Complementary and alternative mental health therapy: a guide

Female therapist with male client using art therapy as an alternative mental health therapy

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When we commit to getting therapy, we expect results — otherwise, we wonder if therapy is worth it. Standard mental health treatment is usually effective, but it’s not the only option. Complementary and alternative mental health therapy can be used alongside standard treatment, and it’s a great choice for people who don’t see improvement with standard treatment or who simply want more options. 

Complementary and alternative therapies for mental health include a wide range of treatment methods not considered “standard.” That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective — and the effectiveness of some of them is backed by promising research.

In this comprehensive guide, we review 11 of the most common types of alternative mental health therapies that can help you with depression, anxiety, OCD, and more or simply get to a better place.

What is complementary or alternative mental health therapy?

Complementary or alternative mental health therapy includes any treatment method(s) that aren’t typically considered a standard of first-line treatment or standard therapy (see the next section). This is usually because they don’t yet have enough research behind them to support their use as a first-line treatment. In some cases, it’s because the treatments are too cost-prohibitive or come with more side effects compared with standard treatments. 

Complementary treatments are methods used alongside traditional treatments, while alternative describes treatments that are sometimes used in place of, or alongside, traditional treatments. 

However, it’s generally recommended that you see a licensed therapist if you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental illness. You may still use complementary and/or alternative options alongside standard treatment and should let your therapist know or work directly with them on alternative therapies.

What is standard mental health therapy?

Standard mental health therapy refers to the treatment methods that are recommended as first-line treatments for different mental health conditions. For the wide majority of mental health conditions, the current standard treatment is a combination of talk therapy (typically cognitive-behavioral therapy) and medication.

These treatments are considered “standard” because of the research that supports their effectiveness and benefits. When there’s enough research to determine that a treatment is effective, it’s considered “standard” treatment.

This doesn’t mean that other types of mental health treatment aren’t effective — just that we need more research to be certain. Many factors determine what treatment methods are studied and to what extent. It simply means that alternative or complementary treatments haven’t yet been studied extensively enough to call them standard treatments.

Types of complementary and alternative therapies for mental health

Following are some prominent complementary and alternative therapies used in mental health treatment today. 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)

Brain stimulation therapies have been on the scene since the 1930s with the invention of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). 

Brain stimulation therapy has evolved since then. While ECT, which involves using electric currents to stimulate certain areas of the brain to create long-lasting chemical changes, is still used, there are newer types of brain stimulation therapy in use that have fewer side effects.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS therapy, uses electromagnetic coils, rather than electrical shocks, to stimulate the brain. The coils are placed on the scalp and use a technology similar to MRI machines. This makes it much more comfortable for patients and it has fewer side effects. 

The FDA has approved one type of TMS machine as an effective intervention for treatment-resistant depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This means that if standard depression treatment (psychotherapy and medication) hasn’t worked for you, TMS may be a good option.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is an alternative mental health therapy for trauma that’s made its way into the mainstream. It’s been shown to be very effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has promising evidence for other mental health conditions.

During EMDR, your therapist guides you to make rapid bilateral eye movements (moving your gaze from side to side) while thinking about past trauma. EMDR works by changing the way your brain stores traumatic memories, and helping you heal from emotional pain. In essence, you reprocess these memories and can let go of the associated trauma.

Although EMDR is heavily supported by research, it’s still relatively new when compared with other, more standard treatments — which is why it’s still considered alternative and not yet complementary or standard.

Nutritional supplements

Some people take nutritional supplements or vitamins as a complementary treatment for mental health. Some vitamins and supplements that may support mental health symptoms include:

  • Vitamin B1
  • Folic acid, or vitamin B9
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • SAMe (S-Adenosyl-Methionine)
  • Omega-3
  • N-acetylcysteine (Nac)
  • Zinc
  • Multiple-strain probiotics

Keep in mind that, while there is evidence supporting the effectiveness of vitamins and nutritional supplements for mental health, the research is limited and more needs done. Ask a doctor before starting any supplement regimen, and never replace prescribed medication with a supplement without talking to your mental health provider.

Herbal remedies

Some people use herbal medicine as a complementary aid to their mental health treatment. These herbal remedies are plants that may have some helpful properties for depression and anxiety.

Some of the most popular herbal remedies that some research indicates may help support mental health include:

  • St. John’s wort
  • Valerian
  • Roseroot
  • Chasteberry
  • Black cohosh
  • Chamomile
  • Lavender
  • Passionflower
  • Saffron

Remember, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. Many herbal remedies come with significant side effects, and some have even been pulled off the market because of health consequences. Always do research, and talk to your doctor before starting any supplement (natural or not).

If you and your provider decide to try a supplement, always look for one that carries the USP verified mark. The FDA regulations for dietary supplements are different from those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs, and the safety and effectiveness or accuracy of labels for supplements aren’t approved by the FDA the way prescription drugs are. Brands can vary in quality, purity, and how much active ingredient they contain or say they contain.

Holistic therapies

Holistic therapy methods include any treatment that addresses the mind-body connection. We know from research that the body and the mind are deeply intertwined. Mental health symptoms manifest in the physical body and vice versa. One common example of this is the way traumatic memories get “lodged” in the body — even if a person feels they’ve mentally and emotionally healed, physical reminders of the trauma (like jumpiness or watchfulness) may remain.

Some of the most common holistic therapy methods used today are:

  • Mindfulness-based therapies and interventions, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MCBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction
  • Creative/expressive arts therapies, including art therapy, drama therapy, movement therapy, and music therapy
  • Yoga therapy
  • Animal- and nature-assisted therapies, like equine therapy or wilderness therapy
  • Energy or spiritual healing methods, like Reiki
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Biofeedback

Many of these therapy methods (especially mindfulness-based interventions) have enough supporting research to be used as complements to standard treatment, especially if standard care alone hasn’t fully worked for you. Talk to your healthcare provider about your options.

Emotional freedom technique (tapping)

The emotional freedom technique (EFT), also known as “tapping,” is a method that some people use to reduce stress and manage symptoms of certain mental health conditions, like anxiety. EFT tapping involves physically tapping on certain points of the body associated with acupuncture points. This tapping is believed to alleviate symptoms and affect grounding and mindfulness.

The research that’s been conducted on the effectiveness of tapping has had mixed results, but some studies (including a 2022 systematic review of randomized controlled trials) have found it to be helpful for reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Anecdotally, many people find it a helpful strategy, and it has few to no side effects. 

You can practice EFT tapping on your own using EFT International’s free tapping manual, but it can be more beneficial if you work with a therapist trained in EFT tapping.

Hypnotherapy

When most people think of hypnotherapy, or hypnosis, they imagine being put to sleep by a magician with a swinging pocket watch. In reality, hypnotherapy is very different — and, despite common misconceptions, it doesn’t involve memory loss or mind control.

Rather, hypnotherapists use deep, guided relaxation techniques and verbal cues to put you in a better state to accept and internalize suggestions. For example, if you live with social anxiety, a hypnotherapist might put you in a deeply relaxed state and give you cues to help you feel more confident in social situations.

Some research shows that hypnotherapy can be effective, especially when used in conjunction with a standard mental health treatment.

Light therapy

Light therapy — using a bright light box every morning to adjust your circadian clock — is commonly known as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder (seasonal depression). But, studies show that it can also help treat non-seasonal forms of depression, including major depressive disorder and perinatal depression. It can also be used to help manage sleep disorders, including insomnia and delayed sleep phase disorder.

You don’t need a prescription to buy a light therapy box. But it’s recommended that you use one specifically designed for light therapy and under the supervision of a medical provider; they can instruct you on how to use it in a way that’s most helpful for your symptoms.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy

One of the most buzz-worthy alternative mental health treatments out there today, hallucinogen-assisted therapy uses psychedelic drugs, like psilocybin (known as magic mushrooms), ketamine, or Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (or MDMA, also known as Ecstasy), to make the therapeutic process more powerful. 

Hallucinogen-assisted therapy isn’t just about taking these drugs at home. Rather, a licensed therapist guides you to use the insights you may gain during the time you’re under the influence of the drug to further your treatment process. 

There’s promising new research supporting the effectiveness of psychedelic-assisted therapy. A type of ketamine is the only psychedelic drug that’s FDA-approved for mental health treatment. Therapists must undergo training to use ketamine-assisted therapy in their practice and need to partner with a medical clinic that administers the ketamine. MDMA is nearing FDA approval. And studies suggest promising results for major depression using psilocybin.

Still, all of these medications carry risks and should only be used under medical supervision.

Physical exercise

Exercise isn’t mental health therapy per se. However, it’s been shown to be one of the most effective ways to improve mood and battle mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. It’s also immensely helpful in reducing stress. Some studies have shown that regular aerobic activity is just as effective as antidepressant medication for reducing symptoms of depression.

Online therapy

We’ve included online therapy on this list because, although it’s growing in popularity by the day. Still, it’s not often what we think of when we think of “standard” mental health treatment. But, research shows that therapy online is just as effective as face-to-face sessions

Online therapy is a great alternative treatment method, especially when you’re dealing with schedule, travel, or commute issues that make it difficult to find time or add time to the length of a session.

Things to consider about alternative therapies

If you’re considering trying an alternative or complementary mental health therapy, there are some things to keep in mind.

  • These therapies are most effective when they’re used together with a standard treatment regimen, like medication or talk therapy. 
  • Alternative therapies can be especially helpful for people who’ve already tried standard treatments and found them to be ineffective or less effective than hoped.
  • Although some of these treatment methods (like EMDR and MBCT) are supported by research, others have conflicting or limited evidence. Do your research regarding every therapy technique you’re considering, and talk to your mental health provider about the best options.
  • Most of these alternative therapy methods have certification guidelines that dictate who can safely practice them. For example, there are clinical training programs available for EMDR and psychedelic-assisted therapy. Make sure the therapist you choose has the right certifications, and that you have a good understanding of how to choose the right therapist.
  • Non-pharmacological treatments aren’t necessarily safer. Many herbal remedies come with serious and even life-threatening consequences. Never self-medicate. Always talk to your doctor before starting any supplement or herbal medicine. 
  • Because these treatments aren’t considered “standard,” they’re often not covered by commercial insurance plans. This means that some of these treatments may cost you more out-of-pocket.
  • Never stop taking a prescribed medication or stop a recommended treatment plan without talking to your healthcare provider first. This can be dangerous.

Discover mental health therapy by finding a therapist on Klarity

There are many options for mental health treatment. Find one that works for you when you connect with a licensed mental health therapist who uses, or can recommend, a wide range of treatment methods, both standard and/or alternative, on Klarity.

The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you have regarding your health.

If you’re having a mental health crisis or experiencing a psychiatric emergency, it’s crucial to seek immediate help from a mental healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. You can also call your local emergency services, visit your nearest emergency room, or contact a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, by calling or texting 988 or dialing the Lifeline’s previous phone number, 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) in the U.S.

How we reviewed this article: This article goes through rigorous fact-checking by a team of medical reviewers. Reviewers are trained medical professionals who ensure each article contains the most up-to-date information, and that medical details have been correctly interpreted by the author.

Medically Reviewed By Dr. Zoe Russell

Dr. Zoe Russell received a dual bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, pursued a master’s degree in public health from Michigan State University, and received her doctorate in osteopathic medicine from Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2021. Currently, Dr. Russell is completing her residency training in family medicine and hopes to specialize in female reproductive and mental health.

Author

Saya Des Marais

Saya Des Marais, MSW is a former therapist-turned mental health writer. Through her writing, she strives to make dense – but often life-saving – psychological research and information accessible to everyone who needs it. As a therapist, she worked with children, teens, and adults in a wide variety of settings, including in community mental health clinics, residential care facilities, and public school districts.

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