Our Natural Instinct to Heal
By Tijn Touber
(This article appeared in Ode issue: 35)
No more Freud. No more Prozac. French psychiatrist David Servan-Schreiber shows how the body can heal stress, anxiety and depression.
“Look,” says David Servan-Schreiber, as he pulls a tin of sardines from the shelf of a Parisian supermarket, “the label states ‘rich in omega-3 fatty acids.’” He places two tins in his basket “You wouldn’t have seen that before my book was published.”
His book, The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, drew the attention of a million French people to the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and—even more important—offered an alternative to pills and talk therapy as the method to handle traumas, panic attacks, depression and stress. Servan-Schreiber presents a number of complementary therapies that are not only often cheaper and simpler than conventional treatments, but more effective.
And with this, the 45-year-old psychiatrist has unleashed a small revolution in France—a country where people take more antidepressants and tranquilizers than anywhere else. Twenty-two percent of the French suffer from depression with one in seven taking medication to treat it. Nearly three-quarters of all visits to the family doctor are directly related to stress. In most cases, patients leave with a prescription. The French are not unique, either: In the Western world, stress and depression pose a bigger threat to public health than smoking.
As an author, David Servan-Schreiber profited from a last name most people in France recognize. His father is the famous journalist, politician and engineer Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber (JJSS), who, among other things, founded the renowned weekly L’Express and was a personal advisor to the presidents Valéry Giscard D’Estaing and François Mitterand. David’s uncle is also the prominent editor-in-chief of the influential monthly magazine Psychologies.
But the fact that Servan-Schreiber’s book became a bestseller outside France—it has been translated into 37 languages, including Chinese—indicates that he has more going for him than a famous name. The book is not only very readable, but also quite credible because Servan-Schreiber is a traditionally schooled psychiatrist with a high record of service. He studied medicine in the U.S. at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then headed up a prestigious psychiatric research laboratory there and is now a professor at the university as well as at the École de Médecine in Lyon, France. There isn’t a psychiatrist in all of France who has published as many articles in respected scientific journals, such as Science and Archives of General Psychiatry. Yet David Servan-Schreiber was once just as skeptical about “alternative” therapies as the average psychiatrist.
The turning point came five years ago during a trip to India for Doctors Without Borders. In the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, the centre of the Tibetan community in exile, he walked into a hospital one day and realized they were using treatment methods he’d never seen before. Tibetan doctors were diagnosing patients flawlessly just by feeling their pulses and tongues and testing their urine. Servan-Schreiber recalls, “I didn’t understand it at all. At one point I also saw a doctor put pressure between someone’s thumb and index finger, which ‘switched off’ the brain’s fear centre.”
Back in the United States he started examining the medical literature on these treatments. And indeed, nearly every method he had seen was clearly documented. Why, he wondered, didn’t he know anything about them? Why hadn’t he learned these techniques in medical school?
In his tasteful apartment, Servan-Schreiber unpacks the sardines, salad, ginger, onions and strawberries and we retreat to his study, which looks out on a typical Parisian courtyard with cast-iron balconies and laundry flapping in the breeze. After his experience in India, Servan-Schreiber did what any right-minded scientist would do: research. He tested all the known “alternative” treatment methods for addressing psychiatric problems—from acupuncture to nutrition, from breathing exercises to high-tech computer software to age-old meditation techniques.
One of his most interesting discoveries was that the emotional brain—where our instinctive and emotional reactions come from—is directly influenced by the heart. Servan-Schreiber says, “There is a constant exchange between the heart and the brain. Research shows that a coherent heart rhythm is able to bring the emotional brain to rest. When your heart is beating in a healthy way, you can heal stress, depression, tension and other mental afflictions.”
To illustrate his point, he hooks me up to a computer using an electrode. On the screen, a graph not only shows my heartbeat but my heart rhythm—the rhythm between two heartbeats. That rhythm, he says, determines the connection between the heart and the emotional brain. The graph shows a fairly steady heartbeat until the psychiatrist tells me to count backwards from 9573 to zero. The graph then shows major spikes in the heart rhythm. When he asks me to imagine I am “breathing through my heart,” the graph shows a beautiful uniform curve. When he asks me to think of something that makes me feel happy and grateful, the heart-brain link becomes optimal. Servan-Schreiber explains, “The simplest and fastest way to achieve coherence between the heart and brain is through positive feelings. If there were a pill with the same effect, it would be a miracle drug.”
The results of this method of attuning the heart and brain are astounding. The HeartMath Insitute in California, a pioneer in this field (see Ode, June 2005), offers a series of exercises. A group of stressed-out managers, 47 percent of whom suffered from heart palpitations, found their symptoms decreased by up to 30 percent after six weeks of HeartMath exercises. Symptoms of physical stress fell from 41 to 6 percent, sleeplessness from 34 to 6 percent, exhaustion from 50 to 12 percent and shooting pain from 30 to 6 percent. The method affected not only physical but psychological well-being: The percentage of subjects who reported regular stress fell from 33 to 5, their levels of dissatisfaction with work dropped from 30 to 9 percent and their levels of anger went from 20 to 8 percent.
Servan-Schreiber comments, “The reason you can’t achieve these results using psychoanalysis and talk therapy is that such methods do not directly speak to the emotional brain but to the neocortex, the analytical part of the brain. But that’s not where fears, tension and unprocessed traumas are stored. They are stored in the emotional brain, as are the instinctive, natural abilities of the body and the mind to heal. The HeartMath method demonstrates that emotions are faster and more powerful than thoughts. And that the heart—when it comes to illness and health—is more important than the brain. Thinking positive with your brain is helpful, but conjuring positive feelings from your heart gives a tremendous impulse both to your health and to effective and creative functioning.”
Servan-Schreiber has also explored the new practise of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). This discovery, made in 1989 by the American psychologist Francine Shapiro, offers promise as a powerful method of healing trauma. Servan-Schreiber shows a video of one of his patients. We see Mary, who is so disgusted with herself that she can’t stand naked in front of a mirror without feeling nauseated. During the EMDR session, Servan-Schreiber asks her to imagine herself standing in front of the mirror. Mary’s difficulty with the exercise is clear from the expression on her face.
“On a scale of one to 10,” asks the psychiatrist, “how painful is this experience?”
“Fifteen!” Mary sobs.
“Good, hold on to this image and look at my index finger.” Mary’s eyes follow the hand that regularly moves back and forth in front of her face like a pendulum. A series of painful memories come up until Mary gets to the most traumatic one of all: the moment her husband told her late in her pregnancy that she was “the most hideous creature he had ever seen.”
As Mary trembles with rage, shame and grief, her eyes continue to follow the psychiatrist’s hand. Slowly but surely the intensity of her pain lessens until it seems to disappear completely. She takes a couple of deep breaths and then looks directly in front of her. Six minutes, at most, have passed when Servan-Schreiber asks her again to visualize herself naked in front of the mirror. Mary does and is shocked: The emotion has disappeared.
“I’m still not used to how quickly and effectively this method works,” Servan-Schreiber admits. “At first I thought: ‘This is impossible. And if it works, the effect will be temporary.’ But one year later, patients who were monitored were still free of the symptoms of their post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
The idea behind EMDR is that moving the eyes has the same effect as the back-and-forth motion our eyes exhibit during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. In this sleep phase, experiences are processed by the brain, which assigns them a place in our long-term memory, decreasing the emotional charge.
Servan-Schreiber notes, “Just as the body has a way of processing physical traumas, such as the healing of wounds, the brain does too. EMDR is an effective method of bringing painful emotions to the surface while keeping the patient from drowning in them. Because you are moving your eyes back and forth while the memory comes to the surface, you maintain a degree of distance. You don’t wallow in it, nor do you push it away. In fact you do exactly the same thing you do during meditation, which has proven to be a powerful means of healing emotional pain.”
Time for lunch. As he washes the lettuce, David Servan-Schreiber launches into his observations about the importance of food: “You have to have a medical degree to be brainwashed enough to believe that food does not have a major impact on physical and emotional health. For most people, its importance goes completely without saying. Nonetheless, during my studies I only spent four days learning about nutrition: We learned that eating too much makes you fat, that too much salt gives you high blood pressure, that you should eat less sugar if you have diabetes and that if you have high cholesterol you need to cut down on fat. This is where the teachings on nutrition ended, despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) now states that the No. 1 cause of death worldwide is chronic illness. And what is the main reason behind chronic illness? Poor nutrition.”
He offers an example from his own practise: “When I prescribe essential fats to children with learning problems, they learn twice as fast. There isn’t a medicine on the market that can achieve that effect. It’s logical: Twenty percent of the brain is composed of essential fatty acids we cannot make ourselves. If you don’t eat them, you don’t have them. Not on the plate, not in the brain.”
He empties two tins of sardines into a salad bowl and makes a daring prediction: “When historians look back and analyze the history of 20th-century medicine, I am convinced there will be two important turning points. The first is the discovery of antibiotics and the second, the discovery that nutrition is the most important cause of illness, certainly in Western society.”
He is in serious discussions with the French health ministry, explaining that changing dietary patterns is the very best economic investment that could be made. “No other method will more sharply ease our society’s financial burden,” he declares. “But if I talk about it with the minister, he then calls a recognized nutrition expert who convinces him that the situation is not so dire. The point is that most researchers—particularly in the United States—are paid by the pharmaceutical industry. They don’t have any interest in finding natural solutions to heath problems.”
He puts the salad on the table, pours two glasses of wine and says, “Here’s another example: It’s crazy that there is copious and convincing research indicating that physical exercise has the same or better effect on stress and anxiety as medication—without the side effects—and that virtually no doctors prescribe it.”
Servan-Schreiber has grown accustomed to going up against the established medical order. When he participates in talk shows and panels, there is nearly always a doctor who can’t help but make a facetious remark about the fact that Servan-Schreiber would rather prescribe a pet than Prozac. “Most don’t take the trouble to read the relevant research,” he says. “But the evidence is overwhelming. Simply taking care of a plant helps cut the mortality rate in homes for the elderly by 50 percent. When a group of overstressed Realtors under the care of Dr. Karen Allen at the University of Buffalo in the United States were not given pills, but a dog or cat, their blood pressure not only fell sharply in 18 months’ time but they responded very differently to stress. They were better able to handle their emotions and their concentration improved.”
The problem is that doctors nearly all get their information from the same scientific sources, which are closely linked to the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, most doctors know nothing about simple and effective alternative treatments. This was recently confirmed for Servan-Schreiber when he ran into a renowned colleague who specializes in treating anxiety. They hadn’t seen each other in 10 years and quickly launched into a lively conversation. “Then I started to talk about alternative-treatment methods for psychological problems. His reaction was: ‘Are there any?’ When I told him that there were indeed alternatives and that some work better than conventional methods, he asked for examples. I mentioned EMDR and added that 80 percent of all patients with post-traumatic depressions had fully recovered after three 90-minute sessions—a healing percentage comparable to antibiotics. Two minutes later he was gone because he ‘wanted to speak to some other people.’”
Sometimes this lack of understanding on the part of colleagues hurts. “After all, it’s my own tribe, my own clan. I feel a very strong affinity with other scientists; we share the same values and the same curiosity. Which is why I often find it incomprehensible that so-called ‘alternative’ treatment methods that clearly work are dismissed out of hand. That concerns me.”
He pauses briefly, taking a deep breath. I wonder if he is making conscious contact with his heart and visualizing pleasant experience to calm his emotions. It would seem so, given his mild tone as he continues: “Skepticism is OK, I like it, because you can do very silly things in medicine when you are not skeptical, but closed-mindedness is not OK. I started studying medicine because of the scientific challenge, the adventure. You can continue along the beaten path, but I like looking off the path. That’s where it gets really interesting, even though it’s often dark there. Many scientists have lost that adventurous spirit. I do understand that doctors are afraid of losing their position and I also understand that they get nervous about methods they don’t understand. But I don’t consider that a good reason to reject such approaches out of hand. Moreover, what a lot of doctors forget is that neuroscientists still don’t know how Prozac works.”
Servan-Schreiber is not planning to beat his head against the wall trying to change the system. He would rather dedicate himself to further exploring and promoting natural and effective treatment methods. He is working on a Web site on which people can report their experiences with alternative therapies. This enables data to be systematically collected and recorded. In time, it will create a source of knowledge and proof that Servan-Schreiber believes will be just as revealing as the results of double-blind medical studies.
Servan-Schreiber foresees major changes ahead in health care. “I predict that the scientific landscape will soon change beyond recognition. Now that the aging baby boomers are starting—out of necessity—to massively increase their involvement in the medical system, they will be increasingly intolerant of being lectured to by so-called experts. A white jacket alone is not enough. The reign of ‘experts’ is over. Increasing numbers of people will start taking their health into their own hands and, based on information available via the Internet, will decide which remedies they’ll take.”
The most easily available remedy may be the most powerful of all. And Servan-Schreiber ends his book with it. Love. Studies show that nothing is as vital to our sense of well-being as a feeling of connection, of being loved and loving, of feeling we are a part of a greater whole. Here too, he says many of today’s therapists are way off base. “There is a worldwide trend that is strongly geared towards the ‘self.’ It’s all about issues like personal growth, self-development, autonomy, independence, individual freedom and self-expression. All very nice of course, but the price we pay is often a burning feeling of loneliness, isolation and loss of meaning and purpose.”
David Servan-Schreiber sees the effects of those emotions on his computer and on the brain scans he studies. He sees the effects of divorce (the rate of which has now reached nearly 50 percent in France and the United States) and he sees the effects of feelings of tenderness toward others. He also sees that, given the chance, the body and mind have a natural tendency to heal themselves.
As a boy, he remembers taking a walk with his father. “We were walking along the Seine. My father told me my grandfather used to swim in that river. ‘But,’ he added, ‘the river is so polluted now that no one can swim in it. Even the fish have disappeared.’” David’s eyes light up from the memory of his father, but also because the Seine is a lot cleaner nowadays. The fish, at least, have come back. He leans forward. “And the only thing we needed to do to change that was stop polluting the water. The river did the rest. If you give it the opportunity and time, it cleans itself. Just like us, it has the instinct to heal.”
David Servan-Schreiber: The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy (Rodale Books, 2004),