This is an article on non-medicinal ways to combat the symptoms of depression and anxiety. As always, if you’re having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (in the U.S.), or your local mental health hotline.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by depression or anxiety, it can be difficult to realize you have the power to help yourself. You can feel helpless and out of control, and you may not believe things will get better. While I can’t offer you a magic panacea that will make you instantly happy, I can share with you a few things I’ve found to help shake me out of a dark mood. Some are things you can do instantly to try to sever negative thoughts and ruminations, and others are regular rituals and commitments you can incorporate into your schedule as a scaffolding of sorts to hold you up when you’re having trouble holding it together. Of course, you may have to adapt these to fit your own lifestyle. I understand that “exercise is good for you!” isn’t exactly a revelation, but let this be a reminder to us that the science supports these things and that we can help ourselves—whether it’s while waiting for a new medicine to kick in or while taking a break from Western medicine for whatever reason.
Some of these recommendations focus on the art of distraction—and while distraction might not solve your problems, sometimes interrupting those negative thought patterns and giving yourself a change of scenery can get you through a dark moment. You’ll notice other recommendations are general healthy living tips that are good for everyone—it’s no surprise that exercising and healthy eating affect your whole body, from the inside out. It can be hard to spend time on yourself, working out or meditating, for example, when you feel miserable, but those times are exactly when it’s most important. Just like you’d pamper a friend who is glum with frequent visits, flowers, cards, jokes, etc., you need to take time to pamper yourself—and these healthy living tips are one way to take care of current you and future you, all at once.
[I realize that sometimes making a decision can be the most paralyzing part of doing anything if you’re suffering, so here’s a solution for that…Take out a coin and flip it: heads, do #1 (move your body); tails, do #3 (write in a journal). No deciding necessary!]
1. Move Your Body
Study after study has shown the efficacy of exercise in the management of both depression and anxiety. The endorphins, neurotransmitters, and endocannabinoids (yup, the same ones affected by cannabis) that are naturally released from running can chemically make you feel better; your immune system also gets a boost. At the same time it increases those good chemicals, it reduces the bad ones (like adrenaline and cortisol). It goes even deeper than that: exercise acts as an anti-inflammatory and reduces oxidative and nitrogen stress, two things that contribute to anxiety. Of course, it can be hard to get your butt off the couch if you’re feeling especially depressed: to remedy that, I get a little motivation from my favorite furry friend—which leads me to my next recommendation…
2. Get a Pet
While you shouldn’t get a pet if you don’t truly want one, it’s worth noting that having one can significantly improve your health—both mentally and physically. In addition to decreasing your anxiety levels, a pet can positively affect your breathing rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption. A pet can give you cuddles, show you affection, help you stick to a routine, and (some, at least) encourage you to go for a walk or play in the backyard. (I walk at least a mile every day, just for my dog’s daily exercise, and her kisses give me more smiles than I can count.) And it’s always nice to come home to a happily wagging tail!
3. Write in a Journal
Writing a journal can be daunting—whether it’s the idea of committing to something each day or worrying about what to write—but that obstacle can be overcome by sticking to a gratitude journal instead. Even better? Studies show that acknowledging our gratitude can decrease both anxiety and depression, while also improving sleep and decreasing pain. Recent research suggests that our brain has a “gratitude muscle” that can be exercised and strengthened, so that we can literally change our brain—researchers found that writing one 20-minute letter of gratitude had a measurable effect on participants’ brains months later. Consider that: you can spend 20 minutes right now doing something that will help your brain months from now! If you don’t have twenty minutes to write a gratitude letter, try writing down at least one thing every day that you’re grateful for. It can become part of your daily ritual to write in a nice paper journal every day, but even jotting down your thanks in your phone can be enough to reap some benefits. Another idea is a Question-A-Day journal. I got one online for less than $10 that asks me a different question each day (and has room for 5 years of questions, so I can see how my answers change over time). Some of the questions are silly while some are more serious, but they always provide me with a low-pressure, quiet moment of reflection on my day, and they often make me smile or change my perspective.
4. Grow Something
If you have room to garden, growing things can be a great way to ease depression and anxiety. Even if you’re limited on outdoor space, keeping a houseplant or two can improve wellbeing and boost your physical health, too. Not only does keeping some green around improve the quality of the air around you, but cultivating something and watching it grow stimulates self-esteem and gives us routine and structure when we need it. It can also remind us of our connection to nature and the universe, counteracting self-absorption, which can exacerbate depression. Encouraging our drive to nurture and create, caring for plants is a natural mood booster. I’ve found that playing in the dirt with my plants usually helps me forget my problems pretty quickly, as I instead focus on the care and nurturing for my little green babies. There’s also a sense of pride and a self-esteem boost when I get to enjoy the (literal) fruits of my labor and chow down on a vine-ripened, freshly-picked tomato.
5. Talk to Someone (Anyone!)
It may sound obvious, but talking to someone—about anything, if not about what you’re going through—can be a good distraction and a significant reminder that we’re not alone. This talk can be with a friend, with a family member, with a therapist, on the phone or Skype, in a chat room, or any combination of those (you can talk to your therapist 100% via text these days!). Talking can make things feel less “big” and more manageable, and sometimes saying things out loud changes our perspective of them. What’s even more exciting: it turns out that depression isn’t “contagious,” but good moods are. In other words, if your cheerier friends surround you enough, their rose-tinted glasses might rub off on you.
6. Cook a Meal (or Dessert)
You gotta eat—so why not go ahead and cook that meal yourself? Cooking fits under a type of therapy known as behavioral activation that encourages goal-oriented behavior to ward off depressive feelings. Often cooking feels like one more task to be accomplished before you can get in bed—but if you approach it from a place of mindfulness and love (self-love included), it can become a helpful tool in boosting your mood. Focus—be 100% mindful and present—while you chop and scrub. Think about all the hands that went into bringing you that food: the farmers, the pickers, the packers, the truck drivers, the grocery employees (or your family’s own hands, if you grow your own). Give a moment of thanks for their effort and to the earth for providing such bounty for us. Consider the love, care, and intention you’re imbuing the meal with, and reflect on the nourishment that food will provide to those who eat it. Or have some fun while you cook—I like to turn on some music or a podcast and pour a fun drink to sip while I’m in the kitchen. If you have someone available and willing, enlist their help—with cooking or even just talking while you cook. And if you make too many cookies, share them with someone else. Bonus: When you cook, you’re more likely to eat nutritiously, which will have a good effect on your depression and anxiety, too.
7. Have Sex (or an Oil Self-Massage)
If you have a safe, willing partner, consider increasing the frequency of your romantic romps. Sex releases all kinds of feel-good hormones (like oxytocin and endorphins) and can enhance communication and intimacy with your partner, reminding you you’re not all alone in this thing called life. If you don’t have a willing partner, consider spending some intimate time with yourself. Celebrating self-love by giving yourself an abhyanga oil massage can encourage positive feelings and increase connection to the self. I love the way a yummy scented body oil leaves a faint scent on my skin; every time I get a whiff I’m reminded of the special care with which I treated myself that morning, and how much my body reveled in it. It’s like a scented reminder that I’m worth it—worth the luxurious oil, worth the time I spent rubbing it on, and worth the compassion and love I showed myself while doing it.
8. Volunteer / Give Back
Doing something for someone else is a great way to shake you out of your funk—it can feel good to give back, and it can also force you to leave your house. (There are also some volunteer gigs you can do from home, if you’re not able to leave—check with local nonprofits to see if you could answer phones, check messages, make flyers, or respond to emails from your home.) Having a scheduled place to be every week (that’s not work or school) can also give your free time some structure—in a good way. Furthermore, it builds bonds and strengthens your relationship with your community, making you more cognizant of your role in it and giving you a sense of accomplishment. Believe it or not, volunteering can even have a positive impact on your physical health, like improving blood pressure and lowering mortality rates. Check out VolunteerMatch.org for organizations near you; I was able to find one gig that lets me answer phones from home, and another that lets me volunteer with my dog in tow. Perfect for me!
Big surprise to see meditation on here, I know. Just in case the enviable peacefulness that monks emit isn’t enough to convince you, here’s a meta-analysis of almost 19,000 meditation studies, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which made the power of meditation clear, concluding that “mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.” Moreover, the effects of meditation on depression were comparable to the effects of an anti-depressant. It is super easy to start meditating: there are even several apps you can download to help you out. And there’s more than one way to meditate: you can focus on an object or your breath or even do a moving meditation like tai chi. Don’t feel like you need to commit to an hour, as just a few minutes is truly enough. I often forego a fancy mantra and just chant “breathe in, relax….breathe out, relax…” in my head as I focus on my breath for a few minutes.
10. Create Something
You don’t need to be the artistic type to benefit from the positive effects of creativity on mental health. Creating can make people happier, less anxious, and more resilient. Making music is great, as is painting or drawing, but give coloring a try if you’re self-conscious about your artistic ability. Coloring reduces stress and anxiety (even in adults) and allows us to switch off our ruminating brains and focus on the moment. Think outside the box here, too—cake decorating, flower arranging, knitting, and interior design are all creative hobbies that can give you the same mood-boosting benefits. The idea is to create something and also to fully focus on that task while you’re doing it—this makes the benefit twofold.
It’s very promising that in recent years, U.S. culture has taken great strides in the destigmatization of mental health and treatment for mental health—and with good reason, since nearly one in five Americans suffer from mental illness. In fact, today more than one in six Americans takes a psychiatric drug for their mental health. That’s not surprising considering that more than 16.1 million adults in the U.S. suffer from depression and about 40 million adults (or 18.1% of the population) suffer from anxiety—not to mention those suffering from ADD/ADHD, OCD, eating disorders, and other illnesses. Medication can be a necessary part of many people’s treatment plans (and safely so, under the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider), but most prescriptions come with at least a few side effects. Since many people struggle with these conditions to varying degrees of severity throughout their lives, many of them seek additional respite in natural alternatives at some point. Whether in conjunction with prescription medications or used in place of them to manage milder symptoms, these suggestions offer natural ways to manage depression and anxiety.
There are plenty of medical options you can turn to when treating your depression and anxiety, but it’s important to remember that there are healthy, natural things you can do right now that science shows will have a true impact on your mood and overall health. If you’re struggling to commit to any activity on the list, try a little self-bribery…promise yourself you can do one thing you enjoy after you complete one thing on the list. Whether the reward is fifteen minutes of mind-numbing cell phone games, a short social media indulgence, or a piece of dark chocolate, assuring yourself that making investments in your long-term mental health has short-term benefits, too, can make it easier to get the ball rolling.
This is no substitute for medical advice and any changes to your medication should be discussed with your healthcare provider. If you are in crisis and need to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (in the U.S.), or your local mental health hotline