How to Treat Depression without Medication

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The modern medical view of depression focuses on neurochemicals in the brain. We have all heard of this under the generalization of, “an imbalance of brain chemicals.” Taking this as gospel puts us in the situation of treating depression by trying to restore a more appropriate “balance.” However, for milder forms of depression, medications aren’t the only option.

Let me pause here and state plainly that serious depression is a medical condition and deserves a firm diagnosis and treatment plan from a professional. Medication may be the best answer in any particular case. Unfortunately, not everyone finds the experience satisfactory and, for less severe depression, other options exist.

Exercise -- there is good evidence that exercise, either with or without pharmaceutical support, has benefits. Studies have been with aerobic exercise – the “gets your heart pumping” type, but even moderate increases in physical activity have some advantages.

From the folk wisdom side, we have the simple comment that exercise makes you feel better. Arguably, the more healthy you are generally, the better your mood will be. The most obvious difference between medications and exercise for mood disorders is how quickly they help. A medication can work within a few hours whereas exercise can take weeks to show a marked improvement. However, the benefits of regular exercise go far beyond what can be accomplished by medications alone.

For chronic depression, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists one of the criteria as lasting “more than two years.” In this context, a few weeks to see improvement isn’t unreasonable.

An excellent article from the Mayo Clinic discusses exercise in more depth.

Illness -- Physical well-being is associated with mental well-being. This is most obvious when we see that long term illness is associated with depression. While chronic pain was the most obvious linked factor, one study found this:

”Specifically, the direct link between pain and depression was found to be non-significant, however, measures of perceived life interference and self-control were found to be significant intervening variables between pain and depression.”

That’s huge. When an illness causes us to lose our sense of having control over what happens to us, we essentially become slaves to the disease. The alternative then makes a great deal of sense – treat, control and overcome the limitations an illness places upon us.

Nutrition -- This is perhaps one of the most abused items on the list. Specific nutrients sold as cure-alls for depression are the realm of the huckster and an easy way to separate cash from the suffering. But even so, we would expect a poor diet and malnourishment to adversely affect health in general and exacerbate depression.

The question then becomes, “What is a good diet?” This is well studied and information can be found at the FDA on eating healthy.

Environment -- Our daily environment and our relationships have a strong association with depression. One example is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can be treated with bright lights. The DSM doesn’t list this as a separate category of depression, but labels it one aspect of major depression.

The idea that light levels can alter our moods is surprising, but changing other aspects of our environment are less so. Relationships have an obvious impact. Anyone who has fallen in or out of love has felt the major mood upheavals. One very helpful idea is to help others. The ability to meet another person’s needs by helping them not only shifts focus away from the toxic introspection of depression, but it provides a sense of accomplishment and control. It shouldn’t be a surprise that doing good feels good.

 
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