Depression—recurrent or chronic feelings of sadness, loss of energy, worthlessness or guilt— doesn’t go away on its own. For many people, antidepressants are an effective method for treating depression, but this is not true for everyone. For these people, it is important to try ways to treat depression without medication.
There are a wide variety of methods available, some which require lifestyle changes, others which require new activities, or new thought processes. To find a way to treat depression without medication, you may need to try several different methods over a long period. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another.
8 Ways to Treat Depression Without Medication
1. Healthy Eating
Though you have no doubt heard the importance of healthy eating, you may not be aware of the effects your diet can have on your mental and emotional state. Remember that all of our body’s functions, including our energy levels, hormone production, healing processes, and much more, are derived from what we eat.
For example, excess sugar, salt and fat in our diets is known to disrupt our body’s ability to produce and process energy. Deficiencies in iron, potassium, magnesium and other vitamins and minerals also causes fatigue. A deficiency in B vitamins, folic acid, iodine, folate, or zinc can cause sluggishness or mood swings. Your doctor can perform blood tests to show if you have a severe deficiency in any of these vitamins or minerals.
To try this way to treat depression without medication, try these changes to your diet and see how or if your mood improves:
- Use vitamin supplements with iron, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, or other vitamins or minerals you may be deficient in.
- Replace foods high in fat, sugar or salt with foods high in vitamins and minerals, such as leafy vegetables and fruits.
- Replace some red meats with foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna or halibut.
- Replace soda and juice with water or vitamin water.
- Replace some starches, such as bread, noodles or rice, with root vegetables or leafy vegetables.
- Avoid fried foods, soda, and candy as much as possible.
2. Regular Sleep Schedule
Like healthy eating, getting enough sleep is another essential aspect of your mental health. Sleep impacts the brain’s function more than any other part of the body. Since this is also where depression stems from, the connection between a lack of sleep and depression is clear.
While we sleep, new pathways form in our brains that allow us to process ideas, feelings, and emotions. Getting enough sleep allows us to focus throughout the day, think analytically or creatively, and manage our emotions. Without sleep, all of these activities and many others begin to fail.
For many people with depression or anxiety, getting enough sleep is a serious challenge. These regular practices can help.
- Go to sleep at the same time every day, even if you are not tired.
- Wake up at the same time every day, even if you are tired.
- Leave yourself at least eight hours to sleep.
- Avoid using your computer or smartphone at least one hour before bed.
- Avoid eating or exercising at least one hour before bed.
- Block excess noise with earplugs or headphones if you can.
- Block excess light with blackout curtains if you can.
- If you cannot get to sleep, try breathing exercises or guided meditation sessions.
3. Challenging Negative Thoughts
Racing or spiraling thoughts are a common occurrence with depression. What began as a single negative event or thought can quickly turn into a string of negative feelings. Interrupting this cycle and understanding the root of negative feelings and thoughts can stop them from getting out of control. Keep in mind that, though you cannot always control what happens around you, you can control your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This way you can treat depression without medication by challenging some of the causes of depression; negative thoughts and feelings.
Racing and spiraling thoughts are generally automatic, so it takes some practice to challenge them. Try this process when you have a negative thought or feeling.
- Ask yourself where this thought or feeling comes from. Was it something that happened around you? Something someone said or did?
- Consider this event by itself for what it is. What actually happened? Look only at the facts.
- As you follow related thoughts or assumptions, ask if these are valid. Is there evidence to support these conclusions? Where are these related thoughts coming from?
- Try to dismiss unfounded assumptions or connections, and focus only on the facts and reality of the situation.
For example, say you trip and fall on the sidewalk. You scrape your knee and a passerby laughs at you. A negative thought string that might follow is, “I’m so clumsy and people are always mean. Why do I even leave the house?” To interrupt this, you would look at the facts. You tripped once and one person laughed. This is not enough evidence to say you are clumsy or that people in general are mean. Though it is okay to feel hurt or embarrassed and to express this, it is important to stop negative thoughts before they cause more harm.
Mindfulness has recently become a popular subject and even a buzzword, but this is, for many, a good way to treat depression without medication. Practicing mindfulness regularly can give you more power over your feelings and reactions, and help you combat depression.
You may have heard that mindfulness means “being fully present.” This means tapping into your senses and your experience fully, including taste, sounds, touch, breathing, sensations and more. This can be used to combat compulsive behavior, anxiety, stress, anger and more, as well as depression.
Mindfulness to combat depression is intended to process experiences without judgement and direct your focus in a healthy way. Here are some situations and mindfulness exercises you may apply to treat depression without medication.
- Feeling sad, anxious, or stressed: throughout your day, make a brief check-in with your body. Focus on your breathing, heartbeat, muscles, and bones, one by one. By focusing on your physical sensations, you get some distance from distressing feelings. This also allows you to slow your heart rate and return to a calm, even state.
- Feeling overwhelmed by negative thoughts: Remove yourself from the situation and find a quiet place. Start by focusing on your breathing and heart, and try to clear your mind. Form an image of a stream or river. When a thought or feeling appears, acknowledge it, but don’t focus on it; think of it dropping onto the stream and floating away. This is a version of meditation which can help to stop racing thoughts.
- Decompressing for sleep or relaxation: When you have fifteen minutes to an hour to yourself, mindful meditation, walking, or yoga can help you relax and distance yourself from depression. Each of these activities involves focused breathing and conscious awareness of your body’s sensations and surroundings. Working through guided sessions or videos can help you learn one or more of these activities until they become natural.
5. Art, Music or Dance Therapy
Expression through art, music or dance have been effective ways to treat depression, including the severity and how long depression lasts. There are many ways to practice art, music or dance therapy, and you don’t have to be artistically talented to do it. You may create your own work, discuss art, lyrics or dance routines with others, or even simply view, listen to, or observe another’s work.
Art, music or dance therapy provide similar benefits, though each one works a bit differently. If you are already interested in a type of art, exploring it further may help you treat depression without medication. If not, consider the benefits of each and try one or more that appeals to you.
- Art therapy: Art therapy treats depression in three main ways: expression, focus, and relaxation. Making your own art allows you to express thoughts or feelings you either can’t or don’t want to talk about, instead of bottling them up. Art therapy also helps to redirect your focus away from negative or harmful thoughts and towards the art. Finally, producing your own work can elicit a calm and focused state sometimes called a “flow state” or “relaxation response,” which has been shown to have positive physical and mental health benefits.
- Music therapy: Like art therapy, music therapy can help you express or process difficult thoughts or emotions, and redirect your focus, even if you are just listening and not making music yourself. Finally, the fast or slow rhythm of music can help slow your heartbeat and relieve tension or, if you are feeling sluggish, stimulate energy.
- Dance therapy: Like art and music therapy, dance therapy can help you redirect your focus away from negative thoughts and help you express yourself. Be encouraging free movement without judgement, dance therapy can also help you develop a positive body image, reduce stress, and improve your health through regular exercise.
6. Writing and Journaling
Strings of negative thoughts and feelings can quickly make a bad depressive episode worse. Once these feelings set in, they can be difficult to get out of. Journaling and writing works similar to challenging negative thoughts (see above) by interrupting the process and allowing you to process each thought and feeling individually. This also gives you an outlet to express emotions safely, in a healthy way, especially if you are uncomfortable talking about them with others.
Many people find it helpful to journal about their day and to record their thoughts and feelings. Others prefer to write stories or poems. Try one or more of the following to see if this way to treat depression without medication is effective for you:
Journaling: At a scheduled time, write about recent events in your life and how you are thinking and feeling.
Poetry: Try writing a particular type of poem, such as a haiku, couplet, or free verse poem, or write about a particular subject.
Story: Start a fictional story. These may relate to real people or events in your life, or not.
Screenplay or Drama: Write a script for a movie or play, or rewrite a movie or play how you would like to see it.
What you prefer to write is not as important as how you write it. As you write, be careful not to reaffirm negative thoughts or feelings. Take a moment to recognize thoughts and feelings individually, for what they are. Remember to use positive affirmations if you are struggling with negativity, and place these affirmations somewhere you will see them.
7. Ecotherapy and Animal Therapy
Though this phenomenon is not fully understood, being around animals, plants and natural landscapes has been shown to have many physical and mental health benefits for humans. Plants in an office setting can stimulate creative thinking, natural landscapes can reduce blood pressure, and being around animals has helped reduce stress, improve social skills, and even treat PTSD. Ecotherapy and animal therapy can also help treat depression without medication.
For many people, ecotherapy and animal therapy is one of the most fun and enjoyable ways to treat depression. There are many ways to do this;
- Natural landscapes: Taking a walk through a park, garden, or along a beach helps you get away from areas normally associated with stress, sadness or negativity. The clean air, reduced noise, and bright colors of these areas all have subtle, but noticeable impacts on stress, anxiety and depression.
- Pets: The affection, energy and non-judgemental nature of pets invokes feelings of security, confidence, happiness and ease in humans. If you aren’t comfortable caring for a pet full-time, try playing with a friend or neighbor’s pet, or volunteer at an animal shelter.
- Growing plants: Nurturing and watching a plant grow and develop can give you a sense of accomplishment and importance. Try growing a potted plant on your window sill, start with a seed, or plant a garden. Schedule time regularly to care for your plants.
- Trained therapy animals: Some animals, like dogs, cats and horses, are trained in specific behaviors to help reduce the intensity of anxious or depressive episodes. These animals can become a part of your home or you may be able to schedule a session with a therapy animal and therapist.
8. Talk Therapy
Talk therapy is one of the most researched and effective ways to treat depression without medication. This means making an appointment with a psychotherapist and taking part in active talk therapy sessions. These may be one-on-one with your therapist or in groups.
Talk therapy differs for different types of depression, and your therapist can guide you through the best method. All of the following are potential benefits of talk therapy:
- Expression: Feeling unable or unsafe to expression emotions can quickly make depression worse. Talk therapy allows you to safely and constructively express how you’re feeling.
- Understanding depression: Talking about events and people in your life as well as how you feel and think can help you understand where your depression comes from or how it gets worse. This can help you treat yourself outside of therapy.
- Understanding thoughts and emotions: When depression sets in, many people feel an overall sense of negativity or low energy, and find it difficult to express how they really think or feel. Talk therapy can help you do this.
- Developing coping mechanisms: Your therapist can guide you through exercises to help you cope with depression so you can use them on your own when you need to. You may also use role-playing to address a difficult problem or situation in a safe environment.
You can try any of these ways to treat depression without medication at any time, and you may wish to try more than one. Whatever method you choose, be an active participant; make time for this activity on a regular basis, or make a plan to start lifestyle changes like healthy eating and sleeping. Also remember that active participation does not require perfection; a few bad days or missed days will happen. Finally, keep in mind that, though there are ways to treat depression without medication, sometimes medication can be most effective. When you are open to many types of therapy, you can find an approach and a lifestyle that works best for you.