How Plato Can Save Your Life

The philosophical path to health and wellness.

The Ancient Greek Cure for Depression and Anxiety

Can Ancient Greek Philosophy help cure Depression and Anxiety?

As far as societies go, we're one stressed out, anxious, depressed and self-medicating mess. Those of us who work on the front-lines in the mental health field know this all too well; others need only to take a careful look around the social-cultural landscape to appreciate that our collective mental health is not too, well, healthy.

And things seem to be getting worse. According to Dr. Steven Ilardi, the University of Kansas psychologist, researcher and author of The Depression Cure (Da Capo, 2009) "Americans are 10 times more likely to have depressive illness than they were 60 years ago...and a recent study found the rate of depression has more than doubled in just the past decade".

Globally, things aren't much better; according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 450 million people worldwide are directly affected by mental disorders and disabilities and that by 2030 depression will top the list of all other health conditions as the number one financial burden around the world.

Why? Why are we getting more stressed out and more depressed?

Dr. Ilardi thinks that he's found the answer: Increased rates of depression (not to mention other mental health woes like anxiety and addiction) are a byproduct of our modernized, industrialized and urbanized lives. It seems that our love affair with the gadgets, gizmos and comforts of being a highly technologically evolved society have put us on a never-ending treadmill of overworking, under-sleeping and hyper-stressing as we exhaustedly lunge towards the "American Dream". Yes America, our need for i-Phones, plasma TVs and a bigger house is killing us.

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And what happens when we work longer hours in soul-crushing cubicles to buy things that we don't need?  According to Dr. Ilardi: "We've been engineering the activity out of our lives. The levels of bright-light exposure-time spent outdoors-have been declining. The average adult gets just over six and a half hours of sleep a night. It used to be nine hours a night. There's increasing isolation, fragmentation, the erosion of community."

Thus, according to Ilardi, "We feel perpetually stressed. And the more we learn about depression neurologically, the more we learn that it represents the brain's runaway stress response".

Ilardi had found that certain societies-such as the American Amish and the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, had essentially zero rates of depression. The more he looked at the commonalities of these "depression-free" societies, the more he was able to tease out certain common variables that he was then able to operationalize in his groundbreaking research dubbed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Project wherein clinically depressed subjects were asked to incorporate several of these lifestyle changes into their lives for several weeks.

So what were these magical lifestyle changes (which have also become known as "Caveman Therapy")? They were essentially 6 things: eating an omega-3 rich diet; getting regular daily exercise; getting plenty of natural sunlight; getting ample sleep every night; being involved in some type of social activity where social connections were made; and participation in meaningful tasks that leave little time for negative thoughts-all things that our ancestors had in abundance.

Amazingly, Dr. Ilardi's research subjects demonstrated incredible reductions in depression. Indeed, these reductions were statistically significant not only when compared to control groups, but also when compared to people who had been treated only with depression medications. 

In my own research (presented at the 2007 APA conference) that's described in my book How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life (Conari, 2011), I also made similar discoveries based on ancient wisdom. I describe a very holistic way of living that had been known in the ancient world as the "Bios Pythagorikos" (the Pythagorean Way of Life) that included a healthy vegetarian diet, daily rigorous physical exercise, and philosophical group discussions (dialectical discussions) that were meant to help a person better understand their universe and their purpose within that universe.

And living ethically was also essential. For the Greeks, act-right/think-right were the keys towards well-being.

Participants in my study who immersed themselves into this more engaged, reflective way of life experienced the following: meaningfully increased levels of personal as well as transpersonal awareness; an increased appreciation for life (as well as death); an increased sense of purpose in their lives; an increased sense of concern for others, as well as an increased sense of spirituality and self-acceptance.

So if you're feeling depressed or stressed out, instead of reaching for the medicine cabinet, maybe it's time to try a very old-school--as in ancient--solution; you might be amazed at how differently you feel and how differently you experience the world.

How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life: The Ancient Greek Prescription for Health and Happiness

 

 

Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor at Stony Brook University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

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