How to Treat Depression Naturally

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While popular myth holds that depression is merely a deficit or chemical imbalance, there is some evidence that depression is itself, a natural state in humans. Depression, like pain, may serve a useful purpose. For pain, our nervous system alerts us to possible damage, getting our attention and causing us to move away from whatever is causing the pain. Psychic pain may have a similar purpose – grief, anxiety, worry and even depression can motivate us to make positive changes. Not all depression rises to the level of a full-blown mental illness.

Natural treatments for depression focus on making changes in response to the depressed condition with the idea that these will then eliminate or lessen symptoms.

When people talk about natural solutions, they generally mean eschewing pharmacological agents. Before discussing natural though, it is important to mention that the two types of treatment are not mutually exclusive. While medications are helpful in about 50% of cases, they are not meant to be standalone items like an antibiotic. Modern treatments include both components – behavioral changes along with medications when drugs are warranted. Why limit to one tool when benefits have been shown for multiple approaches?

What “natural” means
In a sense the word has been corrupted by marketing. Taking an herbal supplement is no more natural than taking an anti-depressant. In fact, pharmaceuticals are often just derivatives of plant substances. While supplements may help, any such traditional substance is just as artificial as a prescription drug. For this reason, we will use “natural” here to mean activities and behaviors as opposed to pharmacological treatments or herbal remedies.

If depression is meant to change our behavior by making us feel bad, then it only makes sense a natural cure would be lifestyle based. If there is a role for supplements, it comes by way of deficiencies. Not getting enough vitamin D in the diet and deficiencies in other essential nutrients has been linked to depression – these are matters of maintaining a good diet.

It is not the case that more is better. If you are getting adequate nutrition, it does little good to over supplement in the hopes that increased vitamin intake will cure a mood disorder. Only depression that is the result of malnourishment will be helped by boosting nutrient intake. Over supplementation is then not considered “natural.”

Exercise
Studies have shown that as little as a half-hour of exercise a few times a week is beneficial in depression. Exercise seems to be the quickest way to alter our mood, get us out of despondency and break the cycle of toxic introspection so common with depression.

Unlike self-treatment with alcohol and drugs, exercise allows us to “escape our own minds” while adding a host of other benefits, not the least of which is cardiovascular health. Since the state of general health is also linked to depression, exercise becomes a win-win.

Sleep
Along with healthy eating and exercise, a healthy sleep pattern rounds out the top three natural treatments. The importance of sleep habits has only recently come to the fore. It’s created a new area of scientific study – sleep hygiene.

Since insomnia or hypersomnia (too much sleep) are both symptoms of depression, there’s a vicious cycle involved. Depression related sleep disturbances that lead to a deepening and an extension of the disease itself. There are many ways to regulate sleep patterns and increase the value of sleep – the Mayo Clinic provides an excellent resource.

Support
There is little doubt that humans are social animals. One of the hallmarks of depression is a feeling of isolation and separation. Friends and family members are a ready resource to talk through your problems and these should be accessed. A trusted confidant is both helpful and all natural. On the professional level, psychologists and psychiatrists can not only help with “talk therapy,” but suggest courses of action and target specific behaviors that may exacerbate depression.

Self care
Taking on a new activity and setting realistic goals have a great benefit when it comes to getting out of a rut. Realistic is the watchword here. One type of depression, bipolar, consists of flipping between a manic, optimistic and energetic phase and a lethargic, depressed phase. While this is a separate diagnosis and medical condition, if you are prone to depression, you’ll want to avoid that type of swing. Don’t adopt unrealistic, grandiose projects that are doomed to failure – small goals that are reachable are better.

Automatic thinking is a pattern where A leads to B leads to C that can cripple us by not allowing other, useful thoughts to hold our attention. Self reflection is a great remedy for this, a kind of self-talk that says, “OK, now I’m just cycling the same stuff over and over and getting nowhere…”

Along with self reflection, taking a break from normal stressors and using logic can help. If we can intrude on the automatic thinking with a dose of reality generated by logic, the cycle can be broken.

photo by John Nyboer

 
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