Five Depression Self Help Strategies

May 30, 2013

depression self help

by Dr. Ralph Bieg

There are a number of effective depression self help strategies. These strategies can be especially beneficial when used in combination with psychotherapy.

1) Monitor your self talk (and learn to talk back). No big surprise – depressed people think a lot of negative thoughts. They put themselves down, are critical of others, expect the worse, overgeneralize, and lack hope for a brighter future.  These self-defeating thoughts lead to self-defeating behaviour (Like not even applying for a job that you are qualified for, because you’ve convinced yourself they won’t hire you.)

When you experience a negative emotion, that negative feeling was preceded and caused by a negative thought.  So if you’re feeling, depressed, anxious, hopeless, guilty, etc. – STOP – and examine your thoughts. You can train yourself to recognize negative thoughts, challenge them, reframe them, put them in perspective, replace them with something neutral (or better yet, positive), or just reject them. Read a good article on how to challenge negative talk by Ben Martin, PSY.D. here. Another useful therapeutic approach is to alleviate negative thoughts using repetition. This approach is described in the article “Handling Negative Thoughts by Repetition” by Tali Shenfield, PSY.D – read it here.

You can also be affected by other’s negativity. Avoid, or at least limit contact with, the complainers and “Debbie Downers” who see the world as out to get them and their glass as half empty. As much as possible, hang out with happy, optimistic people who see the best in and encourage you.

2) Keep a gratitude journal, a simple notebook in which you write down at least five things you are grateful for each day, even if it is as inconsequential as your first morning cup of hot coffee. As Christine Kane explained so well in her online article Gratitude Journals and Why They Work, “This is not about living in denial or being phony. What it is about is refining your focus. In other words, I encourage the sensitive and bright people in the world to refocus their sensitivity so that they are sensitive to the joy and the good things in their lives, and not just to how bad and painful things feel to them.”

3) Take a natural remedy – Consult with a alternative health practitioner or natural health store about natural remedies such as 5-HTP, SAMe, and St. John’s wort:

  • 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body. The body uses the amino acid tryptophan to make 5-HTP, which it then turns into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Unlike serotonin, 5-HTP can cross the blood/brain barrier, accessing the brain from the bloodstream.

It is also a precursor of the “sleep hormone” melatonin. Serotonin plays a role in mood, appetite, and sleep, and 5-HTP is sold over the counter in many countries as a dietary supplement to treat depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, binge eating and fibromyalgia.

5-HTP is sourced from the seeds of the West African shrub griffonia simplicifolia. Do NOT take 5-HTP if you are taking a prescription anti-depressant. Both 5-HTP and antidepressants increase the levels of serotonin in the body. Too much serotonin can result in a dangerous condition called serotonin syndrome.

  • SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine) is another naturally occurring substance found throughout the body, and in high concentrations in the brain. It too can cross the blood/brain barrier, and affects the metabolism of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. It also influences hormones.

While clinical studies have shown that SAMe is effective in alleviating depression, scientists aren’t sure why. It’s speculated that it facilitates synthesis of the same neurotransmitters that anti-depressants act on. It has long been used as a prescription depression medication in Europe.

According to an editorial by Dr. J. Craig Nelson in the American Journal of Psychiatry, “Low levels of SAMe have been reported in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of severely depressed patients. Oral and parenteral administration of SAMe result in a rise in CSF SAMe concentrations, indicating the compound crosses the blood-brain barrier. An increase in SAMe levels has been positively correlated with improvement in depression. SAMe concentrations also appear to rise in patients who respond to other antidepressants such as desipramine. SAMe is produced in the one-carbon cycle involving folate, homocysteine, and vitamin B12, and abnormalities of each of these compounds has been associated with depression. ”

“In short, the hypothesis is that abnormalities in the one-carbon cycle may result in low concentrations of SAMe that in turn may limit the synthesis of brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. This may directly contribute to depressive symptoms or interfere with or limit the action of other antidepressants. Administration of SAMe may ameliorate these deficiencies or augment antidepressants and facilitate neurotransmission.”

Whatever the mechanism, SAMe works to alleviate depression faster than prescription drugs and other alternative therapies, sometimes within a week.

  • St. John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum) was one of the earliest popular natural remedies for depression, and is the most studied. It has consistently been shown to work as well as, or better than, prescription antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. The plant may prevent nerve cells in the brain from reabsorbing some chemical messengers involved in mood, including dopamine and serotonin. St John’s Wort is a stimulant, and may not be the best choice of natural antidepressant for those who experience anxiety.

Taking St. John’s wort can weaken many prescription medicines, including antidepressants, birth control pills, and some HIV, cancer and heart medications, so make sure your health care provider is aware of every natural remedy and prescription medication that you are taking.


4) Light therapy – If your depression typically occurs in the late fall and winter, it may be seasonal effective disorder (SAD), linked to a lack of sunshine. SAD may respond to a light therapy box, also known as a light box, bright light therapy box or a phototherapy box. Light therapy boxes mimic outdoor light.

According to the Mayo Clinic, researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood, and eases other symptoms of SAD. Most people use light boxes for at least 30 minutes every morning.

5) Emotional freedom techniques, or EFT, is described by founder Gary Craig as “an emotional version of acupuncture, except we don’t use needles. Instead, we use a simple two-pronged process wherein we (1) mentally ‘tune in’ to specific issues while (2) stimulating certain meridian points on the body by tapping on them with our fingertips. Properly done, EFT appears to balance disturbances in the meridian system and thus often reduces the conventional therapy procedures from months or years down to minutes or hours.”

While the fastest results are likely achieved with a trained therapist, EFT can be learned and practiced on one’s own. Craig has released his work into the public domain, and free tutorials can be downloaded from his website,

While serious and long lasting depression should always be reported to and evaluated by your doctor or a mental health professional, mild or moderate depression will likely respond to a combination of these depression self-help techniques. They can also be used along with therapy and/or prescription medication (but don’t take the natural remedies along with anti-depressants) for more serious and deep-seated depression.

Consistent use of self help methods like positive self talk, a gratitude journal and Emotional Freedom Techniques will result in lasting change in how you think about and experience life, lessening your chances of experiencing future depression.

Finally, But first, don’t ignore these obvious and often repeated basic self-help advice for depression, including:

  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Eating a healthy diet (lots of fruit, vegetables and whole grains).
  • Meditating, or practicing relaxation.
  • Avoiding “self medicating” with alcohol, recreational drugs, and/or food.
  • Exercising – even if it’s just a couple of 10-minute walks a day.

With this foundation, you will have much more success in your fight with depression.

Image Credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini