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General Medical Questions
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Question : Are there options for treating mild or moderate depression that don't involve taking medication?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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December 13, 2013
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Depression is the most common type of mood disorder in the United States. It affects millions of American adults each year. Many of those are reluctant to take antidepressants.

About one-third to one-quarter of this group have severe depression. If your depression is severe, actively consider taking antidepressants. Recent research tells us that antidepressants work best for people in that group.

But people with newly diagnosed, milder forms of depression can try nondrug treatments first.

The following options may work well enough on their own to improve mood. (And for people with severe depression, these approaches may provide a useful add-on to drug therapy.)

Regular exercise may improve mood. It promotes the release of the chemical messengers that help you feel better. Exercise may also induce nerve cell growth in parts of the brain that regulate mood.

Even a moderate levels of regular physical activity is worth doing. It can significantly improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression. Walking briskly or taking a bicycle ride may be enough. In one study, people got noticeable symptom relief when they exercised three hours a week.

Relaxation techniques are also useful. Stress feeds depression. Therefore, techniques to calm the mind and body can help improve mood.

They also help people tolerate painful emotions. These techniques can halt automatic reactions that compound stress. Mindfulness meditation, controlled breathing, and yoga are good methods to try.

Psychotherapy is well-established as an effective depression treatment. You have many schools of therapy to choose from. They all encourage more constructive ways of thinking about and managing problems that may trigger depression.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy counters ingrained patterns of negative thoughts and behaviors.
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy helps people identify and cope with recurring personal conflicts.
  • Psychodynamic therapy promotes insight into causes of psychological distress that might otherwise remain out of awareness.

Depression is a complex illness. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improving mood. People with milder forms of the illness can safely try the above nondrug approaches.

If these don’t work — or if your depression is severe — you can add medication to the mix.

 

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