“Do you think I need to be on medication?” I get this question often. A client comes in feeling down, sad, weepy, scared, stressed, angry, or discouraged. We discuss history, circumstances, causes, thoughts, feelings, and possible solutions. Depression and anxiety take many forms and manifestations, in a variety of gradations of intensity and duration. There are some individuals for whom medication is clearly and strongly recommended, and others for whom it would be largely unnecessary. But many clients fall somewhere in the middle ground. These people are functioning reasonably well in their daily lives and responsibilities, but they are suffering emotionally, and might benefit from psychotropic medication in conjunction with psychotherapy. Yet for a variety of reasons, they feel resistant or hesitant to go that route. Or they just might want to know what else they could try first. If you are someone who falls along this continuum and you’ve been considering medication, but are wondering if there is anything else you could try first, please, read on. The following may sound obvious and unoriginal, but may still be worth considering. This is a list of tried and true, intuitive and natural lifestyle suggestions that can make a meaningful difference to someone suffering from mild depressive symptoms, in no particular order:
Hydrate: Take note of how much water you drink daily. Think about how houseplants or gardens begin to look when they are deprived of water. That wilted, parched appearance is what could be happening within us when we don’t drink enough. Before using medication, try being careful to drink 6-8 cups of water daily for a week, and notice if that affects your mood.
Sleep: Many of us cut corners when it comes to getting the rest we need. We usually have good excuses; being productive and busy. But it can come at a great cost. Children may throw tantrums when they are sleep-deprived, but as adults we simply inhibit the same irritability. Challenge yourself to get 7-8 of sleep nightly for a week, and note how you feel afterwards. Even if sleeplessness is a problem for you, despite going to bed on time, you may want to try a natural sleep aid before antidepressants.
Exercise: Some of the same brain chemistry improvements we get via antidepressants can be achieved naturally by moving our bodies. The endorphins released when engaged in cardio exercise can generate a “high”, and the serenity achieved by a quality yoga session can often tranquilize as effectively as a benzodiazepine pill. If your lifestyle is mostly sedentary, and/or stressful, finding a wholesome physical outlet to regularly move and release tension can do worlds for your peace of mind. Your muscles will thank you too!
Eat better: Most Americans struggle to resist the smorgasbord of cheap and tasty junk food at our cultural fingertips. Yet our bodies and brains will often reflect what we’re putting in them. If we consistently reject nutritious, wholesome meals and snacks, and instead skip meals and/or reach for caffeine, sugar, fast food, and artificial/processed, empty calories, this will most definitely take a toll- either on our bodies or in our moods. By making a real effort to make more healthful food choices, not even dramatic diets, but simply being conscious to nourish our bodies and brains with more of the good stuff, we will almost definitely feel somewhat better.
Socialize: When we have pressing responsibilities- work, family, community, health- it’s easy to neglect our friendships. I’m not talking about facebook feeds, I’m talking about real, honest, let’s have some coffee and a good laugh/cry bonding sessions. We tend to underestimate the importance of these relationships. When I recommend to clients to make plans to have lunch with an old friend as a personal indulgence, they usually come back surprised at how rejuvenating it was. Even a ten minute phone call with a feel-good friend can be a powerful mood lifter. For workaholic or martyr types, I recommend committing to (at least) one social bid a week- even if it’s just a quick phone call. Try it and see how it impacts you.
Bibliotherapy: Not everyone likes to read or watch videos, but if you are someone who does, I strongly suggest reading high quality inspirational materials, or watching/listening to lectures or presentations relating to your areas of interest and/or struggle. I use bibliotherapy (therapy through books) liberally in my practice. Hearing healthy, thought provoking, uplifting messages in “surround sound” from a variety of sources and styles can create a powerful sense of possibility and potential. And it can be invigorating to know that you have means of accessing your deeper, more tranquil, or more joyous self, simply by plugging in to the right media. There’s a reason so many people say: “This book changed my life.” They really can.
Examine your life: One of the important pieces of my intake sessions involves getting a sense of a client’s schedule and lifestyle. You can do this for yourself, by considering some of the following questions: What is the general rhythm of your life, daily routine, longer term trajectory? What seems to generate unnecessary angst? What resources could you be better utilizing? Are there untapped reservoirs of potential in any area? Are there personal or professional goals that you would like to be working towards and aren’t? Are you in a dead-end job that you never really liked? Are you feeling disconnected from a spouse or family members? Sometimes taking a step back and examining the various parts of our lives from a more objective place will shine a light on opportunities to adjust and improve.
Get creative juices flowing: Can you remember the last time you enjoyed something creative, just for the love of it? Music, art, dance, drama, writing? Sports, hiking, biking, boating, swimming, rock climbing? Have you ever had any hobbies or passions that may have fallen by the wayside? There is great beauty in the world- physical, spiritual, aesthetic, athletic- and integrating these pleasures into our quotidian existence can be a balm for the soul; therapeutic, liberating, and broadening. Often these media themselves are utilized in professional therapy treatment. So why not see what your inner muse can do for your psychological well-being?
Talk therapy: There have been many significant studies that good psychotherapy when compared to just medication can, in some cases be as or more effective. Of course, even with medication, talk therapy is often recommended, but it’s worth trying on its own first. You may be surprised how much better you can feel simply by getting human professional intervention.
Alternatives: If the idea of seeing a psychiatrist or filling a prescription doesn’t sit right with you at the moment, speak to your regular doctor. Get a full exam, to be sure you don’t have any medical conditions or deficiencies that could be affecting your mood. Speak to your doctor or other licensed specialist about herbal or nutritional supplements you could try. There are a variety of over the counter, more naturally based options that some clients say can make a real difference.
These ideas are mostly things you already know as being factors in a wholesome lifestyle, but as a “to do list” for fighting depression and anxiety they can take on a lot more strength and motivation. In the end, you and your doctor might decide that medication is the route for you, and that can be a wonderfully life-changing choice, too. And this way, you can always look back and know you made all the right efforts, and picked up some healthy habits along the way.