Alternative Therapies For Depression

Last Editorial Review: 11/28/2005

The Cleveland Clinic

There is no evidence that any alternative treatment is effective for treating moderate to severe depression. For some people, however, they may be used as an addition to other treatments -- providing relaxation, relief from depressive symptoms, and helping you cope with some of the causes of depression such as grief, anxiety, changing roles, and even physical pain. If you have depression and are considering using an alternative form of therapy, it is important to seek the advice of your healthcare provider.

What is Alternative Therapy?

A health treatment that is not classified as standard western medical practice is referred to as "alternative" or "complementary." Alternative therapy encompasses a variety of disciplines that include everything from diet and exercise to mental conditioning and lifestyle changes. Examples of alternative therapies include acupuncture, guided imagery, chiropractic treatments, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback, aromatherapy, relaxation, herbal remedies, massage, and many others.

What Are Some Alternative Therapies Used to Treat Depression?

Herbal Remedies

There are a variety of herbal therapies believed to treat many illnesses. For depression, St. John's Wort and Ginkgo biloba are the most talked about.

  • St. John's Wort has been used for medical purposes in other parts of the world for thousands of years, despite the fact that it hasn't been scientifically proven to treat moderate to severe depression.
  • Ginkgo biloba is thought to improve memory and other intellectual functions, although the evidence is conflictual.

Any herbal supplement requires caution and should be taken only after consulting your doctor. Your doctor can help you weigh the risks and potential benefits so you can make an informed decision.


Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese method of healing that prevents and cures specific diseases and conditions by sticking very fine, solid needles into specific points on the body. It stimulates the body's ability to resist or overcome illnesses and conditions by correcting imbalances. Acupuncture also prompts the body to produce chemicals that decrease or eliminate painful sensations.

Acupuncture is most effective at treating long-term pain, such as headaches, menstrual cramps, and low back, neck, or muscle pain. It can also be used to treat arthritis, facial pain, pain from shingles, spastic colon, colitis, obesity, and addictions to nicotine or other drugs.


This is a technique in which a therapist applies pressure to specific points on the hands and feet. Reflexologists believe that the body has the capacity to heal itself. There are nerves in the hands and feet related to various parts of the body, and by manipulating these points through reflexology, it is thought that the healing process is stimulated.


Different forms of exercise can lower your stress, relax you, reduce depression and increase your energy, balance, and flexibility. In general, exercise is a safe, effective, and easy way to improve your well-being; but, always check with your doctor before starting a new program.


Meditation is sometimes described as an altered state of consciousness. It is a form of relaxation that, unlike sleep, is entered into purposely. Meditation is usually practiced regularly -- for at least 10 minutes each day. While the body is at rest, the mind is cleared by focusing on one thought, sometimes a word, phrase, or particular scenery.


Massage uses touch to provide relaxation. While there are variations of massage, they all work under the general principle of the connection between body and mind -- that when the body is relaxed and at ease, the mind is promoting better health, less depression and overall well-being. Some examples of massage include shiatsu, neuromuscular therapy, spinal release therapy, Swedish, and the sports variation.

Guided Imagery and Relaxation

Guided imagery is a form of focused relaxation that helps create harmony between the mind and body. Guided imagery coaches you in creating calm, peaceful images in your mind -- a "mental escape" for therapeutic purposes. It can be a powerful psychological strategy to enhance a person's coping skills. It can help people cope with -- and possibly overcome -- stress, anger, pain, depression and insomnia with or without associated physical illness.

Reviewed by the doctors at The Cleveland Clinic Department of Psychiatry and Psychology.

Edited by Cynthia Haines, MD, WebMD, April 2005.

Portions of this page © The Cleveland Clinic 2000-2005

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