Traditional and Alternative Therapies For Anxiety and Depression, My Personal Experiences

I’ve written about my personal experiences with anxiety, panic disorder, and depression. I have had some form of anxiety since my teenage years, and intermittent bouts of depression. I have largely tried to ignore this as much as possible, and to power through on my own. I college, during a time of deep depression brought on by a breakup, I ventured to the student health center, but chickened out and left before getting help. As a medical student I went as far as going to cognitive behavioral therapy with psychiatrist, who gave me a Zoloft prescription I never took. In residency, in the wake of a serious injury, I lay around for days, weeks, even months without doing anything. I didn’t leave the house. I sought help from my mentor and our residency psychologist, but soon was lying and telling them I was fine when I was anything but.

Then last year, I had what I’ll call a breakdown. That may be a negative term, but it’s exactly how I felt, like I was breaking down. Like I was some old rusty piece of equipment that wouldn’t work, that instead just took up space and caused annoyance. Suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, plagued by chronic pain and daily migraines, I finally sought help and followed up. At first I went to the ER. If you were to look in my chart you would see the classic signs of someone having physical symptoms of anxiety. Several trips for migraines, neck pain, and even for passing out. I understood empirically what was really happening, that I needed to treat my anxiety, but I continued to think I could just will my body into feeling better. The day I passed out at work in front of my colleagues was the day I knew I had to get real. I continued to seek help separately for my migraines and neck pain, but I went to my PCP for prescriptions for medication. I initially wanted to just take Buspar, but she convinced me that I was in crisis and needed an SSRI for stabilization. SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and it’s job is to increase serotonin levels in the brain to lessen depression and anxiety. My SSRI, Celexa, did its job and helped increase the serotonin in my brain, and made me less depressed. It took about 2-3 months to work. Interestingly, for me personally, it did not make me happier. It made me less sad, so that I wasn’t just bursting into tears for no reason. It made me much less anxious, and it’s the only time in my life I’ve actually slept restfully. It was very much “sleeping like the dead”. However, instead of happiness, the Celexa just made me feel apathetic. It brought about the complete absence of emotion. I understood that this was happening, and for some months, I continued to take the medication anyway. After all, isn’t the absence of emotion better than the unrelenting chasm of depression and the constant panic of anxiety? (If you’ve read the book My Year Of Rest and Relaxation, you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about).

Then we underwent the horror of euthanizing two of our dogs, Josie and Pippin, on the same day. At that point I finally had a flood of emotion briefly come back, as I sobbed over their cold limp bodies, and I realized how robotic I had become. I wanted to feel, even if it was a negative emotion, I wanted to, I needed to experience it. In the months following their deaths I weaned myself slowly off Celexa. There is no scientific weaning protocol by the way. A mental health advocate, Laura Delano, has developed some informal guidelines and helps people wean off medications as she herself once did (I read about her in the New Yorker and found her story fascinating). The fun part about coming off psych meds is that many can and will cause discontinuation syndrome, which can cause symptoms worse than the disease you originally set out to treat. More docs are wise to this now, and can help work out a weaning schedule designed to help minimize those symptoms. For me, I used my symptoms to guide my weaning. If I started to feel sick (nausea, dizzy, anxious), I stayed at the current dose or went back up slightly for a few weeks until the symptoms dissipated. This got me safely off of Celexa within about 2 months.

So what is life like now? Am I cured? No. I remain on Buspar for anxiety. It helps make the anxiety manageable and tolerable. It does not have the same severe dampening of emotion that the Celexa did. Buspar works differently that SSRIs, and we don’t really fully understand how, but it is a serotonin receptor agonist, meaning it has a strong affinity for binding to those receptors It’s also been side effect free, and in general has very low risk for side effects. It’s a great medication for anxiety, and I prescribe it frequently in my own practice when applicable because it is safe and effective.

What about alternative methods? I’ve tried more than my share over the years.

The foundation of alternative treatment is three things: healthy diet, regular sleep, and exercise. All these things I go on about and struggle with all the time, affect mental as well as physical well being. They are sooo important!!!!

Meditation and deep breathing. This is the first line treatment I recommend my patients do as well. Simply being quiet and still, inhaling deeply through your nose and out through your mouth is an effective treatment for anxiety. It slows the heart rate and stops the nervous system firing off fight or flight signals, thereby acting as a instant calming method. Repeated habitual use of these practices will help to prevent anxiety. Yoga works in this same vein, and I will practice yoga for the same effects. Mindfulness practice is in this same category as well. Simply being mindful and acknowledging your emotions is a powerful tool. For someone like me, who’s main instinct is to bury and suppress emotions, acknowledging them is the first step.

Massage. I initially got massages for my neck pain and migraines. I found that these did not help those issues at all (bummer). Massages did greatly help my anxiety though, that time for full on relaxation was very helpful.

Acupuncture. I’ve not been very successful with this. Acupuncture has been proven to help a variety of conditions from anxiety and depression to acute and chronic pain. The military uses it regularly on soldiers, and have had good results. I tried acupuncture about a half dozen times, with varying practitioners over the years. I flat out just didn’t like or was creeped out by a lot of them, but one woman of Chinese background was the most thorough. I tried a few sessions with her, but did not find any relief. It’s something that I would try again, though, I think with more persistence it could be valuable.

Essential oils/aromatherapy. I’ve tried many of these. I do find lavender, when put in my bath water, is relaxing. I like this methodology more for my headaches, though. I use peppermint oil on my skin and in a diffuser and it helps my headache lessen a little. My wonderful work family got used to our little office area smelling like the North Pole for awhile, when I was in the thick of my migraines.

Vitamins and supplements. I cannot even remember all the different ones of these I’ve tried. Needless to say none of them helped (my migraines either). I do still take melatonin to help with sleep, it is a standby. Some of the duds: valerian, L-theanine, GABA, chamomile, passionflower- just a handful of others I’ve tried over the years. the good thing about vitamins and supplements are that MOST of them are safe- but not all! So talk to a doctor before you start piling them on.

CBD. Yep, tried it. I acquired it in Colorado and tried if for several months. (Aside- I’ve tried on my dogs as well, for they be crazy like me, but it made them more agitated!) There is no dosing guide for CBD. Basically it’s trial and error. I tried various dosages over several months time. I ultimately found none of them to be effective. I’m sure CBD helps some people, but I was not one of them. It is something I recommend people try, though. It is safe without much evidence of side effects, so I think it’s definitely worth people trying.

Hypnosis. I am mentioning this because at one point I was desperate enough to consider it. I even went to an appointment. My logical brain quickly shot down the practice, and won out. There is no empirical evidence that hypnosis works, and I don’t recommend it.

Nature therapy. This has been the big alternative therapy in my life. Looking back on my life, I realize I’ve been employing it without knowing since I was a child. I was always happiest and felt safest in the outdoors. When I felt sad or upset, I would venture out to the woods for relief. And this is what I still do today. Nature has been shown to have some of the same effects on serotonin levels as medications. It doesn’t need to mean becoming a hermit and living in the woods- it’s as simple as taking 5 minutes out of your workday and sitting outside on a sunny day. Now I’ve been lucky in that I have been able to take an extended break where I have traveled for several months and hike nearly everyday. It has been so restorative. I know I should be more stressed about starting my new life in Oregon, but when I’m out on the trails all that falls away and I live in the serenity of the moment. It makes me be in the present only, and not ruminate and stress about all the what-ifs of daily life. So how am I going to keep this going once I start my new job? Definitely mini-breaks to get outside during the day, those are great pick me ups. Also walking my dogs everyday. Even if it’s just around the block, it’s time outside and it’s meaningful. We plan to travel and hike as much as we can when I’m not working, and see as much of this beautiful country as we can.

5 Comments

  1. Paula says:

    I agree with you on the importance of good diet, adequate sleep and exercise. But sometimes it just isn’t enough. I have tried alternative medicine too. I currently go to a functional medicine doctor to help with my thyroid & IBS issues. For the first year I did diet & supplements only and it didn’t elevate the hypo symptoms. Finally I asked for an Rx. Now I am on a low dose of Naturethroid. The mental fog lifted & the unexplained weight gain finally began to get lost. I am also on LDN and it has really helped me with IBS. I can go for a run or hike without losing it and running into the woods! I also believe the LDN helps with my sleep & mental state. (I do have depression & anxiety.) the one natural therapy that truly works is nature. Put me outside for even 10 minutes and my attitude improves.

    Like

  2. mmorran1 says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and getting a little perspective on what works (or doesn’t) for other people’s anxiety. For me nature therapy has also been a boon, it’s not only really great behavioral activation but being in the peace of nature also helps me process difficult emotions.

    I actually have found hypnosis helpful. I’m with you that logically it’s easy to shut it down because it seems so far fetched but I guess that’s the point and why it works so great for me. I have to make the conscious decision to surrender to the meditation/hypnosis which is something my anxiety makes nearly impossible in just day to day life. Maybe I’m not benefiting from it in a traditional sense but it is great practice in learning to let go.

    As for physical pain, I get that too – my body is constantly tense and I have a persistant tension headache. Just once I’d love it if I could be out of pain. I can seem to lessen it but never completely alleviate it. Prozac and meditation have been helpful but I’m wondering if there’s something more I could be doing.

    Anyway, great read thanks for sharing your insights!

    Best, M.

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    • jkhartsock says:

      I think that is fascinating that hypnosis works for you! I can’t wrap my own brain around it, but if it works, it works!
      Do you see a headache doctor? (And have you tried a headache diet? It just eliminates common triggers for headaches. I don’t strictly follow one, but it’s something relatively easy to try!) And I truly recommend a headache specialist, I have sort of become one over the years by default, but I see my own neurologist who gives me Botox injections for my headaches.
      Last thing I promise! Have you tried acupuncture! Even though it didn’t work for me (yet), I have a lot of faith in it, there is good research behind it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • mmorran1 says:

        I know, I guess I had to suspend my own disbelief to make it work. I try to think of hypnosis as just another kind of guided meditation that makes me really feel specific emotions. My favorite is Jason Stephenson on youtube, he’s got stuff for anxiety, depression, letting go etc. if you’re at all curious.

        I don’t see a headache doctor, I just have not been a fan of the health system around where we live and in general hate going to the doctors because it’s such an awful experience for me. I would love to try acupuncture/accupressure. I’ve read up on it and it sounds like it could really help me. I think seeing a dentist might also be key because I grind my teeth due to anxiety.

        Thanks again for taking the time to respond!

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