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Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

When pills make depression worse, exercise and therapy can help

  • Illustration by Samantha B. Fisher

The pressures of day-to-day life, from finances and family to traffic and taxes, cause mental stress that can lead to anxiety and depression.
When those symptoms strike, many people seek medical help and are prescribed medications to regain their life.
That fix may not be a fix.
Sometimes the very medications that fill a patient with promise end up betraying them. Instead of lifting them out of an abyss, the pharmaceuticals' side effects exacerbate the condition.
In response, patients and doctors sometimes turn to nonprescription drug paths to wellness.
"It is common for people to react to (drugs) with irritability and be hypermanic," said Dr. Chris Wilson, a staff psychiatrist at Swedish/Edmonds. "Antidepressants are not a cure-all."
Healing without drugs
Relaxation techniques can relieve daily stress for most people and put the chronically depressed on a path to healing, experts say.
Daily exercise is a must.
Exercise releases endorphins and mimics the positive effects of opiates without taking the drug. By three weeks, an exercise regime lasting 45 minutes for at least five days a week yields the same benefits as daily doses of Prozac, Wilson said.
Swimming, yoga, meditation and acupuncture, taking a hot bath, deep breathing and aromatherapy have benefits.
Wilson suggests activities that help people plug into a community, such as volunteering, participating in a hobby or simply calling a friend on the phone.
"It is also helpful to have someone to talk to," said Dr. Adam Balkany, an interventional pain specialist at Swedish/Edmonds Specialty Clinic.
He recommends a professional therapist, rather than a relative or friend. "An objective ear gives people the ability to unload and get the catharsis they need."
Exercise paired with therapy can provide a winning combination to let an afflicted person function.
"If a patient can function 20 minutes without a panic attack, and enjoy those 20 minutes, that is success," Balkany said.
"People need light-hearted moments to get a flash of normalcy," Wilson said. "It's awful to lose so much of your humanity."
Knowing the stressors of depression helps.
In Washington, 8 percent of adults report having depression. And it's not all because of the dreary weather. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic conditions such as obesity and stroke are more likely to be triggers.
Depression's causes
The reasons for depression are as varied as the individuals who have the disease.
For some it is chronic back pain, the loss of feeling in the feet resulting from diabetes, or the pain of arthritis.
For others it's a life-changing incident.
Rusty Goff, 63, of Lynnwood, said he might have always had depression, but it got worse when his marriage ended.
When he was prescribed medication, he became lethargic and could barely get out of bed. His doctors tried adding another medication and counseling.
One year and a pulmonary embolism later, Goff stopped taking the drugs and felt immeasurably better on his self-directed path.
"It was as if the weight was lifted off my shoulders," he said. "The effect was dramatic and startling."
Goff has been drug-free for two years.
"I'm not cured of depression. I will never be cured," he said.
But he no longer suffers from anxiety or night terrors.
Others who battle depression also speak of a better recovery without using drugs.
Molly, 34, of Edmonds, recalls becoming depressed when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 18. Her depression was exacerbated with the birth of her third child and her first bout with postpartum depression. She was prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.
"I used to laugh at the television ads listing all the side effects of drugs," she said. "Now that was me."
Molly, who asked that her last name not be used, attempted suicide and was admitted for inpatient treatment for two weeks. It was there that she got off the drugs and started to develop coping skills.
But it would take awhile.
Once released, she started binge drinking, separated from her husband, crashed her car into a ditch and went through another three weeks of inpatient treatment.
Molly is now on a path of taking care of herself mentally and physically. She is eating well, exercising, taking breaks and going to therapy.
"Now I appreciate every little thing in my daily life: the wind on my face, the beautiful sunset, the grocery clerk's smile," she said.
George, 85, of Lynnwood, who asked that his last name not be used, says he plunged into a three-year depression when his 32-year marriage ended.
"My doctor gave me a prescription," he said. "That almost drove me to suicide."
The third psychiatrist he consulted suggested George volunteer at a hospital in addition to his weekly counseling session.
"I got hooked," George said. "People fighting cancer had more troubles than being depressed. I gave something, and they gave me much more back."
Now, 30 years later, George still seeks where he can help others.
"Giving is what keeps a guy going," he said.
And Goff said that less than a year ago he began getting his affairs in order. He had not opened mail in months or filed taxes for years. His first step was researching his roots, connecting with relatives he had never met with the help of the Internet.
Now he is planning a three-month, 9,000-mile motorcycle trip to visit family and friends. He looks at the adventure as a voyage of self-discovery.
"My whole life I have been doing things everybody else wanted," he said. "At this point, it's all about me."
Story tags » Mental health

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