12 Ways to Fight Depression That Aren't Medication
By Shana Galbraith, M.Coun, LPC
As a crisis worker, talking with patients in multiple hospitals, and while working in private practice as a licensed counselor, the two most common concerns I see people come in for help with are depression and anxiety. Ninety percent of the people that I work with suffered from one or both of these concerns.
Despite how common the experience of depression is, I found that most people I talked with felt that they were alone in their suffering, and that they were abnormal for having these feelings. They would often report beliefs that they were somehow deficient, because “normal” human beings were happy, had hope for life, and were able to handle stressors in a better way. They would also report feeling inadequate because they couldn’t "fix it" or find their way out of it. They often held beliefs that others around them would judge them poorly or reject them for not being able to change their state of being.
So first, and foremost: if you’re struggling with depression, know you’re not alone. According to the NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health), 17.3 million adults have experienced at least one major depressive episode in their lifetimes.  In addition, 43 million adults use antidepressant medication.  Also of note, this data was collected in 2017-2018. It takes time for data to be collected, synthesized, and reported, so current numbers aren’t available yet. However, my clinical work would suggest that these numbers have increased as humanity has suffered through the social distancing requirements of the recent pandemic. Humans are a social species, and we suffer when we are disconnected from meaningful relationships.
In addition to my clinical work, as I recommend these suggestions to help with depression, I also draw from personal experience. Each year, I go through a period of seasonal depression when fall arrives. I have also had life experiences and periods of professional burnout that have resulted in transient periods of acute depression. It is a common and natural response for humans to experience periods of depression during times of change, loss, transition, stress, trauma, and uncertainty. Some of us are also pre-dispositioned for depressive moods due to genetic makeup and past traumatic experiences. Depression is a part of the human experience.
From my own personal experience, I know that when you’re in the middle of a depressive episode, it may not really matter that others are suffering too. You may not care that depression is common and that you’re not alone or broken. Or, on the flip side, it may be the saving grace to know that you’re not alone. In either case, what does seem to be constant is that sense that something is not right. You likely remember when you felt better, and you want more than anything to feel relief again. Couple this with the anhedonia (lack of pleasure in daily activities) and the lethargy that accompany depression though, and it could feel impossible to even have the energy to want to do anything about it.
Most of the recommendations that we mental health professionals make for helping ease depression are wonderful and beneficial – and they do actually work. However, taking the first steps toward doing anything while in a depressive state can seem overwhelming and impossible. So I have arranged here, in order from easiest to more effort-intensive, suggestions that may help.
I have personally found these to be effective and there is clinical research to support them.
As always, please consult with your own mental health and physical health care providers before changing any current strategies or medications you’re already using, or before engaging with new strategies/supplements that may interfere with your current regimen. I am only a counselor, not a physician, and my background is not in medicine.
THE 12 STRATEGIES
This first one may seem counter-intuitive. The last thing we usually want is to accept depression, because we don't want to be depressed. But to counter depression, instead of fighting, resisting, or rejecting it, we accept, welcome, and embrace these thoughts with curiosity and non-judgement. When feelings of depression, sadness, grief, loss, fear, anxiety, etc. show up, our natural instinct is to resist those thoughts. We don’t want them. They don’t feel good.
We may panic, or have different stories that are attached to them, such as: I’m wrong if I have these feelings, or I’m going to be seen as weak if I have these feelings, or I don’t know how to handle these feelings. We may get stuck in analysis. We may try to desperately analyze the situation, trying to find how we got here, what caused this, and how we can fix it so we never have to feel it again.
The thing is, these actions are the very things that worsen the depression and make it persist. So the first thing we get to do is shift our stance toward the experience of depression. Instead of resisting it, we invite it in. We soften our response to it. It doesn’t mean we have to like it. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with it. But we do get to just acknowledge that it is present. If we can be present and notice it with curiosity instead of resistance, a lot of the suffering that goes with it diminishes.
In acceptance and commitment therapy, we call this stance willingness. We are willing to engage with what is – not with what we wish could be, or what we think should be. This video may help to illustrate this process.
Often times, when we soften our resistance to the depressive state, the energy that is consumed by the suffering can then be redirected to engaging with solutions instead.
2. Take fish oil supplements
In particular, take fish oil supplements with higher concentrations of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). This particular fatty acid is found in fish, including salmon, mackerel, and sardines. It was found that fish oil supplements that contained 50% or greater concentration of EPA were effective in reducing symptoms.  Anecdotally, I have found this to be one of the easiest solutions in my own practice. It is something most people can do even when lethargy and feelings of overwhelm are very present. Studies have also shown that this can reduce inflammation in the body, and inflammation has been correlated with symptoms of depression (discussed further below). If you have more energy to give to the solution, eating those fish 1-3 times per week can also be beneficial.
3. Creatine monohydrate supplements
Creatine has traditionally been used by athletes to increase performance in endurance and weightlifting. However, recent clinical trials have found it to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, both when used independently and when used in conjunction with traditional medications for anxiety and depression (SSRIs and SNRIs).  One important exception: for those who experience bipolar disorder, creatine CAN increase symptoms of mania, and is not recommended for supplementation. Again, I am not a medical professional, only a mental health professional, and if you have questions about this, I would recommend consulting with your healthcare professional. You can find more about the research studies here.
4. Vitamin B supplements
Studies have shown that Vitamin B is implicated in reducing inflammation, enhancing immune function, and increasing neuronal function. Vitamin B supplementation has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms through interacting with all of these pathways. 
5. Vitamin D supplements
Studies show that deficiency in Vitamin D levels affects depression.  Vitamin D isn’t as easily found in our diets as other vitamins. It can be found in some fish, in egg yolks, and in fortified milk, however, most of us don’t get enough Vitamin D. Vitamin D is also synthesized by our bodies when we get out into the sunshine. However, for many with depression, getting up and getting outdoors can be a challenge. Or sometimes, during the winter seasons particularly, the weather can prohibit going outside to get some sun. Supplementation with Vitamin D can be an easier way to accomplish this goal. However, if you’re feeling ready to take your engagement to the next level, I would encourage you to get outdoors and get into the sunshine.
6. Stop scrolling social media first thing in the morning
Dopamine (a neurotransmitter in our brains) affects our motivation, our drive, and our energy to go and pursue things. It also affects how much pleasure we feel in seeking new things. Dopamine levels are often out of balance in depressive states.  Social media affects our baseline levels of dopamine, and can alter the ways in which we want (or don’t want) to engage with every day life. Consider doing a 2 week experiment in which you do not grab your phone and start scrolling social media during the first 30 minutes of your morning. If that works for you, and you notice increased mood, consider making this a permanent habit. If you want more information on dopamine and how it affects our daily mood states, I highly recommend this podcast by Dr. Huberman, Professor at Stanford University.
7. Reduce inflammation
Inflammation has become somewhat of a buzzword lately, and has been implicated in many conditions from obesity, to heart disease, to autoimmune disorders, to mental health. Studies now are showing that increased inflammation and depressive symptoms are correlated.  Reducing inflammation can reduce symptoms of depression, however this requires more effort than taking a supplement, so it’s further down on the list. Things you can do to reduce inflammation :
- Red Light Therapy. Red light therapy has been used by athletes to speed recovery, reduce inflammation, and enhance quality of sleep. Turns out, these things are great for relieving symptoms of depression, as well. The two brands I have found to be most effective are Joovv and Hooga. The latter is less expensive. I'm not paid to endorse either one - I've just found them to be effective.
- Reduce sugar and high fructose corn syrup consumption  . Both sugar and corn syrups have been found to cause inflammation.
- Increase fruit and vegetable consumption. This decreases C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammation. 
- Ginger, turmeric, and cumin – often paired with black pepper, can reduce systemic inflammation
8. Reduce gluten in your diet
Often when we’re depressed, we crave carbohydrates. Carbohydrate synthesis leads to an increase in serotonin production, which makes us feel better, so it makes sense that our bodies would have a drive to consume those foods. However, a lot of times, those carbohydrates include gluten – a protein found in wheat and other grains. Studies are beginning to show that even those who don’t have celiac disease may have gluten sensitivities, meaning their bodies don’t handle gluten well in other ways. Some studies have shown that people experience a relief in depression symptoms when they eliminate gluten.  It may be beneficial to eliminate gluten for two to three weeks to see if this decreases depressive symptoms.
The challenge with this is that many of us love foods like breads and pastas, cereals and pastries. They’re a part of our daily diets and usually part of our cultural cuisine. This is why I included this later in the list, even though the relief experienced can be profound. In my personal experience, I notice dramatic differences in the days I consume gluten and in the days I do not. This may vary from individual to individual however, depending on your sensitivity to it. Weigh the pros and cons for yourself, and if you feel it might be beneficial, limit consumption for several weeks. Also of note here, is that a lot of cereal grains that contain gluten also give us a dose of B vitamins that are beneficial to our mental well being. Nothing in nature exists in a vacuum or as single nutrients. So if you decide to eliminate gluten, Vitamin B supplementation may be more important.
9. Get outside
Studies are beginning to show that time spent in nature can be restorative and reduce symptoms of depression.  If weather and energy levels permit, spending time in connection with nature can reduce symptoms. Consider going for daily walks, getting indoor plants, or going out into your yard and standing barefoot on the grass. It doesn’t have to be difficult, and it doesn’t have to be long. Expose your body to the natural environment our ancestors evolved to survive in.
This one is lower on the list because it requires more effort. But if symptoms have improved enough that you are ready to expend effort, exercise is beneficial for the reduction of depressive symptoms.  The mechanisms are still being explored, but possibilities include the following. Exercise reduces inflammation, which as discussed above, can reduce depressive symptoms. Exercise can also increase exposure to nature if going walking or running or playing sports outdoors, which can also have a beneficial effect. Exercise can also increase connection with others through team sports, group fitness classes, or walks with friends. Connection with others can reduce loneliness and accompanying depression. Regular exercise can also increase feelings of self-efficacy - a sense that your actions can directly affect or impact your reality. Feelings of self-efficacy can reduce feelings of depression.
I include this toward the end, because this is one may require the most mental effort if you haven’t tried meditation before. Mindfulness practices can be relatively easy. As discussed in step number 1, the simple act of willingness and acceptance can be a mindful practice. The willingness to engage in the present moment without judgement can have a profound effect on our experience of pain versus suffering. However, guided meditations may also be useful in getting used to differing states of consciousness and awareness. Sometimes just disengaging from the automatic thought processes we normally engage in can be enough to interrupt patterns that lead to depressive states. Apps that are great for beginning meditators are Calm and Headspace. You can also find many beginner guided meditations on YouTube.
12. Physical Touch
I include this last because it requires co-regulation, not self-regulation. You’ll need another human or fur companion to engage with this one. Physical touch increases serotonin and oxytocin, two neurotransmitters responsible for feeling content and well. It also reduces substance P, a chemical that registers pain in the body.  If you can, try to connect with others through physical touch. Hug people you love. Play with your pet. If you don’t have a significant other, or close friends or family around, consider getting a professional massage. Humans are tribal creatures. Our bodies are wired to thrive in connection with others.
13. If you’re not in therapy/counseling, get help
Sometimes depression is a result of life circumstances, such as job loss, death, life transitions, divorce, past trauma, abuse, etc. Sometimes it’s the result of being highly sensitive, highly intuitive, and subsequently experiencing existential angst. If this last one is true for you, I highly recommend this website for further reading. Sometimes symptoms of depression show up for what seems like no reason. In any case, having the help of a professional to navigate our thoughts and emotions about our situation can be greatly beneficial. To find a mental health professional near you, visit Psychology Today and search for professionals in your city. Or, consider online options like BetterHelp or TalkSpace for telehealth.
If you found this article helpful, please share this with others who may also benefit. Remember, you’re not alone. And there is help.
Professional counselor, spiritual seeker. Lover of all personality tests. I overcame OCD and religious trauma from leaving a high-demand religion. I write about self-healing and better mental health.