* I’m hesitant to call these ‘therapies’, as although they can be considered as such I’ve never engaged with them with the assistance of anyone who is a professional, and my inexpert approach leads me to conclude that it has not, at any point, been classed an actual therapy.
I’m not afraid to admit that I have tried my hand, in hours of desperation perhaps, at alternative ways to manage my depression and/or anxiety. Anyone who has at any point mentioned that they have a mental illness or are suffering from poor mental health has probably had some well-meaning person excitedly extol the virtues of an activity that has completely saved/changed their life. The one thing I have learned for sure is not everything works for everyone, and whilst your colleague may exude the Zen calm of a thousand Buddhist monks atop a lotus flower strewn oasis of serenity, it simply isn’t that easy for every one of us.
Despite the appearance of being a ‘quick fix’, some of the wellbeing solutions I mention in this post potentially require as much work as therapy, counselling or psychiatry. There is no quick fix for your mental health. I’m sorry to say it, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way, it’s that.
These are only my experiences and there are countless different things that may work in different ways for different people. I would never discourage anyone from pursuing something, no matter how silly it may initially seem, that brings them some form of respite from what can be a torturous and exhausting existence.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Yes, I’m going to start with possibly the most widely-lauded alternative therapy of them all. It is in fact so widely-lauded that I’m not sure it can any longer be classed as ‘alternative’.
Almost every mental health professional I have seen has spoken about this with me at some point. Only one of them actually bothered to help me try it; the rest seem to throw the words around as though it’s as easy to master as going to the chemist and picking up some cold sore cream.
Spoiler: it is not that easy.
Meditation and mindfulness are two separate things, although often come together like hand in velvety glove. In my extremely limited capacity to explain, meditation is the act of acceptance, of being, of focusing the mind and body in a way that elicits calm. Mindfulness is slightly different, and can be done outside of as well as within meditative practice. Mindfulness is to focus the mind entirely on one activity or object; for example, one could mindfully make a cup of tea or go for a walk by focusing on each part of the activity and allowing the mind to be, well, full.
Poor explanations aside, these activities sound simple but in my experience are incredibly hard to master. I don’t doubt for a moment that when mastered and practised regularly they could bring relief to the most over worked or under nourished brain. For me, it’s pretty much a given that my mind is already full, thanks very much, and clearing it of obsessive ‘thinking about thinking’ or various other disastrous practices is quite a challenge.
I’ve had a lot more success with guided meditation, where a very nice someone or other will calmly guide you through a practice, leading you to focus on your body or breath, and help you to slowly quiet the mind. A big part of meditation is acceptance, and accepting that your thoughts will pop up – the aim is to accept this, accept them, and allow them to drift away. Having someone to guide me through this practice has been far, far more useful than me ever trying it on my own. A lot of the time, I just focus on the words and try to learn from them, to absorb their very wisdom.
For this, I have used Insight Timer which offers a huge variety of guided meditations. You can search by what you want to focus on or your favourite teacher. It also offers a timer (hence the name) for you to start your own practice. Please note: I am not affiliated with or sponsored by Insight Timer and will not receive any kind of incentive if anyone clicks this link. It’s simply the one thing I have found that works best for me.
Mindfulness has not come as easy to me. I find it hard to focus on something without the guidance there to encourage me – in a way, focusing on a guided meditation is probably as close to mindfulness as I can currently manage. I’ve heard some examples of useful, everyday ways you can practice mindfulness, though. These include walking, making a cup of tea, washing your hands, colouring in and of course, yoga.
This is easier to talk about, easier to explain and certainly easier to engage with. Whilst I have not surrendered to the soothing touch of a talented masseuse easing my muscles and mind with a variety of scented delights (in my experience, this anxious woman does not cope well with the touch of strangers), I have invited some of these calming bouquets into my home to help calm me down, and to get rid of the smells my non-vegan other half produces when he cooks meat.
I started with the basics – lavender. I can’t claim that a few drops of lavender on your pillow or pulse points before bed will miraculously induce sleep in even the worst suffering insomniacs, but its presence has gone some way to soothe me in the past. I now use a lavender pillow spray which isn’t as strong as the pure oil, and find that a few spritzes help create a more pleasant sleeping environment. It’s worth noting that I absolutely love bed and am, except for when struck by the most severe anxiety, a champion sleeper; I cannot testify to its usefulness to someone less prone to dormancy.
Recently I have also come to use oils at other times, and use a small candlelit oil burner to infuse delicate fragrances throughout my home. My oils of choice are currently lavender, clary sage, orange and bergamot. A quick search invites several enticing declarations as to what each oil lays claim to in terms of healing properties. I didn’t know any of this before I got them, and I think the benefit of aromatherapy for me is the calming act of breathing in a scent, the ability to control my environment and choose how it smells, and the warm flickering of the candle flame. A pleasant smell can remind me to take a deep breath in and focus (however briefly) on a part of my environment.
Honestly, I am the last person most of my friends or family would expect to behold the majesty of geology and its alleged healing properties, but here we are.
I currently have a small collection of crystals: amethyst, Tiger’s Eye, rhodenite, sodalite, quartz, red Tiger’s Eye, obsidian snowflake, moonstone and red jasper. I selected my first batch by reading the labels in the shop and choosing what I felt I wanted, needed or somewhere in between. When I picked them up, I felt a mild tingling in my hands and was excited to discover the wonders of crystal healing.
Whilst the above is true and I did select the crystals based on their properties, my main goal was to give myself something to do with my hands. I go through stages where I pick the skin on my hands and fingers terribly, so having something to occupy my fidgeting digits is never a bad idea. I genuinely wanted to believe that these magic crystals would change the way I feel; but in reality, I don’t think there is anything I can hold in my hand that will immediately soothe my whirring mind.
What I’ve found, though, is whilst I may not become a new, zestful person based on the type of rock I hold in my hand, they do actually provide me with some comfort. The tingling I mentioned earlier comes much easier if I hold a crystal – either whilst attempting to meditate or not. I’ve looked this feeling up, and I can’t quite find a proper explanation but it’s common during meditation (particularly, I think, ASMR meditation). I’ve experienced the same sensation when playing with my fidget cube, so it seems in order to get that comforting, relaxing buzz I have to occupy both my mind and physical body.
The benefits of these crystal healing properties commended by so many are, to me, that I might look up a reminder as to what each crystal is supposed to do before I use it, and then my brain is naturally more inclined to focus on those feelings and what they might mean. It’s a complex process, and perhaps a nice, logical explanation for the associated wellbeing benefits attached to crystal ‘healing’.
Overall, my experiences of alternative therapies have been mixed – as someone with horrible anxiety and quite a loud, brash ‘depression voice’ in my head, mindfulness and meditation are not easy tasks for me, and can at times frustratingly elicit guilt when I am not immediately able to master them. Changes to my environment such as aromas and crystals have been beneficial, particularly to give me something else to focus on for even the briefest of moments.
My mental health problems have not gone away as a result of any of these. These have become tactics I use when I am aware that I’m overwhelmed, or there is too much internal chatter. I am guilty of going weeks, months even, without trying to meditate or without touching a crystal. With this sort of thing, you get out what you put in, and I wholly acknowledge that when you’re suffering it is absolutely not easy to participate in activities that seem to be ‘pointless’, ‘stupid’, ‘too hard’, ‘whimsical’ or any other derogatory adjective the unwell mind can throw.
What I can say is, don’t be afraid to give things a try. The comforts of alternative therapies may surprise you; equally please remember they are not a quick fix and rather something to be added into your self care routine that might help you struggle through another tough moment.
I’d love to hear any other stories about alternative therapies – let me know in the comments.