Émile Coué and the power of optimistic autosuggestion

Today we celebrate the birthday of Émile Coué (26 Feb 1857 – 2 Jul 1926), a French pharmacist who is best known for his advocacy of optimistic autosuggestion, or positive reinforcement.

As a pharmacist, Coué noticed the people he interacted with in his pharmacy appeared to react very well to positive suggestion. To reinforce and improve the effectiveness of the medicines he prescribed, he made a habit of praising the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, and leaving small positive notes with the medication he sold.

This recognition of the power of suggestion led him to study the effect in more detail, and he became convinced that it held great potential. Even though he had no formal training in medicine or psychology, Coué introduced a method of primitive psychotherapy which involved the frequent repetition of the phrase ‘Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux’, translated as ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ A strong believer in the power of suggestion, he was convinced that regularly repeating this phrase (morning and evening) would result in tangible physical and mental improvements in a patient.

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.(© All Rights Reserved)
Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.
(© All Rights Reserved)

 

In 1920 Coué published a book on the topic, entitled ‘Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion’ (available for free on the Gutenberg project). In his book, he reiterated the potential power of autosuggestion, describing it as “… an instrument that we possess at birth, and with which we play unconsciously all our life, as a baby plays with its rattle. It is however a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously. It can on the contrary save your life when you know how to employ it consciously.”

Thanks to his tireless work in this field, his method of autosuggestion, sometimes referred to as ‘Couéism’, became very popular in the early part of the 20th century, first in Europe and later also in the USA. He had his detractors, particularly from other schools of psychoanalysis, but his approach has remained popular among many followers.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the Émile Coué approach comes to us courtesy of Rev Charles Inge, who composed this limerick in 1928:

“This very remarkable man
Commends a most practical plan:
You can do what you want
If you don’t think you can’t,
So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

World Mental Health Day and the global crisis of depression

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day. This day, sanctioned by the World Health Organisation, raises public awareness about mental health issues. The aim is to stimulate open discussion of mental disorders and to promote investment into treatment and prevention services.

The theme for 2012 is “Depression: A Global Crisis”. In support of this, the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) has compiled a highly informative PDF document on World Mental Health Day and on depression in particular – well worth a read.

Depression – a mental disorder that involves depressed mood, loss of interest, decreased energy, feelings of guilt and reduced self-esteem, disturbed sleep, suppressed appetite, reduced concentration and heightened anxiety – is indeed a crisis of global proportions, with a reported number of 350 million people worldwide suffering from some form of depression. That’s almost 1 in 20 people worldwide.

While various forms of treatment exist – including basic psychosocial support combined with antidepressant medication or psychotherapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy or problem-solving treatment – depression is often not correctly diagnosed and access to treatment remains a problem, especially in the developing world. It is estimated that in some areas less than 10% of depression sufferers receive treatment.

Bipolar affective disorder, a severe form of depression, involves disruptive mood swings between frenzied manic states and episodes of deep depression.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In a way we are faced with polar opposite problems in the developed and developing world when it comes to treating depression. In the developing world, the disease is often not correctly diagnosed, and the necessary medication is not available, or there aren’t suitably trained caregivers to assist with the required therapy.  In the developed world, on the other hand, I personally think we tend to ‘grab the pills’ way to quickly. While antidepressant medication is a key component in the treatment of severe depression, what is worrying is the extent to which it is willy-nilly dished out to anyone and everyone who feels a bit down. Almost like the injudicious prescription of antibiotics for anything from a mild flu, when all that’s needed is some rest and recovery time, we are becoming a population popping ‘happy pills’ when the problem could be solved successfully, and with less side-effects, through therapy and even self-help approaches including regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, relaxation techniques, a regular sleeping routine, creating a stable daily routine, etc. As reported by the WFMH, “Innovative approaches involving self-help books or internet-based self-help programs have been shown to help reduce or treat depression in numerous studies in Western countries.”

While antidepressant medication is an important component in the treatment of moderate to severe depression, milder forms of the disease can be effectively treated through self-help treatments including regular exercise and healthy eating.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On this day, spare a thought for the millions of people suffering from depression, and do what you can to be there and to support those needing our help.  If you feel you may be suffering from the disease, don’t hesitate to seek help – it can be treated. And make sure to get an informed opinion before necessarily opting for medication – there are many potentially less harmful alternative treatments out there.

To quote the WFMH, “On an individual, community, and national level, it is time to educate ourselves about depression and support those who are suffering from this mental disorder.”