Physical exercise is one of the most effective natural ways to battle depression and its symptoms.
Depression is characterized by prolonged feelings of disinterest and sadness. Beyond feeling blue, major depression is a mood disorder that can last several years and severely disrupt your life. Depression is usually treated with a combination of talk therapy and medications under the supervision of mental health professionals. As the leading cause of disability globally, there is a lot of interest in learning how to battle depression in natural ways that complement conventional approaches.
What are “natural” treatments?
Prescription medications can be life-changing, but like with any treatment, they aren’t for everyone. Maybe you want to learn how to combat depression naturally before committing to prescription medications, or perhaps you’d like to avoid them altogether.
These suggestions are also helpful to people who are already taking medication and want to take additional steps to combat depression. Whatever your situation, it’s never a bad idea to learn more about how to treat depression using natural means like lifestyle adjustments, behavioral tools, and meditation. But please don’t stop any prescription medicines without first checking with your healthcare provider.
It’s normal to feel inadequate or self-critical sometimes, but it’s not a pleasant way to live. Some signs you might benefit from a bit of self-acceptance are things like: not giving yourself credit for what you do right, finding fault in what you do, and comparing yourself to others in a way that leaves you feeling inadequate.
Embracing who we are is easier said than done, but it begins with some simple steps. You can start by showing kindness to yourself and consciously deciding again and again to change the thoughts that cause you emotional distress. Especially if you’ve been busy comparing and despairing, a mental health break from social media can help interrupt the negative cycle.
But there are also therapeutic modalities, like behavioral therapies, that focus on shifting or reframing negative thinking. Two of the most effective therapies for depression are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
2. Get your body moving
Not only is exercise one of the most effective ways to fight depression naturally, but it also reduces anxiety and promotes self-esteem. Don’t worry about following a strict regimen—any kind of movement works. Do whatever you like, whether that’s dancing, hiking, weightlifting, or anything in between.
You’ll get the best results from regular activity, but it doesn’t take much to start noticing improvement; one study showed a reduction in depressive symptoms after a single 20-minute bout of cycling. Whether you’re interested in anti-depressant meds or not, exercise is a great practice to have in your mental health tool belt.
2. Set realistic goals
Wherever you want to go, goals can help get you there. Goals can both help create paths to what you want and give you a clear idea of your destination.
But we often think of our desires in vague terms like “being less anxious” or “feeling less depressed.” For example, to accomplish your goal of “feeling less depressed,” you may choose to exercise more and prioritize sleep. Once you have one or two larger goals established, you can reverse engineer footpaths towards them with smaller goals.
However you break things down, know that nothing is more important in goal setting than making consistency attainable. Don’t worry about how quickly you’re moving. Just focus on making progress in the right direction. If you fall off, simply pick back up where you left off. Be patient and kind with yourself, but keep going.
4. Take care of your mind
The descent into depression can be insidious. Mindfulness, the practice of being aware of your own thoughts, can help you notice when you begin to go down dark mental paths. The aim of mindfulness isn’t to fight those thoughts but simply to observe them.
This is particularly helpful for addressing thoughts or feelings like self-criticism or self-loathing, which are everyday experiences of depression. Mindfulness isn’t about stopping thoughts—it’s about noticing them and learning that you don’t need to believe them or let them run the show.
Find a way to meditate or connect to the present moment that works for you. There’s no best way to meditate—it’s all about finding what feels safe and effective for your body, mind, and spirit. Even if you only meditate for a couple of minutes a day, it pays off. Mindfulness has been shown to improve emotional regulation.
With regular practice, it becomes easier to see that the things you tell yourself when you’re depressed are not facts of life but just passing thoughts. Pause, breathe, and allow them to pass. You may also want to try these relaxing exercises, which include progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).
5. Just do today
It’s not easy to hold out hope for the future when you’re battling depression, so sometimes it’s better to just focus on the day in front of you. You’re taking the necessary steps for recovery; there’s no need to overwhelm yourself looking too far ahead.
When you feel overwhelmed or undermotivated, focus on baby steps. You can pause and consider this question: what’s the next right thing to do? Trust the process and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
6. Set a routine
People benefit psychologically from routine. When you have an erratic sleep schedule, irregular work hours, and have to eat on the go, it can be challenging to form healthy habits and make time for what truly matters to you.
You may not be in a position to keep a strict schedule, but if you can organize any part of your day, you may be surprised. Life can feel much less hectic life with the container a schedule provides.
A morning routine, for example, can go a long way in setting you up for success. If that’s the only time you can claim for yourself, use it for things that help put you in a good mental space. That may mean going for a run, meditating for a few minutes, or getting your least favorite chore out of the way so you won’t have to deal with it later on when you’re tired.
If you have a hard time keeping a schedule, make a list of a few non-negotiable things. From there, pick any window of time throughout your day where you can consistently fit those things into your day, so they become habits. Start with one thing at a time and slowly build from there. Eventually, you’ll have created a system that helps you stay on top of your priorities.
7. Eat for your mental health
Food has the power to influence every aspect of our lives, including how we think and feel. Nutrition is a complicated subject, but eating to reduce depression is diet advice you’ve probably heard before. Here’s what it entails: vegetables, unprocessed whole grains, seeds, nuts, and lean protein sources while avoiding highly processed foods, sugar, fatty dairy, and red meat.
When your body is well-nourished, you have the resources to face whatever comes, including mental health issues. A diet rich in nutrients and low in sugar may help to reduce mood swings.
If this sounds like a jump for you, try to slowly make adjustments to your current diet and start with easy changes first. It’s a message worth repeating: focus on improvement, not perfection.
Keep in mind that eating for mental health and physical wellbeing is not the same as trying to lose weight. Though that may happen naturally, make your aim to find a sustainable way of eating that you enjoy and makes you feel good.
8. Get enough rest
Poor sleep both causes and is caused by depression. 80 – 90% of people with depression report trouble sleeping, while people with insomnia have more than a two-fold risk of developing depression.
If you’re experiencing sleep disturbances like insomnia, consider improving your sleep hygiene. A few simple ways to do this include limiting caffeine after 4 pm, keeping your room cool and dark, and avoiding using your bed for anything besides sleep or sex.
The blue light emitted by phones, laptops, and televisions, interferes with our natural sleep-wake patterns. In the hour before you go to bed, either use a blue light filter or avoid electronics altogether.
Melatonin may also be useful if you need help falling asleep and staying asleep longer, especially if you travel a lot or work the night shift. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that signals to your body that it’s time to go to bed. It’s a non-habit-forming option with mild effects since it’s like an invitation to sleep rather than a sedative.
9. Reframe your thinking
Reframing thoughts is a technique used in mindfulness that involves attaching phrases like “right now I’m thinking” or “at this moment I feel like” to the beginning of troubling thoughts.
For example, if you find yourself thinking, “no one knows how to get rid of depression. I’ll always feel like this,” you could reframe it. The reframed thought might sound like this: “right now, I think that I’ll always feel like this.” It’s subtle, but this type of shift can stop corrosive ideas from taking root.
If you’re interested in learning more about using mindfulness for mental health, you might want to consider cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. CBT teaches people how to challenge negative thought patterns and regulate emotions.
10. Stay connected
Humans are social creatures, and we need other people. There’s no way around it. We need people to ground us, remind us we’re loved, and give us meaning outside ourselves. Taking a mental health day can be rejuvenating, but habitually withdrawing from family and friends is a dangerous habit.
This can be tricky with depressive disorders since there can be a natural pull toward isolation, which actually perpetuates depression. That’s why it’s so important to stay connected, even in small ways. Do your best to keep in touch with your loved ones, even if it’s as simple as a text or a short call.
11. Be of service
Giving back provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and there are always opportunities to help others. Pick any cause that matters to you and reach out to an organization for ways you could be of service. Being a part of something bigger than yourself is a great way to develop a sense of purpose.
12. Try something different
The world is filled with things to do, places to explore, and interesting subjects to discover. Getting out and connecting with others fills your cup in a way that can counteract some of the symptoms of depression, such as lethargy.
This can feel understandably challenging in the midst of depression. But if you can choose something that’s just slightly out of your current comfort zone, you might be surprised by the benefits. Go for a walk around the block and see how the fresh air feels. Or, if getting out feels like too much, take a shower and see if you can just let your body enjoy the sensations.
If you’re ready for something more adventurous, check out the next town over or give that hip, new restaurant a try. If you’re friends with someone who has a hobby or interest you’re curious about, ask them to tell you what it’s like and see if you can join in the fun. People usually love sharing their passions with others and will probably be excited to teach you about it.
13. Do pleasurable things
Make room for the things that add meaning to your life so that you look forward to each day. Scrolling through social media may be easy and kind of entertaining, but it tends to fill up more of our day than we realize.
That’s why many therapists suggest consciously scheduling pleasure into your day as a way to battle depression. This practice, referred to as behavioral activation therapy in clinical contexts, is one essential CBT skill.
Use your free time purposefully, and spend it on what you find enriching. This might mean taking a bath, going for a walk, playing with your pet, or eating your favorite meal.
When to seek further help
Though science has done much to help us understand depression, there’s still plenty we don’t know. This is true for natural remedies, as well as prescription and other medications. Finding the approach that works best for you may take time.
Medications may not be the right choice for everyone, but they do benefit many people with depression. If lifestyle and behavioral modifications aren’t giving you relief, it may be beneficial to talk to a medical professional about your symptoms and see whether an antidepressant might be helpful.
Whatever path you choose, working with a mental health professional can help keep you accountable and connected on your journey to mental wellness.
- There are many ways to work with depression naturally—that is, without medications.
- Whether you take meds or not, learning how to combat depression naturally can be supportive.
- Build a network of friends, family, and mental health professionals. Don’t go it alone.