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6 (Non-Drug) Ways to Fight Depression

There are options to try, with or without medication

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Depression is often treated with prescription drugs. But there are other things you can try alongside the medication prescribed by your doctor. Or if the depression is mild and you and your clinician agree, instead of drugs, psychotherapy, physical or mindful exercise, diet, improved sleep and other lifestyle adjustments may help as well.

Plus, they can indirectly help by improving your overall attitude toward life and health. Here are some of the most common ways doctors and psychologists say you can fight depression that don’t involve medicine:

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1. Talk to a professional. Talk therapy can indeed help treat depression, according to a 2015 review of 30 studies published in the Annals of Family Medicine. Navigating the options may seem confusing, since there are about 400 recognized types of therapy, says psychologist Kimber Shelton, owner of KLS Counseling & Consulting Services in Duncansville, Texas. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which focuses on changing faulty or unhelpful thinking patterns (such as “I fail at everything I try” or “No one wants to be my friend”), is probably the most widely used method for depression, she says.

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But more important than the specific type of therapy is the quality of the relationship between the client and the therapist, she says. “You want to think, The therapist understands me. She’s helping me see blind spots. She’s challenging me,” Shelton says. You can find a therapist through a referral from a physician or friend, your insurance company or online directories. Don’t be afraid to talk to a few candidates until you find a good match.

2. Move your body. Exercise can ease depression, improve self-esteem and enhance quality of life for people of all ages, including middle-aged and older adults, says James Blumenthal, a psychologist at Duke University School of Medicine. He’s been studying the impact of exercise on depression for more than 20 years. Moreover, he says, people with depression who exercise seem far less likely to relapse. Even better news for those of us who may be reluctant exercisers: “We’re not talking about running a marathon,” he says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 30 minutes per day of mild to moderate exercise such as a brisk walk, at least five days per week, for overall health, including mental health. But “anything is better than nothing,” Blumenthal says.

Blumenthal’s own research has demonstrated a benefit from a 30-minute session just three times per week. Most studies have focused on aerobic exercise, but strength training has also shown benefits, so it’s good to do a mix of both, he says. He also recommends looking for an exercise buddy, because the social interaction can make working out more enjoyable — and make you more likely to do it. One word of caution: If you aren’t already an exerciser, talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program.


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3. Get the sleep you need. Insomnia increases the risk of depression. Adults generally need between seven and nine hours per night, and getting enough quality sleep can be tougher as you age. If you’re consistently having trouble falling or staying asleep, first check with a physician to make sure there’s nothing else going on, Shelton advises. Then practice good sleep habits. One key tip: Set up a pre-bedtime routine for yourself. If you want to be asleep by 10, start winding down at 9 by turning off screens, brushing your teeth and writing down any worries you might have so they’re on paper instead of floating around your mind. “We want to train our bodies to sleep and to get ready for bed,” Shelton says.

4. Cut back on alcohol. That nightly glass of wine (or three) may not be doing your mood any favors. Drinking “makes us feel good in the moment, but it’s actually a [mood] depressant,” says Shelton. You probably fall asleep quickly after drinking, but it’s not the restorative sleep that you need to feel refreshed, she says. So in the morning you feel tired and crummy, in addition to experiencing those swirling worries about what you may have said or done while under the influence. Age can make it even harder for your body to handle alcohol. If you suspect you have a drinking problem, talk to your doctor about how to safely stop. But even if you only drink a glass or two at a time, it’s worth taking a break from booze and noting whether your depression improves.

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5. Look at — and maybe revamp — your diet. There is growing evidence, including from randomized trials, that diet can affect depression, says psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, M.D., founder of the Brain Food Clinic in New York City and author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety. A 2016 paper published in Nutritional Neuroscience made five dietary recommendations for preventing depression, including following the Mediterranean or Japanese diets; consuming more fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains; eating foods that contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids; and limiting consumption of processed foods and sweets. Rather than prescribing a restrictive diet, Ramsey says he focuses on food categories (think seafood, leafy greens, beans and fermented foods) that contain the nutrients that seem to be most important for mental health.

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6. Practice mindfulness. Research also suggests that mindfulness can help your mood. (Really, what can’t mindfulness help?) A study of 892 health care workers published in 2021, for example, found that a formal mindfulness program had a positive, long-lasting effect on depression. And a study published earlier this year suggested that a practitioner-supported mindfulness self-help program was even better than practitioner-supported CBT self-help.

Mindfulness is about slowing down everything around you so you can be present in the moment, Shelton says. “When I’m present I can be the most competent. I can handle what’s in front of me.” Practices that promote mindfulness, such as yoga or meditation, can help steady breathing and slow down the body, heart rate and racing mind. “We’re noticing how we feel, what we’re thinking, what’s going on with our body without judging it,” she says.

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