Do you ever feel depressed or anxious? If so, you’re not alone.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. It defines major depression as feelings of depression and disengagement lasting more than two weeks. The NIMH reports that in 2017, 17.3 million adults – over 7% of the population – had at least one major depressive episode.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The Rising Rates of Depression & Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are serious problems around the globe. The World Health Organization reports that over 300 million adults experience depression each year.
Depression is especially prevalent among adolescents. The NIMH reports that an estimated 3.2 adolescents ages 12 to 17 – 13.3% of the population – had at least one major depressive episode in 2017. Adolescent depression is also more severe than adult depression; 71% of adolescents with depression reported severe impairment during their depression, compared with 64% of adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that hospital admission rates for suicidal teenagers doubled over the past decade.
When it comes to anxiety, the statistics are just as sobering. The NIMH reports that 19% of adults and 31.9% of adolescents in the U.S. had an anxiety disorder in 2017. According to the AAP, these figures are 20% higher than in 2007.
All of this leads to a pressing question for kids and adults alike: What can we do to reduce or eliminate feelings of depression and anxiety so that we can live our lives to their full potential?
Natural Ways to Reduce Depression & Anxiety
The tips and natural remedies below are not a cure for anxiety and depression, and they should not replace medical treatment. Always seek medical help and advice from a qualified professional if you feel sad or anxious for more than two weeks. If you’re not sure where or how to get help, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Natural treatments are meant to augment, not replace, medical treatment such as medication and counseling. But they are still quite valuable. Feeling depressed or anxious often makes people feel helpless. By trying one or more of the following things, you can take a more active role in your recovery and supplement any other treatment you’re receiving.
When you’re feeling depressed, often the last thing you want to do is move around. However, regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to combat depression and anxiety. It also provides several other significant health benefits, such as improving heart health, protecting against diabetes, and lowering blood pressure.
According to a 2005 study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, exercise is essential for improving your mood. In the study, adults ages 20 to 45 with depressive symptoms exercised for 30 minutes three to five times a week. After 12 weeks, researchers found their symptoms were reduced by as much as 50%.
Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells Harvard Health Publishing that exercise can work just as well as antidepressants in cases of mild to moderate depression.
What You Can Do
The hardest part of exercising is getting started, and that’s especially true when you have depression or anxiety.
So start small. Tell yourself that all you’re going to do is take a 10-minute walk. After 10 minutes are up, you can come home. Of course, you still have to walk back for 10 minutes, so you’ve essentially tricked yourself into going for a 20-minute walk. But don’t think about it like that. Just focus on walking for 10 minutes, and then you can turn around and come home.
Consider making a “walking date” with one of your friends a couple of times per week. Being accountable to someone else makes you more likely to show you. Plus, you get the benefits of spending time with someone you care about.
You can also keep yourself motivated by listening to audiobooks or podcasts. Save these only for your walking time, and you might find you’re excited to get out there so you can hear what happens next.
Another way to start exercising is to find some easy workouts you can do at home. It can be a great first step, especially if the thought of interacting with people overwhelms you. Fitness apps like Aaptiv can help you find new workouts so you’re never bored.
Some exercise practices, such as yoga or T’ai Chi, are known to increase energy and help generate feelings of calm and strength. They’re also easy to do at home. Other ways to exercise that don’t feel like exercise include:
- Swimming at your local rec center
- Dancing to your favorite song
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Riding a bike
- Parking far from your destination and walking the rest of the way
- Walking your dog
- Cleaning your house
- Using a standing desk at work
- Roughhousing with your kids
- Skipping the elevator and taking the stairs
- Doing pushups or squats during the commercial breaks of your favorite show
All you need to do is move around, briskly if you can, to incorporate more exercise in your life.
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective natural treatment for depression and anxiety. CBT is a form of psychotherapy aimed at changing your negative thought patterns, behaviors, and automatic responses to situations and replacing them with ones that are more productive and healthy.
Health professionals use a wide variety of CBT techniques and procedures to treat mental health conditions. Some of these include practicing mindfulness, journaling, cognitive restructuring, and graded exposure, which involves slowly exposing patients to situations that cause depression or anxiety.
A meta-analysis of current research published in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research found strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of CBT for mental health disorders. Another meta-analysis, published in Clinical Psychology Review, found CBT to be slightly superior to antidepressants for treating depression and just as effective as behavioral therapy for treating depression.
CBT can also help with anxiety. A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that participants who received CBT treatment saw statistically and clinically significant improvements compared with those who received no treatment. Additionally, 77% of study participants no longer met the criteria for general anxiety post-treatment, as well as six and 12 months later.
These are only three studies among thousands that demonstrate that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. Additionally, CBT typically has the lowest relapse rate compared with all other treatments, including medication.
What You Can Do
You need the guidance of a mental health professional to experience the full range of benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy. However, there are some techniques you can try on your own.
One of these techniques is called cognitive restructuring, which helps you change negative thoughts into positive ones. For example, at work, you might have “automatic thoughts” like “I’m not good enough to complete this project” or “No one really likes to work with me.” These thoughts are not based on fact. Rather, they’re manifestations of your depression or low self-confidence.
Negative thoughts like these can act as a magnet, pulling you further into feelings of sadness and ineptitude and even changing your behavior. For instance, negative thoughts can quickly talk you out of volunteering to be part of a challenging new initiative. Over time, negative thoughts can hold you back in your career.
Cognitive restructuring works to change your negative thoughts into positive and constructive thoughts. Let’s say you have an automatic negative thought like “I’m not good enough to complete this project.” Cognitive restructuring would combat that thought with a positive one, like “My boss delegated this project to me because she trusts I have the knowledge and skills to do a good job.”
Cognitive restructuring takes practice. You might find it helpful to use a book that provides more in-depth advice, such as “Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky or “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks” by Dr. Seth Gillihan.
3. Herbal Remedies
For some people, herbal remedies for depression can be very useful when paired with other treatments and lifestyle changes.
Keep in mind that herbs are effective only if you use them long-term. In most cases, you won’t experience a significant mood change after one dose as you might with pharmaceutical medication. Herbs need consistency and time to work, so you must take them daily to notice a slow but steady improvement in your mood.
Herbs are gentle on your body and often provide several other positive effects on whole-body wellness. However, always talk to your doctor before starting any herbal regimen, as some herbs can increase or decrease the effectiveness of pharmaceutical medications.
Milky oats, or Avena sativa, come from the common oat plant that’s grown all over the country. Oat tops harvested at an early stage, when the tops exude a milky sap when pressed, are called “milky oats.”
Milky oats are high in many minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus, chromium, calcium, and Vitamin B. In his book “The Earthwise Herbal: Volume I,” renowned herbalist Mattew Wood writes that milky oat seed is an important restorative for the nervous system and can help soothe agitation from depression and anxiety. It’s also an excellent remedy for insomnia, especially insomnia stemming from anxiety or nervous exhaustion.
Gaia Organics makes an excellent milky oats tincture, but it’s expensive. It’s far more economical to buy milky oats in bulk from Mountain Rose Herbs and make your own tincture. You can find simple instructions for making tinctures at the Mountain Rose Herbs blog.
St. John’s Wort
You’ve likely heard of St. John’s wort. A decade ago, St. John’s Wort received a great deal of press when some scientific studies lauded its effectiveness in treating depression. However, it quickly grew out of favor with people as many pundits “forgot” to mention it’s only effective with long-term use. People expected an immediate silver bullet, and when it didn’t work, they moved on to something else. St. John’s wort can be an effective remedy for depression and anxiety. However, like any herbal treatment, it takes time to work.
Research published by Harvard Health reports that some studies show St. John’s wort might be as effective as antidepressants. However, the keyword is “might.” Harvard cautions that the studies were somewhat inconsistent due, in part, to the range of severity of participants’ depression. Those with mild depression might respond more favorably to St. John’s wort than those with major depression.
Another study, published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Review, found that St. John’s wort was superior to placebo for patients with major depression and just as effective as antidepressants. Additionally, St. John’s wort had fewer side effects than pharmaceuticals.
4. Pet Therapy
While the evidence isn’t clear-cut, spending time with a pet may help brighten your mood and ease depression symptoms. It’s not a cure for depression, but many people report feeling more motivated and happier after bonding with a pet.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 74% of those surveyed reported mental health improvements from pet ownership. Purdue University researchers found that pets are a useful therapy tool in patients with long-term mental health conditions because they provide distraction, routine, and encouragement.
Pets can help alleviate depression symptoms by making people feel wanted and important at a time when they may feel worthless or invisible to the world. Pets also increase levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” in the brain, which further increase a sense of well-being.
Pets also help depressed people feel less lonely, since most pets, especially dogs, enjoy bonding and spending time with their owners. Furthermore, animals seem to have an innate ability to put a smile on people’s faces with their antics and behavior.
What You Can Do
Consider adopting a pet for companionship if you’re willing to commit to using your time and resources to raise and take care of an animal. Pets such as cats, small dogs, and rabbits are good companionship animals that are easy to take care of and feed.
You can also volunteer to take care of dogs, cats, or other animals at local animal shelters. Plenty of animal shelters can use your help, and these animals will love you and bond with you in return. Plus, being able to help the helpless is a rewarding feeling.
5. Get Enough Sleep
Depression can have devastating effects on your sleep. You may not get enough sleep due to excessive worry, or you may not want to get out of bed because you’re too unhappy.
Unfortunately, changes in sleep patterns can also trigger depression-like symptoms, such as irritability, overwhelming feelings of sadness, and anxiety. It creates a vicious cycle. Treating your sleep issues can help reduce these symptoms.
Several studies have drawn connections between sleep deprivation and depression. For instance, a 2005 study conducted by the University of North Texas showed that people who experienced frequent insomnia were up to 17.35% more likely to have depression or anxiety.
Increased bouts of insomnia also increased the rate of depression and anxiety symptoms.
According to Psychology Today, insomnia can also trigger depression. In many cases, merely regulating sleep patterns decreases or alleviates a depressed mood.
What You Can Do
If you have mild to moderate depression, take a look at your sleeping habits. Are they irregular? Do you get only four hours of sleep per night and always feel tired? If so, consider setting up a plan for getting enough sleep, such as going to bed earlier or cutting out stimulants like caffeine that can cause insomnia. Also, avoid any activities that can make it difficult to fall asleep, such as exercising late at night or eating too much right before bed.
Plenty of natural remedies can help treat insomnia and enable you to get deeper, more restful sleep. These include melatonin, valerian, and passionflower.
Keep in mind that certain supplements or medications, such as weight loss supplements, may also contain ingredients that can increase the risk of insomnia. Ask your doctor if you can modify your medication regimen to reduce this risk.
If your depression makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning, motivate yourself with small, enjoyable acts. For example, get up early enough to sit outside with a cup of coffee for 10 minutes, or keep some special breakfast items on hand that you’re excited to try.
You can also try a light therapy alarm clock. These clocks stimulate the changing light of sunrise, spread out over 10 to 60 minutes depending on the settings you choose. A light therapy alarm clock can help ease you into the day by gradually waking you up, unlike a traditional alarm clock that jolts you out of sleep suddenly.
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish such as salmon, anchovies, and sardines. Research shows that adding more omega-3s to your diet could be an effective and healthy way to combat depression and anxiety. It’s also an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder.
A study cited by Harvard Health found that patients with depression who took 6 grams of omega-3 per day had more reduced symptoms than those taking a placebo. Other studies cited by Harvard suggest that taking omega-3 supplements along with antidepressants can improve antidepressants’ overall effectiveness.
Omega-3s might also help children diagnosed with depression. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry concluded that omega-3s could be a useful treatment for depressed children.
What You Can Do
There are several different ways to incorporate more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. One of the easiest is to eat more foods that are high in omega-3s, such as:
- Cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies, and mackerel
- Chia seeds
- Brussels sprouts
You can also take an omega-3 supplement. When researching the right supplement, it often pays to spend more for a higher-quality product. A quality supplement won’t give you the “fishy aftertaste” common with many cheaper products. It will also be free of the heavy metals and toxins often found in fish meat.
Anxiety and depression rates are rising, nationally and worldwide. If you have one or both of these conditions, knowing every step you can take to reduce your symptoms can help you live a happy and fulfilled life.
Natural treatments can be very effective at alleviating anxiety and depression. However, you should always talk to your doctor before taking a supplement or trying a new remedy to make sure it’s safe and won’t interfere with your current treatment plan.
What tips and tricks do you use to improve your mood or combat symptoms of anxiety or depression?