10 Drug-Free Ways to Beat Depression

How to cheer up without hitting the prescription bottle.

Economic insanity, escalating job cuts, high divorce rates. . .it's no wonder 6 million men are diagnosed with depression every year. And recent research on the top mood-disorder drugs suggests that the most popular antidepressants (including Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft) may not be any more effective than a placebo in improving mild to moderate depression. The efficacy of most depression drugs is highly overstated when compared with placebos, except in cases of very severe depression, says Irving Kirsch, PhD, associate director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School. This doesn't mean antidepressants don't work at all; it just means they don't work nearly as well as doctors thought for the garden-variety, episodic blues that affect most men. "Medical practitioners are often too quick to prescribe these drugs in response to the normal negative events in people's lives," says Blair T. Johnson, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut. Thankfully, there are options beyond the prescription pad. Here's a guide to the most reasonable out-of-the-Rx-box options for battling the blues. For more on battling the blues, check out How These Famous Men Conquered Depression and Found Happiness.

Sweat Away Stress

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It has long been known that the mind can influence parts of the body, so what about the reverse? Absolutely, say researchers, based in part on the knowledge that regular, guided meditation and yoga sessions can lower systolic blood pressure by five points (and diastolic by 2.5). P. Murali Doraiswamy, MD, professor of psychiatry at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, was part of a team that conducted several studies comparing aerobic exercise (walking, cycling, or using an elliptical trainer for 30 minutes three days a week) with the antidepressant Zoloft. The studies found exercising "to be equally effective for treating mild to moderate depression." In addition, the researchers found that antidepressants and exercise both boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key brain-growth factor. If you love fitness, Meet "Plogging," the New Swedish Exercise Craze.

Beat the Blues With a Salad

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Adult "happy meal"? Perhaps. The "mood food" salad is made from ingredients that contain proven brain-friendly phytonutrients: parsnips, camu camu fruit, lettuce, endive, and bok choy. Dress this salad with the herb that beat Prozac in a recent double-blind study: saffron. "Make a homemade dressing with walnut oil, saffron, and turmeric," says ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy Guide of Healing Foods. "All three are powerful mood boosters." For more mood boosters, check out these 25 Best Instant Mood Boosters.

Talk Your Way Out of It

man with therapist how to beat depression

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a kind of talk therapy in which distorted, negative thinking is logged, identified, and "defeated," helping those dark and depressed moods to lift and vanish over time. Around since the 1960s, CBT has recently gained favor after studies proved it can be as effective as drug therapy. Computerized cognitive behavioral therapy (a new version of CBT) is powered by computers and artificial intelligence; patients answer a list of questions to help rewire their depressive thinking. It's not magic, but it no doubt has therapists wondering anew, Who's in charge now?

Have More Sex

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During sexual play your brain becomes bathed in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which boosts feelings of pleasure and desire. An orgasm releases the so-called "love-hormone" oxytocin, which helps you bond with your partner. For more on sex, check out these 15 Easy Ways to Make Sex Last (Much) Longer.

Try Eye Exercises

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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is now more than 20 years old, but the reasons the behavior training works are still not fully understood. During the treatment, a therapist may use wagging fingers and eye-tracking exercises (such as watching a blazing back-and-forth tennis volley) during talk therapy. An increase of trained therapists has been making EMDR more widely available outside of hospitals and research centers, say experts, and the therapy is used to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression tied to military service. It is also helpful in treating a wide range of other problems, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and phobias.


Relax Your Mind and Muscles

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Mindfulness is the practice of learning to focus your attention on moment-by-moment experience with acceptance and openness rather than judgment. It is becoming a popular therapy for anxiety and general psychological health and even has it's own acronym: MBSR for mindfulness-based stress reduction. Studies suggest that MBSR has broad-spectrum antidepressant and antianxiety effects and is useful stress relief both for those with psychiatric illness as well as health individuals, according to a report in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. And German researchers have shown that progressive muscle relaxation, in which you alternate relaxing and tensing groups of muscles, is effective at relaxing the entire body and ridding you of stress and negative feelings.

Enjoy a Bite of Chocolate

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Chocolate contains a pleasure-promoting substance called phenylethylamine, which stimulates a rush of endorphins, the same feel-good chemical compounds released during an orgasm. Choose dark chocolate that's at least 70 percent cocoa—it's healthier and more effective than milk chocolate.

Go to Bed Earlier

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One common symptom of depression is early-morning awaking, which compounds the problem since poor sleep can make depression even worse. Wrestle back control of your rest by making key lifestyle changes: Try going to bed a half-hour earlier, get regular exercise, and avoid caffeine, TV, computer and smartphone use in the evening until your sleep improves and depressive symptoms lift.

Stomp on ANTS

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ANTS are Automatic Negative Thoughts, and they run rampant when you are depressed as your mind obsesses over worst possible scenarios. To escape the glass-half-empty view of your life situation, perform a reality check. Teach yourself to recognize and observe ANTS and avoid reacting to them. Disassociate yourself from them by asking yourself, 'really, now, how likely is that going to happen to me?" Sometimes simply identifying the negative thought is enough to neutralize it.

Run Toward the Light

Man, running, beach

Your suprachiasmatic nucleus (yes, you have one of those) is a tiny spot in your brain near your optic nerve that controls your circadian rhythms. When sunlight enters your eyes, it triggers the SCN to turn off the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. But spending a lot of time indoors or working at night can mess up the normal cycle of light and darkness that keeps your circadian rhythm in synch. This is why people suffer from the depression-like symptoms of seasonal affective disorder in winter. You may be able to combat the blues by going for a morning run to ensure that sunlight shines into your eyes, says Michael Terman, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. For more about conquering SAD(seasonal affective disorder), read up on the 30 Best Ways to Fight Seasonal Depression.

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