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8 Alternative Mental Health Therapies, Explained

Scoot over, Dr. Freud. A variety of alternative therapies are shifting the ways we approach mental wellness. Though talk therapy is alive and well, new approaches can serve either as stand-alones or enhancements to standard psychological treatment, depending on a given patients' needs. Follow along as we sort through these therapies and learn how some people are drawing, dancing, laughing, and maybe even hypnotizing themselves to better health.

Art Therapy

Dating back to the 1940s, art therapy uses the creative process to help clients explore and reconcile their emotions, develop self-awareness, reduce anxiety, cope with trauma, manage behavior, and increase self-esteem. Art therapy is particularly useful in cases of trauma, as it provides patients with a “visual language” to use if they lack the words to express their feelings. To enable these processes, art therapists (who are required to have a master’s degree in order to practice) are trained in human development, psychology, and counseling. Several studies support the therapy’s efficacy, finding that it can help rehabilitate people with mental disorders and improve mental outlook in women facing infertility.

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Dance or Movement Therapy

Dance (also known as movement therapy) therapy involves the therapeutic use of movement to access creativity and emotions and promote emotional, mental, physical, and social health, and it’s been used as a complement to Western medicine since the 1940s. Based on the interconnection between body, mind, and spirit, the therapy encourages self-exploration through expressive movement. Some studies have found that dance therapy can improve symptoms of depression and promote health and wellbeing, but other researchers remain skeptical of the therapy’s benefits.

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Hypnotherapy

In a hypnotherapy session, clients are guided into a focused state of deep relaxation. Contrary to popular belief, a hypnotized person is not in any way “asleep;” they're actually in a heightened state of awareness. The intention is to quiet the conscious (or analytical) mind so that the subconscious (or non-analytical) mind can rise to the surface. The therapist then suggests ideas (spiders aren’t really that scary) or lifestyle changes (quit smoking) to the patient. The idea is that these intentions will be planted in the person's psyche and lead to positive changes post-session. That said, hypnotherapists stress that clients are always in control, even while the therapist makes suggestions.

Hypnotherapy has been used for centuries as a method of pain control. It’s also been shown to help with relaxation and stress management, and hypnotherapists maintain that it can also help treat a variety of psychological, emotional, and physical disorders, from overcoming addictions and phobias to ending a stammer and reducing pain. At the same time, it’s been dismissed by some experts in the mental health field for failing to help clients understand the root causes of their mental health issues—leaving patients more susceptible to relapse.

Laughter Therapy

Laughter therapy (also called humor therapy) is founded on the benefits of laughter, which include reducing depression and anxiety, boosting immunity, and promoting a positive mood. The therapy uses humor to promote health and wellness and relieve physical and emotional stress or pain, and it’s been used by doctors since the thirteenth century to help patients cope with pain. So far, studies have found that laughter therapy can reduce depression and insomnia and improve sleep quality (at least in older folks).

Light Therapy

Most commonly known for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), light therapy started gaining popularity in the 1980s. The therapy consists of controlled exposure to intense levels of light (typically emitted by fluorescent bulbs situated behind a diffusing screen). Provided they remain in areas illuminated by the light, patients can go about their normal business during a treatment session. So far, studies have found that bright light therapy might be useful in treating depression, eating disorders, bipolar depression, and sleep  disorders.

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Music Therapy

There are loads of health benefits to music, including lowered stress and increased pain thresholds, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s a therapy that involves making (and listening to) sweet, sweet tunes. In a  music therapy session, credentialed therapists use music interventions (listening to music, making music, writing lyrics) to help clients access their creativity and emotions and to target client’s individualized goals, which often revolve around managing stress, alleviating pain, expressing emotions, improving memory and communication, and promoting overall mental and physical wellness. Studies generally support the therapy’s efficacy in reducing pain and anxiety.

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Primal Therapy

It gained traction after the book The Primal Scream was published back in 1970, but primal therapy consists of more than yelling into the wind. Its main founder, Arthur Janov, believed that mental illness can be eradicated by “re-experiencing” and expressing childhood pains (a serious illness as an infant, feeling unloved by one’s parents). Methods involved include screaming, weeping, or whatever else is needed to fully vent the hurt.

According to Janov, repressing painful memories stresses out our psyches, potentially causing neurosis and/or physical illnesses including ulcers, sexual dysfunction, hypertension, and asthma. Primal Therapy seeks to help patients reconnect with the repressed feelings at the root of their issues, express them, and let them go, so these conditions can resolve. Though it has its followers, the therapy has been criticized for teaching patients to express feelings without providing the tools necessary to fully process those emotions and instill lasting change.

Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapists take clients into the great outdoors to participate in outdoor adventure pursuits and other activities like survival skills and self-reflection. The aim is to promote personal growth and enable clients to improve their interpersonal relationships. The health benefits of getting outside are pretty well substantiated: Studies have found that time in nature can lower anxiety, boost mood, and improve self-esteem.

Disclaimer: The information above is only preliminary, and Greatist doesn’t necessarily endorse these practices. It’s always advisable to contact a medical professional before undertaking any form of conventional or alternative treatment.

Special thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Rubin and Cheryl Dury for their help with this article.

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