At age 13, I started feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly inexplicable sadness. My family had problems, as most families do, but nothing that could easily account for my loss of interest in eating or choice to spend most of my free time sleeping. Things that normally would have made me excited, like getting the lead role in a school musical or being invited to the movies by my crush, were instead met with blatant apathy.
I was lucky that my family didn’t ignore the signs that I needed help. Since both my parents are medical professionals, I was sent directly to a psychologist for therapy and psychiatrist for medication. It turned out I was going through a major depressive episode—a common mental disorder where people experience a depressed mood or loss of pleasure for two weeks or longer. Though I was young, it’s not an uncommon condition for adolescents. Nearly three million teens, ages 12 to 17, were diagnosed with a major depression episode in 2014, reports the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. I was prescribed a very standard regimen for how to treat depression: weekly psychotherapy and an antidepressant regimen. I was so depressed that I was willing to try anything to feel better.
As I grew older and the pressures of applying to college, finding a job, and defining myself weighed on me, I developed new symptoms in the form of anxiety and panic attacks. One moment I would be studying productively in the library, and the next I would have a troublesome thought about anything from school to family or friends. Before I knew it, my heart would be racing and my stomach would drop to the floor; my whole body would go cold. Once this happened, the rest of my day would be spent in fear that it would reoccur, and that I wouldn’t be able to control it. For those distressing moments, I was prescribed benzodiazepines. Commonly referred to as “benzos,” this family of medications, which includes drugs like Xanax and Klonopin, works by enhancing the GABA (gamma-amniobutryic acid) neurotransmitter, which reduces stress and anxiety in the brain. Later, I was still so stressed I couldn’t sleep, so we added a sleep aid to the mix.
Every time I went in with a new problem, my doctors (I’ve had quite a few over the years as I moved from high school to college to NYC) were less concerned with digging into the root of the issue, which I was unsure of and would have liked to explore, and more apt to reach for their prescription pad for a quick fix. I started to feel like I was regulating my daily activities with pills, especially my sleep. The scary part is that I felt just fine on all of these medications––not particularly happy, but also not particularly sad.
By 23, I was working at my dream job for a magazine that I loved. Things were going well; my life was headed in the direction I had always hoped for. I knew I should feel happy, proud, satisfied––but I didn’t. I didn’t feel much of anything. As I saw how my peers reacted to their individual successes and failures, I began to realize my usual emotional cocktail of numbness and detachment wasn’t normal. I got promoted, broke up with my boyfriend, watched a sibling go to rehab…I knew I should react to these major life moments, but nothing seemed to really make me feel anything.
That’s when I started to ask myself: How did I get here? How could I break through, to feel more present and engaged? At this point, I had been on antidepressants for a decade, and started to wonder: Was it safe to be on them for so long? What would my life be like without them? What would I be like without them?
My doctor at the time was a firm believer in medication as the primary solution in how to treat depression. I knew she would be very hesitant to support me going off of all my medications, so I didn’t bring it up for months. When I finally did, she strongly advocated for me to stay on them, saying that since I had been taking them for so long, it would be difficult to wean myself off. When you stop taking antidepressants, the sudden decrease of serotonin (the brain chemical that regulates mood and that antidepressants make stick around longer) can cause your body to experience physical withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines are even more difficult to stop taking because of their addictive qualities. This is part of the reason why I wanted out in the first place. I didn’t want to be so dependent on these drugs. I tried not to let my frustration show, but I knew that ultimately this was my decision and not hers. After a lot of discussion, she agreed that if I were going to try to thrive without medication, it would be ideal to give it a go when everything in my life was so positive.
Learning How to Treat Depression Naturally
We began tapering my medications slowly, at first. We started by reducing the dosage, and then later lessened the frequency of my medications to every other day, then every three days, until I wasn’t taking them at all. I checked in with my doctor every week during this process to ensure that I wasn’t experiencing any withdrawal symptoms, and also make sure I still felt comfortable emotionally. I made an effort to increase my regular exercise from three days a week to five, and focused on cardio-heavy activities like spinning and high intensity interval training to score more of those natural mood-boosting endorphins.
In addition to exercise, I took up a meditation practice of 10 to 15 minutes a day. Mostly, I focused on breathing exercises, but sometimes I used guided meditations suggested by my therapist. This practice helped to quiet my mind and allowed me to get more comfortable with experiencing depressive and anxious thoughts without medications. Those thoughts don’t just suddenly go away when you start meditating, but they become less scary to acknowledge. When you’re not afraid to confront upsetting thoughts, they lose their power over you. Science shows that mindfulness can be effectively used as an alternative treatment in combatting both depression and physical pain. A study conducted by Rutgers University found that the combination of meditation with exercise has a particularly positive impact on patients with depression by allowing them to have better control over their depressive thoughts and ruminations.
Three months after starting this journey, I was able to successfully stop taking all of my meds, and have been able to stay off them for the last three years. I have a backup supply of anxiety medications just in case I have a really bad panic attack, but I’ve learned to fight them with mindful breathing techniques instead of immediately reaching for a bottle of pills.
My experience with these methods has certainly shown me that under the right guidance, the mind is capable of powerful self-healing. However, the process of getting to where I am today was anything but easy. For several months after discontinuing my medications, I felt emotionally “off,” almost as if I could feel my mind adjusting to its natural chemistry. I would have an emotional reaction to something that would have flown under my radar before, and be totally surprised by it. After about six months, I started to feel much more well-adjusted. My feelings no longer freaked me out, but were a welcome reminder that I was a living, breathing person who was invested in things and cared about the people and world around me. This accomplishment in itself made the entire process worth it.
While this alternative approach is not appropriate for everyone dealing with depression, here are three important points to consider if you’re thinking about making this major life change.
1. Evaluate the underlying issue.
James Greenblatt, M.D., an integrative psychiatrist and author of The Breakthrough Depression Solution, says that patients often come to his office hoping to wean off their antidepressants. And while mindfulness, meditation and healthy living habits do benefit all types of depression, those with major depressive disorders and certain other complications, like bipolar disorder, may still need regulation from medications. Talk to your doctor about the reasons you went on medication in the first place. There’s a major difference in long-term treatment for situational triggers and serious, life-threatening disorders.
A key component of integrative psychiatry, Greenblatt notes, is acknowledging that every person is different, so any treatment plan should be based on each person’s unique needs. For example, although I was diagnosed with major depression and will cope with it for the rest of my life, always monitoring myself to be sure I’m not headed towards a relapse, my doctor agreed that I had made enough progress during 10 years of therapy to start the process of transitioning off of antidepressants. Today, exercise, mindfulness, and psychotherapy are my daily doses of medication. They’re a non-negotiable part of my routine that keep me on track and feeling in control.
2. Find your doctor.
Slowly tapering off your medications can take anywhere from weeks to months in order to be done safely. If you’re experiencing a lot of physical symptoms, your doctor will need to readjust your schedule, so it’s important to check in frequently. Greenblatt emphasizes that this tapering process is a prime example of where different people need individualized treatment plans. “When we use a ‘one size fits all’ approach to depression, treatment is often ineffective and costly,” he says.
If you’re hoping to use mindfulness and meditation to help you transition off of medication, it is imperative that you do so under the supervision of someone experienced whom you can trust. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., co-founder of the Center for Mindful Living and expert on Meditation Studio App, says people interested in this approach must find a “highly qualified psychotherapist who is also a highly qualified mindfulness teacher,” and warns that “the wrong mindfulness approach can be re-traumatizing” for some people. He recommends looking for someone who has trained through MBSR, the Mindful Awareness Research Center, or the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at the University of Oxford. Doing a little research into a therapist’s actual qualifications ahead of time can save you a lot of stress later on.
3. Check in with yourself.
During the entire process, it’s important to stay in touch with yourself about how things are really going. “Mindfulness helps people wake up to their depression loop—a conditioned reaction of negative thoughts, emotions, sensations, and behaviors that keeps them stuck,” says Goldstein. A mindfulness or meditation practice can help change the way you deal with troubling thoughts and situations, making them easier to handle and less likely to lead to relapse. This is a major concern since up to 80 percent of people who have experienced a major depressive episode may eventually relapse, according to the American Psychological Association. Once you’re done weaning off your medication, the hard work has just begun.
The good news: For people with depression in remission, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT) is as effective as the use of medication in preventing a relapse. According to Goldstein, developing a mindfulness practice leaves people better equipped to deal with “the dips that inevitably occur as people transition off antidepressants” and to not “take them so personally, to apply self-compassion and understand deeply what we need in those moments to meet the difficulty and find balance again.”
For me, mindfulness and general awareness of my feelings through mental check-ins allowed me to feel grounded and in control of the entire process. Every few months, I ask myself, Is this still working for me? Do I feel okay? If I confirm that I feel alright, I stick to my daily routine of meditation and exercise. If the answer is “no”, it’s time to call my doctor to discuss. The ability to identify my feelings is, in large part, thanks to my meditation practice.
“Mindfulness opens people up to a world of possibility that depression has blinded them to,” Goldstein explains. “It helps create clarity to see what we need moment-to-moment and when to apply the natural antidepressants of self-compassion, compassion, play, and confidence.”