By Alison Shapiro/Matters of the Mind
About one-third of Americans seek alternatives to traditional medicine, according to a National Center for Health Statistics report.
Among the non-medical treatments gaining attention for some mental health challenges are acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT); mindfulness-based cognitive therapy; religion and spirituality; yoga/mind-body practices; and herbal and natural supplements.
Health care professionals are exploring treatment options- from new digital apps to traditional meditation- according to an article from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Even psychedelics are being looked at again, according to an article in The New Yorker.
We are not endorsing any specific avenues of care throughout this project; anyone facing mental health challenges should consult with his or her family health care provider. If you need emergency help, there are resources for immediate care on mentalhealth.gov. The following are a few alternative treatments gaining popularity today.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
For someone who hasn’t found success through traditional cognitive behavioral techniques, acceptance and commitment therapy may offer a better path.
ACT is “about behavior change, about getting out of your mind and into your life,” according to Dr. Georg Eifert, Chapman University psychology professor and co-author of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety.
‘The solution is not to win the tug-of-war, but to drop the rope and then use the energy you used to spend fighting yourself to focus on … what is really important to you in life.’
ACT is also about making space for anxious or negative thoughts. Eifert likened it to a tug-of-war with oneself. “The solution is not to win the tug-of-war,” he said, “but to drop the rope and then use the energy you used to spend fighting yourself to focus on … what is really important to you in life.”
Instead of seeing some feelings as negative and some as positive, he said, all thoughts and feelings should be judged equally and non-judgmentally.
For those wrapped up in constant worrying or anxiety, mindfulness can offer another non-judgmental approach.
Mindfulness uses some of the same tools as ACT. According to Hugh Byrne, meditation leader with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., “mindfulness is really bringing a kind, non-judging awareness to whatever we’re experiencing.”
Mindfulness is about meeting external stressors in what Byrne calls a calm, objective way with a focus on being present. “It’s a very simple practice: wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we’re present for our experience,” Byrne said. He also said it’s not easy because internalizing takes us away from present moment awareness. “When we’re caught up in stress, we’re identifying with our thinking mind,” according to him.
Focusing on one’s breath and one’s body is important with mindfulness. It can be helpful to think, “‘What am I aware of right now?’ instead of being caught up in the worries,” said Byrne.
Byrne said mindfulness could help millennials grappling with the stress of financial issues, for example. “If you have $20,000 or $50,000 in student loan debt, that’s true, so mindfulness is not a way to deny that,” Byrne said. Mindfulness comes into play through “acknowledging the truth of that and deciding on a present way to deal with this, including the worry and concern” he said.
Spirituality and Religion
Some turn to spirituality and religion to help with depression or worrying. Religion can offer positive coping methods, such as a secure relationship with a transcendent force, a sense of spiritual connectedness with others, and a benevolent worldview, experts say.
‘In experiencing and expressing gratitude, people are saying that, as painful as life is, and [as] deep [as] anxiety and depression may be, they do not fully define life or my life in particular’
Dr. Kenneth Pargament, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University, said that these methods “grow out of a deeper spiritual orientation to life.” This orientation can give more meaning to life. Specifically, spirituality can help one cope with trauma, he said, by offering a sense of spiritual comfort and support from a higher power, or from one’s religious community.
A sense of gratitude, which is central to many religions, can also be helpful. “Gratitude and spirituality say that suffering doesn’t have the last word on life,” Pargament said.
“In experiencing and expressing gratitude, people are saying that, as painful as life is, and [as] deep [as] anxiety and depression may be, they do not fully define life or my life in particular,” he said.
Yoga and Meditation
Yoga can be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say.
The activity has been shown to increase the amount of the brain’s gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory transmitter that is decreased in PTSD, said Julie K. Staples, research director at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University
“Several areas of the brain can be affected: one is the amygdala which regulates emotion and fear,” Staples says. “During yoga and meditation, the amygdala is deactivated.” This contributes to clearing one’s mind.
‘We have shown that the combination of these things when delivered in a group setting have seen improvements in people in Gaza and children from Kosovo’
Yoga can also improve heart rate variability, which is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. Experts say that high heart rate variability, with beat intervals of varying length, is healthier than low heart rate variability, with intervals of identical length. Heart rate variability tends to decrease with PTSD and depression. According to Staples, yoga can increase heart rate variability and can decrease activity in the sympathetic nervous system.
The following also play a role in relaxing those with PTSD: meditation, guided imagery, breathing techniques, autogenic training, biofeedback, and genograms. Self-expression through words, drawings, and movement also play a role, according to Staples.
“We have shown that the combination of these things when delivered in a group setting have seen improvements in people in Gaza and children from Kosovo,” Staples said.
Herbal Therapies and Natural Supplements
The popularity of herbal therapies and natural supplements have increased greatly in recent years.
According to the American Botanical Council, herbal dietary supplements in the U.S. comprise an approximately $6 billion market. And 2013 was the 10th consecutive year herbal sales have increased, according to the American Botanical Council website.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists omega-3 fatty acids as potentially helpful for young people in decreasing their risk of developing a chronic form of schizophrenia, and folate offering potential benefits in the treatment of depression and schizophrenia. The National Institute of Mental Health is currently testing omega-3 fatty acids as a psychosis preventative.
According to Therese Borchard, a mental health writer, nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin D, magnesium, vitamin B complex, folate, iron, zinc, iodine and selenium can contribute to the onset of depression. Borchard writes that supplements such as probiotics, turmeric, and amino acids have been successful for her.
Disclaimer: This site does not endorse products, therapies, medical advice or treatments. Anyone experiencing possible issues of mental illness should contact a physician or qualified health care provider for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.