How To Fight Depression Naturally - 31-Step Checklist
“This is never going to pass. I’m going to feel like this forever.”
That thought has passed through my mind thousands of times throughout my life.
Even though I knew that healing from depression was possible, it was so often hard to believe it.
I’m not sure if my depression is what pushed me to study psychology, but after spending my 20s and into my 30s in University, I was tired of researching it.
I wanted so desperately to know the secret formula for breaking out of my depression, and I thought that each new textbook would have the answer.
Instead, I learned that depression is a complex disease.
Being a grad student teaches you to follow the scientific method of inquiry. To say that something is valid (i.e. a “cure” for depression), it must be proven with a systematic and sound experiment.
Yet for many researchers, the need to “publish or perish” holds the ego and career hostage, and even when alternative therapies have promise, they’re often overshadowed by pharma-supported research.
That's not to say the tried and true methods aren’t effective (I talk about those below under ‘Primary Therapies’), but the remaining adjunctive therapies listed below that are also worthy of your consideration.
Many people think depression is purely a chemical imbalance or deficiency, which may be the case for some people, but usually, it’s more complex than that. In many cases, it can arise from situational circumstances that affect mental and emotional states.
As for taking antidepressants to treat mood disorders, that's an option that requires careful consideration.
For people living with severe depression, starting pharmaceutical treatment can be life-saving, but for those with mild to moderate depression, antidepressants are often shown to be no more effective than a placebo.
Not to mention the tiresome trials and experimentation for finding the right one.
Still, for some people, this may be part of the protocol. Many naturopathic doctors are able to prescribe antidepressants, but those who can't are usually very happy to work with your conventional doctor or psychiatrist to help make sure you get to take an integrative approach.
An integrative approach to treatment means looking at the body and mind across multiple dimensions. Looking at the whole person - mental, emotional, and physical - is the ideal way to achieve optimal health in the long run.
Let's jump into some of your primary options for how to fight depression naturally...
Are You Depressed?
Primary Depression Therapies
For many people, these high-level practices are highly effective treatments - especially when several of them are combined - that every depressed person should be considering.
You’ve heard it before - exercise is a great way to combat depressive symptoms.
During exercise, there are many biological events that happen in your body, like the release of “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins that give you positive feelings in both body and mind.
Your body’s nerve cells can even grow, making new connections.
So chemically, there’s a lot that can result in having an improved mood.
But perhaps an even bigger benefit to depressed people is when your self-efficacy increases.
Your self-efficacy is your belief that you are capable of affecting change in your life.
When that gets stronger, it means hope… Confidence… Action.
It may seem difficult (or impossible) to start, but this is a case where baby steps work wonderfully.
Start with any physical activity like walking for just 5 minutes, and then increase your time a little each day.
Consider getting an activity tracker to help you keep track of your progress - plus it's just a lot of fun.
2. Social Support
Depressed people tend to isolate, which magnifies our feelings of hopelessness and despair.
The more time we spend alone the more our depression holds us captive.
Human beings are social creatures. It’s our natural tendency.
Developing a social support is one layer that can protect you from your depression, and each connection you make adds one more layer of safety.
If you haven’t already, reach out to one trusted, non-depressed person to let them know you're struggling.
A parent, family member, friend, co-worker, counselor, teacher, religious leader, or health professional is a great place to start.
If you talk, someone will listen.
The more that you cultivate social support, the more likely you are to find solutions.
We sometimes think of our despair arising from our physical make-up or our emotions, but nutrition also affects the onset, intensity, and duration of depression.
Skipping meals, consuming chemically-laden foods or foods high in sugar, or eating foods absent of essential vitamins and minerals can worsen our feeling of well-being.
In contrast, an abundance of nutritionally dense food is part of an overall lifestyle that’s critical for mental well-being.
Eating healthy is within your control and is a tool you can add to your toolbox right away.
Be sure to read our nutrition article for a more in-depth look at healthy eating.
4. Routine and Daily Structure
I could write a novel about how important routine and structure are for depressed people.
It took me years to learn firsthand, and only after that did I discover the perfect name for it in clinical psychology: agency.
Structure creates a couple of things. It gives us little markers in time that help us get through the day.
8:30am breakfast. 9:00am take vitamins. 10:00am walk the dog. 12:00pm lunch. 1:30pm grocery shopping. 2:30pm answer emails. 4:00pm snack, then meditate. 5:30pm clean the shoe closet. 6:00pm dinner. 7:30pm call aunt Helen.
Structuring your day like the above (whether you do far more or far less than this example) takes away that aimless feeling by setting tiny goals and achieving them.
The byproduct of these little successes is something remarkable:
Meaning is created… Purpose… Ownership.
Your agency is actualized and you become aware that you’re a capable, active, in control human being who can influence your experiences each day.
I recommend making a physical list and add a checkmark or a strikethrough line as you accomplish things.
When you make your list for the following day, you get to decide what’s on it.
You design a list of activities (big or small) that become the creation of your effort, of your will.
The best part is that structuring simple events - like eating meals and taking medication or supplements - at daily, predictable times creates stability and balance in our brain’s chemistry making recovery easier.
5. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
People with depression tend to think in negative ways. “I’m hopeless”, “I’m a loser”, “there’s nothing to be happy about”.
These thoughts occur without us even noticing, and they give rise to our negative feelings.
CBT works to directly change those thoughts, which in turn changes the way we feel.
This therapy doesn’t involve discussing the details of your problems. Instead, it uses systematic methods to help you break free from the gloomy way you see the world.
It’s a tried and true treatment.
If you’re new to it, find a therapist that uses this method exclusively so that you know you’re getting CBT and not a mixed method.
You can also get CBT Online from Online-Therapy.com.
Last, I highly recommend the book Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns.
6. Rule out other Causes
In addition to being a great resource and support for you, your doctor can rule out any conditions that resemble depression.
For example, if you are fatigued, have aches and pains, increased or reduced appetite, feeling down or blue, or have other health complaints, a thyroid problem might just be the source.
Or a vitamin deficiency.
A visit to your healthcare provider or a simple blood test can reveal these conditions.
Likewise, if you’re taking medications, your doctor can inform you if depression is a side effect and make changes where necessary.
Of course, we’d suggest a naturopathic doctor for all of the above situations because they can also help you put together a holistic plan of action.
Improper sleep can put your whole existence out of whack.
It’s such an essential part of our physical and mental health.
Every night while we’re sleeping, all sorts of processes are happening in our body, and our brains are preparing us for how we’ll feel the next day.
The relationship between sleep and depression is complex - some people can’t fall or stay asleep, others sleep excessively.
No matter which end of the spectrum you’re on, know that it’s very helpful for most adults to sleep 7-9 hours each night.
If it’s within your control, make it a priority, and if not, consult with your health provider.
8. Bid Farewell to Drugs and Alcohol
Drugs and alcohol are chemicals.
When they enter the body and brain, they trigger a chemical response which produces a specific feeling for us.
Some people may have a drink to elevate their mood. Others may use drugs to escape from negative feelings.
It’s tempting to feel like that temporary feeling does us good and, if managed, can be a useful part of our life.
But alcohol is a depressant and can increase feelings of sadness or fatigue, and drug use damages our system, which tries to recalibrate back to a sober state.
The “come down” from drugs can lead quickly to more self-medication to avoid the unpleasantness.
And the relationship can be bidirectional; substances make you depressed, and depression makes you use substances.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an addict or the occasional user - substances change how your brain functions, which in depressed people is something we can’t afford.
I know it’s hard to seek treatment for drug and alcohol use, but it’s a positive and necessary investment in your well-being.
9. Set priorities; set goals
Maybe you have thoughts-disguised-as-goals like “I’m going to start eating better” or “next week I’ll join a gym,” but these often lead down a dead-end path.
There are dozens of approaches to goal-setting (like SMART goals) but I’m resisting the temptation to write about them.
I’d rather give you some food for thought that I wish I knew in the early days of my depression.
If you truly want to create meaningful change then having goals for yourself is part of a tangible plan.
Goal setting means taking charge of your depression.
Like creating a routine, goal setting is part of a commitment to your mental health and recovering from depression.
The “victim” mentality is endlessly damaging in that it causes us to act as passive recipients of a depressed condition.
It doesn’t lead anywhere.
The flip side is also the reality, that you are the owner, president, and CEO of your life and you can achieve spectacular and seemingly impossible results with your effort.
Your mental health is a priority and is unquestionably worth all your effort.
Challenge yourself, create a plan and set goals, and push through the discomfort to regain agency and give yourself the self-care you deserve.
Adjunctive Depression Therapies
These practices are used in addition to the primary treatments above.
Yoga can be a physical practice, a mental practice, a spiritual discipline, or any combination of the three.
Yoga is used all over the world to help reduce depression and anxiety.
Finding the right type is a process and joining group yoga may seem daunting, so first ask yourself – what are your goals?
Do some research first, and consider practicing at home if that’s more comfortable for you.
Each school of yoga is different and so is each teacher, so don’t give up if the first one isn’t a match for you.
The impossible-looking images of toned young women balancing on one finger-tip are not what you need to achieve.
You could even spend an hour in child’s pose if that would feel good for you.
Everything you need for yoga is within you already.
For some people, psychotherapy, or other “talking therapies” are a great way to work through their issues and get a new perspective from a trained professional.
These modalities use the relationship between a practitioner and an individual to have open dialogue in a non-judgmental, objective manner.
Treatment approaches depend on the theoretical perspective of the provider, who aims to help the individual understand more about themselves and thus improve their mental well-being.
Here’s a great list of different therapy types.
Let’s play a word association game. Hypnotize.
What comes to mind?
Maybe Freud with a pocket watch, or spiralized eyes in a trance? Or maybe a character with arms stretched out and fingertips dangling in front of your eyes?
Hollywood has definitely influenced the way we think of hypnosis, but hypnotherapy involves none of the above.
It does use hypnosis to facilitate the treatment of depression and other conditions, but this state looks more like deep relaxation than anything.
Yes, it involves an altered state of awareness, but you will never be unconscious or lose control of your will.
This treatment should only be conducted by trained professionals with credentials. It can be especially useful for people who are great visualizers.
There are a few websites where you can find a hypnotherapist in your area, such as the Hypnosis Motivation Institute's College of Hypnotherapy, but it's better just to search online to find someone near you.
Exposure to sunlight is important for the maintenance of circadian rhythm and reducing the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
Since there's an association between low levels of vitamin D and depression, some suggest using that sunlight as a source of vitamin D can be beneficial.
More so, when taken as part of the natural environment, sunshine can improve feelings of well-being.
If you’ve traveled across several time zones you may have heard that it’s good to spend time outdoors when you reach your destination.
This is to normalize your body’s circadian-sensitive circuits with your environment.
Even at home, getting 5-30 minutes of sun (depending on your location and the time of year) can balance your body to be more in tune with regular sleep.
14. Mindfulness Training
Since the 70s, mindfulness has become the subject of psychological research as a Western adaptation of a Buddhist tradition.
Psychological research often positions mindfulness as a learnable process of intentionally turning the mind’s attention to the present moment, without judgment.
Research in neuroimaging has shown that practicing mindfulness is related to structural changes in the brain.
Clinical research has shown it results in improved depressive symptoms.
You can include it in your life by reading books & websites, going to local meet-ups, meditation groups, or through therapists and spiritual organizations.
It's not a quick fix, but may be one of the most impactful tips on this list in the long run.
15. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is a formal program that teaches you to cultivate mindfulness specificially for reducing stress.
Depressed people can learn to manage stress, anxiety, and worry through meditation, yoga, and a practice called body scanning.
MBSR training, which doesn't involve religious teachings, is usually taught as an 8-week program.
The University of San Diego offers one, and you can check out their site and download a guided “body scan” exercise.
I know people who, after years of both pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy that brought minimal improvement, took an 8-week MBSR program that changed their life.
16. Nature & the Outdoors
Even in my most depressed moments, I’ll choose to stroll around my parents’ farm over sitting in my dark apartment any day.
Maybe that’s because nature often has restorative effects.
Natural environments like forests, mountains, lakes, and oceans carry the powerful potential to lower stress and anxiety and increase mood and mental well-being.
Imagine a crystal-clear lake and the calming rhythm of waves washing against the sand.
You may feel calmer already!
Come to think of it, most of the Wellness Retreats I’ve seen are situated amongst trees, mountains, and rivers.
This is is another beautiful way to worship the land around us. Here's an example retreat in Colorado.
Light therapy is especially recommended for a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
It uses bright lights from a light therapy box.
Light boxes can be purchased online but should follow a prescribed plan from a health professional.
A 2008 review says "overall, bright light therapy is an excellent candidate for inclusion into the therapeutic inventory available for the treatment of nonseasonal depression today, as adjuvant therapy to antidepressant medication, or eventually as stand-alone treatment for specific subgroups of depressed patients."
Yet, a 2015 review found that we don't have enough evidence to say for sure because many studies on the topic have methodological flaws.
Still, we think it's worth a try, as some people are clearly helped by this intervention.
Hypocrites said, “Walking is a man’s best medicine”.
It’s a simple way to start exercising. It’s low-intensity, free, perfect for getting out of the house, and can be done regardless of where you live.
You can increase the intensity for greater physical benefit, enjoy the outdoors while you’re doing it, and use it as your mode of transportation.
For depression, even more benefit can be had by walking with a buddy.
But even alone it can be useful, especially if you can simultaneously accomplish a task like going to the bank.
And believe it or not, walking groups aren’t just for seniors in shopping malls.
You could even take a bold step and start your own!
A good place to find a group or start your own group is Meetup.com.
19. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on processing difficult memories and experiences to reduce the distress and suffering they cause.
During a session, the individual recalls traumatic events while focusing on an external stimulus presented by the clinician.
A common stimulus is finger movement in front of the face which is followed by the patient’s eyes.
One theory for this technique suggests that the brain’s mechanism for processing information is naturally activated which allows the pain of the event to heal.
EMDR is particularly useful for individuals with PTSD.
20. Float Therapy
This therapy takes place in a float tank (aka sensory deprivation tank), which is a small structure containing a shallow pool of water heavily concentrated with dissolved Epsom salts.
The saltwater, which shares the same temperature as the air and your skin, allows you to crawl in and float effortlessly.
You have the option to turn off all lights, leaving you in an environment free of sensory stimuli.
While floating for around an hour, you can think, meditate, rest, and relax.
Here's a decent list of float tanks, but you can also do a search to see what's available in your area.
21. Guided Imagery
You are sitting comfortably on a grassy hill framed by a light blue sky full of puffy white clouds.
To your right is a meadow on the hilltop, to your left down a stone path is a blue lake where waves gently lap against the sand.
The breeze perfectly soothes the sun’s heat with a gentle blanket of fresh air.
A light gust of wind rustles the meadow grass behind you while you inhale and exhale a breath of clean crisp air.
You are at peace.
This is a snippet of guided imagery – a technique used for relaxation.
Stress can manifest in both the body and mind, and one way is depression.
Stress reduction (or management) is a broad range of techniques and methods that are available to help reduce stress and regain control over your health.
You can easily access a list of techniques on the internet, or by meeting with a mental health provider.
These are especially useful for anyone with anxiety or who simply wants to ground themselves in the present moment.
Here's a little more detail on how to do it.
22. Sexual Pleasure
Maybe Marvin Gaye was onto something when he sang he was “hot just like an oven”.
Sexual activity might be the last thing on your mind right now.
There’s certainly no shortage of research to show that depression (and antidepressants) can decrease libido and sexual functioning.
But intimacy (and, bonus – orgasms!) produce higher levels of oxytocin – the hormone associated with trust and bonding.
The body has the inherent wisdom to heal, and finding pleasurable moments within ourselves allows us to access that wisdom.
If you don’t feel up for engaging a partner in shared passion, take some alone time to get in touch with your body’s natural pleasure center.
23. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
TMS uses a device that sends magnetic pulses to specific areas of the brain that are underactive in depressed people.
The patient is alert, awake, and lying comfortably.
The full treatment is approximately 40 sessions spread over 4-6 weeks.
TMS is said to be effective in individuals who are resistant to traditional depression treatments.
24. Animal-Assisted Therapy
I named my dog Dave. Seriously.
He has helped me manage my depression in a way that words can’t capture.
Owning a pet comes with a lot of responsibility though, and isn’t ideal for everyone.
But there are a few other options all of which emphasize the bond between animals and humans.
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) involves including animals in a therapeutic context to improve functioning and well-being.
Dogs are the most common therapy animals, but you can also find counselors and therapists who work with cats, rabbits, and even dolphins.
Equine-Assisted Therapy involves horses in treatment, such as in Therapeutic Horseback Riding.
AAT uses animals that are trained to interact with people in a non-threatening, calm, and affectionate manner, broadly called therapy animals.
They have an extraordinary capacity for healing and are best integrated into a therapy provided by an accredited clinician.
Yes, you can control your heartbeat with your mind.
It sounds supernatural, but it’s an attainable technique that shows just how extraordinary the mind-body connection is.
Biofeedback is a process that, with the use of a device, teaches you how to change your physiological functions by becoming aware of unhealthy patterns.
Different types of sensors give immediate feedback on the activity of the nervous system (or the brain) measuring muscle activity, skin conductance, heart rate, breathing, and brain waves.
You can observe how mental stimuli (eg. a word test) cause you to have physiological responses that seem automatic.
You can then learn to control those processes through techniques such as releasing muscle tension.
Practice teaches your mind to reprogram unhealthy automatic behaviors, which can then continue to heal your body and mind without any device.
You can search for biofeedback practitioners on this Biofeedback Certification International Alliance page or the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback page.
26. Gratitude journaling
To keep a gratitude journal, you simply jot down a few things you’re grateful for each day. They don’t have to be physical things - they could be feelings, sensations, memories, anything.
Here’s a snippet of my entries yesterday:
* I’m grateful for the feeling of fresh clean sheets against my skin as I crawl into bed.
* And for the expression on my puppy's face when he has no idea what I’ve said.
For some people, practicing gratitude journaling on a regular basis can do wonders for their mindset because it brings into focus that there is good in their life. I’ve seen this happen with a few friends.
It can make you calmer, give you clarity and perspective on what’s important, increase your self-awareness, and teach you where to look for more slices of happiness throughout the day.
Best of all, it’s free, takes just a few minutes, and is for your eyes only, so you can write without any judgment.
Here are a whole bunch of ideas for keeping a gratitude journal.
27. Find a Community
A sense of belonging is important for all humans.
Depressed people often isolate themselves, feeling lonely and disconnected from others.
Building or reconnecting with a community can help you to see the value in life.
We feel happiest when we’re with people who are similar to us - so when you’re talking to someone, focus on the similarities instead of the differences!
Some people build a community through work, school, volunteering, church, local meetups, online or hobbies.
Building a community takes active effort and time.
You don’t need to be the most popular person on the block - just start by connecting with one person.
Supplements For Depression
There are a handful of supplements that have proven to aid in the treatment of depression, all of which can be purchased online or in health food stores.
28. 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)
5-HTP is an amino acid that works by increasing serotonin in the body and brain.
Studies have found 5-HTP to be effective in treating depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
29. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St. John’s Wort has many benefits and has been shown to be effective in treating mild depression.
It’s an anti-inflammatory that also balances serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA.
St. John’s wort can interact with some medications and decrease the effectiveness of others so consult with your doctor or naturopathic doctor before using it.
30. S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)
SAMe is a chemical that naturally occurs in the body. It can boost the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Several studies have shown it to be effective in combating depression.
Our body only produces SAMe in small amounts so supplementation is the best way to increase levels.
31. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 is important for normal metabolism, brain functioning, and mood.
Modern Western diets have created an imbalance between too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 fatty acids, which are related to symptoms of depression.
Omega-3 is found in certain cold-water fish, such as mackeral, herring, sardines and salmon, which you can eat directly or get through a supplement. For vegans, algae is a good source - you just need to take more of it. On top of that, certain nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flax, are an okay source but don’t contain enough DHA or EPA to be therapeutic.
P.S. If you want to speak to a naturopathic doctor about depression, from the comfort of your own home, you can start here and we'll get you into an online session within 24 hours.