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Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Depression

separator First let’s establish one thing: this article is not about trying to convince anybody to stop taking medication for depression or anxiety disorders. Mainstream treatments—not simply medications, but talk therapy as well—for these conditions have literally been lifesavers for many people. And for people who suffer from mild to moderate depression and anxiety, drugs and talk therapy have improved their lives in immeasurable ways.

What we are saying is that there are additional things a person can do to enhance quality of life and improve mental outlook. Taking advantage of these alternative therapies may even enable some people to decrease their medication dosage or, in some cases, stop taking medication. And let’s not forget that there are people who do not respond well to medication, or who have trouble staying on medication because of serious side effects. For these people especially, alternative therapies are worth investigating.

What are the most common complementary and alternative therapies for depression and anxiety? In general, you can group them into a few different categories:

Cultural healing practices
The practices in this category come from sources such as traditional Chinese medicine, the ancient Indian system of Ayurveda and yoga, Native American practices such as sweat lodges, etc. The general philosophy behind these practices is that good health requires a spiritual, physical and emotional/mental balance and that an imbalance among these elements can cause illness. Some of the most common of these treatments include

Acupuncture: By inserting needles into certain points on the body, acupuncturists help improve energy flow. Acupuncture has been used to treat substance abuse, stress and anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders in children and to reduce symptoms of depression.

Meditation, yoga: These Indian practices comprise breathing exercises, stretching and meditation that are said to balance the body’s energy centers.

Qigong therapy: This Chinese exercise is a combination of meditation, breathing exercises and simple, repeated motions. It’s fairly easy to learn, and the more you practice it, the more benefits you feel. Qigong is not as well known in this country as yoga and meditation, but it seems to be gaining in popularity.

Relaxation and stress reduction techniques

These types of treatments can help relieve feelings of anxiety and tension, panic disorders, phobias, etc:

Biofeedback: This teaches people to control body functions like heart rate and skin temperature. It can be especially helpful for those who suffer from anxiety, panic and phobias. People learn to control the physical sensations that occur during periods of anxiety and panic. Controlling the physical sensations can actually help decrease the anxiety and panic itself.

Guided imagery: This helps people to go into a state of deep relaxation by creating mental images that promote a sensation of recovery and health. It’s useful for treating substance abuse, depression, panic disorders, phobias and stress.

Massage therapy: Massage can help release tension and some say, help people to let go of pent up emotions. People who have high levels of stress and trauma-related depression may benefit the most from massage therapy, but it can be helpful for relief of depression for people with many different health conditions. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is currently conducting a study on “the usefulness of massage therapy for treatment of depression and improvement in quality of life” for patients at the end stage of AIDS. Massage has also been helpful for people suffering from end stages of cancer.

Hypnotherapy, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. This can help people who suffer from phobias, anxiety and panic disorders. Be sure to read the article about hypnosis, also featured this month as part of our exploration of alternative medicine.

Spiritual/pastoral counseling
For so many people, counseling that’s compatible with their spiritual beliefs can be especially meaningful. They results they get form counseling from a rabbi, minister, pastor or priest may be as helpful as counseling from a mental health professional would be.

Don’t ever underestimate the benefits a spiritual practice can have on depression. For example, a study in the British Medical Journal indicated that reciting a prayer from the rosary or reciting a yoga mantra (each six times per minute) caused “favorable psychological and possibly physiological effects.”

Diet and nutrition therapy
Many holistic physicians and nutritionists believe that diet can have an impact on depression. People absorb and metabolize nutrients differently, the theory goes, so cookie-cutter diets don’t necessarily work for everyone. Health practitioners who use nutrition as a treatment for depression suggest herbal remedies, foods rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, B-complex vitamins, riboflavin, magnesium and thiamine.

Regular exercise can boost mental outlook for many people who suffer from depression. An article in The Physician and Sports Medicine suggests that exercise can have a positive influence on the metabolism of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, that affect depression. It can also provide a sense of self-mastery and “therapeutic distraction.”

The writer Andrew Solomon, who has suffered from debilitating depression at different times in his life, writes in The Noonday Demon, his acclaimed book about depression, “A really serious workout is just about the most disgusting idea I can imagine when I’m depressed, and it’s no fun doing it, but afterward I always feel a thousand times better.” He also explains that exercise can help anxiety as well, because it uses up nervous energy and “helps to contain irrational fear.”

What about St. John’s wort?
Many Americans have tried St. John’s wort for their symptoms of depression. Small studies in Europe have shown that St. John’s wort may be helpful, but until now, the herb hasn’t been tested in any large-scale clinical trials. In April, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a large-scale study showing that St. John’s wort was no more effective than placebo (sugar pill) in treating the symptoms of depression. The National Institutes of Health sponsored the study, and now it’s planning to investigate the effectiveness of St. John’s wort in treating milder depression symptoms.

If you’ve been interested in trying St. John’s wort, be sure to talk with your doctor before you start taking it. Studies have shown that St. John’s wort can interfere with many other medications.

Something for almost everyone
For anyone who experiences symptoms of depression, panic or anxiety, it’s a good idea to try supplementing your existing treatment with some of the therapies we’ve talked about here. Talk with your doctor or healthcare provider for advice if you’re not sure where to begin. Or talk with friends or co-workers who have tried some complementary medical treatments. Pursue activities and treatments that appeal to you, and stick with them for a while for the best results.

British Medical Journal, December 2001; Journal of the American Medical Association, 10 April 2002; The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; A. Solomon, The Noonday Demon. Scribner, 2001. The Physician and Sports Medicine, October 1998;
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