With the colder weather, shorter days and the holiday season, depression and anxiety always spike around this time of year. Unfortunately, these two conditions are very common. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects around 6.8 million adults in the U.S. while major depressive disorder (MDD) affects more than 16 million.
Researchers haven’t reached a consensus as to what causes depression and anxiety, but most agree genetics, biology, environment and psychology all play a role. People with depression and anxiety typically feel anxious, sad, hopeless and pessimistic. On a physical level, folks suffering from depression and/or anxiety may experience a loss of interest in their hobbies or activities, change in appetite, weight changes, as well as aches and pains.
The most common treatment for these mood disorders, besides psychotherapy, is anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals. Prozac, Cymbalta or Norpramin are typically prescribed for depression; Xanax, Valium and Ativan are used to combat anxiety.
These can be effective for some, but many patients experience unwanted side effects like insomnia, reduced sexual drive, weight gain and dry mouth. Luckily, there’s a body of research pointing to a number of holistic methods that can help battle depression and anxiety.
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can successfully alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exercising allows your brain to release feel-good endorphins, which the Mayo Clinic notes are cannabis-like brain chemicals that can “enhance your sense of well-being.”
Sticking to regular physical activity routines for 30 minutes per day can help improve your mood significantly. While higher-intensity cardiovascular activities are preferred, even sustained, low-intensity walking can be sufficient to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says, “for some people [exercise] works as well as antidepressants,” and that “exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.”
It’s a common misconception that cannabis can increase depression. But a 2006 study published in Addictive Behaviors looked at the survey responses from 4,400 adults who identify as occasional or chronic cannabis users. Daily cannabis users reported “less depressed mood and more positive affect than non-users.” The researchers concluded that cannabis doesn’t increase risk of depression.
While this study doesn’t prove a causal link between cannabis consumption and a decreased risk of depression and anxiety, there are reasons why marijuana consumption would make sense as a treatment option. As mentioned with exercise, our body naturally makes feel-good cannabinoids. When we’re depressed, there’s a lower level of these specific endocannabinoids in our bodies. Cannabis—with its phytocannabinoids—can be a healthy and natural supplement to boost these specific endocannabinoids when levels are low.
If you want to try cannabis, there are several marijuana strains that are recommended for treating depression.
Certain types of foods could help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. A 2017 study published in BMC Medicine concluded that “dietary improvement may provide an efficacious and accessible treatment strategy” for major depressive disorder. This 12-week study tested a Mediterranean-based diet on individuals with moderate to severe depression. Meanwhile, a control group received social support but no change in their current diet.
The diet encouraged foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, unsweetened dairy, unsalted nuts, lean red meat, chicken, fish, eggs and olive oil. It discouraged sweets, processed meats, fast food, fried food and refined cereals.
After 12 weeks, the participants were graded using multiple tests, including the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS). On average, the participants on the Mediterranean diet demonstrated significantly greater improvement in MADRS—11 points on average—than did the control group.
A 2015 study by the University of Exeter shows mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) could be an effective treatment option for depression and anxiety. MBCT is focused on restructuring the problematic thought patterns that individuals with depression and anxiety often experience. It teaches the skills necessary to be mindful of the present moment, recognizing and responding constructively to problematic thoughts.
Study participants were all being treated for recurrent major depression and using antidepressant medication for treatment. Of the 424 adults chosen in the study, 212 were put into a group that underwent eight 2 1/4-hour MBCT group sessions and given daily home practices for mindfulness. The other group maintained their regular pharmaceutical regimen.
All participants were examined at regular intervals over two years. After two years, relapse rates for both groups were similar with the MBCT group showing 44% relapse and the medication group showing 47% relapse.
The researchers in this study concluded, “Whilst this study doesn’t show that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy works any better than antidepressant medication in reducing the rate of relapse in depression, we believe these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions.”
Depression and anxiety don’t stick to routines; symptoms of these disorders can pop up any time, any place. While there haven’t been many clinical research studies to support this, many psychotherapists and doctors recommend creating routines to help reduce depression and anxiety. These routines can be as simple as going for a walk, writing in a journal, dancing around the house or cleaning the kitchen. The key is making sure that you do it at the same time, consistently throughout your week.
In an interview with CBS News, clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Raskin said, “A routine—anything from jogging and shopping to doing the dishes—helps you avoid the stay-in-your-pajamas syndrome, which can make things worse. A routine demonstrates to you and to others that if you are capable of getting through the day, you are capable of recovery.”
We hope you’ll give these holistic treatment options for depression and anxiety a try. Let us know if you found any on this list to be particularly helpful.
Photo credit: Emma Simpson