Well+Good

5 therapist-approved lifestyle changes you can make to help ease symptoms of depression

Photo: Getty Images/Zhou Li Ning/Eye Em

If you’ve ever struggled with depression, you know how debilitating it can be. It’s like a hazy cloud has settled over all the things that once made you happy, and simple acts like brushing your hair or taking a shower can feel like next-to-impossible chores.

Depression is a serious mental health issue, and you should always seek professional help if you’re suffering from it, especially for a prolonged period of time. And while tried-and-true treatment methods like talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and antidepressants can be incredibly helpful, there are also holistic treatments for depression that can make a world of difference in your road to healing.

Read on for lifestyle shifts you can institute today to help treat your depression holistically.

1. Give your gut a makeover

A wide body of research has found that if we’re not nourishing our gut health, our mood will suffer. As New York-based therapist Alison Stone, MSW, points out, our gut is practically our “second brain.”

“In addition to affecting our dopamine and GABA production [‘happy chemicals’ needed for healthy brain functioning] it’s estimated that the gut is responsible for up to 90 percent of the body’s serotonin production,” she explains. “Since inflammation has been linked to depression, following an anti-inflammatory diet is an important step in creating a happy, healthy gut” and mind.

To do this, start by reducing your sugar intake, ditching the processed foods, and (sorry)—eliminating alcohol.

2. Take a break from social media

While social media does have its advantages, a number of studies have found a correlation between social media use and depression.

Stone points out that while deactivating all of your accounts might not be realistic, there is a way to approach social media use more mindfully. “Limit time spent on these platforms, or experiment with a several-day social media detox,” she says. “You might be surprised at the amount of emotional space you have to focus your energy.”

3. Make plans with your people, and stick to them

When we’re struggling with depression, getting out of the house and spending time with people who love us isn’t exactly appealing—but it’s endlessly important. “I cannot emphasize the importance of human connection enough, especially now that we’re living in a world where technology has replaced many face-to-face interactions and altered the way we belong to communities,” says Stone.

She adds that while technology can bring us closer together, it’s in no way a replacement for the mental health benefits of authentic human interaction. “Make plans with your friends whenever possible,” suggests Stone. “Create a book club. Chat with a neighbor. Join a recreational sports team. Whether it’s strengthening your existing social network or making a new one, having strong social connections is key to preventing and decreasing depression.”

4. Move more

There are few things that help heal a bad mood faster than a little bit of exercise. Beyond improved mood, there is tons of research around what a positive impact exercise can have on brain function and depression symptoms.

If exercise feels intimidating—and it makes sense if it does, exercise isn’t exactly appealing in the depths of depression—Stone suggests not getting too caught up in a specific workout or trend. “Find something that you enjoy and can commit to on a regular basis, whether that’s running, Pilates, a barre class, boxing—whatever works for you,” she says. “Even 15-20 minutes of moderate walking per day is better than nothing.”

5. Get enough sleep

In our busy, go-go-go society, sleep is something many of us skimp on more than we’d like to admit. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three American are getting less than seven hours of sleep per night. Yikes.

Sleep is ridiculously important to overall health, and when you’re looking to treat or prevent depression, it’ll be hard to see any major changes if you’re not getting enough zzz’s. Poor sleep has a direct impact on our mood and overall cognitive functioning.

Unfortunately, getting enough sleep is easier said than done for a lot of people—especially because one common symptom of depression is insomnia. Which is why Stone suggests practicing good sleep hygiene. “My first recommendation to improve sleep hygiene is to get into bed early—10 p.m. if possible,” she says. “Develop healthy bedtime habits, whether that means reading a relaxing book, doing a brief meditation, journaling, or watching an episode of a favorite TV show— whatever helps you wind down.”

She adds that the most important thing you can do when shifting your bedtime routine is to limit or avoid screens altogether. “Blue light emitted from our phones has been shown to negatively impact our circadian rhythms and significantly impair our quality of sleep,” she explains.

These tips are in no way meant to be thought of as a replacement for more traditional treatments for depression. But they’re worth a try, especially as a way to manage any depressive tendencies long-term. If you’re suffering from depression, always consult a mental professional.

If you’re suffering from depression, you’re far from alone: Depression rates have spike by 33 percent in the past 5 years. And here are common myths about depression you need to stop believing.