11 Ways to Deal With Depression Symptoms Without Drugs

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For many people dealing with depression, prescription medications can be wonder drugs. Antidepressants, especially the newer selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline) work all sorts of mood-lifting magic. They can have side effects, though, and often they're pricey, especially when health insurance coverage for mental illness is skimpy.

There are many ways to counter some of the symptoms of depression that don't involve prescription meds. If you have depression and would like to try handling it without drugs, or if you'd like to supplement your antidepressant with other tactics, check out these alternatives and then talk to your doctor about which might make sense as part of your treatment regimen.

Get More Sleep

Sleep and mood go hand in hand. Get too little of the former and the latter is bound to flag (whether you have depression or not). Make sure you have what sleep experts call "good sleep hygiene." This means you keep consistent bedtimes and wake-up times, your bedroom is set up for sounds sleep (dark, quiet, uncluttered), you have a relaxing bedtime routine that doesn't involve sitting in front of a screen, and so on.

The relationship between sleep and depression can be complex. Not only is poor sleep thought to contribute to the onset of depression, but depression may then cause low quality sleep.

Whether you can't seem to get any sleep or can't seem to stop sleeping, there are steps you can take to try to improve the quality of your sleep.

  • Have a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Go to bed at the same time each night, and set an alarm so that you wake at the same time each morning.
  • Give yourself a period to unwind before you go to bed. Do something relaxing and avoid stressful tasks or thoughts.
  • Turn off your devices and try reading a book for a few minutes.

Also, try to spend a little time outside each day, even on days when you are tempted to draw the shades and hide indoors. Light plays an important role in regulating sleep cycles and circadian rhythms, so a lack of sunshine may be making it more difficult to sleep at night.

Cut Back on Caffeine

Coffee, tea, and even chocolate are steeped in this stimulant. It's fine to indulge in a reasonable amount of caffeine in the morning—it will perk you up—but time your last hit of caffeine for no later than late afternoon so it doesn't interfere with sleep.

If you do tend to rely on caffeine, try cutting back gradually in order to avoid unpleasant symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Look for things you can replace your caffeine habit with. When you are craving a soda or cup of coffee, try going for a short walk around the block instead.

Get More Vitamin D

There's some evidence that a deficiency of this important nutrient could play a role in depression. If you aren't getting enough dietary D, which is also plentiful in many foods, ask your doctor if you should try taking a supplement. Deficiencies of several important nutrients can play a role in depression symptoms.

Your body can also produce Vitamin D naturally when your skin is exposed to sunlight.

If you are having a difficult time spending enough time outdoors or if overcast weather conditions make it hard to get sunshine, a supplement may be useful.

Go Natural

For treating mild to moderate depression, dietary supplements such as St. John's Wort, S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), and 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) may be worth a try.

Research has shown that St. John's wort is more effective than a placebo at relieving symptoms in those with mild-to-moderate depression.

Be careful with these substances though: Do not take any of them without checking with your doctor first. Just because they're sold without a prescription and are touted as natural doesn't mean they're always safe. For example, mixing St. John's wort with an SSRI such as Prozac can lead to a complication called serotonin syndrome.

Tap Your Spirituality

No need to join a church or synagogue or mosque (although certainly for many people dealing with depression religion can be an impactful source of support). But simple daily practices such as meditation or adding to a list of things you're grateful can help boost mood and overall well-being.

Meditation can have a range of beneficial effects such as lowering stress levels and helping people to become more aware of their thoughts and reactions. Research indicates that an intervention called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with components of mindfulness meditation, can be helpful in treating depression and preventing future relapses of depressive symptoms. Studies also suggest that different types of mindfulness meditative practices can also be effective in the treatment of depression.

There are many different types of meditation, but you can get started with some simple meditative exercises.

  • Sit comfortably
  • Close your eyes
  • Breath naturally
  • Focus on how your body feels while you breathe
  • When your mind wanders, redirect attention back to your breathing

Get More Exercise 

This doesn't mean train for a marathon. It does mean putting in a half-hour or so of low-intensity activity each day, which has been found to be more effective at increasing energy levels than more intense activity. Even better, take it outdoors: Fresh air and sunshine are especially healing for folks dealing with a special form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

While research has shown that regular physical activity can be effective in both the prevention and treatment of depression, it can be hard to start an exercise habit when you're depressed. Lack of energy and low mood mean that you simply feel too fatigued to get up and get active.

Some things that you can try to stick to your habit:

  • Start small. Try walking for just a few minutes each day, then work on gradually increasing your walks.
  • Remind yourself of the benefits. Getting started is tough, but doing it is something that will help you feel better in the long-term.
  • Enlist a friend. Ask a loved one to walk with you or do another form of exercise at least a few times a week. This can not only help get you into a routine, but it can also help you maintain those social connections when you are feeling down.

Avoid Alcohol

Alcohol in and of itself is a depressant. Oddly enough, drinking can interfere with sleep, and quality sleep is key to battling the blues. While alcohol might seem like a quick fix to escape what you are feeling, it can actually make many of the symptoms of depression feel much worse. Not only that, but it can decrease inhibitions and potentially lead to risky behaviors and bad decisions that can have long-term consequences.

If you're taking any sort of antidepressant, you really shouldn't drink at all: Alcohol doesn't interact well with medication.

If you have been misusing alcohol or other substances, talk to your doctor if you need help quitting. You may also have an alcohol or substance use disorder as well. Withdrawal symptoms may temporarily worsen symptoms of depression, so you may need extra assistance as you go through this process.

Eat 'Good Mood' Food

What you put in your mouth can have a direct effect on how you think and feel. Make sure to eat a well-balanced diet, one that's rich in nutrients and low in saturated fat and calories. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you analyze your eating habits and pinpoint potential deficiencies that could contribute to depression.

Some foods that may be beneficial when you have depression:

Probiotics: Research is increasingly pointing to a connection between gut and brain health. Foods high in probiotics include yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha.

Fish: Research has found that people who at a diet high in fish were less likely to have symptoms of depression Fish are high in omega-3 fats, which play a role in helping neurotransmitters such as serotonin work in the brain.

Nuts: Nuts are also a good source of omega-3 fats and one study indicated that people who ate walnuts were 26% less likely to have symptoms of depression.

Change Your Thoughts

Pollyanna-ish as it may sound, thinking good things can help you feel good. Your thoughts truly do have a direct bearing on your mood. If you're struggling with negativity, consider seeing a therapist to help you learn ways to counter it.

One of the most popular and effective treatments used in the treatment of depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This form of psychotherapy focuses on identifying negative thinking patterns and then replacing them with more positive ones.

Some ways that you can practice some of these ideas on your own:

Try to recognize negative thinking. Sometimes these thoughts can be obvious, such as times when you berate or criticize yourself. Sometimes they can be more subtle. You might find yourself engaging in things like catastrophizing or all-or-nothing thinking. Catastrophizing involves always anticipating negative outcomes. All-or-nothing thinking means that you think of things as either successes or failures. Once you get better at recognizing these cognitive patterns, you can start working on some healthier replacements.

Reframe your thoughts. When you find yourself having a negative thought, consciously reframe it in a positive way. For example, you might replace something like "This will never work" with something more positive such as "Here are a few things that I can try that will help me get started." Shifting your focus to your strengths and abilities can help you maintain a more positive mindset.

Get a Handle on Stress

Stress can drive up levels of a brain chemical called cortisol, which has been found to be higher in folks with depression. There are lots of strategies for coping with stress, such as time management, meditation, and biofeedback training.

Some stress-relieving activities that you might want to incorporate into your daily life include:

  • Exercise. Regular physical activity is a great way to blow off steam.
  • Deep breathing. A few minutes to slow your breathing and focus your attention on your body in the moment can help you get a better handle on your worries.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. This process involves intentionally tightening muscles throughout the body, holding that tension for several counts, and then releasing that tension until the muscles are completely lax. With regular practice, you may be able to learn how to intentionally relax your body fairly quickly whenever you are feeling tense.

Learning to manage your stress takes time and practice. Talk to your doctor or therapist about other strategies you might try to minimize the stress and your response to it.

Tend to Your Social Life

When you're depressed, there's no reason to go it alone—and all sorts of reasons to reach out to friends and family. Make plans with loved ones and keep those dates. Join a club or sign up for a group activity—a local dodgeball league, for example, or a French class.

Other things you might try:

  • Schedule activities. Having routines can be helpful when you are going through depression. Create a daily schedule that includes spending time with others. You are more likely to stick to it if its a scheduled event.
  • Volunteer. Joining a cause that you care about is a great way to meet new people and expand your social circle.
  • Join a support group. Talking to other people who are facing the same experiences and challenges can be informative and helpful.

The problem is that depression often causes people to withdraw, which only further exacerbates feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even when you don't feel like going out or being social, try reaching out in whatever way is most comfortable for you. Enlist a few of your closes loved ones who understand what you are experiencing.

Doing the things you used to do might not bring you quite the same enjoyment, but getting out of the house and spending time with people who care about you can help you feel better.

Always take symptoms of depression seriously. Don't try to just handle things on your own. Talk to your doctor and discuss some of the self-help strategies that may support your treatment.

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