Heal yourself to happiness
Having overcome severe clinical depression, Sunil Parihar shares his multifarious journey back to happiness for those who are in the same boat
Let me start by telling you what made me write this article. I chanced to read a newspaper article about depression that gave an alarming account of how the not-so-dreaded yet deadly disease is spreading almost like an epidemic in India and across the world. As per WHO’s (World Health Organisation) grim report quoted in the article, by 2030, stress-related illness will surpass communicable disease. Besides, the current COVID-19 pandemic is adding to people’s stress and anxiety, thus making them depressed. Also, seeing a lot of depressed people around (including some close relatives) and having suffered from depression myself—well, Clinically Significant Depression, actually—I thought “Let me share my experience and help people overcome their depression.” I know, many books and articles have already been published on this subject, but most, if not all, are written by medical professionals who, though well-versed with the science behind the subject, have little personal experience. And that’s the differentiator; what I am going to share with you is based on my personal experience as well as an in-depth study.
In any event, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive medical thesis but some practical tips based on real-life experience gained on the battlefield of life, coupled with the study of many books and research papers, as well as interactions with psychiatrists, psychologists, and spiritual and self-help gurus. I don’t claim to know all the answers, and by no means is this a clear cut blueprint—don’t expect to find one anywhere else either. Take is as food for thought, if nothing else.
Fighting depression and conquering it is just one part of the story; the other part, and perhaps the more important one, is about finding happiness. As I look back over my years of battling the blues and consultation with mental health professionals, I can’t remember having heard the word ‘happiness’ ever mentioned as a therapeutic objective. The source of this word is the Icelandic word ‘happ,’ which means ‘luck’ or ‘chance.’ So, should we leave the experience of happiness to chance or should we seek to define, understand, and attain?
It was October 24, 2004—a Sunday. After lunch, while chatting with my wife, suddenly my heart started beating faster, and it felt as if I was choking. Reckoning that I was having a heart attack, I asked my wife to give me an aspirin and take me to a hospital. After gulping the aspirin and without waiting for an ambulance, my wife, with the help of a neighbour, rushed me to the nearest hospital, which happened to be the Army Research and Referral Hospital, Delhi, (popularly known as RR Hospital) one of the best in India. The duty medical officer put me on oxygen right away and started the cardiac monitoring procedure. Then he phoned the cardiologist and told him that my blood pressure and pulse indicated I am having an MI. He probably thought I won’t understand the medical jargon but I knew ‘MI’ meant ‘myocardial infarction’ and realised I was in serious trouble. This made my heart beat even faster, and I observed a look of concern on the doctor’s face. He gave me an injection, presumably on the cardiologist’s advice, and by the time the cardiologist arrived after about twenty minutes or so, I had started feeling better. After seeing the ECG and other parameters, and examining me, he didn’t seem to be sure as to what exactly had happened. The ECG seemed to be normal. I was put under observation, and, the next day, underwent various medical tests such as TMT, Echo, chest X-Ray, blood tests, etc., to evaluate my cardiac condition. There was nothing amiss, and all the tests were absolutely fine, as they should have been. At 46, I was physically pretty fit, thanks to my being in the army. I was discharged from the hospital without any specific diagnosis or further treatment. They called it an “episode or something.” What an episode!
Diagnosed with depression
Things were pretty much back to normal till, after a month or so, while staying with a friend at a military station, the darn ‘episode’ reoccurred in the wee hours of the morning, waking me up from deep sleep. I called out for my friend, who happened to be commanding an army unit out there. The Regimental Medical Officer was called and he took me to the Military Hospital in an ambulance. The RR hospital procedure was repeated here as well. But this time, they figured that, perhaps, these were panic attacks, and so I was examined by a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist opined that I was suffering from severe clinical depression, prescribed medicines, and after some counselling, I was discharged from the hospital.
The depression had set in apparently because of high levels of stress due to some tragic experiences on the personal as well as professional fronts over a span of four years or so. Suffice to say, depression is something that doesn’t happen overnight but creeps in slowly, without one realising what’s happening. As per my psychiatrist, it mostly happens at the subconscious level.
The medicines—drugs, actually—weren’t suiting me at all. I took early retirement after serving for 25 years in uniform. Settling down in Civvy Street wasn’t easy. The depression became more severe. More medicines were prescribed, which made me feel worse. In short, life became miserable. I knew I had to get out of it. The psychiatrist had warned me that though not life-threatening, untreated depression could affect one’s longevity. The question was how to get out of it. I had no clue whatsoever, but one thing I was pretty sure of was that the allopathic drugs were doing me no good, and, in any case, were not a long-term solution. So I started looking for alternatives.
Now the problem was that with my science background and a scientific bent of mind, I had little faith in alternative medical systems. Then, someone recommended an allopathic doctor who was practising acupuncture. A former first lady, a president’s wife, was one of his patients. Impressed by his credentials, I went to him with my medical file. After clinical examination, he recommended 20 sessions (one per week) of Electro Acupuncture. In standard acupuncture, one needle is used at each treatment point, while Electro Acupuncture was a modified form that used two needles. After a month’s treatment, my condition was reviewed, and even though the doctor expressed his satisfaction over my progress, I felt no real change. I gave it another month and then started looking for another alternative.
Enter The Art of Living
My next stop was The Art of Living programme of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It was a week-long beginner’s programme, which made me feel good, so subsequently, I did the advanced course as well. The Art of Living courses are essentially about special breathing techniques (pranayama), which they call Sudarshan Kriya; that, plus some yoga and meditation. Practising pranayama, in particular, did make me feel better (and I continue with it till this day), but the panic attacks didn’t stop even though they turned milder. I tried various other therapies such as naturopathy, panchakarma, chakra healing, and even something as mystifying as past life regression.
Weaning off the medicines
A couple of years down the line, I was still on medication. I was feeling somewhat better but wasn’t sure whether it was the alternative therapies that were helping my cause or the medicines were doing their trick. I desperately wanted to stop the medicines, but the doctors wouldn’t let me. Then a friend of mine recommended a doctor, not a psychiatrist but an endocrinologist, for consultation. I knew this doctor’s specialisation was not relevant to my problem, but since my friend insisted that he was a great physician, I went to him one day. The doctor, after clinical examination, assured me that physiologically, I was fighting fit; which didn’t surprise me as, despite the ailment, I had been following my exercise and diet regimen. I told him that I wanted to stop taking medicines as they were making me dull and listless. The doctor had a look at my prescription, gave it some thought, and then told me I could gradually stop taking the three medicines prescribed by the psychiatrist for a single dose of another milder one instead. Then he explained how to gradually do away with the medicines that I had been taking for over two years. I did exactly as advised, and within a month, I was on single medication, which I continued with for about a year. Life seemed to be getting back on track. No panic attacks anymore, though, sometimes in stressful situations, I would get a choking feeling, which I would overcome with pranayama and a few sips of water.
As things were getting back to normal, one fine day, I thought “Why not stop having even the solo medicine and be completely medicine free?” This time, I didn’t consult a doctor, as now I knew how to gradually reduce the dosage before stopping it altogether. After a month, I wasn’t taking any medicine for depression or anxiety, and, by His grace, still don’t. You may be wondering what actually worked. I think a multifaceted treatment approach really works. A combination of treatments such as psychotherapy, exercise, antidepressants, and meditation can give best results.
Help yourself to happiness
Getting over depression was like winning a battle, and that felt great! But what about the pursuit of happiness? Happiness, after all, is—or ought to be—the objective of one’s life.
There are many self-help books on the subject of happiness. Not only books but courses as well, like the one conducted by Professor of Positive Psychology Dr Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard University. Can you learn to be happy? Yes, says the professor. One out of every five students at Harvard has lined up for the University’s most popular and life-changing course to hear Tal Ben’s insightful and inspiring lectures on that ever-elusive state—happiness. Since you presumably won’t be able to attend the course, I suggest you read his book Happier, based on his teachings.
Another book that I’d recommend is The Art of Happiness, co-authored by His Holiness Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. The book offers the Dalai Lama’s practical wisdom and advice on how we can tackle everyday human problems and achieve lasting happiness.
But the book that actually changed my life and made me happier is the all-time spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, by my revered Guruji, Sri Sri Paramahansa Yogananda. Being a student and practitioner of Kriya Yoga as well as Positive Psychology, I feel that both are essentially a combination of science and spirituality. However, Positive Psychology—generally referred to as ‘the scientific study of optimal human functioning’—was officially launched as a field of study in 1998 by Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association. Kriya Yoga is much older and is believed to be practised and taught by Lord Krishna. Do I need to say more? It’s the ultimate. You may like to give it a shot.
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