5 Ways to Create an Anti-Depressant Brain

Depression can rob people of their sense of aliveness and vitality, interfere with job performance, disrupt relationships, and increase the likelihood of self-harm.Elisha Goldstein, PhD

So are there tools we can use to help clients reduce and even prevent suffering from depression?

My friend, Elisha Goldstein, PhD has identified 5 natural ways to create an anti-depressant brain.

Elisha is a clinical psychologist in private practice, co-founder of The Center for Mindful Living in LA, and author of the book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion.
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For years now, I’ve studied what helps create more resilience and happiness within us. I’ve looked at my own life, the lives of my clients and students, and the psychological and neuroscience research.

What I’ve found is that within each and every one of us are a core set of natural anti-depressants. When we intentionally tap into these resources, it shifts our brain activity in ways that can lend itself to shaping an anti-depressant brain. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Mindfulness could reduce depression.

    Mindfulness practice is connected to lower depression scores, and we can actually see why in the brain. When people practice mindfulness they spend less time in the part of the brain that ruminates on the old stories that keep us stuck in the past. Instead, they spend more time connecting to the area of the brain responsible for sensing the world.

  2. Self-compassion can powerfully fight anxiety.

    Self-compassion reduces rumination (spending time rehearsing those unhelpful stories from the past) and increases well-being. This is inversely correlated with anxiety and depression.

  3. Compassion practices can increase empathy.

    Compassion practices can shift activity to the left prefrontal cortex, and that has been more associated with positive emotions and resiliency. We can also grow the areas of the brain associated with empathy and compassion.

  4. Play can be a natural anti-depressant.

    Studies reveal that the act of play as well as creating more enriching environments can give us energy, make us more efficient, and serve as a natural anti-depressant.

  5. Living with purpose could reduce inflammation.

    Living with greater purpose has been shown to reduce the expression of genes associated with cellular inflammation. Cellular inflammation is associated with many diseases and depression.

The science that continues to come out about mindfulness, self-compassion, purpose/compassion, play and confidence and their neurological benefits is incredibly motivating.

And I know these effects are real, not only because of the science but because of the thousands of people whose lives have changed as a result of engaging this work.

But don’t take my word for it – begin to bring these natural anti-depressants into your life, and see what you notice.

Of course, this list just scratches the surface of how to naturally create a more antidepressant brain.

Now we’d like to hear from you. How have you used some of these ideas in your work with clients? Please leave a comment below.

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56 Comments

  1. Wonderful article…..hope to be able to print it to share with a cleints struggling with depression and anxiety. Thanks!

  2. Edith says:

    Does anyone have any advice to help someone newly diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety?
    Is there any help for Internet Addiction? If so, any resources to share?

  3. Donna Lowe says:

    Is there a way to introduce this practise to a friend who is suffering from depression? IS there Self help options or do they need to be under the care of a practioner?

  4. Allen P. Wilkinson says:

    I have seen the regular practice of mindfulness achieve tremendous positive effects on persons suffering from clinical psychological, psychiatric, and behavioral disorders, as well as the reduction of overwhelming stress (or should I really say distress) due to personal, financial, and other non-clinical yet distressful feelings. It is high time that the behavioral community acknowledge the efficacy of incorporating teaching mindfulness to their patients or clients. Although mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism, it is really non-religious and can be used in persons of all — or no — religious beliefs. However, before a clinician begins to incorporate mindfulness in his or her practice, the clinician must be thoroughly trained in mindfulness. Before using mindfulness in the treatment of patients or clients, the clinician must have attained a complete understanding of how and why mindfuloness works. The clinician cannot simply read a book or two on mindfulness and attend a weekend seminar or listen to several mindfulness-based meditation. A good place to start is the work by Jon Kabat-Zinn and the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) he started at the University of Michigan in 1979. His book “Full Catastrophe Livingi” and his four-CD collection on “Guided Minfulness Meditatoin” (available from Sounds True) is suggested as an introduction to the subject. The clinician should practicer mindfulness while treating patients/clients to make him or her more alert, awake, present, aware, and focused on the patient/client. At the end of the day, the clinician will feel less tired and exhausted — mentally and physically — after a day’s work and will find his or her life changing for the better.

  5. Clare Puskarczyk Phd says:

    PTSD is an actual wounding and needs some calming/healing in order to move forward into mindfulness.

  6. As a practicing (do we ever stop practicing and learning?) hypnotherapist for 37 years I train people to mind their self talk and quickly change it to positive. A good addition to a good list

  7. Sarah says:

    Spending quality time with my grandson engages that part of me that has been dormant for a long time. Listening to his view of his world and how he processess information is entertaining and helps me to understand how a childs mind sees the beauty of that world. His healthy outlook reminds me that I am partially responsible for feeding him positive, playful, disciplined teachings. His energy is contagious as he is non judgemental. When I am with him, little “Sarah”, comes out to play and that is the medicine that helps to heal the past traumas. As I am compassionate and loving with him, I am compassionate and loving with myself. He is my greatest teacher.

  8. Johanna Blows says:

    Well, I don’t know if this works, as I haven’t had the opportunity to test it with others. But this is what I imagine could be helpful. Of course, the specific actions depend on the personality and the likes and dislikes of the particular person. Some examples are: Go to the beach (or a fair) and have an icecream;
    pick some flowers, smell them and arrange with care; visit a friend, or send a get-well card to someone who needs cheering up; take some beautiful photos and show them to others or put them on facebook. Facebook gives you time to make thoughtful comments without fear of interruption!
    Oh well, just some thoughts!

  9. Nancy Price says:

    You make no mention where mindfulness
    Come from? This is a old old scam.
    No further, no past. ie: Nirvana. These
    Are a lot of claims..snake oil salesman.
    Has nothing to do with the functioning
    Of the brain or rewiring it. If anything
    The evidence shows us spending all
    That time alone in the brain is devastating
    For some peole. This is not evidence
    Base medicine. What is dangerous
    Is the medical establishment has
    Legitimize pseudoscience to cut
    Cost in medical treatment of patients
    Not looking at the root of the cause and
    People dying.

    • Irene says:

      Nancy, I was just wondering how you happened upon this page? You’re not a health/mental health practitioner are you? (PLEASE tell me you’re not!!)

    • nada says:

      Nancy, I am shocked by your comments.
      You seem to be totally left brain orientated person. Balance is the key.

  10. Marion Houghton, LMFT, South Orange, NJ says:

    These ideas are very helpful, and the connection with neuroscience really anchors the approach. Thank you.

  11. Virginia Pond, LCSW, Calais, Maine says:

    Or dance!

  12. Virginia Pond, LCSW, Calais, Maine says:

    I would add the important factor of environment.. That we spend time in Nature regularly and often, and walk or swim. Thank you for this information! Ginny Pond

  13. PATTI BECKER says:

    Please let me know more about your comments about PLAY. I’d like to know your sources and specific key points. I have spent 40 years in the Toy Industry and my background is developmental child psychology and education (and marketing). Thanks!

    • Irene says:

      Patti, not sure if this is going to be useful for you or not but I’m going to put it “out there” .. just incase! I first came to hear about the importance of play through an online e-Course by a research professor called Brene Brown (through Oprah’s website) .. it was based on her book (she has several, but I think it was The Gifts of Imperfection) .. the course was set up “playfully” with art journalling exercises .. the most fun I’ve had studying in ages!! In this book/”play full” e-course, Brene references the work of play researcher Stuart Brown, who apparently got to the topic of researching play through having studied violent offenders and finding a commonality in their childhoods of lack of play. I found it very interesting. (However, Brene does warn against googling “adult + play” .. unless you want to be closing popup windows down like a game of ‘whack-a-mole’, she cautions ; )

    • Melissa Gray says:

      Patti, the chapter on Play in Elisha’s book (listed in his bio above), is very informative and well written. It is my favorite chapter of the book I think! The focus is about play as adults. Conducting a play history to get a sense of client’s play as a child is one idea I find very useful for crafting more healthier lifestyles.

      I would be curious for some of your ideas on how to support adults to utilize play more often in their lives, given your interesting background!

  14. Since my student days when I had an anatomy lecturer who believed that most people could only concentrated for 20 minutes, whilst our lecture period was 60 minutes, he therefore divided up the lecture into 20 minute sections the first being the important information, the second period an activity around the information and lastly some funny stories around the information. This protocol certainly worked for me and once I began practicing as a group therapist I adopted the same protocol for my groups. Mindfulness seems to encourage a similar learning pattern where fun and games are part of the group and where laughter is encouraged rather than rumination, where self compassion helps us to activate the self soothing states of our brains giving us more hope, joy and feelings of universality.

    • This is a brilliant way to teach, bravo to your wise professor. A very similar approach works well in leading SoulCollage groups who are new to the practice too! 1. Explain the process. 2. Invite a playful curious intention while allowing images to “choose” you and also while creating a collage on the card. 3. Take some time to focus on the body and breath, being here. In this open heart and mind space, enter and read the card, what is it offering, what does it want from you? 4. Receive your own inner wisdom read back to you by a partner.

  15. Great list! Fun to see play on the list, although when one is depressed, it is a little challenging to feel like playing :). One of the things that I have found after 40 years of private practice is the need for a simple technique that a depressed client can easily use throughout the day to keep the depression from spiraling deeper. The analogy I use is of a trucker having to tap his brakes going down a mountain road so his truck does not gather too much speed. I teach my clients the “12-SECOND RECHARGE” that they can easily do numerous times in a day to (1) check into their bodies (and get out of their heads/stories), (2) align with their breath, (3) become more mindful of the present moment (rather than past or future), and (4) feel a renewal of energy. You can read more about this technique if you would like at http://bit.ly/1MZk2j4

  16. I’m so glad to see PLAY on this list. As a culture, we seem to have become far too serious. Even children’s sports, which should exemplify the spirit of play, are too often treated as serious endeavors requiring huge time commitments and characterized by pressure to perform. Would love to see the playfulness put back into the ‘playing’ of sports and into so many other areas of life where the fun has been increasingly left out.

  17. Steve says:

    Spirituality.

    • don says:

      mindfulness & compassion as much as possible creates no anger & no depression. just practice daily & meditate. after 10 years of practice, I still have angry moments but i don’t react
      w anger.

  18. Cathy, Canada says:

    I totally agree with the daily practice…these will move a person, if practiced daily, to a more rewarding purpose.

  19. Bonnie Ransom, PhD, MPH says:

    I strongly agree with this approach when it is practiced daily and there are resources to move into a field of greater purpose. But I caution against implications of neurological “causal” associations and neurological “benefits”. This is pseudoscience, it is not true, it is not “evidence-based”. Yes, diseases, injuries and illnesses are inflammatory in nature and can be associated secondarily with depression. Being ill can make you depressed.
    There is some evidence emerging that for some biological illnesses, recovery in depressed individuals can be impaired as compared with individuals who are not deptessed (the control group). But the statement that living life with greater purpose is (causally) associated with a decrease in the expression of inflammatory genes is spurious. Attempts to associate psychological states with neurological underpinnings and benefits weakens rather than strengthens the very good ideas and pathways presented here by Goldstein and elsewhere by others. Because the science isn’t there. It may come in the future but it ain’t there now.

  20. Mark Williams says:

    To take care of inflammation, change your diet.

    • nada says:

      Changing diet to take care of inflammation is the first step and changing mindset is the second.

  21. James Helmuth, Ph.D. says:

    These are spot on! I have used each of these with clients in my 30 years of work as a psychologist.

  22. Kim Kuehner, Ph.D., LP says:

    These five ideas are great. The problem is in empowering a person suffering from depression to actually “do” these things. That’s the therapist skill needed.

    • Marie Fontaine, LICSW says:

      II find that one of the best ways to introduce clients to these skills and practices is to introduce them through in-session experiences, including abdominal breathing, guided meditation for relaxation, grounding exercises (ex., notice the room we are in – it’s color, the sound of the air conditioner, what you see when you look out the window; invite/encourage/coach them to consciously shift their focus away from their depressive thoughts to something positive. Then process the experience with them: Do they notice a difference in how they feel? Can they identify what triggered the change? Co-create a plan of practice for between sessions, including reminders (setting cell phone alarms) to do the practices. Review at next session, and maintain a focus on these practices for a sustained period of time. One-shots are next to useless.

  23. All true. I would add two suggestions: A practice of gratitude is another proven powerful mood lifter. Gratitude makes people more likely to help someone else. And doing a kind service for someone else has a positive effect in itself..

    • Helena says:

      Agree… Gratitude is powerful and often missing in western society. I agree with Marie about practising mindfulness during sessions repeatedly so that clients do feel a difference and are more motivated to then practice on their own :)

      • nada says:

        Agree. with Nancy and Helena. Gratitude is a powerful mood lifter.

  24. Srishti nigam says:

    Excellent strategies

  25. john says:

    being mindful, having a focus or positive goal, forgiveness meditation, exercise are all wonderful tools.
    there are times when we have so many thoughts going on, feel overwhelmed, unable to take the smallest action on our behalf. my experience shows me that I have come to a place where I have lost my connection to completion and am stuck, unable to think my way out. my tool for this is to do any task that takes 5 minutes. it must have a beginning and completion. an example is washing my mug and morning cereal bowl and putting them on the rack to dry, or clearing my side table in the bedroom. it does not have anything to do with what I might want to do. once I have re-experienced how completion feels, I can now move on to the next right thing for me to do. I feel empowered and not stuck

    • Pgyx says:

      Agree with the others — this is a useful tool that will be easy for me to apply and share with others. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

    • Anne says:

      John, excellent suggestion, thank you! Such a small, but powerful thing to do (because it’s so small). When our bodies are in states of alarm and have entered the freeze state, doing something non-threatening to ‘break the freeze’ can be enough to move us out of that state.

  26. Sandi says:

    I think all of this is true but having access is harder. It seems much of what you say is connected to community. Even meditation works better for some in a group setting. I know for me this is true. Many people are isolated by low income and lack of public transportation. I can only walk a few miles and that keeps me from any meditation groups, yoga, or even work or volunteer situations. I am a retired hospice RN with physical disabilities I do online hypnosis and meditation but feel I need a human connection or teacher. Right now Orlando has thrown me into some old PTSD modes. being queer also isolates me. I am 68 and surrounde by Trump advocates in low income housing for seniors. It is quite freightening at times. I lost much of my ability to be mobile after the crash in 2008 as did many people. I know what you say works but access is still a problem.

    • barbara says:

      Dear Sandi,
      I totally agree with what you have written. Difficulty of access, a sense of isolation (many possible causes – eg social, geographic) poor or no mobility, finances, poor motivation due to acute depression – all these circumstances and more can hinder one from getting help and support.
      One wonderful thing is the internet where so much material is available. It DOES not substitute for actual human contact, that is true. It may possibly put you in touch with people nearby who have similar issues or wish for companionship. It may also be possible through the internet to find a psychotherapy or other practice trainee who needs practice clients – sessions free – and would be willing to travel to see you. I wish you all the best in your search.

    • Terri says:

      Hello Sandi. Your comment touches my heart. Connection is so vital. After my daughter’s suicide in 2012 I retreated and isolated, 4 years later finding my world so very small. My virtual world has been my lifeline. Whether it’s Tara Brach’s You Tube’s or Private/Secret/Open Face Book activity. Just wanted to offer my heart and say I see you and understand. Maybe finding a group to join virtually can bring you community too. It has truly helped me feel less alone through my journey. You need not be alone, you are not alone. Sending love xoxo.

  27. The difficult thing is to create purpose of living , in the minds of many of such sad peoples, due to persistence of one or other causes during counselling. Some of the childhood trauma, known or even unknown/recorded at times may not heal well and on slightest provocation symptoms do come needing initially some medication and then counselling, sometimes they come in a pattern. They cause hard to themselves and also other family members.

    Prof. Ramesh C. deka , MD

  28. Elzette Fritz says:

    I appreciate the five suggestions. For clients living in a context where they feel disempowered and abused, resulting in depression based on the experience of being powerless, it is helpful to open the possibilities of choice. More challenging is however children and adolescents trapped in unhealthy home environments.

  29. Of course depression is one of the most leading problems in India affecting the youths and also female more than in male. The brief article is well thought over and the prescribed 5 suggestions are well acceptable. There are also secondary causes of depression such as diseases , especially chronic painful condition including cancer and uncontrolled diabetes. As indicated in the article yes, many people keep on brooding of unhappy past experiences and events. Some persons could not forget and forgive. Prayers and building self confidence and self motivation for life also greatly help control anxiety and eventually depression. Counselling is equally useful.
    However endogenous causes of high depression would need psychotropic medication , breathing and other physical exercises , and also dietary modification are few other measures that are also essential especially for person with Obesity, metabolic disorders et which also are an important cause of depression. Prof. Ramesh C. Deka

  30. Nita Mishra says:

    excellent and very true

  31. Amy says:

    These are obviously good starting points, but I think one needs to be careful about advising patients about such approaches, and perhaps sensitively only incorporate a little bit here and there into their therapy, IF it seems appropriate. As some scholars are starting to “rediscover”, sadness due to awful life circumstances – prolonged – is a natural response of the individual (a “pain of the mind/emotions”, like a pain of the body, flagging up that something is wrong and needs to be attended to, not suppressed or numbed), and resulting “depression” may be because that person can’t see any way of having a opportunity to “play” or “live with purpose” or they can’t see a way to “enrich” their environment, and those are some of the reasons they are depressed! So then telling them that this is what they need to do is somewhat simplistic and missing the point and could actually make them feel more depressed because, once again, they will feel that they are responsible for their own depression.. which will lead to them feeling less self-compassion rather than more..!

    • Jennifer says:

      Yes! Thank you!

    • Sharon says:

      Amy, so very true. Thank you for that reminder. I will keep it in mind during my practice.

  32. Lovely article, thank you. As well as the ideas discussed, I encourage practitioners to discover the power of emotional freedom techniques/tapping. It is a simple yet elegant tool from the emergent field of energy psychology that your clients (and you) can use for self soothing and emotional regulation in session with you and between sessions. The basics are available on the internet – but with professional training so much more is possible. It provides the benefits of meditation along with the capacity to get very specific about the traumas and upsetting events that are weighing down the client’s energy.

  33. Besides the above 5 excellent ways, I would like to add one more meditation technique that helps in depression. I feel that thought is often the main cause of depression. Being aware of thought, feelings, and the movement of ‘self’ from moment to moment in a detached manner as a passive observer is a wonderful meditation technique of great value.

  34. Cheryll says:

    Forgive yourself your past mistakes, accept who you are and decide to have a different future.

  35. catherine says:

    I work with eating disorders.One of my clients found mindfulness so helpfulin helping her cope with food anxiety and poor body image. Self compassion is helping her to overcome her fear of imperfection. I believe these concepts are vital no matter what condition a client presents with.

  36. Minnie says:

    And how do u find purpose when u r depressed and everything looks meaningless?

    • Paul Morris says:

      You don’t have to find purpose per se to feel better. What helps a person feel better is to think about happy things and not sad and dark things. Even though it sounds simplistic, it works. After suffering a more than 60 years of Depression and then discovering this simple technique, I know it works.

      Regardless of your situation, if you can think mostly about things that bring up happy memories & feelings you will feel happier. It is just the way the mind works, it’s that simple. The subconscious mind automatically follows directions form your conscious mind, it has no choice. That’s the secret! Then even though your circumstances do not change, you feel better anyway. BUT YOU HAVE TO DO IT!

      If you want to feel bad by thinking about unhappy things then you can. If you want to feel good then you have to think mostly about happy things. It simply works..

      This does not CURE Depression and neither do the suggestions in this article but both help deal with the symptoms (Depressive episodes). In order to truly Heal Depression one must deal with its cause, which is and Emotional Trauma occurring on or about the time of birth.

      • Suzy says:

        Wow, you nailed it! Yes, I have just discovered exactly what you are saying.
        I thought my depression was stemmed from head injury as a toddler but who knows what happened at birth. Replacing a negative thought with 3 positive thoughts seems to get the energy flowing in the right direction. Thank you for validating my life!

  37. genevieve braem says:

    leave domestic violence !

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