As a counselor in San Diego, people often ask me if there’s anything they can do on their own at home to improve their depression and/or anxiety symptoms. While of course attending counseling for depression or anxiety is beneficial in itself, you may only be visiting my San Diego office once per week. So what can you do in the meantime to help alleviate the debilitating symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders? I have compiled a list of ten suggestions of things you can try at home in between therapy sessions. While there are many self-help techniques out there, I find that these have been the most beneficial to my clients’ overall health and well-being. And if you practice them in between counseling sessions, you will likely find that by combining the two (counseling and self-help techniques,) results will be noticeably improved at a much quicker pace.
Self-Help Tip #1: Engage in Relationships that are Supportive – Reach out to close friends and/or family members. You can choose whether or not you want to tell them about your struggles with depression and anxiety, but either way you will benefit from the company of another person. When we are left to our own thoughts, our minds can wander and this can quickly turn into experiencing unpleasant or anxiety-ridden thoughts and emotions. Having another person around may prevent this from happening, since your mind will be distracted and preoccupied with whatever you and your companion are doing. If you have depression, it can be difficult to even think about reaching out to someone or making time to get together with them. However, if you force yourself to do so, you will find that your Depression symptoms will lift, even just a little bit, while you are engaging in an activity with another person. It is all too easy to stay at home alone and hide from the outside world. Push yourself! And if it helps, schedule a weekly get together with this person so that you can 1) have something to look forward to, and 2) be held accountable for the allotted date and time you set aside to socialize with this person. For people with anxiety disorders, this weekly “scheduling” may also help alleviate some of your anxiety symptoms, particularly if your anxiety is worsened by unpredictable events. By having something planned in advance, you know what’s to come in the near future and can prepare for it, which reduces your anxiety overall. And remember, getting together with someone can be as simple as it sounds. You do not have to go out for dinner or do anything that requires a great deal of time or money every time you meet this person. For example, you could visit your friend at his/her place, have your friend over to your place, go out for a coffee, go to a movie, or take a walk around the block together. As long as you’re getting out of bed and doing something with another person, it does not matter which activity you choose to engage in.
Self-Help Tip #2: Get a Pet – The next best thing to bonding with another human being is bonding with an animal. It really doesn’t matter which type of animal you choose to purchase or adopt, as long as you are focusing some of your attention toward your new companion. Animals have been shown to have “healing powers”, and are often used in hospital settings for terminally ill patients. Dogs especially tend to make people feel better about themselves by making them feel less isolated. Having a pet can also help you to feel needed, since pets are a big responsibility and require quite a lot of care. This means that the time and attention you would normally focus inward onto yourself will now be shared outwardly toward your pet. Please note: you should not get a pet if you are not ready for one. And by this I mean you should not bring an animal into your home if you cannot afford to take care of it – either physically or financially – and meet its many needs. Doing so would be unfair to the animal and would only end up in you having to give up the pet. Pets can be wonderful companions that help to naturally reduce your depression and anxiety symptoms, but only consider getting one if you are capable of meeting its needs and devoting a great deal of time and attention toward it.
Self-Help Tip #3: Keep a Journal – You may think this sounds cheesy, but keeping a diary or a journal has been shown to drastically reduce both Depression and Anxiety symptoms. For both disorders, keeping a journal or even a “Thought Record”, as it is called in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), allows you to pinpoint your negative thought patterns as they happen. Since Depression and anxiety disorders often include cognitive distortions and pessimistic thinking, keeping a Thought Record every time you have a negative thought will help you to identify and examine your problematic thinking patterns, and eventually change them into more balanced or realistic thoughts. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of making an actual Thought Record, try just keeping a regular journal. Writing down what you’re feeling as you’re experiencing it is therapeutic, and can serve as an emotional outlet. It’s true that people often feel better after they’ve vented to someone about whatever is troubling them, and a journal can be that “soundboard” or “imaginary person” for you if you don’t want to speak to an actual person about your problems.
Self-Help Tip #4: Find a Hobby or Re-start One That You Used to Engage In – This is some of the best advice I can give you that is both fun and easy to practice in between counseling sessions. If you don’t already have a hobby or a pastime that you enjoy, think of things that interest you and go from there. Have you ever looked at something and thought to yourself “I’ve always wanted to try that”? Why not go back to that place and learn more about whatever hobby it was that caught your eye? Take a trip to a local hobby or craft store – you may be surprised at the variety of fun and engaging activities you find there! If you used to participate in a hobby or sport, try to force yourself to re-start it! It may be difficult initially, but once you get back into the swing of things you will start feeling better about yourself and your mood and anxiety will naturally lift. As you become more passionate about your hobby, you may also notice that your energy levels are increasing and your mind is more occupied with the task at hand rather than the negative thought patterns. Some examples of hobbies you could engage in are: painting, scrapbooking, sewing, cross-stitching, woodworking, playing a musical instrument, playing a sport, exercising, or hiking.
Self-Help Tip #5: Create a “Mental Health Kit” – While this may sound silly at first, it has actually proven to be helpful to persons struggling with Depression and Anxiety Disorders. First, make a list of healthy activities you can engage in that typically enhance your mood. To help with constructing this list, try to think of activities you’ve engaged in before that have noticeably improved your mood. The items from this list will then become components of your “Mental Health Kit”. These “tools” in your kit serve as things to do when you become extremely depressed or anxious. For instance, your kit could include items like your favorite book, your journal, a few favorite movies, some favorite photos, crossword puzzles, word searches, bubble bath supplies, favorite CDs, old letters or cards from special people, etc. The point of the “Mental Health Kit” is to get your mind off your negative thoughts and get you into a better mood by doing something that makes you feel good about yourself.
Self-Help Tip #6: Get Some Sunlight– It’s a well-known fact that most of us do not get an adequate amount of sunlight exposure each day. Even if you live in the southern regions of the country, many of us spend our days cooped up indoors at the office, school, or recreational facility. Activities that once used to be “outdoor activities” are now primarily conducted indoors. As the amount of time we spend indoors increases, the amount of sunlight we are exposed to decreases. This is problematic, since the sun provides us with Vitamin D, a vitamin that has been shown to have mood-enhancing properties. So if you’re experiencing a bout of depression or mood instability due to an anxiety disorder, try making a few simple changes to your daily life to increase the amount of sunlight you are exposed to. For example, you could eat your lunch outside, go for a late afternoon walk, or simply sit out in the backyard. Even as little as half an hour of sun exposure each day is enough to improve your mood. If you live in the northern part of the country, or have another reason that is preventing you from spending time outdoors, take a Vitamin D supplement daily. It is an inexpensive and easy way to give your body the nutrient it needs in order to help uplift your mood.
Self-Help Tip #7: Get an Adequate Amount of Sleep Each Night – It sounds simple and it is. Sleep is a basic human need. Without sleep, we cannot function optimally and we cannot survive in the long-term. While both depression and anxiety often involve sleep disturbances (either trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and sometimes both), you need to try to ensure you are getting an adequate amount of sleep each and every night. Eight (8) hours of sleep per night is ideal, so try to aim for this. Any more or any less will only worsen your symptoms, and likely make you feel very fatigued. I recognize that it is difficult to sleep for this recommended amount of time each night, but if you try to put yourself on a schedule, whereby you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, you will eventually get into a healthy sleep pattern. Also, try to avoid taking naps during the day. Doing so throws off your sleep cycle and confuses the body. Even if you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, try not to nap. By the time bedtime rolls around, you will be tired enough to fall asleep at the designated time on your sleep schedule. Set an alarm for the morning to avoid sleeping in, and try to get up at the exact same time every morning. It may take some getting used to initially, but eventually your body (and mind) will thank you!
Self-Help Tip #8: Exercise Regularly – Most of our lives nowadays are quite sedentary. We sit for long periods of time in front of computer screens at our office desks. It is imperative that you make time each day for some light exercise. By no means do you need to be working out for 2 hours a day, but try to set aside at least 30 minutes each day and designate it to exercising. If you’re new to exercising, start small with just 10 minutes a day and increase this time gradually until you reach 30 minutes. I realize that for someone who is depressed or anxious, exercising is the last thing on their mind, but it has been proven that daily exercise (as little as 30 minutes per day) has powerful effects on not only the body, but also the mind. In fact, studies show that if you exercise regularly, the effects will be the equivalent of taking medication for your Depression or Anxiety Disorder. By incorporating even just some light exercise into your daily routine, you will begin to feel more energized and happier overall. Exercise also reduces one’s stress and anxiety levels. Here are some ways you could try to integrate exercise into your day-to-day routine: 1) Take the stairs instead of the elevator, 2) Walk your dog around the block, 3) Park your car in a parking spot that isn’t so close to the main entrance, and 4) Get an exercise partner to encourage and motivate you.
Self-Help Tip #9: Eat Healthy Food Regularly – Fast food is cheap, and let’s face it: it tastes good! While it is alright to indulge in your favorite fast food combo from time to time, this type of food should not make up the majority of your regular diet. We’ve all heard the saying “You are what you eat”, and believe it or not, it’s got some truth to it! What we consume directly impacts our physical and mental well-being. Make sure that you are eating a variety of fruits and vegetables daily, as well as complex carbohydrates and lots of protein. These foods are known to boost serotonin levels (the “happy” chemical) in the brain and therefore enhance your mood. Also, try to eat lots of foods that contain B Vitamins, such as leafy greens, beans, eggs and lean meats like chicken and fish. Some diet “no-no’s”, particularly for people with Depression and Anxiety Disorders, include refined sugars, caffeine, and alcohol. While these things are acceptable occasionally, you want to make sure you are limiting your intake of them because they can worsen symptoms of both Depression and Anxiety. And please never, ever skip a meal! This is the worst thing you can do for your mood! You should be eating a small meal or a snack at least every 3-4 hours.
Self-Help Tip #10: Practice Relaxation Exercises– By implementing relaxation techniques into your daily routine, you can greatly lessen your symptoms of Depression and Anxiety. Some common relaxation exercises include yoga, meditation, and Progressive-Muscle Relaxation (PMR). You could join a yoga class, or even do it in the comfort of your own home with an instructional DVD. Meditation has also been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, as it allows you to be mindful and focus on what’s happening in the moment. Progressive-Muscle Relaxation (PMR) involves the tension and release of each muscle group in your body. For instance, you could tighten your fists into balls and hold it for ten seconds, and then slowly release. If you do this for each and every muscle group in your body, you will find that both your body and your mind will become more relaxed.
Overall, these ten self-help techniques have been proven to be very useful for many of my clients. Even if you don’t have a diagnosis of Depression or Anxiety, these techniques may still help you conquer the inevitable stress of daily life.
Jan Rakoff has been a licensed Clinical Social Worker in California since 1973. She has also earned her certification as a Diplomat in Clinical Social Work from the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work. For more information about her practice, please visit
sandiegotherapistcounselor.com or call 858.481.0425.