Therapist Blog

Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Depression and Anxiety

More and more clients are requesting recommendations and referrals from psychotherapistfor complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). These therapies, which range from nutrition to body work, are often done in conjunction medication, rather than as a replacement.

Harvard University researchers and psychologists found that more than half of those reporting anxiety attacks or severe depression used a form of alternative treatment such as herbal remedies, special diets or acupuncture in the past year, while only one-third visited a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or physician. With the exception of chronic back or neck pain, depression and anxiety were the conditions that most frequently led people to try alternative treatments, according to researchers.

People with anxiety or depression who are attracted to alternative therapies tend to like self-administered strategies. About 20 percent of the respondents in the Harvard study who used alternative treatments reported visiting a complementary medicine specialist. The remaining 80 percent treated themselves, usually in the comfort of their own home.

The range of alternative therapies used by people with anxiety or depression is fairly extensive. The two most commonly used alternative treatments are relaxation techniques and spiritual healing methods. The researchers concluded that given this prevalence of alternative treatment, patients who seek a mental health professional's care should be routinely asked about whether they are using complementary medicine as well.

Other commonly used alternative therapies include exercise, herbal. medicine, nutritional therapy, and body work. When exercise is considered alternative it is usually some form of yoga or martial art. A large body of research shows that exercise elevates mood, relieves anxiety, improves appetite, sleep, sexual interest and functioning, and self-esteem. Meditation is usually an integral part of yogic and marital art practices.

Herbal medicines are well-known for their antidepressant effects. The most powerful and well-known is St. John's wort, a natural SSRI and weak MAO inhibitor. Kava-kava, ginkgo, and caffeine have also proven effective for some people with anxiety or depression.

Nutritional therapy involves treatment with dietary supplements. Certain vitamin deficiencies, most notably B vitamins, can cause depression. Examining diet and testing for nutrient deficiencies can help address this issue.

Body work can be effective in reducing many of the symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Acupuncture, acupressure, massage and other approaches can help induce deep relaxation.

Alternative medicine with psychotherapy can be an important part of a treatment plan for anxiety depression, particularly for people who like a holistic approach to wellness. Such therapies are intended to complement psychotherapy and -- income cases -- medication, not replace them.

Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.


Fredricks, Randi. (2008) Healing & Wholeness: Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Mental Health. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.