What do many athletes and stressed-out school-kids across Europe have in common? They're all proponents of sophrology—the mind-body practice that is essentially a smorgasbord of mindfulness meditation, breath work, visualization, and body awareness techniques.
A couple of years back, after an unexpected and gut-wrenching break-up, I was all over the place – so I threw myself into my yoga practice in the hope of regaining some equilibrium. One day I saw a flyer on the noticeboard at the yoga studio. “Reduce stress and manage emotions,” it said. “Detach and refocus. Instil calm.” Oh yes please, I thought. But what was it? Mindfulness? Meditation? Buddhist chanting? No. Sophrology.
Do you feel tired all of the time? Maybe you’re stressed, anxious, or find it hard to concentrate. Sophrology might help. This relatively modern relaxation technique is popular in mainland Europe; so much so it’s recommended and covered by health insurance companies across France and Switzerland. It's only a matter of time before it lands on our shores.
The house is mess, social media is no longer relaxing and your BFF just asked you to plan her baby shower. In other words? You’re stressed AF. But if you’ve tried mindfulness meditation, yoga and breathwork to no avail, then maybe sophrology could help. We tapped certified sophrologist Niamh Lyons to find out more about this buzzy self-development technique..
Sophrology techniques are used to recover calm and reduce fears by means of simple exercises, easy to reproduce. An observational study conducted at Institut Curie in Paris, France and published in the journal Soins has just confirmed the advantage of these techniques for patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
Patients have been availing of this support at Institut Curie since 2007. Chemotherapy treatments are aggressive and cause anxiety, tiredness and more or less debilitating side effects. Over time, they mark the life of patients, sometimes taking over completely. This is often a difficult and destabilising period when habits change. Fear of the side effects and their long-lasting nature is present with an impression of loss of control. "The Hospital Group at Institut Curie has been offering sophrology sessions since 2007", explains Chantal Barré, sophrology nurse at Institut Curie, "to meet the needs expressed by patients and patients suffering from cancer or by the care team.
For 4 years (2007-2011), several tens of patients thus accepted to participate in the study. For reasons of uniformity of the group studied, only patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer with no metastasis, or 41 patients aged from 26 to 66 (average age 51). "I was crippled by anxiety for the first time in my life", says Aline, treated for breast cancer. Relearning life's essentials, breathing calmly, feeling your body - this is what I felt from the first sophrology session alone with the sophrology nurse." (1). Some 22 women availed of sophrology sessions during their cancer treatment while 19 started at the end of chemotherapy and as a result, continued with the sessions after their treatment. "This support is offered as a priority to those patients who need it the most", explains Dr Sylvie Dolbeault, psychiatrist and head of the Psycho-oncology unit.
Two groups were formed for separate analysis. In the first, a significant improvement in the anxiety scale and in the quality of life index was observed between the start and end of the sophrology support. A net improvement was seen in total function but no significant difference was noted regarding the symptoms of tiredness and insomnia. Nausea dropped significantly however. On average, patients gave a score of 8.5/10 to the overall help provided by the sophrology techniques.
- The 19 women who continued sophrology after their chemotherapy noted a drop in their anxiety, insomnia and nausea. As a result, their overall quality of life was enhanced. 17 out of the 19 women graded the help offered by sophrology; the resulting average score was 8.37/10.
While prudence is required as this study is only observational, the results are encouraging nevertheless. They corroborate the positive feedback from patients that carers often give. Not only does the activity offer patients an opportunity to take an active role in their treatment, but the positive results also enable them to better accept it and get involved. These results further support Institut Curie's policy of improving patients' quality of life.
Source: study published in the journal Soins no. 800 - November 2015, Elsevier
Text: Nathalie Oudar
Copyright: Alexandre Lescure/Institut Curie
Evidence from a major review of published research suggests that chronic stress and anxiety damage key brain regions involved in emotional responses, thinking and memory.
Lead author Dr Linda Mah, from the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada, said: "Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia."
The review paper, published in the journal 'Current Opinion in Psychiatry', pooled findings from a number of recent studies of stress and fear conditioning in animals, and people undergoing brain scans.
Dr Mah's team looked specifically at neural circuits linked to fear and anxiety in three brain regions, the amygdala, PFC, and hippocampus.
A see-saw pattern was seen in response to chronic stress with the amygdala, associated with emotional responses, becoming over-active and the PFC under-active.
The PFC contains "thinking" areas of the brain that help to regulate emotional responses by appraising them in a rational way.
Temporary episodes of anxiety, fear and stress - experienced before an exam or job interview, for instance - are part of normal life.
But the scientists point out that when such acute emotional reactions become chronic they can "wreak havoc" on immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems, and damage the brain.
DESPITE PRACTICING AS a psychotherapist for several years I still find it difficult to share my own experiences with depression. Fear of judgement and being labelled are all reasons why those who suffer from depression often just keep it to themselves.
This approach only makes things worse; the only way forward is to open up. It is vital that as a society we work to dispel the myths surrounding depression and create a platform for sufferers to air their feelings without feeling judged.
This article describes how I overcame my own depression.
What does depression feel like?
I have vivid memories of lying on the sofa after work just feeling empty inside. I was constantly tired, my brain felt dull, I was distant and distracted. I went through the motions of life, work and socialising, but inside I felt completely unhappy.
Most people close to me were oblivious to what I was going through however a friend commented when we were out the one night: “you look like you want to laugh but something is holding you back”. There were times I just cried alone, I felt trapped and found it hard to see a way out.
Psychologically, it felt like I had accidentally fallen into a deep dark hole. I was alone, no one could pull me out and I wasn’t strong enough to climb out myself. I would read anything I could on personal development, try different natural supplements, journal, meditate and all the other things suggested but it was a constant uphill struggle.
Over time things changed. There wasn’t one definitive solution, but a lot of small adjustments. These adjustments became habits, consistent patterns which chipped away at a problem which controlled every aspect of my life.
These are just my suggestions based on how I personally overcame depression. It’s up to you to find the right steps for you and to STICK with them:
Accept there is a problem and only you can fix it
Personal responsibility is key. I decided things needed to change and it was up to me to make the change. If your depression is tied to a specific relationship or situation, blaming someone or something outside of yourself will make no difference. It may be completely unfair, but it is now your job to fix this.
Become your own boss, set simple yet quantifiable recovery goals, create a project plan on how you will approach it, assess your progress and celebrate milestones reached.
Get to the root
It can be hard to pin down the exact source. For those with troubled childhoods or those who experienced specific traumatic events the root can be quickly identified however but harder to fix. For others who have had a reasonably “normal” childhood there is no one defining moment. It could be your first breakup, falling out with friends, failing an important exam, moving out of the family home, a poor lifestyle finally catching up with you or a physical injury.
Reflect on your depression: When did it first creep up? Did you change the circle you socialized with? Did you change your regular habits? Did a specific relationship change? Knowing why you are depressed will help you identify what you need to focus on to avoid future depressive bouts.
Find role models
No one can magically eliminate your depression, but you can be inspired. There are so many stories of people overcoming illness, mental disability, physical limitations, etc. Read their stories, understand that they felt as you did and then become your own role model. Be the person people will talk about years from now, the inspiration to the next generation.
Talk to the right people
When we are stuck in our own world it often feels like we are the only person going through this. By sharing your inner world with someone healthy, compassionate and understanding, it can help normalise how you feel and eliminate the need to awfulise the situation.
A recent client told me of a conversation she had with her friend regarding mental health where the friend stated “there was no such thing as depression and it’s all in their heads”.
For many, unless they have personally experienced anything they struggle to comprehend or empathise with any condition (physical or psychological).
Psychotherapy helped me to validate what I was going through and understand that it is more common than I realised. It helped me to objectively look at my thought processes and find more productive ways to view myself and life in general. It also helped keep me on track and prevented me from falling back into bad habits such as not looking after myself physically and finding reasons to not exercise.
Deep breathing is essential to maintaining healthy oxygen levels and promoting optimal health. By performing belly breathing you are taking the first step in talking control of your body.
Take a slow long breath in and notice your belly rises like a balloon filling, hold it for a few seconds and then let the breath go and notice how your belly drops. Taking fuller diaphragmatic breathes oxygenates the blood, which increases circulation across the body, flushing out toxins and feeding damaged tissue.
Your body was not designed to be sedentary. We were made to move, be it walking, running, standing, pushing, pulling, lifting, jumping, crouching, etc.
Moving will get you out your head and back into your body where you can feel what’s happening. You may become aware of the sluggishness in your brain, the tiredness of your muscles, how you’re unconsciously picking up biscuits, chocolate, sugary drinks or fried foods and not giving your body the nutrients it actually NEEDS like water, lean meat and vegetables.
Moving will also help your body to release serotonin, a naturally occurring hormone associated with balanced mood and happiness into your brain.
While I don’t encourage you to take any form of inflammatory drugs to treat this problem awareness of food and how your body reacts to it is crucial. There have been further studies around the negative impact of sugar and depression.
Try removing these out of your diet slowly, one by one and record how you feel. Note that changes likes these take time to fully take affect in your body so give it a chance to kick in.
Get your fish oils
A recent study has highlighted the connection between fish oils and healing depression. The omega-3 fatty oils contain 2 chemicals, EPA and DHA, which are thought to be lacking in sufferers of depression. As well as promoting healthy bones and cholesterol levels, the fish oils act as a cognitive lubricant, improving blood flow to the brain and reducing mental fatigue. With this said bear in mind that the fish oils need to be taken consistently on a daily basis for the benefit to be seen.
Retrain your brain
There is more to recovery than just positive thinking, but a solution focused mind-set helps to push out unhelpful thoughts and create a new sense of optimism.
Start by reflecting on a happy moment from your past. It could be anything but preferably a memory that makes you smile. For me it is a simple memory. One time I was watching the Simpsons with my mother and there was a particular scene which for some reason caused us both to burst out laughing. It was natural and a moment when we were both happy, I’ll never forget it.
For many, finding a happy memory is tough when they have so many negative experiences dominating their head space however you need to persevere; the memory is in there somewhere. Once you find your memory hold it in your mind for 20 seconds. You may find this incredibly hard if you constantly feel tired and are unable to focus on any one thing but keep going. Try to do this every day, twice a day for a week.
At the end of the week change the 20 seconds to 30 seconds and after another week try to increase it to 1 minute. It is important to try and hold the positive thought throughout the full minute and will take practise but you’ll get there.
Use this exercise as a starting point to build your new life in your head. Start with imaging what would be doing if you were happy and feeling relaxed but focused. How would look? What would you be wearing? What would you be doing if this depression wasn’t part of your life? What would you do with the energy and time? Would you change your career? Would you embrace a new hobby? Would find the right partner?
Don’t censor yourself with thoughts of reality, embrace every positive notion like it is reality and you will see how a new sense of hope starts to grow through the negativity.
I’d be the first to admit my artistic talents start and end with Star Wars Lego but I also have a very active imagination which I try to use to its fullest when working through my depression.
I would imagine unhealthy people who were part of my life but instead of focusing on how they actually were I would visualise them as functional human beings that had not been wounded by life.
In my head I would visualise the conversation I needed to have with them; I would express how I felt and verbalise the damage they had done and the times they weren’t there for me. I would then visualise the words I NEEDED to hear. This exercise would always provoke emotion in me and in doing so served to highlight the need for me to express how I felt.
This is what worked for me, however remember there is more than one way to express yourself and everyone has their own talents. The medium of art whether is it drawing, painting or sculpting can be used to relay feelings which words cannot describe. Once you can see the emotion you can start to feel it. The lines, the colours, the imagery can help tap into our unconscious and raise awareness of what happiness can look like.
Some discover a talent they never knew they had and in that find a new reason to move forward.
I’m always jotting down what goes on in my head or around me. I find it helps to process a thought or emotion quicker by putting it down on paper and then objectively reviewing it.
Many sufferers of depression have a pre-disposition to ruminating over every aspect of their life, whether it is something someone said to them that day or a situation that may have happened years ago.
Journaling can help make sense of what’s going on, to help rationalize what you are experiencing and is a great outlet for expressing your feelings privately.
In time reading what you have written to someone you trust can help and if they are honest enough to admit they have the same “crazy” thoughts (which we ALL have) then it might bring you closer to realising we are all EXACTLY the same. We are all doing our best to deal with the same issues and get through the challenges life throws at us.
Depression is no longer part of my life; in fact, it’s so distant I sometimes forget how I used to feel.
The turning point for me was when I caught myself laughing at something fairly silly. I started to stop taking people and life so serious. But that doesn’t mean every day is great.
I have bad days just like everyone else. However, being in control of both my mental and physical health is always on the top of the agenda and the more I prioritise it the less of a struggle it is.
Article from Journal.ie. Karl Melvin is a psychotherapist with Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Dublin.
Sophrology has helped many people take the first steps to recovery for Depression. For more information go to www.americansophrology.com or Call or Text to schedule a Free Telephone Consultation and Introduction to Sophrology at 1-480-353-7382 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
It's commonly said that sports are 90 percent mental and only 10 percent physical. A lack of focus can result in a missed three-point shot, nerves can cause a gymnast to fall out of her landing, and a momentary lapse in confidence can easily make the difference between gold and bronze. So it's no surprise that some of the best professional athletes in the sports world are turning to meditation....(click on article to continue)