Setting the Intention to Heal: The Starting Point of Mental Health Recovery
Mad in America; Douglas Bloch, 12/10/2013
In my work facilitating depression support groups, I have discovered three essential factors to healing from depression, which I call ”the three pillars of mental health recovery.” In my earlier blogs for Mad in America I wrote about two of these pillars –connecting with community and using a holistic approach to treat symptoms. Now I would like to present the first and MOST IMPORTANT pillar — Setting the Intention to Heal.
I define setting the intention to heal as “making the decision that you want to get well, even if you don’t know how.” Setting the intention to heal does not require that a person know the exact path that will heal him from a major depression or other mental health disorder. It just requires that he or she wants be well.
I believe that setting the intention to heal is the starting point of all mental health recovery. When it is present, recovery is all but assured; without it, no progress is possible. There are at least two reasons for this. First, setting the intention stimulates and supports what physician Andrew Weil the body’s “healing system” — its innate capacity to control disease and bring itself back into balance. In his book Spontaneous Healing, Weil writes:
“The body can heal itself. It can do so because it has a healing system. At every level of biological organization, from DNA up, mechanisms of self-diagnosis, self-repair, and regeneration exist in us. Medicine that takes advantage of this innate healing is more effective than medicine that simply suppresses symptoms.”
Although we call depression a “mental health” disorder, many of its symptoms are physical–poor sleep, fatigue, lack of appetite, lack of sexual desire, etc. Saying, “I want to feel better,” is the first step in activating the body’s healing system and changing one’s brain and body chemistry.
Intention is not like wishful thinking which is abstract, vague and passive. Like an arrow flying toward a target, intention is clear, specific, and has the power of commitment behind it. This one-pointed commitment activates not only healing forces within the body, but also benevolent forces from the outside. Consider this quotation from the Scottish writer W.H. Murray, in The Scottish Expedition:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen events and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamt would come their way.”
“I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.’”
Murray’s faith in a responsive universe was echoed by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell who said, “Follow your bliss, and doors will open for where you would not have thought there were going to be doors and where there wouldn’t be a door for anybody else. There is something about the integrity of a life and the world moves in and helps.”
The idea that the universe responds to intention may sound like being a Polyanna to some, but I wouldn’t be here writing this article if this principle had not worked for me. During my episode of major depression, it appeared that my chances of surviving were close to zero. But just as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz never lost sight of her desire to return to Kansas, I continued to say to the universe, “Heal me from my affliction. Please release me from this pain.” Eventually, my Higher Power responded to my request and delivered me from the abyss.
Setting the Intention though Creating a Vision of Wellness
There exists a powerful tool which I used to translate my intention to heal into a reality. It is called the vision statement. Essentially, the vision statement answers the question, “What would my life look and feel like if I were free from the symptoms of anxiety and depression?”
A vision statement is based on the second habit from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People— “begin with the end in mind.” According to Covey, this habit arises from the principle that “all things are created twice”—first in the mind and then in the world of form. In writing a vision statement, you create an exact mental blueprint or picture of health that you that you are seeking to bring into your life. This is exactly what Olympic athletes do through the practice of “visual rehearsal.” For example, a gymnast preparing for a floor routine will play over the entire routine in his imagination before he sets foot on the mat. In so doing, he is programming his nervous system to direct his body to perform optimally.
In a similar fashion, you and I can use visual rehearsal to direct our brain and nervous system towards a path of wellness. The following exercise shows how to do this .
Composing a Vision Statement
Imagine for a moment, that you were in a state of health and wholeness. Imagine that your mental and emotional health were functioning at optimal levels.
What it be like for you to be in a better mood?
How would your body look and feel? How much energy would you have available to you?
How would you be feeling most of the time? What types of thoughts would you be thinking?
What types of relationships would you have? What kind of work would you be involved in? What would your spiritual life be like?
Drawing upon the answers to the above questions, on a separate page write a paragraph (or more) describing your vision of mental and emotional health.
See if you can use all five senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste—to depict your experience. Set it down in the present tense, as if the experience were happening now.
As you proceed with this exercise, do your best to write something, even if recovery from depression seems like a distant reality. If you can’t imagine yourself being completely well, choose to see yourself feeling “a little bit better.” One woman simply stated, “I want to feel my life force again.” Remember, I am not asking you to believe in your healing; only to desire it.
If this still seems like too much, ask someone to help you write your vision statement—e.g., a friend, family member, your counselor, your doctor, etc. You don’t have to do this work alone.
One such person who embraced the vision statement was Dennis. When Dennis arrived at my support group, he was one of the most depressed people I had ever met. Three months ago, his wife had walked out on him, and since then he had been holed up in his apartment, mostly sleeping and not answering his mail or his phone calls. His dishes were piled high to the sealing and his undone laundry had created a mini Mt. Hood. He had virtually stopped eating and had lost fifteen pounds.
Although Dennis was deep in the abyss, he was desperate for help and told the group that he waswilling to do whatever it took to change. (This willingness is considered by AA to be a crucial factor in healing from alcoholism). After Dennis stated his desire to be well, I gave him a homework assignment to write out his vision statement and present it to the group. When he showed up the following week, Dennis brought with him a detailed vision statement of wellness. Here is an excerpt.
I am calm and peaceful. My energy is strong and good. I sleep well and peacefully at night. I wake up in the morning looking forward to my day.
I make a commitment to leave my apartment and to engage with the world. I return to the the gym and start to work out. I find an affordable counselor and a practitioner to prescribe medication. I begin to re-connect with my friends and find pleasurable activities to do with them. As I do these things, I slowly regain my enthusiasm for life.
I also set a new goal for work. When I am ready, I use my past experience as an executive recruiter to start my own employment agency. I love my life.
In the following weeks, Dennis read his vision statement daily and asked the group to hold the vision with him. Each week he set a goal to add one new behavior that was stated in his vision. During his check-ins, Dennis reported feeling stronger and closer to his “old self.” At the end of ninety days, Dennis announced that he had connected with some former colleagues and was preparing to launch his new business.
Dennis’s recovery contain all three pillars of my mental health recovery program. He stated his intention to heal and created a clear blueprint of what his healing would look like. He asked for the support of the group and of other people in his life. And he used a combination of healing modalities to treat his symptoms. He demonstrated the truth of the maxim, Intention + tools + support = mental health recovery.
Shortly before his death, Albert Einstein asked the question ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’” For those people who feel trapped in the black hole of depression or any other mental health disorder, I want to say, “Despite the despair you may be feeling, the universe is “friendly” and will respond to your cry for help. I know this to be true, not only from my own experience, but from observing the experience of others. Your sincere desire to be well along with your willingness to ask for support will attract the people, resources, and circumstances to make your recovery a reality.
More information about how to set the intention to heal can be found at: