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10 Drug-Free Alternative Treatments for Depression

6. Binaural Beats

When Anneli Rufus, author of Unworthy (possibly my favorite self-help book), interviewed a scientist who studied the brain activity of Buddhist monks, she mentioned that “brain-entrainment music” employing binaural beats can create different effects on mood (depending on the kind of low-frequency tones). The technology has actually been around for well over a century, but it has taken us a while to apply it to mainstream medicine. A few recent studies show that the use of binaural beats, or audio therapy, can significantly reduce anxiety, at least during cataract surgery, and can even help symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents.

Rufus was skeptical, but thought she’d try it out. “As the sounds pulsed through my head,” she explained to me, “I almost immediately felt changes: easier breathing, inner warmth and brightness, a profoundly soft smiley mellowing-out is the only way that I — a complete non-scientist, non-expert, ordinary and occasionally anxious and depressed rube — can describe it.” The feelings didn’t last all day, but for her, “listening to binaural beats provides quick, merciful, wonderful, short-term relief.”

7. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy

Two years ago I called up my friend Priscilla Warner in tears. Disillusioned with psychiatry, I was done trying new medications. However, I wasn’t benefitting from any alternative remedies either: not diet changes, not meditation, not acupuncture or yoga. I had gone down the list and nothing was working.

Priscilla told me to try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Of all of the things she tried to get rid of her anxiety (she chronicles this is her bestselling memoir, Learning to Breathe), it was the EMDR that she feels made the most difference.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a psychological therapy originally designed by Francine Shapiro that uses eye movements and other procedures to process traumatic memories. With studies supporting its use as an effective intervention for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), EMDR is now recommended for PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations. For persons whose depression is triggered or aggravated by any kind of trauma, it seems to be a wonderful tool. For example, Grace, a woman in my depression community, explained to me, “EMDR helped to take the intensity out some of my trauma memories and flashbacks. It processes trauma memories so they are more fully integrated into your life narrative and decreases the likelihood of triggers and flashbacks from trauma.”

8. Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a process that trains you to have better control over your mind and body by using electric sensors that provide feedback. You are able to see on a screen how certain thoughts produce subtle changes in your body, and how relaxing or tensing certain muscles, in turn, impacts your thoughts. With just a little success manipulating your mind and body, you become empowered to use your thoughts to control your body (and vice versa).

Biofeedback is used to help a variety of physical and mental health issues, including high blood pressure, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and Raynaud’s disease, and is especially helpful for people who can’t tolerate medication or for whom medications haven’t worked.

9. Transcendental Meditation

In his book Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation celebrated psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, presents the impressive science behind this specific kind of meditation. A 20-year researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Rosenthal knows the brains of patients with severe mood disorders. In fact, he conducted one study just on patients with bipolar disorder to see how transcendental meditation (TM) might help them.

He writes, “Several patients reported increased calmness, improved focus, and improved ability to stay organized and set priorities — no surprise given TM’s known effects on the prefrontal cortex. TM helped bipolar patients improve their executive function, just as it did for people with anxiety disorders and ADHD.”

10. Tai Chi

Back before I read the studies demonstrating the benefits of tai chi for depression, anxiety, and stress management, I was on to it. For five years before she died, my neighbor did tai chi at the senior center at least twice a week. I witnessed the profound change this ancient Chinese martial art made in her. She twitched less and smiled more. She was increasingly more comfortable in her body.

The combination of slow movement, breathing, and meditation seems to especially benefit the elderly, as a study by researchers at UCLA indicates. “When they combined a weekly tai chi exercise class with a standard depression treatment for a group of depressed elderly adults, they found greater improvement in the level of depression — along with improved quality of life, better memory and cognition, and more overall energy — than among a different group in which the standard treatment was paired with a weekly health education class,” reports Mark Wheeler for the university.


Continue the discussion on Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.


Yoga class photo available from Shutterstock


10 Drug-Free Alternative Treatments for Depression

Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). 10 Drug-Free Alternative Treatments for Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 17, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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