Alternative and Complementary Therapies


Traditional western medicine provides mental health care in the form of prescribed medications, sanitized hospital floors, and a variety of strategic talk (dialectic) therapy. These tools have been proven to alleviate suffering and each of us stand to benefit by giving such resources honest, dedicated consideration. 

Also important to consider are approaches that allow us to integrate activities that soothe and relax us with the traditional approaches we know well. This holistic perspective to our mental health gives us a way to account for not only our body and mind, but our spirit as well. Using this frame of mind, we build a sense of connection to something outside ourselves to maximize symptom reduction and overall health (USDHHS, 2021 April). 

Connecting the Mind and Body 

Deep Breathing Exercises - This is a technique recommended for managing all forms of intense emotion, as it allows us to take a step back from the upsetting stimuli, catch our breath and self-soothe. This is accomplished by focusing our energy on slow, deep, even inhalation and exhalation (USDHHS, 2021 April). To start, we breathe in deeply while counting to four. Next, we hold our breath for four seconds. Then exhale for four seconds. We do this at least five times in a row before moving on to our next task. We can also play music with a slow beat, and breath to the rhythm (USDHHS, 2021 June).

Progressive Muscle Relaxation - This exercise requires tensing and relaxing muscle groups sequentially. It helps to identify areas of the body where there is tension, and practice relaxing those areas to soothe the impact of the stressor that triggered it. We begin by seeking out a safe, quiet area and setting aside 15 minutes to complete the exercise (Torres, 2021).

  • Start by standing tall, shoulder back, chin up, with feet shoulder distance apart. Keep the abdominals pulled in and the back straight, and curve the pelvis down and forward to lower the center of gravity. Bend the knees slightly if it is more comfortable.
    • Alternatively, lay down for this exercise on a flat, comfortable surface where the spine can be fully elongated.
  • Next, take ten slow, deep breaths (four seconds inhaling, hold four seconds, four seconds exhaling).
  • We then find our intention and place it at the top of our head or the soles of our feet. It may help to use our hands to touch the area we wish to start from in order to generate sensation there.
  • Next, squeeze the muscles in the area chosen hard while inhaling for five seconds.
  • Exhale for five seconds while releasing the tension. Make an effort to focus on maintaining the relaxation for the full five seconds. 
  • Choose the next closest muscle group to work, and tense for five seconds on inhale. Exhale and hold the release for five seconds.
  • Continue on through to the opposite end of the body. 

Mediation - In an effort to cultivate internal awareness, mediation offers us the chance to focus our attention on the thoughts, emotions and sensations occurring in our body at any given time. The goal of time spent meditating is to observe what we think and feel objectively and without passing judgment on ourselves. When we have a thought or feeling arise, we evaluate and observe it, then let it pass through us and away without allowing it to trigger a larger physical reaction. There are many forms of mediation, including mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapies (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). We may benefit from researching the different types of mediation before getting started to find the style that best suits us. There are online classes available for free, as well as in-person classes that require a financial commitment. 

Yoga - This is the practice of posture changes and breathing techniques combined with mediation and relaxation strategies. This therapy is ascribed to an ancient philosophy originating in India, and it offers gentle exercise of the muscles and lungs (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). There are online classes available for free, as well as in-person therapies that require a financial commitment. 

Tai Chi / Qigong - Much like yoga, this practice utilizes posturing, slow movements and mediation to control the flow of energy as it travels through our body. Based in eastern medicine, this exercise has a spiritual component that helps us cultivate our own understanding of our vital energy, or ‘qi’ (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). There are online classes available for free, as well as in-person therapies that require a financial commitment. 

Massage - By manipulating the muscle layers and connective tissues, we are able to release tension, promote relaxation and better connect our minds with areas of our bodies that may be holding onto emotional and physical pain (Van der kolk, 2015). Each massage therapist will have their own approach and area of expertise. We can empower ourselves to research the type of massage we think will benefit us the most, seek out the best practitioner for our preferences, and move on to another practitioner if we find that we didn’t benefit from the time spent together. 

Musicality - Listening to soothing music when experiencing strong emotion allows us to actively express our feelings and communicate those feelings to others. Using music for relaxation and distraction can decrease sensations of pain, stress and anxiety. It can also lower our heart rate and blood pressure (Bidabadi, 2015). Keep in mind that the lyrics of the songs we listen to can alter our emotions and behavior. Meaning calming lyrics offer a calming effect, while lyrics that are aggressive can enhance feelings of aggression (Greitemeyer, 2006).

Acupuncture - This therapy uses very thin, solid, metal needles to penetrate the skin in highly sensitive areas of the body. Once inserted, the needles stay in place for a set amount of time, while we focus on maintaining a relaxed pose (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). Electrical stimulation may also be used to help alter our perception of pain and discomfort. When working with an acupuncturist, focus on developing a calm, soothing head space for the duration of the visit and pay attention to acts of needle hygiene (no reused needles, use of sanitizer, hand washing). 

Cupping - This therapy has deep cultural roots, with Chinese, Egyptian and middle eastern practices dating back thousands of years. The activity itself involves placing a cup onto the skin, and using heat to create suction. This increase in pressure gradient then breaks apart tiny blood vessels in the skin and draws fluid to the area, leaving behind a circular bruise. The body then treats the area as an injury which stimulates the natural healing process and addresses pain (CC, 2020). 

Reiki - Originating in Japan, this strategy uses light touch to focus internal intention on areas where healing is desired. Through this effort, we are able to access our ‘source’ or ‘universal’ energy and guide it toward feelings of comfort and overall health (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1).

Guided Imagery - This technique provides us with external prompting and suggestions that direct us toward a safe, relaxing and healing mental space. While in that safe mental space, we allow ourselves the opportunity to take time away from troubling thoughts by pushing them aside in favor of kinder, gentler thoughts and feelings. This reduces suffering and distress, and improves our overall sense of well-being (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). There are online classes available for free, as well as in-person therapies that require a financial commitment. 

Externalization of Voices - We start this strategy by seeking out someone we trust. This should be someone we do not get defensive around. After we've written out a stuck point or an affirmation, we ask that person to read it out loud to us. Hearing their cadence and tone may trigger helpful new thoughts and perspectives (Seligman, 2006). 

Biofeedback - This therapy utilizes medical instruments that track our vital signs, body functionality, and muscle tension in order to provide real-time feedback on how our body is responding to stress and discomfort. A smart watch that tracks our heart rate for example. We can then use this insight to identify which stimuli generate which response from our bodies, and find ways we can control our physical reactions when triggered (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). 

Hypnotherapy - This approach is based in a trusting partnership between practitioner and client where the provider uses guided language to help the client enter a vulnerable, suggestible state. While in this state, the provider can then direct the intention of their client toward altering negative thought patterns and physical cravings or desires. This can aid in releasing muscle tension as well as impact overall health and function (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). While in the suggestible, vulnerable state, negative thoughts or actions presented to us will be especially difficult to manage. We must use caution with this therapy, and only allow someone skilled, whom we trust, to facilitate it. 

Osteopathy - Medical doctors (MDs) are trained in conventional western medicine as are doctors of osteopathy (DOs). There is a distinction between the two forms of education, in that a DO uses the same diagnostic and medical treatments as an MD, yet they are also trained in physical manipulation techniques that emphasize the relationship between structure and function within the body (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). This perspective focuses on treating the patient as a whole person, as opposed to treating the symptoms that have presented. We may benefit from engaging a DO in a health care setting who is experienced in mental health challenges. 

The Healing Power of Nature

Experience Nature - Spending time outside in a natural environment has been proven to reduce blood pressure, increase oxygenation, reduce inflammation, increase immune function and increase pain tolerance. Being in nature activates all of our senses, draws out feelings of empathy and improves our attention span (Richard-Hamilton, 2021). 20 minutes of gardening or tending houseplants, walking a local trail, or visiting a community garden can help clear our minds and promote a sense of focus. 

Grow Something - Consider picking up a small houseplant to love and care for. Many houseplants are easy to care for and some even purify indoor air by removing CO2. By taking on the responsibility of caring for something that depends on us, we are able to shift our focus away from daily worries and towards a rewarding interaction with nature. For an example, click here.

Aromatherapy - Concentrated oils of fragrant flowers, herbs and roots offer us the ability to focus our attention through the sense of smell. By selecting something pleasant to breathe in, we can overwhelm our senses and regain focus on the present. We can select a fragrance that has meaning to us in an effort to enhance our positive emotional connection to that scent. Aromatherapy options are available by clicking here.

Dried Flowers, Herbs and Roots - Certain plants have known therapeutic properties when consumed in moderation and with health conditions in mind. For example chamomile, lavender, calendula, dandelion, valerian, spearmint, ginseng and echinacea. A local or online apothecary will be able to offer bulk herbs for tea or soaks. This activity offers a way to connect with nature while supporting businesses that enhance our lived environment. Consider entering ‘edible herbs’ into a preferred search engine to get started. 

Arnica Montana - This is a particularly special herb, used in medicinal preparations dating as far back as the 1500s. Arnica can come in an edible pill form, however, it is most often applied to the skin topically as a cream, ointment, or salve. It is used to soothe muscle aches and reduce inflammation. It is commonly used to reduce pain and swelling from sprains as well as diminish the appearance of bruising, discoloration and sun damage. One such product is available by clicking here.

Multivitamins - Ensuring we have access to proper nutrition is critical to our body’s ability to function and heal. Consider that Vitamin C and Vitamin D are necessary to convert certain other vitamins and minerals into a form our body can use. When vitamin and mineral levels are low in our body, other functions may suffer as a result. Not all multivitamins are the same. The FDA doesn't regulate supplements, despite them being both food and medicine, and so it is imperative that we do our research on the source of our vitamin. Consider an ethically-sourced, organic, vegan option to reduce the likelihood that something unpleasant has made its way into the capsule. Be sure to evaluate the 'daily values' of vitamins and minerals within the supplement, as higher percentages does not mean higher value. Excessive dosing can lead to unpleasant changes to the way our body functions. The ‘daily value’ percentage of each component of the supplement should be as close to 100% as possible.

Art Therapy - The act of creation is a powerful tool, and the ability to express ourselves is a sign of higher levels of intelligence. To honor our desire for self expression, we can find an outlet and create something that is wholly a result of us. Consider low cost options like sculptures from found items, patches/embroidery, or outdoor chalk. Find a favorite Bob Ross class and paint an old teeshirt with cheap acrylics. Visit the dollar store and thrift shop for spare crafts and look up any local online exchanges. See if any public art is happening and go volunteer.

Support Forums and Groups

Reddit - This social media giant offers an almost unlimited number of forums where like-minded people can come together to share their stories. One incredible benefit of this platform is that there is a forum for almost every topic, including mental health challenges and recovery. Reddit offers a way to connect anonymously with those who are experiencing similar challenges to what we face, who are also seeking strategies for improving their mental health. To find a forum that may be a good fit, enter “Reddit” AND “specific mental health challenge” into a preferred search engine and explore what comes up.

Other Mental Health Forums - There is a wealth of other support forums available to us online or in-person. We can enter “support group” AND “specific mental health challenge” into our preferred search engine and learn more about strategies of recovery.

Alcoholics Anonymous - This is a program designed to uplift and encourage those of us who are working toward our recovery from harmful alcohol use. Since the pandemic, more and more meetings have moved online, creating the opportunity to engage this support system from the comfort of our home. To find a meeting that may be a good fit, enter “Alcoholics Anonymous” AND “location” into a preferred search engine and explore what comes up. The AA website is available by clicking here.

Al-Anon and Alateen - This program is specific to those who love someone who has a problem with drinking alcohol. Dedicated volunteers provide resources and support for those who are struggling to cope with alcoholism around them. To find a meeting that may be a good fit, enter “Al-Anon” AND “location” into a preferred search engine and explore what comes up. We can also learn more on their website by clicking here.

Narcotics Anonymous - Much like Alcoholics Anonymous, this is a program designed to uplift and encourage those of us who are working toward recovery from harmful narcotic use. Since the pandemic, more and more meetings have moved online, creating the opportunity to engage this support system from the comfort of home. To find a meeting that may be a good fit, enter “Narcotics Anonymous” AND “location” into a preferred search engine and explore what comes up. We can also learn more on their website by clicking here.