A wide array of alternative therapies are available to try for depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, ADHD and just the everyday blues, some ancient and some new. Even though talk therapy and medication is the most common solution, there are new approaches which can serve as enhancements or stand-alone solutions to standard psychological treatment. What works depends on the specific needs of each patient.
Below are some alternative therapies for better and more holistic mental health.
Since the 1940s, art therapy has utilized the creative process in order to help different patients explore, reconcile with their emotions, develop deep self-awareness, eliminate anxiety, deal with traumatic experiences, manage behavior, boost self-confidence and much more. Particularly this is used amongst people who suffer from trauma because it provides patients with a visual language to guide them to express their emotions. I love keeping a coloring book on my desk and do my best to go outside and draw in it once a week. A great replacement for meditation if that’s not your thing (I’m not a big meditator myself.)
This consists of the therapeutic use of movement which is conducive to social, mental, emotional, and physical health. Aside from that, it encourages self-exploration through expressive movement, improves symptoms of depression, promotes well-being, and much more. If you’re interested in learning more about movement therapies and the connection between body and mind, Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps The Score is a fascinating in-depth look look at how reconnecting the body and mind can do wonders. As he says, “Trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition…It has to do with your body being reset to interpret the world as a dangerous place….It’s not something you can talk yourself out of.”
During a hypnotherapy session, the clients are guided until they reach a focused state of profound relaxation. This is an ideal way to quiet the analytical mind so that the non-analytical has the chance to grow and heal. While doing the hypnotherapy, a qualified specialist suggests ideas, as well as lifestyle changes. I went through a series of hypnotherapy sessions and found them to be extremely helpful for forming new habits and overcoming emotional barriers. Some hypnotherapists focus on changing specific behaviors and overcoming addiction, while others trace back through emotions and past experience to heal your perception of yourself and your memories. Here are a few resources to help you find the right hypnotherapist for your needs.
This helps with reducing anxiety, improving immunity, changing your mood and more. It uses humor to promote health and wellness, relieving stress or pain becomes a breeze. With its long list of benefits, it’s been used by health care providers since the 13th century.
At present, laughter therapy is proven to reduce depression, address insomnia, and improve quality of sleep.
Laughter therapists and yogis take their craft seriously, but I can’t help but laugh when watching this video every time.
Light therapy has been a popular treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In the 1980s, it started to be known among a broad range of people. It uses controlled exposure in order to intensify the level of light. Patients remain in an area that is properly illuminated by the light.
According to recent studies, light therapy is a useful treatment for depression, sleep disorders and eating disorders as well. There are professional resources for light therapy but you can also use a light such as this one and notice significant results if you often feel tired or down during the day. Great to keep on your desk, especially in winter months or if you don’t spend much time outside.
There are a myriad of benefits to music, such as increased pain thresholds and lowered stress. In every music therapy session, a professional and reliable specialist employs a music intervention to help patients access their emotions and creativity. This can also target their individualized objectives which revolve around alleviating pain, improving communication, promoting physical wellness and expressing emotions. Even taking time to play a musical instrument yourself can improve your state of mind.
Discovered over two hundred years ago, binaural beats have been shown to help with reducing stress, improving sleep, enhancing concentration, and even fostering altered states of consciousness.
At different times of the day, whether you are sleeping, at work or relaxing, your brain works at different frequencies, also known as brain-wave frequencies. These are known as Delta, (deep sleep or trance,) Theta, (meditation,) Alpha, (relaxed awareness,) Low Beta, (relaxed focus,) Mid Beta, (alert, concentrated,) High Beta, (anxious,) and Gamma (high-level information processing.)
When you hear two tones that are slightly different at the same time one in each ear, your brain perceives them as one new tone. Binaural beat therapy uses this tonal method to guide your mind into different brain-wave frequencies. Maybe you are at work but you feel very sleepy, or you’re trying to relax and read a book but you feel very anxious. Even when you are just taking quick break from work can be a great time to try out binaural beats for 30 minutes. There are many apps you can download with different settings and programs for your goals. Some of the best ones include Brain Wave, 100 Binaural Beats and Isochoric Tones and Binaural.
If you are really interested in delving into light and sound therapy, binaural beats as a meditation practice and reaching desired states of mind, there are devices specifically tailored to this. Mind Alive products combine binaural beats programs with colored light therapy which you experience with your eyes closed. This enhances the results of the program. If you search locally you might find a therapist who uses these devices for you to try them out, such as a Biofeedback or Neurofeedback Institute who uses the Mind Alive as part of their practice. These sessions can become expensive so if you find that it works well for you, you can also purchase your own device to use at home.
By connecting your body to non-invasive sensors such as a breath and heart rate monitor and brain wave detector, a therapist can guide you through exercises. These can help improve your breathing, blood flow and mood stabilization. I was surprised at how much my stress levels improved just by working on my breathing each day. Trying this out with a professional at a Neurofeedback Institute can be very useful to start out learning the methods and terminology. There are also various at-home devices for brain training. These have become very popular in the past few years. The emWave is a neat device to help you with breathing, meditation and heart rate. It also connects to certain games and software. You can find free apps for your phone with visual guides for deeper breathing. This can keep you from getting bored or distracted. The Muse Headband senses your current brain-wave state and helps guide you towards relaxation or concentration.
Deepak Chopra helped developed a very intriguing game years ago called The Journey to Wild Divine which used heart rate and breath monitors to guide you through animated meditation journeys. Unfortunately the game is all on CDs and probably doesn’t stand the test of time, but with the current rise of virtual reality I’m sure similar programs will be released.
Speaking of VR, I’m very excited to see what happens within the mental health field and this technology. Some meditation apps already exist and many more are being developed. VR has the potential to fully immerse you in sensational, emotional environments which will be able to help people overcome fears, reach deeper states of relaxation, explore relationships and much more. You can get started with a simple Google Cardboard for your phone. The HTC Vive is the most incredible virtual reality experience I’ve seen, but the price point is still too high for most at-home users.
Magnetic e-Resonance Therapy
While still in the research phase, MeRT therapy is showing signs of being an extremely successful form of therapy for those with chronic mental health issues. It starts with taking a brain scan (EEG) of brainwave activity to see which areas are inactive or overactive. Once this has been assessed the practitioner uses non-invasive neuromodulation to stimulate the areas of the brain which aren’t working properly. They have found that over a series of sessions the brain retrains itself and learns to function better and better. The Brain Treatment Center in Long Beach, California is one of the leading clinics developing this approach.
We won’t get too political, but there is ample evidence and personal anecdote about the medical and personal benefits of the proper dosages of naturally occurring psychoactive substances. These plants have been made nearly illegal throughout the world for false reasons and labeled as addictive and harmful. These opinions and laws are beginning to shift as evidence grows stronger. I recommend watching the documentary 13th to learn more about the history of the war on drugs.
Ibogaine is a psychoactive substance found in a number of plants originating in Africa. In the Congo region African spiritual leaders have worked with Ibogaine for thousands of years. The plant was first discovered by westerners to have anti-addictive benefits in 1962 by Howard Lotsof, who was himself a heroin addict.
Countries outside the United States use Ibogaine as a prescription anti-addiction treatment with high rates of success. It has also been found to significantly improve depression and withdrawal symptoms. It’s important to work with an experienced practitioner when using powerful psychoactive medications. One can find clinics outside the U.S. to visit for ibogaine treatment.
While it can be challenging to acquire these substances, more and more people are coming out in public with their stories about microdosing using LSD or Psilocybin. To microdose means you take a small amount, enough that it has an effect on your neurotransmitters but not enough to notice any hallucinations, high or ‘trip.’ This is usually done every few days, for a number of weeks or ongoing. The stigma surrounding these ‘drugs’ has caused many to believe that it’s dangerous for a person with mental health issues to use psychoactive substances. However, research continues to show the opposite, when taken correctly.
Aldous Huxley claimed over half a century ago that our everyday consciousness actually dampens our experience of the world significantly in order to help us survive. If we acutely focused on every sound, light or movement around us we would be constantly distracted, overstimulated and overwhelmed by our reality. When you take magic mushrooms, or psilocybin, they work by dampening the sensory parts of the brain which are normally working constantly to constrain what we experience and ground us in reality, which then allows different parts of our brain to become active. Our brains actually spend a lot of time making our everyday experience predictable and boring, and these parts of the brain are also connected to self-consciousness and depression. Psilocybin shuts that part of your mind off for a short period of time, which is why people experience a detachment from their ego, a sense of connectedness with the world and heightened awareness of the beauty of each small detail around them. Studies have shown that the anti-depressive effects can last for weeks after usage.
Both LSD and Psilocybin can work for microdosing treatment, although some people prefer one over the other. Here’s a cool infographic from James Fadiman about LSD microdosing.
The cannabis or marijuana plant is made up of over 113 cannabinoids, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD.) THC is the famous part of the plant which creates the ‘high’ or ‘stoned’ reactions, while CBD when extracted from the plant has no psychoactive effects. CBD has many beneficial properties, acting as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antidepressant, anti-psychotic and anti-tumoral agent. It can be taken orally in an oil form, or used topically to help with pain and healing.
Many people find that CBD helps them feel relaxed, happier, it gets rid of pain and can help you sleep.
You might not think about acupuncture for improving your mental wellbeing, but it can actually work wonders. Don’t forget, your mood is a result of both internal and external factors; oftentimes we feel depressed, angry or anxious because of a chemical imbalance in our body or a malfunctioning system. Eastern medicine does not treat any health issue as one particular thing, but rather looks at the person as a whole and works to re-establish balance between all the systems. If one hundred people were treated for depression, they would each receive a unique and customized acupuncture treatment.
Studies have found that acupuncture alone can be as effective as drugs and psychotherapy for many ailments.
Many Chinese Acupuncturists also work with herbs. I would highly recommend seeing a traditionally trained practitioner who works with both. There are also herbalists who only work with plants and supplements. When you visit an herbalist you will be astounded at how many healing plants there are in the world that you’ve never even heard of. Sometimes plants are used topically, other times in teas or supplement form.
You can also practice herbalism at home by using plants in your cooking, making tinctures, oils and teas. There are many beautiful books on herbal medicine, some with more accurate information than others. A good one to start with is Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs.
While it probably won’t cure you of any chronic ailments, the right scents in your environment can have a wonderful short term affect on your mood. Scents can make you relaxed, sleepy, angry, productive and more. Our sense of smell is the only scent which gets processed directly in the brain rather than in the gut or spinal cord, allowing for instantaneous effects.
Eastern Medicine believes that each organ has a corresponding emotional response. If you know which organ you’re having trouble with, you can address that emotional area, and vice versa. Certain scents can help with each specific area, used in an essential oil diffuser, a room or body spray, body lotion, in a bathtub or as a perfume.
There are many scents to try, these are some of my favorites.
Ylang Ylang – Heart, release negativity
Jasmine – Kidneys, Adrenal and Pineal Gland, combat insomnia
Chamomile – Stomach, great for sleep, calming
Cinnamon – Confidence booster, security and comfort (like Grandma’s cookies!)
Bergamot – Mood stabilizer, calm anxiety
Frankincense – Kidneys, help you get over fears
Shamans and other Healers
Modern Western culture’s treatment of mental health conditions differs immensely from all traditional cultures, as well as many still in existence today. The diagnosis experience of most, myself included, is to take medication which probably comes with negative side effects, try to forget as quickly as possible about your (oftentimes spiritual, life-changing) experience and get back to as much of a ‘normal’ life as possible. The stigma surrounding mental health makes most people stay silent about their condition and deal with it on their own or with a talk therapist.
Personally, I feel that the combination of diet, our culture’s isolating structure and constant focus on work, consumerism and detachment from nature are all leading causes of mental health cases in the Western World. In countries where people are emotionally supported by a village, where every day they feel connected and valuable to their families and community, there are far fewer instances of mental health issues.
In most traditional cultures, those whose experience of reality differed from the norm were seen as new shamans and spiritual leaders. These people often had a deeper connection to nature, had valuable foresight, exceptional empathic skills or other valuable traits. If you look at how many world-changing minds we know of today were diagnosed with mental health issues you begin to see the connection between madness and genius.
Sometimes the best immediate action may be to prescribe medication when someone exhibits signs of a mental health disorder, to make sure they don’t harm themselves or anyone else. But there are many types of spiritual guides, healers, shamans and others who can help guide someone to the right path. Brazil has been leading the way by opening new types of centers where they keep patients safe and guide them through various types of therapy without the use of drugs.
If you have been using a different treatment solution for years, or thinking of starting one, it’s worth the exploration to try out alternatives.