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Explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, how they are used, and where to find out more.
Complementary and alternative therapies typically take a holistic approach to your physical and mental health. This means that they consider all aspects of your physical and emotional wellbeing as a whole, rather than treating particular symptoms separately. For example, some complementary therapies focus on the mind, body and spirit or on the flow of energy through your body.
Many of these approaches have roots in ancient Eastern philosophies of health, or the kinds of traditional healing methods used widely before the development of the treatment models currently used by the NHS. By contrast, NHS treatment models are are largely based on clinical evidence and academic research (sometimes called 'modern medicine' or 'conventional medicine').
(See our page on types of complementary and alternative therapies for more information about the different therapies available.)
There are many reasons you might decide to try complementary or alternative therapies. For example:
Whatever your situation, if you have any worries about your mental health you can seek advice from your GP, and talk through all your options through with someone you trust.
"When I could no longer take SSRI antidepressants due to side effects, I tried St John’s wort as an alternative. It has definitely helped with my depression and my mood has lifted quite a lot."
Complementary and alternative therapies can be used as a treatment for both physical and mental health problems. The particular problems that they can help will depend on the specific therapy that you are interested in, but many can help to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Some people also find they can help with sleep problems, relaxation and feelings of stress.
"I have used massage therapy to help relieve some of the muscle tension and pain that my anxiety creates. Just having someone respond to me and my body with compassion helps me treat myself more compassionately and with more respect."
As with all medicines and therapies, different things work for different people, and it’s not easy to predict which therapy you would find most useful or effective.
Most of the evidence for complementary and alternative therapies is based on traditional use rather than modern scientific studies. This means it's really difficult to know whether they are an effective treatment for mental health problems. However, many people do say they find them helpful in managing or relieving the symptoms they experience.
Most complementary and alternative therapies are considered to be safe when conducted by a trained and experienced practitioner.
However, there may be times when a certain therapy may carry higher risks for you, and would not be recommended. For example, if:
Before you start any new treatment it is a good idea to talk through any safety concerns with your doctor and the treatment provider. This is especially important if you're already taking any kind of medication.
If you are considering taking a herbal remedy, see our information on when herbal remedies might be unsuitable for you. Remember that your local pharmacist can also give you advice about prescription and over-the-counter medications.
There's no compulsory regulation for complementary healthcare practitioners in England and Wales, so it is possible to practice totally independently without regulation.
However, there are several kinds of voluntary organisation with which practitioners can choose to register:
It's always a good idea to choose a therapist who is registered with a regulatory body or professional association. This means that they will have met the standards of practice and education required by that organisation.
For guidance on the regulation of herbal medicines, see our information on how herbal remedies are licensed.
Only you can decide whether a type of treatment feels right for you. But it might help you to think about:
To find a registered therapist you can:
You may also find a recommendation for a local therapist through:
Although some people find that complementary or alternative therapies can be helpful, not everyone does. If you've tried something and it hasn't helped, it's important not to blame yourself. Managing a mental health problem can be really difficult, especially when you're not feeling well. It can take time and may not be straightforward. But many people find that when they find the right combination of treatments, self-care and support, it is possible to feel better.
See our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem for other options you could explore.
This information was published in April 2018. We will revise it in 2021.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.