They may not be mainstream—and least not yet—but the five approaches below are totally legit and can help you reduce stress, promote relaxation, and lift your spirits.
If you've been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, you'll typically be treated with medication, psychotherapy (also called talk therapy), or a combination of both. And to complement these standard treatments, you can rely on specific mental tricks, healthy habits, and relaxation tips. These might include keeping a journal, exercising on the regular, or meditating each day. Or you might turn to another specialist for extra support, like a massage therapist or a mindfulness instructor.
But maybe you've tried these traditional approaches to lifting your mood with no luck, or you've never felt like they were a good fit for you. If that's the case, the key to improving your mental well being might lie in one of these five innovative types of therapy.
Walk and talk therapy
Spending time in nature is a tried-and-true relaxation technique. Now, some therapists are taking this a step further by bringing their counseling sessions to the great outdoors. Whether it’s called walking therapy, walk and talk therapy, or outdoor therapy, the idea is the same: a therapist and patient will go outside together, talking along the way just as they would inside an office—but hopefully more freely.
The change of scenery alone might help people feel more comfortable, which can make therapy more effective. “Sometimes a different environment opens people up,” says Chasse Bailey-Dorton, MD, medical director for cancer survivorship and integrative oncology at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Cancer Institute, where she works to support cancer patients and their families.
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Even the act of walking itself can be meditative for some people. “There’s a form of meditation called walking meditation, where you are very mindful and really focus on your steps, the movement of your feet, the process of walking. It can be great for anxiety and settling somebody down,” adds Dr. Bailey-Dorton.
Taking therapy on the go also means you’re getting gentle exercise, and physical activity is a known mood-booster. “Regularly, in my first or second session, I recommend to check with a family doctor about starting an exercise plan,” says clinical health psychologist Gregory Rys, PhD, of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Exercise isn’t a replacement for medication or therapy, he says. But walking, yoga, tai chai, and other activities are often helpful for people with anxiety and depression.
The term “art therapy” got a lot of buzz thanks to the adult coloring book craze—but the practice isn’t as simple as shading between the lines. True art therapy is practiced under the guidance of an art therapist, and while it may involve colored pencils, markers, or clay, it goes deeper than coloring on your own.
“Art therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change,” according to the American Art Therapy Association.
What conditions is it geared toward? “We find it helps a lot with anxiety, depression, and stress,” says Dr. Bailey-Dorton. “Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable talking or expressing their feelings, or they’re not even sure of what their feelings are. Art therapy is a different way of expressing what you’re feeling in a non-verbal way.”
She has seen cancer patients work through depression and anxiety in group art therapy settings, where they created mosaics, designed scarves, and painted. “Emotions come out in the paintings without necessarily putting a word to it, or as someone starts to describe what they’ve done, they might realize what they’re trying to express,” she says. Not a fan of drawing or sculpting? Music or dance therapy have similar goals and can also be useful, says Dr. Bailey-Dorton.
Culinary art therapy
Social worker Julie Ohana centers her practice around culinary art therapy, where she “uses cooking as the means of communication and expression,” according to her website. The benefits range from stress management to improved self-esteem—along with some tasty results. While it’s still a relatively new idea without a lot of research behind it, Dr. Bailey-Dorton believes that culinary art therapy gives patients and therapists a place to work through issues that doesn't have the sterile feel of an office.
Culinary art therapy can also be an opportunity for a therapist to teach patients about nutritious eating, which can improve some depression symptoms, Rys says. Since depression can diminish your appetite and potentially lead to weight loss, spending time with a culinary art therapist might reignite your desire to cook and eat, he adds, while helping you get a handle on your mental health.
There’s a reason laughter has a reputation as good medicine—it really works. Laughing can lower blood pressure and reduce stress, and some research suggests it may even have the same calming affect on the brain as meditation. Also called humor therapy, laughter therapy includes exercises, movies, books, games, puzzles, and even visits from clowns, particularly in hospital settings, according to the National Cancer Institute. “I’ve been in laugh yoga sessions that guide folks through laughter exercises, and then you just see it spontaneously take off,” Dr. Bailey-Dorton says. “People feel more energized, relaxed, and happy afterward.”
Laughing with your therapist in a one-on-one setting is also effective, Rys says. “It creates a situation where the mood state is incompatible with the depression or anxiety that’s presenting in the moment,” he explains, which makes patients feel a bit better and possibly more receptive to therapy.
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Hypnotherapy isn’t hypnosis, so forget all those preconceived ideas about getting sleepy and letting someone else control your thoughts and actions. Instead, hypnotherapy is about focusing your attention and then harnessing that focus to improve mental well being. While it does call for patients to go into a trance-like state, this makes you more open to learning “positive suggestions to help you overcome mood problems or problems of behavior,” Rys says, with the help of a trained professional.
“Hypnosis gives the impression that somebody else is doing something to you, which is dis-empowering. I think of it as self-hypnosis, which is empowering,” he says. It's not all that different from similar focusing techniques such as visualization and getting into the zone. Typically, hypnotherapy is used alongside other treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy, to bolster their effects.