Email :
Phone : +27 (0)12 362 2422

An integrative approach to treating depression and other nervous system disorders



by Dr Arien van der Merwe [MBChB (Pretoria), FRSPH (London), MISMA (UK)]

[Adapted from the book ‘Stress Solutions’ by Dr Arien van der Merwe]

‘The right reaction to a symptom may as well be a welcoming rather than laments and demands for remedies, for the symptom is the first herald of an awakening psyche which will not tolerate any more abuse. Through the symptom the psyche demands attention. Attention means attending to, tending, a certain tender care of, as well as waiting, pausing, listening. It takes a span of time and a tension of patience. Precisely what each symptom needs is time, tender care and attention. Just this same attitude is what the soul needs in order to be felt and heard.’

From: ‘A Blue Fire’ by James Hillman,

The integrative, energy perspective on disease as teacher, is not meant as criticism or judgement in saying you cause your own disease! It is meant as a tool of empowerment in realising that disease has deeply unconscious symbolic meanings and can act as a powerful and gifted teacher in helping you return to health and wellness.

I quote form my book ‘Herbal Remedies’: ‘An exhausted soul, burn-out, feelings of emptiness, and the senselessness and meaninglessness of life, have become the neuroses of our time. This mostly happens when people reach the middle years of their lives. Somewhere between the late 30’s and early 50’s, we all start asking the existential questions: ‘Is this all there is? Why am I here? What purpose do I serve?’. This is a normal life transition period (as is going from childhood to teenager, and entering advanced old age). People often don’t realise it as such and lash out at their nearest and dearest as the source of their unhappiness – having an affair, changing hair colour, style and clothes, buying a Harley Davidson, becoming a bum, and so on! It’s easier to project our issues onto others and look for quick fixes in the material world, than to delve deep inside ourselves for our own soul answers. Most people in their late 30’s to early 50’s feel the inner desire for the numinous – the divine light within. The earlier in life we start asking these questions, the sooner we would get to know ourselves, our purpose and how to attain our goals, while adapting to the environment and contributing to the wellbeing of our community with our special gifts.’

Stress levels are escalating in our modern day society. When stress is positive, we are productive, creative, communicative, enthusiastic and healthy. As soon as we pass the level of optimum performance, we slide into the negative stress phase of low performance, productivity and creativity, poor interpersonal relationships and stress related illnesses and even burn-out. Areas in our brain that contribute to cognitive and emotional functioning (e.g. memory and concentration) can be permanently damaged by long term stress.

Depression is the mental health condition mostly associated with long term stress. High levels of cortisol and a serotonin-noradrenalin-dysfunction, all found in chronic stress, play a part in depression. So does the internal stress of negative energy turned inward. A way of being, leading to specific thought cycles, then the molecules of emotions (refer Odyssey magazine Oct/Nov issue), leading to dysfunction in the manufacturing of specific neuropeptides. Wrong thinking and the search for meaning, are the root causes of depression, not the chemical imbalance in the brain, which is the result.

Nightmares, forgetfulness, fatigue, irritability, deep unhappiness, apathy, poor concentration, social isolation, increased or decreased appetite, increased intake of tea, coffee, tranquillisers and antidepressants, and increasing feelings of aggression, are all symptoms and signs of negative stress, but also of depression and dysthymia.

Integrative solutions

Points to ponder:

  • The life force or energy is being held back or suppressed. It turns inward and become a strong negative force targeting the ego. The answer lies in accessing your inner self, acknowledging the messages from your soul, and then releasing the ones that do not serve your health and wellbeing. Also realise that some days this process will be easier than other days!
  • Your self-image and ego (3rd chakra) development are poorly developed and you manage life by hiding away and avoiding it, often blaming others for your own underlying, unacknowledged feelings of guilt and shame disguised in the outer world of relationships and situations that arise to mirror and reflect your inner perceptions.
  • Fear, guilt and shame are the controlling influences found in many disorders of the nervous system. This is often over compensated for by an exaggerated need for love and acceptance in an effort to improve self-image. If a relationship fails, as it must because of unrealistic demands and expectations, the energy falls back into a deep pool of despondency and depression. Search for the unconscious underlying patterns of woundedness and poor self-image.
  • Depression often develops form feelings of disempowerment, of not being in control of your life. This is specifically a 3rd chakra issue of external power in the world, as we are not really in control, we only fool ourselves in thinking so! When the realisation finally hits home, depression is often the result.
  • Clinical depression often develops from 3rd chakra issues: external experiences in your life, things gone wrong in your physical life and environment, poor self-image, a chemical unbalance in neurotransmitters (again often the result of the stressful way you experience your environment) that happens after a traumatic event such as divorce, death of a loved one or serious disease.
  • A spiritual depression (chakra 6 & 7 excessive energy) can happen as a result of an all encompassing absorption in your spiritual existence. You might find it difficult to comply with the daily earthly needs and existence of body and soul, experiencing a deep need to live only in spirit. Because you continuously feel pulled in different directions, your low energy levels make you feel as though you’ve reached a dead-end, godless and alone. You need a spiritual director or advisor to help you balance and integrate your physical and spiritual being, rather than a psychologist or psychiatrist. Spiritual depression may also follow a traumatic event. Realising the importance of both the body, soul and spirit, may help you live in peace with your internal and external worlds. Paying more attention to soul and spiritual matters, needn’t necessarily mean a total negation and liberation from all earthly concerns, leaving behind your home, loved ones and job to live in sack and ashes or in the clouds on a mountain top! The earth, our senses, our physical existence are important aspects of who we are, all parts of God’s creation, our soul’s connection to spirit. Spirit is but a part of it – to be found on the mountain top or the clouds, but also in the soul of nature, our senses, pleasure, sexual desire and an appetite for life. Short periods in spiritual retreats do wonders for a tormented soul, exhausted by its own endeavours towards spiritual enlightenment! Repeating the mantra: ‘Let go let God’, may be the most effective way to surrender the ego striving for spiritual enlightenment to an awareness of the soul inside you.
  • If you’ve been going for months of therapy, having gone over and over your life events searching for clues around your feelings of depression, anxiety, panic and nightmares, but with little noticeable symptom relief, you might consider past life regression therapy applied through hypnosis. Read more about this in psychiatrist, Dr Brian Weiss’ book ‘Many lives many masters’, Piatkus Publishers.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • why am I here on earth?
  • what is my soul’s purpose in this life?
  • who am I deep inside?
  • what do I really want to do?
  • where have I wronged others through moods, manipulation, promises not kept, that is now reflected in my outer world of relationships and situations?
  • why do I feel guilty and ashamed?

Use depression as teacher, as a time to turn your attention inwards into the shadow aspects or dungeons of your soul, and listening with your inner ear to the mysterious whispers of your soul communicating its concerns through the depression. Write down your dreams, reflections and feelings, try to feel the depression in your body – where do you feel it, how does it feel, what is your body saying to you? Paint, draw or write poetry on your emotions and the images arising from your unconscious mind. This is a very painful process, but also very liberating. Consult a transpersonal or process work psychotherapist or spiritual director, that will help and facilitate your endeavours to go deeper than your personality, to the furthest recesses of your soul and cell memories.

  • Reflect on your idea and concept of yourself, your own worth, your feelings of being threatened and the accompanying fears of not being recognised as individual and worthwhile being worthy of respect. You’re the only one that can change your perceptions and feelings. Become a sincere searcher of self-knowledge, a lifelong student of your own soul. This will enable you to also assist and help others going through a similar process – helping others and sharing our lessons, being our real purpose on earth.
  • Positive affirmations may or may not be of value. Don’t expect instant cures. You have to actually believe and feel with your emotions, them if you’re deep inside a pool of despondency and you don’t feel like being positive at all!  Rather become silent and try other measures such as walking or dancing meditation. Changing your thoughts on the polarity scale from negative to a bit more positive, to very positive, is really difficult and demands commitment, discipline and perseverance from you, once you’ve decided to go this way. Some days will be easier than others. Support from your therapist, partner, family or friends will help you until it becomes your new way of being.

Positive affirmations that can help you:

  • I respect myself
  • I accept myself with love
  • I can attain my goal
  • I fulfil my life purpose
  • I find a core of meaning and light inside myself
  • I move beyond my own limitations
  • I grow beyond my fear
  • I create a life that is good and right for me
  • I reach out to, and help others
More healing strategies
  1. Diet: eat fibre and plant rich foods like fruit, vegetable, whole grain (e.g. bread, provita’s, oats, bran, muesli), seeds, beans, nuts every day. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine (in cigarettes) and other stimulants. These elicit the stress response and exaggerate anxiety and depression. Drink 8-10 glasses of water a day. Drink herbal teas of lavender, chamomile, valerian, passionflower and hops, with honey to taste. These herbs are all safe, even if used with prescription tranquillisers and antidepressants.
  2. Consciously develop a positive or neutral mind-set with visualisation techniques, lifeskill development, group and individual psychotherapy, spiritual guidance, self-knowledge and acceptance though journaling, paying attention to dreams, imagination and ideals, reflection on above mentioned questions, meditation – preferably walking or dance meditations for those with depression. If painful emotions and traumatic memories rise to consciously, don’t be afraid. Write them down, reflect upon them, talk to a spiritual or soul director, a psychologist or friend.
  3. Use colours as therapy. If you feel depressed, focus on the flame colours of fire, creativity and life energy: red, orange and yellow. Wear a flame coloured scarf, throw a piece of cloth over a couch and sit on it. Enfold yourself with healing colour. Surround yourself with red, orange and yellow poppies, geraniums, orange and yellow nasturtiums, daffodils and calendula. If you feel panicky and anxious, look at the calm colours: the coolness of green, shades of turquoise, soul colours of blue, indigo, violet and purple. Spend time in nature: absorb the restorative powers of nature’s colours and textures.
  4. Keep Bach flower remedies at hand for anxiety and panic, but not for depression: aspen, impatiens, larch, sclerantus and star of Bethlehem.
  5. Listen to music that helps you unlock the door to your soul to help you express your emotions: joyful or sad. Listen to flowing water and nature sounds. Visualise how you flow with rather than against the life current. Tune into your senses and experience the positive energy of your environment.
  6. Use aromatherapy oils of chamomile, lavender, lemon, ylang ylang and thyme in a burner, in your bath or as a massage oil. These will help you relax, appreciate your senses, and lighten your mood.
  7. Different breathing techniques and regular aerobic exercise like dancing, swimming, walking and the sun salute of yoga, allow the release of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters like serotonin. Do it regularly. Do breathing exercises for 5 minutes twice a day. Start physical exercises with only 5 minutes of walking in your garden or neigbourhood. As soon as you start feeling better, increase the time to 30-40 minutes 4-5 times a week. Research has shown exercise to be the most effective treatment for depression.
  8. Use food supplements:
    • high dosages of the B-complex vitamins: 100mg each B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, choline and inositol; 100mg B12 and biotin; 400mg folic acid – a day.
    • Vitamin C: 500mg a day
    • Vitamin E: 200 IU’s or 160mg a day
    • Starflower oil (1000mg) or evening primrose oil (2000mg) with cold water salmon oil (1000mg) a day
    • Calcium 600mg and magnesium 300mg at night
    • 5-hydroxi tryptophane: 100mg 3 times a day
  9. Nature’s cure – herbal remedies:
    • St John’s wort 350mg 2-3 times a day. Do not use it with prescription antidepressants. St John’s wort works best for mild to moderate depression in people younger than 50 years. SJW is currently being investigated for the effective treatment for severe depression.
    • For those over 50, try Gingko biloba 80mg 3 times a day. Ginkgo can be used with prescription drugs, even together with SJW in younger people for more serious depression.
    • Valerian, hops and passion flower are all very safe sleep remedies and mild tranquillisers.
    • NB: St John’s wort and Ginkgo biloba can be used together for nervous system disorders, but SJW cannot be used with prescription medication. You can, however decide to stop taking the prescription drugs. Never go cold turkey – you’ll suffer withdrawal symptoms and rebound depression. Taper it gradually over a period of 6-8 weeks under supervision of your doctor. Only start using SJW then. Be aware that you might have symptoms of depression during the transition period. Make sure of a good support system during this process.


It should be obvious that an integrative approach to ailments and illness offer many options and hope for resolution! Study, and contemplate the suggestions and recommendations. Reflect on whether they might be useful for you. Read more about the options that resonate with you. Look for the soul of your disease or health challenge.

Doing this will help you regard disease as teacher. Before using medicine or herbs, ask yourself if this health problem has a deeper message. It might be a subtle or loud message from your soul asking for recognition and attention. Look for guidance and answers in all your close relationships. The struggle, strife and strain of troubled relationships will often show you your own shadow characteristics, long buried and claiming for attention though physical symptoms and signs. Also contemplate your feelings around job issues and your life in general. We are so tempted to suppress symptoms of disease as fiercely and quickly as possible with any means at our disposal. Maybe the time has come for us to acknowledge, accept and then move beyond the fear of disease, becoming quiet within, reflecting and contemplating the dream body image form our soul, regarding disease as wise friend and counsellor, rather than vicious enemy.

If painful, traumatic issues arise form your unconscious mind, consult a sympathetic knowledgeable health care professional for guidance and advise, to help you as facilitator on your journey of healing. Regard the opportunity for deeper healing that presented itself as a grace and gift to be grateful for.

What exactly is depression and what does the term clinical depression mean?

Depression is the most common end result of untreated, longterm, neglected stress. Depression used to be divided into exogenous depression mainly developing in response to environmental or external causes and endogenous depression developing due to internal neurotransmitter deficiencies. Nowadays the general term of clinical depression applies after it became clear that a definite distinguishing type seldom exists alone in a depressive patient. The American Psychiatric Association recommends treatment for anybody suffering from four or more of the symptoms as set out in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV 1994), for longer  than 2 weeks.

Clinical depression means that the diagnosis of depression is made according to the DSM-IV scale and is based on the following criteria:

  • Persistent and pervasive feelings of sadness for most of the day
  • Changes in appetite with either weight gain or weight loss
  • Altered sleeping patterns with either oversleeping, insomnia or disturbed sleep
  • Inability to concentrate, think or make decisions
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness or inappropriate guilt
  • Increase in irritability, feeling edgy or slowed down
  • Loss of energy with chronic fatigue
  • Physical hyperactivity or inactivity
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities with loss of enthusiasm or decrease in libido (sexual drive)
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Most of us suffer from either one or more of these feelings at times in our lives, especially when we’ve been overdoing it, or when we’re having trouble with our relationships or when having financial problems. Remember that the diagnosis of clinical depression is only made once 4 or more of the symptoms persist for longer than 2 weeks – mostly present for up to a month. Less than 4 symptoms for a shorter period might be indicative of dysthymia (mild or moderate)  depression, functioning as possible warning signals from your body and mind that something is wrong in your life. All is not in balance. Do something about it before you suffer from true depression.

Clinical depression is also referred to as major or unipolar depression. The spectrum of clinical depression that ranges from mild depressed feelings to serious considerations of suicide is known as mild depression or dysthymia. Mild depression is diagnosed according to the DSM-IV scale when a patient has been suffering  for at least 2 years (1 year for children or adolescents) of at least 3 of the symptoms.

When you suspect that  you or someone close to you is suffering from clinical depression, it is important to see a primary care physician to make a positive diagnosis by ruling out any physical causes such as low thyroid function (hypothyroidism), low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia), a chronic subacute infection such as brucellosis, OTC (over-the-counter) drugs that may cause depression, recreational drugs, caffeine and alcohol abuse. Never start using medication whether it is St John’s Wort or prescription antidepressants, before other causes of depression have not been ruled out.