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What Helps Depression Beyond Therapy and Medication

Exercise Helps Your Mental Health, Depression & Anxiety: Now What?Therapy and sometimes medication are the foundation of depression treatment. Working with a mental health professional is paramount to recovering from depression.

But other strategies also are key.

“Most therapists will see you once a week, and medication can take some time to work,” said Catherine Sly, MBACP, a registered counsellor in working with individuals and couples who are struggling with depression, anxiety and relationship problems.

In her work with clients with depression, she’s found that there are many changes that can be made to one’s daily routine to start feeling better. Plus, practicing your own strategies outside of therapy helps you “feel like you’re taking care of your own well-being.” It’s empowering.

Below you’ll find a range of strategies to try that depression experts have found to be helpful for their clients.

Increase your activities. “An essential element of treating depression is called Behavioral Activation, which involves increasing a person’s activity level so that they can increase their feelings of mastery and experience of pleasure, which serves to enhance their mood,” said Selena Snow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating depression in Rockville, Md.

This is vital because depression tends to siphon your energy and motivation and lead you to isolate yourself. Which kick-starts a vicious cycle: “the more you withdraw and avoid activities, the more depressed you feel, and the less likely it is that you will then engage in the very activities that could help improve mood.”

People mistakenly think they’ll become more active once they feel less depressed. But as Snow pointed out, depression doesn’t shift by itself. “The more that you stay in bed, the more that you stay in bed.” Changing your behavioral patterns sparks the shift. Increasing your activity helps you re-engage with the world and empower yourself. “Feeling empowered helps to combat the thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness that can be common with depression.”

Snow suggested scheduling activities at specific times and brainstorming solutions for potential barriers that may get in the way (e.g., ensuring you’ll go to the park by going with someone). She also stressed the importance of setting realistic goals and taking small, doable steps. For instance, if you’re not participating in any physical activity, start by walking for 15 minutes once a week with your partner at 9 a.m. on Saturday. After you meet this goal, you can gradually increase the frequency and duration, Snow said.

Volunteer. Snow recommended identifying an organization that is aligned with your personal values and welcomes volunteering in small increments. Volunteering connects you with other people and helps you meaningfully contribute, which then enhances your mood, she said.

Try other activities. Psychotherapist Peggy Burns, LPC, suggested baking, cooking, cleaning or engaging in an art project—“anything really to get your mind moving in a different direction.” You also might play an instrument, create a collage, stretch or dance. You might start a daily photo series, snapping a photo of something that makes you smile. In addition to shifting your focus, such activities can help you release the tension from your body.

If these activities feel overwhelming, start smaller: Put three ingredients in the crockpot. Organize one drawer. Doodle.

Stabilize your sleep. “Sleep is vital for recovery, and depression can leave you feeling exhausted and like you’ve never got enough rest,” said Sly. Frustratingly, depression also can hamper sleep. Some mornings you’re too tired to get out of bed—after 12 hours of slumber. Other days it’s 3 a.m. and you’re staring at the ceiling.

But there are things you can try. Sly suggested making it a habit to get some fresh air and sunlight every day; go to bed and get up at the same time; and engage in activities that can “help you to relax enough to get to sleep,” such as taking warm baths and listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks.

Curb screen time. Doing so, especially in the evenings, can help you sleep better, and likely help your mood, Sly said. She noted that social media has been linked to “feelings of isolation, low self-esteem and depression.” To limit use, you might keep your phone outside your bedroom, and remove email and social media apps.

Reach out. “Socializing while depressed can feel really painful as you’re desperate to gain relief from your feelings of isolation but struggling to connect,” Sly said. What can help is thinking about what you were doing and who you were with when you did feel better, she said. “Can you reach out to them and make some plans?”

Remember your strength. Burns, who specializes in depression, grief/loss and anxiety, asks her clients to recall a time when they got through something difficult. Because if you’ve done it before, you can do it, again.

She suggested creating a saying you can turn to, which reminds you of your inner strength, such as: “I believe in myself and I can beat this; I deserve to be well; I am taking small steps to a healthy lifestyle; I can do this; I am my own superhero.” Repeat your saying when you’re walking or when you can’t get out of bed, she said. 

Ask for what you need. “Carrying on with life while fighting depression can feel like an uphill battle,” Sly said. Give yourself permission to ask for what you need. For instance, you might ask for a break, for help or for a hug, she said.    

Practice acceptance with negative thoughts. “When we accept a negative thought, we let it come in to our brain, accept that it is there and then let it go right back out,” Burns said. She shared these examples: You have the thought, “I am a failure.” You tell yourself, “I am having a thought that I am a failure.” Or you might consider: “How has this thought helped me? Is this really true?” And you might say, “I am not my thoughts.”

Try the strategies that resonate with you. Keep in mind that what works for you will depend on where you’re at in your treatment. It will depend on the severity of your depression and the specific symptoms you’re struggling with. If something isn’t working, please don’t interpret it as a failure on your part. After all, different things will be helpful for different people. Remember, too, you are doing the best you can.


Stay tuned for another piece with seven more strategies.   

What Helps Depression Beyond Therapy and Medication

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). What Helps Depression Beyond Therapy and Medication. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 Mar 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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