Q: I often feel down, sad, and, I suppose, depressed. My friends and doctor have suggested that I take anti-depressants. But, I would rather try other things before taking drugs. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Depression is a complex psychological, biological, and spiritual experience or condition. Some of the symptoms of depression are constant sadness, lethargy, hopelessness, lack of interest and enjoyment in activities, meaninglessness, indecisiveness, constant stress, changes in sleep and appetite, worry, and negativity. All of us experience some of these feelings, and changes at periods in our lives. They are part of facing challenges, loss, and growing. Having these feelings is not unhealthy, but if they remain constant and become our primary experience, they prevent us from living a full and enjoyable life.

The first place to begin is to try and understand what makes you depressed. Have you experienced loss, disappointment, or anger that has not been talked about and understood? This may be recent or even when you were a child. Are you under particular stress that is making you weary? Has life lost its meaning for you? Do you have intimacy and supportive friends and family in your life? Explore these areas with a confidant, by writing in a journal, or with a counselor.

Human beings need to live in a balanced way to not get down, find meaning, and be happy in the world. Our bodies need to move and exercise regularly, preferably every day. Since most people work indoors, sitting, they need to go outside to walk or run, or play sports. Absorbing and looking at sunlight is also part of the treatment for depression. Some people have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), where they get depressed due to lack of sun and proper light. Proper circulation and release of endorphins during aerobic activity help alleviate depression and put a person in a positive mood.

Processed foods, sugar, and alcohol are all related to depression. Eating fresh, whole foods with ample vitamins feeds the body to support physical and mental health. A body that isn’t toxic with preservatives and constipation is more resilient, allowing the person to feel more enlivened. Various herbs or supplements are also helpful: St. John’s Wart, 5HTP, and vitamin formulas. They work best in conjunction with exercise, psychotherapy, healthy relationships with family and friends, and a life philosophy and lifestyle that gives meaning and purpose.

Some people may have brain chemistry or hormonal imbalances that predispose them to depression. In such cases anti-depressants become necessary. It is best to work with a psychiatrist, since they specialize in mood disorders. Prescribing medication is both a science and an art.

People benefit greatly when they are involved in some form of spiritual practice or community. This could include meditation, prayer, ritual, and being part of a temple or spiritual center. People feel uplifted and less burdened and lonely when they feel there is a higher power they can turn to. Even if someone doesn’t want to belong to a religion, mosque, or church, he or she can be part of some group that shares a perspective that resonates and supports a deeper life.

If you can approach your depression as an invitation to get to know yourself better, and make your life richer and more meaningful, it will not only make you feel better, but also transform your life.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com

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