There’s a problem with traditional treatments for depression. They don’t work for many patients—and studies back that up. A 2022 review of more than 200 trials of drugs prescribed for depression concluded that only around 15% of patients experience substantial antidepressant effects above that of a placebo. And a 2021 review of more than 200 trials of psychotherapy as a depression treatment found that it was effective for only around 41% of patients.
But there is good news for patients whose depression doesn’t respond to these treatments. Recent research suggests that certain activities and lifestyle modifications—things that people can do on their own—often can ease or eliminate depression. Richard O’Connor, PhD, author of Undoing Depression, offers these do-it-yourself depression treatment strategies…
Sit up straight. A 2017 study by researchers at New Zealand’s University of Auckland found that people suffering from mild-to-moderate depression felt greater positivity and less fatigue and focused less on themselves when they were in an upright posture. Reason: The mind takes mood cues from the body. Earlier research found that forcing a smile when feeling sad can make you feel happier. Hunching over is a common symptom of depression, so it makes sense that sitting and standing up straight might help convince your mind that you are not depressed.
Gardening. Horticulture therapy significantly reduces depressive symptoms among older adults, according to a 2023 review of 13 studies by researchers in China and Australia. Engaging in any hobby can lift a depressed mind out of its rumination and allow it to focus on a pleasant activity for a while. But gardening could be especially beneficial because it is done outdoors and encourages close contact with nature—two things that have been shown by numerous studies to reduce anxiety and depression. A 2023 study at Tianjin Medical University in China found that spending around 1.5 hours per day in outdoor light is associated with significantly reduced depression rates.
Several studies also point to the depression-reducing benefits of immersing oneself deep in nature, such as by taking hikes in the woods, but that isn’t always an option. Caring for a backyard or window-box garden might provide some of that back-to-nature benefit. A Korean study found that the simple act of repotting a plant made people feel more comfortable and soothed than performing a non-nature–based task.
Warning: The first five minutes spent engaged in a hobby—or in any other activity that requires effort—can be extremely challenging for someone who is depressed. But when depressed people manage to will themselves through this first five minutes, they often become caught up in the flow and the hobby begins to generate its own momentum.
Make yourself presentable. People suffering from depression sometimes neglect their grooming, wardrobe and even basic hygiene. Such things can seem inconsequential when you are struggling with larger issues. When you are depressed, it can be difficult to find the energy to do something as seemingly simple as brushing your hair or teeth. But neglecting grooming and hygiene can further damage a depressed person’s already low self-esteem and sense of self-worth…and make it even more difficult to socialize, note researchers at Australia’s Griffith University in a recent paper. Putting a little effort into grooming and wardrobe isn’t just vanity when you are suffering from depression—it truly can improve the odds of recovery.
Cook. Surprisingly, cooking and baking are among the leisure activities most associated with reduced depression among older Americans, according to a large study by researchers at the UK’s University College London. Like any hobby, cooking can be a useful diversion, disrupting the ruminations of a depressed mind. But cooking has additional upsides—home-cooked food often is more healthful than packaged foods, and eating right is beneficial for people who are depressed. Cooking also requires you to regularly head to the store for ingredients, so it provides a modest amount of social interaction. And unlike many hobbies, cooking offers an almost immediate payoff and sense of achievement—within a few minutes or hours, the cook gets to enjoy the prepared food. Eating that food is like giving yourself a present, and it serves as a much needed reminder that you have the power to make your life better.
Eat right. Eating junk food increases rates of depression, according to many recent studies…and eating a healthful diet reduces rates of depression. One way to do it: Adhering to the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and legumes, is associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms. That’s according to multiple studies, including a 2013 study by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago…a 2020 review of earlier studies by Italian researchers…and a 2021 study by researchers in Sweden and China. Why eating right reduces depression is not entirely clear—perhaps the nutrients in a healthful diet combat depression…or the added sugar in junk food contributes to depression…or taking steps to improve your diet provides a sense of accomplishment…or a healthful diet makes you look and feel better. Science doesn’t have a conclusive answer yet. What matters is that eating right truly could help if you are depressed.
Attend a religious service. Religious faith and spirituality seem to be linked to reduced rates of depression symptoms. Among the more than 150 studies reviewed by researchers at Duke University and in the Netherlands, 49% identified a significant benefit from attending services, while an additional 41% found some benefit, though not enough to be considered statistically significant. Feeling a connection with a higher being appears be helpful for those who are depressed, as does the socialization offered by attending religious services. Caution: People who do not feel comfortable attending religious services should not do so simply as a potential depression treatment.
Get some sleep—but not too much. Being depressed can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, but recent research suggests that it works the other way, too—getting insufficient sleep increases the odds of depression. The lack of sleep and depression can become a vicious cycle, with each problem feeding upon the other.
Another twist in the sleep/depression connection: Getting more sleep doesn’t always reduce depression. The association between hours slept and depression is U-shaped—if you’re getting less than six hours or so of sleep per night, getting more is indeed likely to reduce your odds of depression…but if you’re already sleeping at least eight hours per night, more sleep is associated with increased depression, according to a study by Japanese researchers. Irregular sleep times and durations also are associated with increased depression, according to a 2021 study by University of Michigan researchers.
Get some exercise—even if it’s not very much. We know that physical exercise reduces the odds of depression—but it might come as a surprise just how effective a depression-fighter exercise can be. In 2023, researchers at University of South Australia concluded that exercise is 50% more effective than either medication or cognitive behavior therapy, based on an analysis of more than 1,000 trials and nearly 100 papers. It’s also noteworthy that lengthy and strenuous exercise is not necessary to enjoy at least a portion of this benefit. Just 20 minutes five days per week of moderate activity, such as brisk walking, is associated with a 16% lower rate of depressive symptoms and 43% lower risk for major depression, according to a 2023 study by researchers at Ireland’s University of Limerick and Trinity College Dublin.