Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Treating Depression at Home

Treatment of depression often involves multiple and different strategies. For some patients, a few simple home remedies are all that's needed. But even those who need counseling and/or medications will benefit from these do-it-yourself techniques:

Exercise. The fatigue and poor motivation brought on by depression can make it very hard to get up and get moving, so resuming or increasing your former exercise program—or beginning a new one—may be difficult at first. However, the rewards should come quickly. The increased blood flow, breathing rate, and muscle use associated with exercise will improve energy levels during the day and result in more restful sleep overnight.

Even more importantly, exercise causes the release of chemicals called endorphins in the brain. Endorphins elevate the mood and increase energy levels. They are the source of the "runner's high"—a state of euphoria that endurance athletes experience after a sustained period of exertion. Think of endorphins as your own natural antidepressants.

And, of course, exercise has additional benefits beyond treating depression. High on the list is reducing the risks of diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease. Burning calories while exercising can also help you combat the tendency towards weight gain that's associated with both depression itself and with several prescription antidepressant medications.

One trick for overcoming inertia and beginning an exercise regimen is to simply make a schedule of exercise time, and commit to doing a specific activity during that time. Start with 20 to 30 minutes, 3 times per week, and then try to build towards 45 to 60 minutes every day. If it helps you, try thinking of exercise as a prescription from your doctor to treat depression. It also helps if you can find one or more types of physical activity that you enjoy, or at least don't dislike too much.

Laughter. The simple act of laughing also releases endorphins, thus treating depression. Of course, being depressed can make it very hard to laugh, so this may not be practical advice in the early stages of treating severe depression. But as soon as you're able to, going out of your way to find funny things and experience some good, hearty laughter is seriously helpful!
Light. It is well known that the
shorter days of winter are associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in many people, and worsen symptoms in those with chronic depression.

Increasing your exposure to natural sunlight will help elevate your mood right away, and regular light therapy can be very beneficial for treating depression. If you've made the commitment to exercise as part of a depression management program, try to schedule at least some of your activity outdoors in the daytime.

The winter months can be a challenge, but creative scheduling and some really warm clothes will help a lot. If getting outdoors isn't practical, the next best thing is to spend as much time as possible in front of a big window that lets in a lot of light.

Another option is artificial sunlight. There are several companies that market lamps specifically for treating depression, SAD, and low mood. These special lights can be ordered directly on the Internet, and are available in just about every price range. I suggest placing the light next to your bed and plugging it into a timer. Have it turn on about 10 minutes before you plan to wake up, and lie in bed under the light for about half an hour or so every day. Artificial sunlight is a great idea even if you already get time outdoors and/or window exposure during the day.

For many people, depression is caused or worsened by a variety of stressful or sad thoughts and situations. Resisting or denying a diagnosis of depression can become yet another source of stress, and actually worsen your symptoms. Failing to accomplish desired or necessary tasks, a common problem in depressed people, often makes things worse, too.

Try to take stock of your current abilities and limitations—what you can do now, not what you used to be able to do—and then set out some specific, modest goals. Just getting a few things accomplished can help to reduce stress, and that will help improve the depression.

Also, consider whether worrying about things beyond your control is productive or helpful to you. Perhaps the best way to summarize the importance of attitude is with the serenity prayer:

God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.