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How I Recovered From Depression: 8 Techniques & Treatments That Worked

Alternatives to meds & therapy.

That's me!  Hiking the Cerro Castillo Traverse in Chile.  

I was severely depressed and suicidal for about 15 months before I recovered. During that time, I tried everything that I could get my hands on. Some of it worked, but a lot of it didn’t. Therapy was only weakly effective for me and I refused antidepressants, so I ended up trying a lot of non-mainstream approaches.

A week ago, a friend asked me to email some of these resources to her, and I decided to share the information publicly. So what did work for me? Here are 8 techniques and treatments that helped me massively.

Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a therapist or doctor. I am sharing my personal experience recovering from severe clinical depression.

1. Self-Education

There is a crap ton of misinformation about depression out there, and I had to cut past huge amounts of informational bullshit during the course of my recovery. By reading ~70 books, I was able to sort through endless stacks of useless fluff and find the truly effective gems. The ‘gems’ for me were:

Each of these books was paradigm-shifting and life-changing. My only caveat with these is that they are more psychology-focused and less holistic. Despite that, I’d 100% start there. And I would recommend reading ALL OF THEM and doing most of the exercises, starting with Burns’ depression diagnostic in chapter 2 of Feeling Good.

My reason for recommending reading all of them is:

  1. These three books combined give you over ONE HUNDRED different techniques and ideas to experiment with, and
  2. Depression is not very well understood. Reading multiple sources helps you recognize that there are conflicting arguments and this is a growing area of inquiry. You will notice both coherencies and contradictions between these titles. Burns even changes his opinion on some topics between Feeling Good (1980) and Panic Attacks (2006).

My reason for recommending books in general is that they are easily the cheapest effective treatment for depression. Feeling Good ($6) alone was probably worth 1-2 years of therapy for me. Beat that, copay. Not to mention your time savings: ~5-6 hours versus 1-10 years?? YES.

2. Acupuncture

I was absolutely shocked by this. Acupuncture was very effective for me and fundamental to my depression recovery. Before acupuncture, I was at 64/100 on Burns’ diagnostic (higher numbers = worse depression; less than 5 = no depression); after several treatments, I went down to ~12 and then held steady at ~30 for four months before ultimately recovering. 64 to 30 is a shift from severe to moderate depression—that’s pretty damn good if you ask me.

Response varies per the individual, but I felt massive effects within one treatment (~50–60% improvement). I went in for about 12 sessions within a ~3 week period, and it massively improved my baseline happiness and gave me hope that I could recover permanently. The type of acupuncture I used is called ‘balance method acupuncture.’ You can look up acupuncturists and compare ratings on Yelp (seriously), and it can sometimes be covered by health insurance.

3. Intuition

This may sound rather minor or silly, yet following my intuition was insanely important for my recovery. Now I’ve found that whenever I relapse it’s almost always when I stop trusting my intuition. For me, ‘trusting my intuition’ has meant: leaving a graduate program that did not excite me, pursuing what did excite me (currently hiking & writing), and pursuing a non-normative life path. For someone else, ‘following your intuition’ could mean: gardening, salsa dancing, becoming a stay-at-home parent, breaking up with someone, going to school for accounting —anything! The key here is to figure out what you yearn for —and then do it.

How can you figure this out? Practice, practice, practice. Ask “What does my heart say?” and “What does my gut say?” We’re all familiar with what our mind and ‘logic’ says, but heart/gut instincts are incredibly under-valued in modern western society. Listen to your intuition and practice following it. Even if it seems crazy, impractical, or pointless.

Some key words that are red flags for not trusting your intuition are: logical, practical, realistic, can’t, irrational, and money. These words are almost always fear-based rationalization. If you’re using this vocabulary, you may find it useful to try this fill-in: “My logic says ________, but my intuition says _______.” What does your intuition say? What if you followed it as a mini-experiment?

I have a lot to say on this, so I’ll probably write a full article on intuition later.

4. Environmental Factors

Especially when you’re vulnerable, being conscious about environmental factors can make an enormous difference. Some key factors to pay attention to are:

Social: Reduce or cut off interactions with toxic people, and increase interactions with people that create joy or help you have faith in yourself. If toxic people are close friends or family members, this may be difficult. But I’d recommend being ruthless with cutting people off while you are recovering. You may try interacting again after you have recovered, but if you continue to hang out with them while you’re vulnerable, it will be destructive for your recovery.

Media: Garbage in, garbage out. If you consume negative media, you will create more negativity in your mental space. Be conscious with your use of: news, radio, podcasts, youtube videos, social media, music, movies, etc. Does this media make you more: angry, frustrated, negative, hopeless, lazy, sardonic and anxious? —Or does it make you hopeful, optimistic, joyful, and excited? Replace shitty media with wholesome media, and stop following friends that say things that get you riled up. Examples of positive media I’ve found: Mindvalley, Robin Sharma, Lisa Nichols

Spaces & Possessions: Fill your life with spaces and things that bring you joy. Get rid of the things or stop frequenting the places that don’t. A useful book for this is: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

5. Lifestyle Factors (The Obvious Shit)

Eat well, hydrate, exercise, and sleep. ‘Nuff said. Sounds obvious, but just do it, yo. I found sleep is harder when depressed/anxious. If this is an issue for you, be forgiving of yourself and try the program in this book: Say Goodnight To Insomnia. There is also a diet specifically for brain performance (Head Strong), but I haven’t given it a shot yet.

6. Meditation

I go back and forth on this. On one hand, I meditated myself out of severe depression (it took me four weeks of daily practice, 10 minutes per day). On the other hand, it felt like I was shooting in the dark, it didn’t end up being a lasting solution, and once I started experiencing extreme anxiety, it was a lot less effective for me. I think there is huge potential here, but I have yet to find and use resources that make meditation 100% effective, bombproof, and foolproof. Meditation is awesome and I’d recommend it to everyone, but if you’re depressed I would not recommend this as your only tactic. It can help a lot, but use it in conjunction with other techniques.

It usually takes 4-6 weeks of daily practice to experience positive effects (I did 10 minutes per day for a total of 4 months), and a great place to start is with the Headspace App. I also found the book With Each and Every Breath useful. It’s available as a here as a free PDF or you can write to the monastery (old school style) for a free hard copy.

My feeling is that meditation could be much more foolproof with bio-feedback devices such as HeartMath, Muse, and Emotiv, but I haven’t tried any of these yet.

7. Network Spinal Analysis

I only had one session of this (3 weeks ago) but it had extremely powerful effects and the results actually felt similar to acupuncture (though the method has nothing to do with needles). Here is an article about it that a friend of mine wrote about it curing his anxiety, and a video by the founder of NSA. I honestly don’t know much about this yet. I’ll fill you in later!!

8. Bulletproof Coffee

I just found this. I’m still experimenting with this, but I found that bulletproof coffee had massive and unexpected positive effects on my mood. To experiment, you can buy a bulletproof coffee cold brew for 5 dollars from Whole Foods. It’s marketed for clarity and focus, but I had a huge mood jump for 3 hrs and lasting positivity for ~12 hrs afterward. No energy crash. I woke up the next day without grogginess for the first time in probably a year. I was completely blown away. This is the product, and here is the recipe (cheaper if you want to keep using it).

People have asked me if this is addictive. Honestly: I don’t know. Obviously, the company says it isn’t. I know that caffeine can become addictive, and as far as I *know* the MCT oil is not addictive. Either way, my guess is that they’re probably both less addictive and have fewer side effects than Prozac or most antidepressants. Don’t quote me on this, though!! Again, I’m not a doctor and I need to do more poking around and experimentation. This is super new to me, but I had to bring it up because it affected me so massively.

Comments on Recovery Strategy

In addition to the above techniques, resources, & treatments, I’d consider the following strategies & outlooks as you move forward:

1. Keep a Salt Shaker Handy Take almost everything with grains of salt, and keep a loose grip on your definitions of depression. Remain skeptical about even the most basic ‘facts’ about depression: Is it genetic? Is it neurochemical? Is it permanent? Does it run in the family? Question everything. Under careful scrutiny, a lot ‘hard facts’ about depression turn out to be soft facts.

2. Try Everything. I tried everything to see what stuck. The above things stuck. A lot of things didn’t stick. Some flops were: most therapists, gratitude lists, homeopathy, melatonin, ‘snapping out of it,’ ‘being strong,’ denial, marijuana, a lot of content (books, websites, videos, articles…), blood tests for hormonal imbalances (there were none), and what most of my friends said. But those might not all flop for you!! A key idea with this article is that there are a bazillion alternatives to drugs/therapy. Stay open-minded and don’t be discouraged if one thing doesn’t work.

3. Move On Quickly If it doesn’t work, move on. My personal definition of ‘does it work’ is “Do you feel a significant positive improvement in your mood within SIX WEEKS of using this technique, treatment, or therapist?” If not, MOVE ON. 8 weeks would be my absolute max, but many of the techniques above affected me in 0 to 4 hours (see #4 below). Don’t waste years of your life on ineffective bullcrap. Ten years of therapy and Zoloft? NO THANKS. I repeat: if it doesn’t help you within 6 weeks, MOVE ON. I’m very opinionated about this (obviously).

4. Short-Term vs. Long-Term Methods In your recovery, you’ll want to focus both on shorter-term and longer-term ammunition. Shorter-term stuff boosts you up so that you can dig yourself out of the hole. Longer-term stuff fleshes out your baseline happiness so that you can recover permanently. You need both. Relying only on one or the other will probably backfire. Bonus: some of these can affect you both in the short-term and the long-term!

  • Shorter-term: For some of the techniques above, you can experience positive improvements within 24 hours. Acupuncture, network spinal analysis, bulletproof coffee, Burns’ techniques, following my intuition, and environmental factors usually impacted me immediately or within 3-4 hours.
  • Longer-Term: Exercise, diet, sleep, self-education, following my intuition, and environmental factors sometimes took 4-8 weeks for me to see results, but they gave me longer-lasting effects.

5. Never Ever Ever Give Up Don’t stop and don’t settle. Be relentless and insatiable. Don’t settle for ‘mildly depressed.’ Don’t settle for ‘vaguely unhappy.’ Don’t stop until you are filled with love, light, and joy every day, and even then, don’t stop. Happiness is a daily choice, a daily practice, a daily exercise. So practice, practice, practice. You will get there. And once you get there, go beyond. I’ve recovered, but I’m continually experimenting so that I can get even MORE happy and so that if I find anything that is useful, I can give it to other people.

TO BE CONTINUED!!

I have a lot more to say on this, and I probably have more techniques that I can add in a separate post later. But this is a massive amount of stuff already so I’ll let you digest and try out some of these. If any of these are helpful for you, please, please let me know. I’d LOVE to collect more data points about if and how these are helping people.

And also: What helped you during your recovery? What techniques, resources, treatments worked for you? I’d love (!!) to hear about what worked so I can try it out and/or tell other people about it.

Big hugs, and lots of love. <3

Originally published at Thoughts From The Trail.

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