When it comes to self-help books, you’d think the newer the better. After all, don’t we all want access to the latest tools to achieve the maximum expression of our personality?
Well, maybe not always. Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy” may have been written in 1621, but it is a pioneering text in understanding the human condition that remains remarkably modern.
Burton, a British priest and scholar, collected nearly 2,000 years of scholarship, from ancient Greek philosophy to 17th-century medicine.
He was well acquainted with the subject, having himself been the victim of “blues” – a malaise that was considered to encompass discouragement, depression, and inactivity.
But how much of Burton’s foundational work stands in the face of what is known today about depression and emotional disorders?
Amy Liptrot, a Scottish journalist and author, reviewed Burton’s work and has published “The New Anatomy of Melancholy,” an updated guide to the 21st century.
Liptrot tells us the following 5 mechanisms applied in the 1620s that are still as useful today as they were then.
1) Monitor your emotional state and identify patterns
Maybe your emotional swings aren’t as random as you thought. For those who suffer from it, depression can seem like something that has no head or tail; however, our moods can often follow very similar patterns.
Burton theorized that melancholy was “an inherited disorder” and looked for patterns of mental illness in families and between generations. It may not have been too crazy – today, depression has been found to have both a genetic and an environmental component.
“When one of the parents has severe depression, I like to see that there is a service where the minor and their extended family are involved in the same treatment and that they have the opportunity to receive care,” says Dr. Frances Rice, who works with families about depressive disorders.
But it’s not just genetic patterns that are helpful in predicting mental illness: we can also study patterns of our behavior.
Burton’s study of melancholy not only focuses on the low moments, it also takes the reader to the dizzying heights of his emotions.
With advances in our understanding of mood disorders, contemporary scholars point out that the extreme ups and downs that Burton describes may in fact have been symptoms of bipolar disorder. He had an astonishing perspective on his own constantly altered moods and the circumstances that affected them.
Today, this insight can be seen as a vital tool in managing mental illness; If we can notice changes in our moods and behaviors, we can begin to manage the external factors that stimulate them.
2) The benefits of cold water
It may sound a bit counterintuitive, but soaking in cold water can leave you feeling euphoric. In his book, Burton compiled an immense range of ideas and texts written by others. The benefit of bathing outdoors “in cool rivers and cold water” was one of the theories he included, as it was recommended for anyone who wanted to live long.
It is possible that he was right about this. “As you get used to the stress of cold water and can better deal with it on a psychological and cellular level, it is also reducing the inflammatory response to other stresses that underlie things like depression,” explains Dr. Mike Tipton. , Research Director of the Extreme Environment Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth, UK.
3) Get closer to nature
City dwellers can also get in touch with nature: going to the park, planting plants in the house or watching birds from a window or balcony. For Burton, nature was key to alleviating the symptoms of melancholy.
It highlighted the virtues of herbs and flowers such as borage and hellebore for cleansing the mental haze, purging the veins of melancholy and brightening the heart.
Professor Simon Hiscock, director of the Oxford Botanic Garden, UK, says that plants like borage have been used in the treatment of melancholy, anxiety and depression since ancient times – not only was this modest herb supposed to give joy, it is said that it was dissolved in the wine of Roman soldiers to give them courage during battle.
Burton pointed out that the “exhilarating” effects of nature were not confined to edible plants. He also strongly advocated the stimulating effect of gardening, tilling, and plowing on the body.
British gardener and host Monty Don, who has personally dealt with severe depression, describes the “powerful medicine” that comes from physically connecting with plants, touching the ground, and feeling the presence of the bushes he has planted.
“I find that the best exercise is achieved when it is combined with some type of function,” he says. Taking the dog for a walk, for example, provides exercise, purpose, and a connection to nature.
Burton’s theories about the power of being outdoors are now being formally recognized and incorporated into the treatments offered by the British National Health System.
4) A shared problem is a reduced problem
Burton was also right when he recommended to “use friends … whose jokes and merriment can please you.”
“The best way to get relief is to tell a friend of our sorrow, not have it drowned inside our chest,” Burton declared 400 years ago.
Introspection and withdrawal are common behaviors among those with depression. Although this rarely makes the victim feel better, acting against these impulses through socialization can seem almost impossible to do.
Dr. Rice, who works with families to understand depression, suggests planning fun activities as part of a treatment program that encourages patients to do activities that increase their chances of receiving benefits, despite their willingness to do so. do the opposite.
If you tell your doctor about your low moods, you might well expect him to prescribe antidepressant drugs. But, did you know that in countries like Denmark, Canada and the United Kingdom, doctors now prescribe “social recipes”, such as art courses, visits to museums or group walks?
Liptrot says that if loneliness, rather than serious mental illness, causes anhedonia (the inability to enjoy pleasant activities), a social prescription might be more helpful than a drug.
5) Balance between work and life
Leisure is not good, but neither is overwork. Okay, Burton didn’t use the expression “work-life balance” but instead referred to the “love of knowledge” versus “too much study.”
His theory was that spending too much time hunched over, reading and writing meant not paying enough attention to other activities that we know are good for mental health such as exercise, sleep, and socialization.
That’s where balance comes in: when we are mentally preoccupied and agitated, study is a welcome distraction, a positive focus with a sense of purpose.
However, if we study too much we do not become sedentary and lonely, abandoning other activities that nurture a healthy mind.
Burton’s words may come to us from times past, but his compilation of theories about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of melancholy remain useful and relevant to the present.
It is true that his understanding of physiology is vastly out of date – his medical knowledge was based on the ancient Greek “humors theory”, in which a system of 4 “humors” or bodily fluids (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) determined the functioning of the human body, its appearance and even character.
In fact, “humor” prevailed until the 1850s, when it was superseded by the discovery of pathogens (organisms that cause disease) and the “microbial theory” of French scientist Louis Pasteur, whose work revolutionized medical thinking.
Still, Burton had an innate understanding of how best to alleviate our melancholic symptoms.
If self-awareness, swimming, nature, community, and reading worked for people 400 years ago, why not here and now too?
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