Medication has become the default treatment for individuals diagnosed with depression, particularly when the first person they reach out to for help is their primary care physician. When that happens, misdiagnosis is not rare. With more than 90% of antidepressants prescribed by general practitioners, issues like mismedication and overmedication are common, and underlying factors like trauma, environment, and lifestyle are often overlooked.
While medication can play a positive role in treatment, particularly when used acutely for short periods of time following an accurate diagnosis, it is not always necessary for successful recovery from depression, especially when the diagnosis may have been questionable to begin with.
Whether you simply want to understand if depression treatment without medication is possible or you suspect a family member has been overmedicated or misdiagnosed, one of the best places to start is understanding how to treat depression without medication.
The Best Alternative Treatments for Depression
If your goal is to recover from depression and go on to live a life of well-being, medication is not absolutely necessary. In fact, medication should never be the sole focus of any holistic depression treatment plan. If the individual can never hope to sustain a state of well-being without medication, the entire approach to recovery needs to be examined.
However, the same cannot be said for an individual’s lifestyle. Medication or no medication, lifestyle changes and management are arguably one of the most important aspects of recovering from depression. Focused lifestyle changes set individuals up for long-term, sustainable recovery from depression more so than medication.
These are the lifestyle changes most effective for treating depression.
Most people are already aware of the physical health benefits of exercise, but it is just as important to remember the mental benefits it provides—it can be just as effective as antidepressants. In some individuals, ongoing aerobic exercise can actually be more effective at treating depression than medication.
To address issues with mismedication, healthcare professionals have begun to advocate for exercise as the starting point for treating mild depressive symptoms rather than medication.
Research still needs to be done to determine the optimal frequency and intensity of workouts for treating depression, but most people feel the benefits within a few weeks of starting regular low-intensity exercise. It is best to start simple (5-10 minutes of walking a day) and build a routine when you are ready for more.
Completing a simple workout routine on a daily basis is more effective for treating depression than high-intensity workouts performed once a week or once a month. Over time, you may also be able to develop a routine that allows you to explore or integrate other activities you enjoy with your lifestyle (biking, running, weight lifting, etc.).
While aerobic exercise is one of the most beneficial non-medical ways to treat depression, forms of anaerobic exercise like yoga are also worth exploring. Yoga provides a middle ground between physical activity and mindfulness where individuals can begin to better understand thought patterns as well as mental responses to stress and anxiety.
Preliminary research has already shown that yoga is a viable method for reducing depression.
The connection between sleep and depression cannot be ignored. Loss of sleep and difficulty sleeping are signs that someone may be struggling with depression, and it can be difficult to differentiate between depression and sleep issues. An individual may have trouble sleeping for an extended period, making them more vulnerable to depressive symptoms. On the other hand, they may be depressed, causing them to oversleep and have difficulty staying asleep.
Whatever the case, we know that effective depression treatment has to account for underlying sleep patterns while developing sleep hygiene—what we call sleep management.
The good news is that simply developing habits to sleep well every night can help alleviate depressive symptoms and is critical to continuing recovery.
Individual and Group Therapy
Individual and group therapy is critical for helping individuals identify and process underlying emotions, trauma, and memories that may be at the root of depressive symptoms. Even without the use of medication, forms of psychotherapy develop the mental skills and awareness to productively cope with depressive triggers.
Therapy is also useful for helping individuals understand the connection between what happened to them in the past and how it influences their behaviors and thoughts in the present. Making these connections is an important step to choosing more productive behaviors in the future.
Art therapy creates a safe space for expressing feelings that may otherwise be difficult to verbalize. It is especially useful for individuals who are working through trauma and emotional regulation at the root of their depressive symptoms. It also allows individuals to make meaningful connections within themselves and others who may be struggling with similar issues.
In our experience, art provides a vital opportunity to create connections between people and communities. That’s why we started the PCH Arts Initiative. Meet the Artists
When Is Depression Medication Medically Necessary?
We would be remiss to not discuss the reality that there are times when it is medically necessary to treat someone diagnosed with depression. When someone’s behavior presents a danger to themselves or others, medication is often needed. It is often necessary in cases of extreme or severe depression, as when individuals struggle with daily tasks like getting out of bed or finding motivation to eat.
Even when medication is medically necessary, however, it is most effective when used acutely in short durations with the goal of stabilizing the individual. From there, more sustainable treatment modalities must be employed to achieve long-term recovery from depression.