Saturday, December 11, 2010

Buddhism: The New Xanax?

In Buddhist practice, we study the causes of suffering. Understanding the causes of physical suffering is easy. Comprehending what brings about the mental anguish that sends us spinning into bouts of anxiety, depression and even addiction—afflictions of the brain, all—is much, much more difficult, and yet, these forms of malaise are so prevalent and present in varying, often, subtle ways. In other words, the causes of mental suffering can be much more tricky to sleuth out.
    During the height of my Crisis, I was filled with the paralyzing sense of free-floating anxiety. One morning, when things were at their darkest, I awoke and quite literally did not know what to do with myself. It was a Saturday morning—the first with my husband gone—and the first time my routine was clearly altered. During the previous weeks my life had changed, but until this morning there was no outward distinction.
     On this morning it hit me: I was alone. I didn't want to remain married, but I hadn't counted on the fact that I would be—at this point in my life, after 14 years of marriage—alone. And yes, Jack was there with me, but in my mind, I was all alone. And it was Saturday. I couldn't just get up and throw myself into work. There were no conference calls to take or emails to return. I honestly didn't know how I would fill the day. I lay in bed, gazing at the hazy morning light that filtered through the French doors and tried to remember what is was that I normally did on Saturdays. I honestly had no idea.
    Fortunately, Jack appeared in my bedroom and announced that he was hungry. Waffles! I make waffles—from scratch—on the weekends. I stumbled out of bed, put feet to floor and walked to the kitchen. Preparing breakfast—with its measurements and pleasant aromas and rituals—helped, but only temporarily. Once that task was complete, I had to think of what would come next. Staring down the long, hot, lonely weekend, I felt desperate to fill each minute so as to block the thoughts of despair. (I was so pressed for ideas of what to do that weekend I took Jack roller skating, even though I had not been skating in decades, and Jack—poor thing—had never been. Oh, and we had fun.)
    In this manner, I stumbled through the weekend, and through the next week, and the next. But I was often overcome by self-doubt and with thoughts of regret and guilt. There were also times—often late at night—when I thought the feelings of panic and loneliness would consume me. If you have ever felt this way, then you know this is an incredibly disturbing state of mind to maintain.
   You'll be relieved to know that I was under the care of a very astute therapist, who, when I asked her about dispensing an anti-anxiety medication, promptly shut me down. I am grateful she saw in me the ability to overcome my anxiety through introspection and therapy. I was not clinically depressed nor suffering from anything more than the expected emotions one goes through when embarking on a divorce and major life upheaval. Riding it out was not easy, but I'm glad I did. And of course, my Buddhist study and my friends were the cornerstones of my recovery. We all know that friendship is an important balm, but Buddhism, as it turns out, is the new Xanax.*
   I'm not kidding. But before you sell all your Pfizer stock on my advice, let me assure you that this theory has been vetted by those who hold more than an BA in English. Researching this thread, I discovered a book entitled—appropriately—Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (Hanson, Mendius) published in 2009. Hanson, who has a PhD, and Mendius, a neurologist, explore the relationship between the mind and the brain, and theorize that mindful practice and meditation (aka Buddhism) can, in fact, enhance one's ability to increase the brain's levels of serotonin and dopamine. It makes sense because when you observe your thoughts and emotions in Buddhist practice, you head off feelings of anxiety, frustration and despair and replace them with a sense of understanding and compassion for yourself and others, and this generates a sensation of general well-being, and yes, even happiness. And of course, one of the goals of Buddhist practice is happiness.
   Anxiety and depression are caused by a lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that, among other things, makes us feel good. It is generated in abundance through a number of naturally occurring circumstances (such as falling in love), by various foods (fatty foods such as shellfish, cheese and chocolate are all processed into dopamine in the brain) and through activities (aerobic activity is a great dopamine producer, and, not surprising, having sex is the best dopamine producing-activity around.) You literally need dopamine to move (lack of dopamine causes Parkinson's Disease). Dopamine drives you for good and ill. It is essential for decision making, happiness, survival, even sleep. Too much or too little dopamine; however, and you start experiencing problems. For example, a dopamine deficit can cause depression, lack of ambition and loss of sex drive. Too much dopamine, and you've tilted the other way into the land of anxiety, compulsion, risk-taking, sexual compulsion and aggression. (And too much or too little dopamine can trigger all sorts of addictions.) At normal levels, you're golden: happy, compassionate, loving, content and well-adjusted. In a word, you're a Buddha.
  Yes, Buddhist practice takes a commitment of time, and it means digging deep and grappling with your patterns and consciously changing your negative behavior. It takes work, and it can be unpleasant to take responsibility for one's own suffering and determine to stop reactions and behaviors that create that suffering—even when these actions are things that seem to, at least initially, produce a hell of a lot of feel-good dopamine.
   Yes, taking Xanax or other mood-altering pills may provide a practical and quick way to control the maladies of the mind, but unlike that little blue oval, Buddhism does not cause drowsiness, dizziness, memory loss, decreased alertness, nausea, constipation, blurred vision, nightmares or erectile disfunction. Oh, and Buddhism is not processed in the liver; however, like Xanax, mindful living can become habit-forming, but only in a good way.

* Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. If you are on Xanax or any RX for depression or anxiety, please, please, please talk to your doctor before you make any changes to your prescribed dosage. Even an English major knows this: You should never stop taking your meds without a doctor's supervision.

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