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Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Anxiety and Depression

Complementary therapies are treatments that can be used in addition to or in support of conventional medicine (American Psychological Association), and are often implemented by complementary health practitioners or used as self-help (beyondblue). It is very likely that you have used one or more complementary therapy techniques yourself before!

An important factor to keep in mind when exploring these options is scientific evidence. This is the best indicator of the effectiveness of the treatment. When talking about complementary therapies, the strength of scientific   evidence refers to the number and quality of scientific studies that have found a particular therapy to be effective. Be mindful of the alternative therapies that have received some attention in the media, but have little or no scientific support in the treatment of depression and anxiety, such as dietary supplements of ginkgo biloba, Inositol, or tyrosine, alcohol and cannabis use, and homeopathy.

It is also important to research risk factors that are associated with an alternative therapy that you are considering before trying it out. Books, pamphlets and websites from trustworthy sources such as beyondblue and other reputable mental health organisations are great places to check how strong the evidence is for a therapy that you are considering, and what the associated risk factors may be.

You’ll find a short list below that includes explanations of some of the most widely used complementary therapies for anxiety and depression that are supported by scientific evidence.


Yoga is a group of practices originating in India that include breathing techniques, postures, strengthening exercises and meditation. The most popular type of yoga in Australia is Hatha yoga, which aims to improve the wellbeing of the body and the mind by incorporating postures, breathing techniques and meditation.

Studies have found that yoga is helpful in treating anxiety and depression as it reduces stress and promotes relaxation. Yoga can also increase feelings of mastery and general health and wellbeing by improving bodily strength and awareness.

Yoga classes are often run at gyms and by local communities, and can be practiced for free at home using instructional videos available on the internet.


Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves inserting thin needles into specific points in the body. This technique can also be carried out using a laser beam instead of needles. This can be administrated by a medical doctor or a Chinese medicine practitioner.

Traditional Chinese medicine suggests that this practice improves physical and mental health by redirecting the flows of energy within the body. Studies have found that acupuncture may work to promote the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine by manually stimulating the nerves.

Acupuncture is not covered by Medicare, but may be covered by private health insurance. You can check a practitioner’s registration with the Chinese Medicine Board online.


Bibliotherapy involves self-directed learning using books, pamphlets and other written material with the goal of strengthening understanding of mental health problems and psychological treatment options. Bibliotherapy can be undertaken by itself, or can be used as part of treatment from a professional therapist.

Bibliotherapy has been found to be effective in treating depression and some anxiety disorders, as users of this therapy can develop an understanding of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and play an active role in using CBT. CBT has been found by many studies to be an effective form of treatment for anxiety and depression.


Meditation refers to a group of practices that involve focusing attention in order to achieve a state of relaxation and/or higher awareness. One of the most commonly used types of meditation in mental health is ‘mindfulness meditation’, and involves focusing attention on current internal and external sensations and experiences.

Meditation is thought to work to reduce anxiety by reducing stress and promoting relaxation by focussing attention on the physical symptoms of anxiety and allowing these to be controlled. Meditation, particularly   mindfulness-based meditation may also be helpful in treating both anxiety and depression by helping individuals distance themselves from unhelpful or negative thoughts.

Meditation and mindfulness exercises can easily be accessed and practiced in groups run by local mental health support organizations, or can be found online or in self-help books and practiced at home.


Relaxation training refers to a group of practices and techniques for reducing tension and stress. There are many types of relaxation techniques available. Some types of relaxation training that have been found to be effective in treating anxiety and depression include progressive muscle relaxation, which involves progressively tensing then relaxing muscles throughout the body; or mentally picturing relaxing situations.

Relaxation training is thought to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression by helping to manage the physiological symptoms of fear and stress. Relaxation can also help to redirect or overcome negative or stressful thoughts, and provide a sense of control over the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Relaxation training can either be learned from a psychologist or other professional, or can be self-taught from books, CDs and the internet.


Exercise includes a large range of physical activities that aim to improve fitness and health. Exercise can be undertaken with others or individually, and can include activities that improve heart and cardiovascular health; muscular strength or flexibility.

Exercise has been found to reduce or improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. As well as improving self-efficacy and overall wellbeing, exercise can improve sleep patterns; alter brain chemistry by releasing endorphins and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin; and increase social support when exercise is done in groups. Improved cardiovascular health may also be helpful for controlling panic attack symptoms such as shortness of breath.

There are many different options for including exercise into your routine: exercise videos are available online, many local gyms and community centres run a large range of exercise class options, or it can be as simple as going outside and going for a walk.

Remember, everyone’s journey to recovery and management of anxiety and depression is different, and exploring the available options is great way to find the approach that works for you and suits your lifestyle. 

Talk to a mental health expert about incorporating alternative therapies into your treatment

Written by Ashlyn, ADAVIC Volunteer 

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