By Brianna Riddlebarger
Medications can be a wonderfully helpful tool for mental health, sleep, and cognition. So can supplements and many other holistic medical interventions. But, medications have limits. It is tempting at times to rely on medications to solve everything for us - our metabolism, our appetite, our motivation, our happiness, our stability. You name it. But medications are just one of many tools to help us reach our goals. They cannot replace the need for other tools that are critical for our health and wellness. And when we have the expectation that medication will solve everything, we are often left feeling hopeless, frustrated, angry at our providers, or even feel like we are untreatable. This doesn’t have to be the case.
Here is a (not extensive) list of things that can’t be avoided for true and lasting change for the person struggling with mood symptoms:
- The need for structure and routine - structure is one of the most critical aspects to health and wellness. Structure is often a missing component to someone who’s mental health is declining - whether it be from not having a regular sleep/wake time, having too much idle time, having a general sense of purposelessness and a lack of motivation, or from big changes in life (such as retirement or graduation from school) that completely altered the existing routine. Whatever it may be, lack of a clear schedule impacts our ability to stay motivated, to stay organized and focused, affects our outlook, and directly imbalances our hormones. In contrast, having a tight schedule helps us stay accountable, keeps us moving forward, helps us set specific goals and meet them, and helps us with self efficacy. All very important steps to build joy and confidence.
- The need for coping skills - Life is guaranteed to have challenges and unknowns that shake us. Medication will never remove or resolve that fact. What helps us to work through these challenges is practical skills that help us to cope, build perspective, and self regulate. The person expecting a medication to be a quick fix for these types of challenges often finds themselves feeling more hopeless and resentful. We also typically see substance abuse when someone is resistant to building practical skills to cope. Coping skills are basic life skills. They are non-negotiable necessities to function and thrive.
- The need for movement outdoors - Too much time indoors (especially when on a screen) is very hard on the brain, mind, and mood. Getting a break to go outside and get healthy movement (walk, hike, yoga, etc) helps the body to release stress hormones (i.e., cortisol) and increase peaceful and motivating ones (i.e., dopamine and endorphins). Even if you find the perfect medication to support your mood, the brain will remain overstimulated and foggy if it doesn’t have healthy breaks from the indoors and from screens. The body is naturally designed to be exposed to fresh air and nature regularly. Medications will never undo that!
- The need for sobriety from substances - Drugs like Marijuana/THC, amphetamines, narcotics, or other addictive substances cause severe damage to brain hormones that affect mood, energy, and sleep balances. With persistent drug use, the benefits of medication become contradicting, requiring higher and higher doses (or more medications) to manage symptoms. In this case, medications become less effective as a tool to help someone become stable.
- The need for healthy relationships / support systems - the people in our lives significantly impact our mood and perspective. For instance, you could find the perfect antidepressant for an adult female, but if she is in a physically abusive relationship, her mood will become nearly impossible to treat. The problem is primarily the toxic relationship and lack of safety. Healthy boundaries, expectations, and communication are all aspects of a healthy individual with balanced moods. Unhealthy relationships or family dynamics will inevitably counteract medication benefits, and it will feel like an unending uphill battle to find relief.
This may feel like bad news for some, because it requires hard work and taking action. Becoming too reliant on medications to do all of the work is common. But pharmaceuticals will never do the work for you. Medication is simply there to take the edge off until the lifestyle changes take place and provide more direct relief.
This is actually good news. The truth is, there’s a lot you can do about your situation, even though you may feel powerless and helpless. Start taking ownership of the things you have control over. Watch as your life transforms. Getting started with a therapist, case manager, or medical provider can help you triage your needs and get you relief efficiently. Bottom line: You can do this, and you don’t have to do it alone.
There’s an opposite extreme as well. Those who are fearful of any medications for assistance. For support, please reference our blog labeled, “To the Person Who is Fearful of Medications”.