow assist the mind to reprogram dysfunctional information in the emotional brain. The author acknowledges that some colleagues are skeptical about this treatment. Next comes 'The Energy of Light' which affects all our bodily rhythms, and the notion of using light exposure to treat depressive symptoms with a seasonal pattern. The 'dawn simulation device' sounds like a wonderful alternative to an alarm clock! The fourth approach is 'The Power of Qi' (acupuncture). The author mentions a Tibetan doctor who told him that Western medicine's view is 'topsy-turvy', that rather than mental problems causing physical symptoms, feelings like 'the absence of pleasure, can be mental manifestations of a physical problem.' He is convinced that 'acupuncture helps foster a return to equilibrium of the autonomic nervous system.'

The fifth approach relates to a 'Revolution in Nutrition', and the ability of Omega-3 fatty acids (found in sardines, tuna, flax seeds etc.) to increase production of neurotransmitters, of benefit to the emotional brain. The author quotes Hippocrates, who said 'Let your food be your treatment, and your treatment your food.' Sixth is regular exercise, which has been proven to be 'a remarkably effective treatment for anxiety.' How does it impact the emotional brain? It stimulates the secretion of endorphins, which create pleasure and kindle the immune system. The seventh approach lies in satisfying our need for 'harmony and connectedness' with others. A chapter on 'Saying It All While Doing No Harm' discusses effective emotional communication. 'Listening with the Heart' gives specific techniques for difficult emotional communications. The author tells us that happier people have been shown to 'have close, stable emotional relationships with others, and they are involved in their community.' Sounds like common sense, doesn't it?

Dr. Servan-Schreiber concludes by telling us that all the approaches discussed work in synergy, helping the body to 'recover its balance.' He suggests how to choose the best combination for individual needs, and includes a list of resources. Having watched a close family member struggle with depression over the years, I am impressed by the author's compassionate presentation of alternatives to the usual juggling of drug treatments (many of which have unpleasant side effects). And most techniques described in The Instinct to Heal would benefit all of us, no matter the level of stress in our lives.

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