More than 1 in 10 Americans take antidepressant medications, a 400% growth over the past 20 years. And antidepressants help thousands of patients who could not function without the use of these drugs. Likewise, pharmaceutical medications can be a lifesaving component of therapy for serious mental illness, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. But there are also thousands and thousands of patients with emotional imbalances and disorders who seek alternative methods of care with great success.
Let me be perfectly clear. I am not opposed to antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications – I have seen them work wonders for many patients. But I do think that our medical culture is too quick to prescribe antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications: I think that many patients could lift their mood and treat their anxiety and depression successfully without introducing medications, or could increase the efficacy of their medications and thereby cut the dosage to reduce side effects by modifying their lifestyle and introducing natural therapeutic tools to manage emotional imbalances.
Please remember that you should NEVER stop taking a psychiatric medication or reduce the dosage without consulting with your psychiatrist. But these tools may enable you to get to a place where you are ready to have that conversation, or may prevent needing to use medication in the first place.
To combat anxiety, here are the top three dietary things you should do: Stop eating sugar, limit caffeine use, and increase consumption of whole grains. For depression-type symptoms: Cut out dairy, stop eating sugar, limit the amount of red meat you eat, and increase consumption of leafy green vegetables. You can also incorporate foods into your diet that have a known effect on the mental-emotional system – you can read details about those foods here.
Anxiety and depression or the negative feelings associated with stress do not arise on their own – they are connected with the health of the rest of our body. And more and more research shows that the food we eat directly affects our mood and emotional health. So maintaining a healthy diet has a lot to do with maintaining emotional stability. Follow all the general guidelines for a holistic-minded healthy diet: Eat cooked meals whenever possible, full of nourishing grains. Be sure to include protein in each meal. Make sure you are getting enough vitamins and nutrients from your food – include nutrient-rich vegetables like kale, broccoli, and chard in your regular diet. Drink enough fluids (at least 8 glasses of water per day), but try to drink only room-temperature water rather than cold water. Avoid processed foods whenever possible. Only eat foods when you know and understand every ingredient on the label. Eat organic meats and eggs. Include wild fish in your diet if possible.
Numerous scientific studies over the years have shown that exercise can help ward off feelings of depression and can help us cope with anxiety, fear, and stress. Exercise helps your body release feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which directly affect your mood. It also helps the body to reduce inflammatory chemicals which may play a role in certain mood disorders. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, we know exercise helps improve mood because it gets the qi moving – our body’s energy wants to flow, and when it gets stuck, emotional issues often ensue. Some modern research even shows that exercise routines – when adhered to – can help patients with more severe depression, who don’t respond to medication therapy.
Again, our bodies need to – want to – move. When energy flows smoothly throughout the body, our emotions are at ease. Stretching helps to soothe out the part of our bodies in which we hold tension, store negative emotions, and unintentionally cripple ourselves in the long run. Research shows that activities that involve lots of stretching – like yoga and Tai Chi – can improve mental-emotional function.
Include stretching as part of your daily morning routine – be sure to hit all the major muscle groups and hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. After 5 minutes, you’ll feel like a new person.
Numerous scientific research studies have shown again and again that meditation and mindfulness-based relaxation techniques can improve anxiety and depression. A meta-analysis of clinical trials in 2010 concluded that “mindfulness-based therapy is a promising intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems in clinical populations.” Further research is still being carried out, but major medical institutions like Mass General Hospital have whole centers devoted to meditation and the relaxation response. Additionally, modern research has shown us again and again that meditation actually physically changes our brain, so that we are better equipped to deal with negative emotions.
Acupuncture can be a great way to deal with anxiety, depression, or the effects of stress. It can also be a great adjunctive technique for more serious emotional disorders, and can work alongside pharmaceutical medications. Acupuncture realigns the body’s systems so that the energetic heart – the seat of our emotions – is properly nourished. It also ensures the smooth flow of energy throughout the body and treats common physical symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as trouble sleeping, lethargy and fatigue, palpitations, muscle tension and/or weakness, and changes in appetite. It also treats the emotional symptoms themselves, and can help us deal with and get through times of sadness, anger, grief, despair, frustration, nervousness, and even panic and fearfulness. You can learn more about how acupuncture views the emotional being here.
Modern scientific research is starting to support the ancient wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as studies show acupuncture to have a beneficial effect in managing the symptoms of anxiety before dental treatment, anxiety during the IVF process, pre-exam anxiety, anxiety-like behavior during nicotine withdrawal, preoperative anxiety, PTSD, anxiety and perfectionism in eating disorder patients, depression, when compared with antidepressants, post-stroke depression, and depression.
I am not an aromatherapy practitioner by any means, but here are a few scents that I have discovered over the years that are used in various traditional healing systems to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and ease tension and stress: sandlewood, chamomille, and lavender. To combat depression and lift the spirits, try Jasmine or orange.
7. Chinese Herbal Medicine
Chinese Herbal Medicine can also be a great natural treatment for emotional imbalances. CHM works on the same principles as acupuncture to address the energetic imbalances leading to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Chinese Herbal Medicine utilizes natural substances – plant, animal, and mineral products – to nourish the body’s emotional centers and treat common symptoms of emotional disorders. Clinically, we often use Chinese Herbal Medicine to treat postpartum depression and anxiety, anxiety-related insomnia, menopausal anxiety and depression, and symptoms of stress. Chinese Herbal Medicine can be prescribed by a licensed practitioner in conjunction with pharmaceutical drugs to treat more serious mental-emotional disorders, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, ADHD, or panic disorders.
While scientific research into CHM is in its early stages, a recent bench science study found that Xiao Yao San – a very common CHM formula for symptoms of stress and/or depression – moderated neurotransmitter levels associated with depression in rats.
8. Vitamins and Supplements
A lot of times, our emotions are thrown off because we are not getting the vitamins and nutrients that we need. This is why eating well is so essential to good mental and emotional health. However, supplementing can also be a good idea, especially during the winter or during particularly hard times. It is important to get professional consult about which vitamins or supplements you should be taking – ask your doctor, or schedule a visit with a naturopath or osteopathic physician. The one supplement that I am very comfortable recommending to patients who suffer from anxiety or depression is Omega-3 fish oils. You can read all about the emotional health benefits of Omega-3’s here.
CNN Health also has a comprehensive overview of commonly recommended supplements for depression and anxiety, and the current level of research conducted for each.
Human touch is invaluable in balancing emotions and helping with psychological and mood disorders. Massage can be a terrific adjunctive treatment for anxiety disorders, as it releases muscle tension, helps us work through emotional issues by working on the physical muscle areas where those emotions are stored, and promotes a sense of calm and relaxation. Massage can also help us break out of the cycles of stress and tension that often dominate our life, thereby allowing us to walk the world in a more emotionally balanced state.