Depression and anxiety can feel like each other’s opposites. Anxiety disorders make us anxious in situations where others would not feel threatened. Fear creates arousal and readiness for action. On the contrary, depression is associated with low energy, fatigue and feelings of hopelessness.
Strange as it may seem, the same remedies can be used to treat both depression and anxiety. This article aims to explain why that is. Also, it will present you with four well-researched cures. All of them are free and all of them can be used at home.
Let’s begin by understanding the connection between depression and anxiety. (If you already know more about these conditions than Piglet and Eeyore combined, feel free to skip ahead to “At-home remedies for depression and anxiety” below.)
What is depression and anxiety?
It’s true that depression and anxiety are different, but they also have a lot in common. A depressed person can experience strong anxiety on the inside, while looking calm or even sluggish from the outside. About 50-70% of people with depression suffer from an anxiety disorder as well. So, depression and anxiety are more similar than they look. For example, both conditions include:
- Intrusive, negative thoughts
- Restlessness and irritability
- Sleeping problems
- Concentration difficulties
We have a lot more to learn about the root causes of depression and anxiety, but it’s clear that both conditions have a genetic component. It means that relatives of a depressed person or a person with an anxiety disorder are at higher risk of developing these disorders. Childhood abuse or trauma increases the risk of both conditions, but everyone can develop depression and anxiety, including people with happy childhoods. Stressful events, such as losses, conflicts and big changes in life make us more vulnerable to both conditions.
Seeing that depression and anxiety disorders have a lot in common, we can sometimes use the same treatments to tackle them. But before we dive deep into the four at-home remedies, let’s take a closer look at what mechanisms maintain depression and anxiety. After all, it’s easier to manage something once you know how it works.
How does anxiety work? When faced with a threat, we are supposed to feel fear or anxiety. Fear helps the body to deal with a dangerous situation. Breathing increases to provide more oxygen, the heart beats faster to provide the biggest muscles with oxygen-rich blood and sweat glands become more active to cool the body during a potential fight or flight.
So, anxiety is an important part of life and fear is a normal reaction to threat. You don’t want to live your life without fear. You would take unnecessary risks and put yourself in dangerous situations. Anxiety only becomes a problem when it shows up in situations that aren’t dangerous or when the fear response in your body is way too dramatic relative to what’s happening.
The following examples can explain the difference between helpful fear and unhelpful fear.
Imagine a parent and a 3-year-old daughter standing at the side of the road. The parent sees a bus coming towards them and his brain immediately produces an image of the daughter stepping into the road in front of the bus. He feels fear and becomes ready for action. He takes his daughter’s arm, despite her protests, and holds her close as the bus passes.
Now, imagine a different scenario: A parent is frequently tortured with intrusive thoughts about his 8-year-old daughter being hurt on the street. These thoughts pop up out of nowhere several times a day and make him feel very nervous. He never lets his daughter play outside and drives her everywhere in his car.
As you’ve already figured out, the first scenario is an example of fear working to our advantage. The second scenario is an example of unhelpful fear, in which the parent is most likely suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Helpful fear usually works like this:
Unhelpful fear that comes with an anxiety disorder works like this:
In short, an anxiety disorder can be explained as having irrational fears that interfere with daily life. But it’s important to understand that the fear is real. And brutal. And the physical symptoms that show up in your body are real. The problem is that the fear shows up at the wrong moments, in situations where it’s not helpful.
Typically, an anxiety disorder makes us avoid things that are not dangerous. And avoiding safe situations is what maintains the anxiety. Like this:
So, avoiding safe but frightening things usually maintains the problems with anxiety. Doing safe things that initially trigger your fears can reduce your anxiety in the long run. Just make sure to expose yourself in small steps, preferably together with a psychologist.
So far, we’ve covered how anxiety works in general, but there are many different types of anxiety disorders, all with their own specific criteria. Read more about specific anxiety disorders at the NHS website.
Now, let’s have a look at how depression works.
How does depression work?
Being depressed is more than feeling blue for a short period of time. People often say things like “I feel so depressed” or “that’s depressing”, but the truth is that depression is a well defined disorder, including nine symptoms:
- Depressed mood: Feeling down most of the day, nearly every day.
- Loss of interest and pleasure: Markedly reduced interest/pleasure in all (or almost all) activities most of the day.
- Changed appetite or weight (eating more or less than usual).
- Sleep disturbance (too much or too little).
- Moving more slowly than usual or making meaningless movements due to anxiety (for example twisting your hands).
- Lacking energy: Feeling tired nearly every day.
- Feeling excessively guilty and/or worthless.
- Having difficulty concentrating and/or making decisions.
- Having repeated thoughts about death, suicidal thoughts, or sometimes wishing you were dead.
If you’ve experienced at least 5 of these symptoms for at least 2 weeks, you may be diagnosed with depression. Read more about depressive symptoms here: Am I depressed? – Learn about criteria and take an online depression test.
The biggest difference between depression and regular sadness is that the depressive symptoms don’t go away as you would expect them to. You feel down all the time, have little energy and difficulty enjoying the things you usually like. These experiences can get you stuck in a vicious cycle. Because you don’t feel like doing anything, you stop doing the things that usually make you feel better. Then, you start missing out on positive experiences, which makes you feel even worse. And the cycle keeps spinning. Like this:
That is how depression works. It’s never about laziness or being unambitious, it’s depression. Luckily, you can reverse this vicious cycle once you understand it. Take a look at this 3.5-minute video about the cycle of depression:
The depression cycle teaches us that doing important things, even though you don’t feel like doing anything, can get you out of depression. Read more about How to cope with depression by finding the meaning of life.
Now that you know more about how depression and anxiety work, let’s find out what you can do at home to reduce the symptoms.
At-home remedies for depression and anxiety
As mentioned above, both depression and anxiety include intrusive negative thoughts, restlessness and irritability, fatigue, sleeping problems and concentration difficulties. Because they have so much in common, there are methods that can help you tackle both conditions at once. Some daily routines are especially linked with depression and anxiety, and a few lifestyle changes can markedly reduce your symptoms. Here they are:
1. Exercise for depression and anxiety
Regular exercise is a well-researched, effective treatment for both depression and anxiety. It’s also the only antidepressant strategy that has an immediate effect on your symptoms. A sweaty walk increases mood and concentration right away, whereas antidepressant medications usually need several weeks to work.
This 3-minute video explains the benefits of exercise. It’s main focus is on depressive symptoms, but you’ll get the same benefits even though anxiety is your main problem. Take a look:
So, how much exercise is enough to treat depression and anxiety? Will a few minutes of stretching do the trick or do you need daily spin classes to recover? Well, the answer is somewhere in between. It’s important to work up a sweat, but not to become completely exhausted. Regular power walking is an excellent strategy for treating symptoms of depression and anxiety. If you’re new to exercising, start with 10-minute walks every other day and add a few minutes every time you go out. The goal is to get 30-40 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week.
Read more about Exercise and Depression – How to build a treatment routine that lasts.
2. Mindfulness meditation for depression and anxiety
Mindfulness meditation can become one of your most valuable tools for managing depression and anxiety. You can think of mindfulness meditation as a way to get to know your mind and body from the inside.
A regular meditation practice teaches you how to spot early signs of depression and how to stop them from spiraling into a depressive episode. Additionally, regular meditation will help you manage strong emotions, which is more than valuable when dealing with depression and anxiety. Take a look at this 4-minute video, explaining mindfulness meditation and its benefits:
As you may have noticed, both depression and anxiety come with intrusive, negative thoughts that just won’t shut up. The best thing about mindfulness meditation (in my personal opinion) is that it teaches you how to notice critical or fearful thoughts without getting caught up in them, and without acting on them. It’s like the difference between looking at the rain through a window and getting soaked outside.
Would you like to try it right away? Here’s a short mindfulness meditation exercise that helps you manage negative thoughts in a new way:
Remember, mindfulness meditation doesn’t always feel comfortable or calming, especially not at the beginning. And that’s not the point. The point is to pay attention to whatever happens here and now without judging.
Read more about How to use mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps and Top 3 beginner meditations for depression.
3. Eat your way out of depression and anxiety
Can food be antidepressant? Is it possible to eat your way out of depression and anxiety? Is raw food the best choice for your brain or should it be steaming stews with tons of turmeric?
Lately, researchers all over the world have shown an increasing interest in these questions and found how food can help us become mentally healthy.
The SMILES study was conducted at La Trobe University in Melbourne in 2017. The research team let one group of depressed people eat a Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks. And another group of depressed people ate as usual and received social support for 12 weeks. The researchers found that one-third of the Mediterranean group completely recovered from depression, just by changing their eating habits. The other group felt no difference.
So, if you’re interested in eating your way out of depression and anxiety, the traditional Mediterranean diet is probably the easiest and tastiest way to get there. It has important antidepressant qualities and it has also shown to reduce anxiety.
Would you like to get the recipe? Well, here you have it:
- Vegetables and green leaves 🥬 (150 grams every meal)
- Unsalted nuts 🌰 (2 tablespoons per day)
- Legumes (3-4 servings per week)
- Fruit 🍇 (2-3 pieces per day)
- Fat fish or fish eggs 🐟 (2-3 times a week)
- Berries 🍒 (1 serving per day)
- Plain, unsweetened yoghurt or kefir 🐐(100-200 ml per day)
- Cold-pressed virgin olive oil (2 tablespoons per day)
- Water! 💧(8 glasses per day)
- Whole grain 🌾(1-2 servings per day)
The reason behind the antidepressant effect of certain foods has to do with inflammation. There is a clear connection between chronic inflammation in the body and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. A diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, berries, legumes, herbs, whole grain, seeds and olive oil is anti-inflammatory and thereby protects against depression and anxiety. Other foods increase inflammation in the body, such as:
- Processed meat
- Chemical additives
If you want to know exactly what to eat and what to avoid to reduce depression and anxiety, check out An easily digested guide to diet and depression.
4. Sleep your way out of depression and anxiety
As you may have noticed, both depression and anxiety come with sleeping problems. Sleeping poorly makes it difficult to concentrate and manage strong emotions, that is, poor sleep intensifies the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Luckily, the opposite is also true. Better sleep quality will reduce depression and anxiety.
Do you recognise this brain area?
It’s called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC has many functions and one of them is acting like your emotional “brake” so you don’t get too overwhelmed by emotions.
This brain area is called amygdala:
Amygdala is more like an emotional “accelerator pedal” that activates very strong emotions, such as fear.
It’s much more difficult for the PFC to put the brakes on overwhelming emotions after a bad night’s sleep. Poor sleep makes the PFC less active while amygdala gets busier. It’s easy to imagine how this can turn into a negative cycle. Luckily, improving your sleep quality can turn the whole thing around. Sleeping better can become your overnight therapy, making it easier to concentrate and handle negative feelings.
Here are a few strategies to get you started:
- ⏰ Have a fixed wakeup time: Creating a regular sleep routine is the most powerful sleep tool of all. Wake up at the same time every day, even during weekends.
- 💆♀️ Start unwinding 90 minutes before bedtime: Make sure that your brain is nice and relaxed, perhaps read a book (maybe not a thriller though), meditate, take a shower, listen to relaxing music or do other calming activities for 90 minutes before you go to bed.
- 😴 Give yourself 8 hours of sleep ‘opportunity’ every night.
- 🌚 Sleep in a dark and cool bedroom: Darkness and cold (around 18 degrees) triggers the release of the sleep hormone melatonin in the body. Melatonin signals to the body that it’s time for sleep and helps you fall asleep faster.
You may want to try a few of the sleep strategies above to help you manage depression and anxiety. Also, it’s probably helpful to watch out for the most common sleep villains who destroy your sleep quality. Take a look at this 3-minute video:
Read more about how to improve your sleep quality in All you need to know about depression and sleep – the most effective sleep strategies for improving depression.
Free virtual therapy for depression and anxiety
Would you like to get started right away but don’t really know where to begin? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that.
The virtual therapy app from Flow Neuroscience includes over 50 therapy sessions, developed by licensed psychologists. It’s focused on improving your sleep, exercise routine, diet and meditation practice to reduce depressive symptoms at home. The app is specifically designed to treat depression, but the techniques work well with anxiety too. Your virtual therapist, Flow, will guide you through the treatment programme, help you schedule upcoming sessions, give you homework assignments and track your symptoms throughout the treatment. Sounds interesting? There’s really nothing to lose – the treatment programme is completely free. You can download it here.
Depression and anxiety can feel like each other’s opposites, but also have a lot in common. The same lifestyle changes can markedly reduce symptoms of both conditions. Four of the most well-researched at-home remedies are:
- Regular exercise
- Regular mindfulness meditation practice
- Eating a Mediterranean diet
- Improving sleep quality
Thank you for your attention!