Although antidepressants (medicinal treatments for depression) can be very effective for some people, they are not always the right solution.
They carry significant side-effects, can react unpredictably if taken with other medications, and may not be suitable for pregnant women and children. Furthermore, they are not recommended for those with only mild depression.
So, for besides antidepressants, what other treatments for depression are available? In this blog post, we look at some of the main non-medicinal treatments for depression.
These include lifestyle changes, such as changes in diet, exercise and sleep habits; therapy, such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and meditation.
What is depression?
Depression (also known as major depressive disorder and clinical depression) is a medical condition. It is a mood disorder whereby people feel ‘down’ or depressed for a long period of time. It comes with a wide range of symptoms and can be very debilitating.
One thing to make clear is that depression is not the same as simply feeling sad for a short period of time, nor can it be cured just by ‘pulling yourself together’. Often the best treatment for depression will involve a combination of lifestyle changes, medication and therapy.
Depression is also distinguishable from grief. Grief is a specific term that refers to feelings of loss that people experience after a bereavement.
Although grief and depression may resemble each other in some ways, grief is not an illness, whereas depression is. Those who experience grief may have moments where they feel happier or more positive, whereas depression tends to make you feel sad constantly.
Depression can come in various forms. Here are some of the most common:
- Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia) – this is a long-term (chronic) form of depression with symptoms that last for two years or more
- Postnatal (or postpartum) depression – this is depression that comes on during and after childbirth
- Psychotic depression – this is depression combined with psychosis. Psychosis includes false beliefs or delusions and hallucinations
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – this is depression caused by the changing of the seasons, specifically the arrival of winter, during which there is less natural light. SAD typically goes away in spring/summer and comes back in the autumn. Those who experience SAD may find themselves sleeping more in the winter, socialising less and experiencing very low moods
Symptoms of depression
The symptoms of depression can be psychological, physical and social.
- Feelings of guilt
- Anxiety and feelings of panic
- Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
- Inability to make decisions
- Irritability and intolerance towards others
- Lack of motivation or interest in things
- Low self-esteem
- not getting any enjoyment out of life
- Persistent sadness or low mood
- Suicidal thoughts or desire to self-harm
- Changes in the menstrual cycle
- Loss of sex drive
- Speaking and moving more slowly
- Alterations in appetite – your appetite normally decreases but can increase as well
- Lethargy and loss of energy
- Changes in sleep pattern – sometimes your sleep may be less regular, or you may wake up at night more and struggle to get back to sleep
- Aches and pains
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Socialising less and ignoring friends
- Taking less interest in things that you previously enjoyed such as hobbies
- Relationships – including family, friends and romantic relationships – tend to suffer
- Problems at work, due to loss of motivation
Some or all of these symptoms may be present if you suffer from depression, depending on the severity of your case.
The severity of depression is often measured by the effect it has on your day-to-day life. For example, a mild case of depression may have a limited effect on your day-to-day life, whereas a more severe case of depression can have a huge impact on your daily life.
In severe cases of depression, it can be very difficult to hold down a job and your relationships will suffer considerably.
Causes of depression
Before deciding on a form of treatment for depression, it’s important that those who are suffering from this condition determine what’s causing it.
In some cases, depression may be caused by a genetic vulnerability or the brain failing to properly control someone’s mood. In these cases, antidepressants may be more effective.
In other cases, depression may be the result of a traumatic life event, a side-effect of medication or caused by health problems.
When a particularly traumatic event is involved, therapy may be advisable.
If depression is being caused by medication, it may be wise to look into alternative medicine.
If health problems are involved, such as a Vitamin D deficiency, then the main aim should be to resolve those health problems. Sometimes that may be through lifestyle changes, or it could be via medication.
In the following section of this article, we look at some of the most common lifestyle changes that people undertake in order to combat their depression.
It’s worth noting that many of these lifestyle changes are most effective when paired with therapy, or, in particularly severe cases, medication. We do not advise going off your medication without first consulting your doctor.
Lifestyle changes: Switching to a healthy diet
It may sound obvious but one of the best ways to combat depression without resorting to medication is through a healthy diet.
Research has shown that people who eat a lot of red meat, fried foods and other foods that are high in sugar and fat are more susceptible to depression and experience more symptoms of depression.
This means that takeaways and processed food are bad for your mental health.
Part of the problem is that depressed people have less energy to cook and shop for fresh food. As a result, they tend to eat more junk food. This junk food makes them feel worse, which gives them less energy to exercise and cook and lead a happy life.
Eating bad food creates a vicious cycle; in order to escape from that cycle, people need to switch to a healthier diet.
Research has also provided evidence for the view that a healthier diet can be a very effective way to fight depression.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is often cited as one of the best for overcoming depression. It includes lots of vegetables, especially leafy greens, fruit, berries, seeds and nuts.
One study, led by Professor Felice N Jacka of Deakin University, an expert on diet and mental health, found that as many as 30% of depressed participants in her study overcame their depression simply by improving their diet.
While many cases of depression will require more alterations in lifestyle on top of a healthy diet, the massive proportion of people who recovered from their depression in Jacka’s study suggests that diet is a very important ingredient in mental health.
Switching to a healthy diet may be more expensive, and there may be a bit more time involved in preparing food, but the vast majority of scientific evidence suggests that this is a very good thing to do if you’re concerned about your mental health. For those suffering from depression, eating healthy is absolutely essential.
Read on for more lifestyle changes that can help to treat depression without medication.
Lifestyle changes: Exercising regularly
Exercise. Some people love it, some hate it. But whichever camp you belong to, you have to admit that it’s good for mental health.
This is reflected in science. For instance, Dr Wendy Suzuki, Professor at New York University, recommends thirty to forty minutes of exercise, three or four times a week as an easy lifestyle change that can have a huge impact on depression.
Why is it that exercise is good for mental health? One reason is that it releases serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These are chemicals which make us feel pleasure.
Another reason is that exercising outside allows us to get more fresh air and sunshine, which in turn helps the body absorb more Vitamin D. This is especially important for those suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
What kind of exercise do we need to do in order to fight depression?
It actually doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re working up a sweat. So you can run, walk, jog, row, cycle or hike, just as long it’s vigorous enough to get you sweating a little bit.
Some tips for getting motivated to exercise:
- Ask a friend to go with you. It can be daunting to exercise after a long period of sitting on the sofa; if you have a friend to exercise with that can help you get up the necessary motivation to get out the door
- Start small. You don’t have to run a marathon straight away: remember that from a mental health point of view, the important thing is just that your exercise is regular and relatively vigorous. So if that means just running for ten minutes to start with, then that’s fine. Or, if you prefer to exercise from the comfort of your own home, try yoga. This is a gentle form of exercise that doesn’t require you to be at peak physical fitness
- Remind yourself that it’s worth it. When you find yourself tempted to skip that run or bike ride, remember that exercise really does have a big effect on mental health
Lifestyle changes: Get a good night’s sleep
Another crucial element of good mental health is sleep.
Sleep is vital for our bodies: it helps them stay healthy and avoid diseases. It is also crucial for the brain. Without enough sleep, the brain simply doesn’t work properly. It struggles to concentrate, remember things and think clearly.
75% of depressed patients suffer from symptoms of insomnia. This statistic is absolutely staggering. It suggests that there is a real correlation between lack of sleep and depression.
It has even been suggested that doctors should hesitate before diagnosing depression in the absence of any sleep disturbance.
For some, insomnia may be a condition they have suffered from their whole lives. In these cases, insomnia may even be one of the root causes of their depression.
For others, insomnia may have come about as a result of their depression, or alongside it. In these cases, there are plenty of solutions that can be tried in order to get a good night’s sleep.
Here are some tips for getting a good night’s sleep:
- Ditch the technology before bed. Using a phone or laptop right up until the point of going to sleep has been proven to make it more difficult to drop off. Try to get into the habit of reading a book or doing something else relaxing rather than using your phone
- Go to bed at the same time every night, and set your alarm for the same time every morning. One of the best ways to improve your sleep habits is to create a routine whereby you always wake up at a certain time. A bedtime that varies massively can have a very negative impact on sleep. Good sleep habits help to offset this
- Try to make the room where you sleep as dark and quiet as possible. Lots of light or noise could create disturbances which stop you from getting good sleep
- If you find yourself lying in bed for hours waiting to drop off, get up and do something relaxing for twenty minutes, then go back to bed. Otherwise, your brain will start to associate lying in bed with being awake
- Try not to drink alcohol, especially not before bed. Alcohol has been shown to alter sleeping patterns and could make it more difficult to get that all-important eight hours of sleep
- Avoid caffeine. Apart from the fact that it raises your heart rate and causes stress, which is bad for depressed people, caffeine also makes it difficult to go to sleep. If you absolutely have to have a cup of coffee, make sure it’s in the morning, not the evening, to give your body time to metabolise the caffeine
One of the worst problems with depression is the impact it has on people’s relationships. Depressed people find less time to be with loved ones, which can cause them to feel isolated and lonely.
It is important to remember that building time for socialising into a routine can have a really positive effect on mental health.
Whether it’s joining a support group, volunteering or playing a sport, finding time for activities that involve socialising is crucial for staying active and maintaining relationships.
A support group can be an especially good thing for those who are suffering from depression. Being around people who are experiencing the same thing as you and being able to talk to them about shared experiences can help to lighten the load.
Activities that force you to get out of the house are also good because they help you to get fresh air and exercise.
Lifestyle changes: Creating a positive routine
Depressed people often have no routine, or have a very unhealthy routine that involves little to no exercise.
A good way to combat depression and to ensure that you do not relapse into depression is to create a positive routine for yourself. This will help you to do the things you know are good for you even when you don’t feel like it.
Part of having a good routine is setting achievable goals for yourself. Spending a few minutes at the start of the day writing down some things you want to achieve can help to give you a sense of purpose. Depression often involves feelings of aimlessness; by giving yourself an aim for the day you can combat this.
You should also plan time for things you enjoy as part of a routine. This can help you to get through the things you don’t enjoy as much.
Lifestyle changes: Minimising stress
Our last lifestyle change is about preventing stress. Stress is associated with a chemical called cortisol, which has been linked with depression. Minimising stress is one technique which should be used in conjunction with others in order to beat depression.
One way to minimise stress is to identify activities that are stress-inducing, and either avoid them (if possible) or find ways to make them less stress-inducing. For example, stress is often caused by feeling rushed or being late. Managing your time a bit better could help to avoid this.
Deep breathing can also help to relieve stress. When you find yourself feeling stressed, find a quiet place and breathe deeply for a few minutes. This is an easy way to calm your body down when your fight-or-flight instinct is triggered.
Finally, meditation can be a good tonic for stress. This leads us into our next section, which is about meditation and therapy.
Meditation and therapy
Meditation and therapy are tools that can be very effective in the struggle against depression. In this section, we take a quick look at some of the benefits of both of these practices.
Though meditation is often associated with religion, anyone can meditate. It is a practice which has become more popular in recent years with the rise of meditation apps, like Aura, Headspace and Calm.
Mindfulness is a kind of meditation which is especially in vogue currently. Mindfulness is the practice of slowing your thoughts in order to live more ‘in the moment’. It has been shown to help combat some of the symptoms of depression.
Here are some ways to practise mindfulness.
- Pay attention to the commonplace. When you do something every day, it’s easy to do it on autopilot. This means you can miss out on things that bring joy or happiness
- Keep tabs on your thoughts. Part of mindfulness is about identifying stress and negative thoughts and taking a step back from them. This allows you to not to get too carried away by stress and anxiety
- Do something different. Doing something a little out of the ordinary can help you to have a more meaningful experience
Though not for everyone, it’s worth trying out mindfulness – or another form of meditation – to see whether it helps to reduce your stress levels since stress and depression are closely related.
An important tool in dealing with depression is therapy. Some of the main forms of therapy used to treat depression are cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT) and problem-solving-therapy.
Perhaps the most common of these is CBT. CBT aims to identify negative thought patterns or spirals and combat them by focusing on individual thoughts or problems. It can help to deal with depression by giving you a method to deal with difficult situations and thoughts.
Normally, CBT involves weekly sessions of half an hour to an hour with a therapist. It teaches you practical methods for coping with problems that could otherwise trigger stress or anxiety.
CBT in conjunction with mindfulness could be an especially effective combination for dealing with depression, as long as you undertake lifestyle changes as well.
Sometimes the simplest things are the most effective. In this article, we’ve seen how lifestyle changes, meditation and therapy can all be very useful in fighting depression.
Of course, for some people, more drastic solutions – such as medication like Prozac – will be necessary to deal with their depression. But even for those with severe depression, these methods need to be employed alongside medication.
For those with less severe depression, meditation, lifestyle changes and therapy could be an effective treatment that avoids the side effects and potential dangers of antidepressants.