Advancing Research

Depression and PD: A Non-Drug Treatment Option


It is estimated that at least 50 percent of people living with Parkinson’s disease (PD) experience depression at some time during the course of their disease. The Parkinson’s Foundation Parkinson’s Outcomes Project found that taken together, mood, depression and anxiety have the greatest impact on health status, even more than the motor impairments commonly associated with the disease.

The sadness and hopelessness that accompanies depression make the challenges of living with PD even greater. The good news is that depression is a Parkinson’s symptom that can be controlled. No one chooses Parkinson’s, but they can choose how to cope with it.

Learn the skills that will empower you take control of your mood, worry less and find meaning in daily life. These skills are modeled on a non-drug therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been found to be helpful for Parkinson’s-related depression. To cope with depression, you can put these skills into action.

The following article is based on the latest research and a Parkinson’s Foundation Expert Briefings about depression, hosted by Roseanne D. Dobkin, PhD, from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a non-drug approach to developing the skills and actions that change patterns of thought and behavior related to depression.

Many factors can cause a person to become and stay depressed. How people think and interpret what goes on around them influences how they feel. As does behavior — what people do, or don’t do, in response to the stresses of life.

Depression can also have a biological cause. Brain changes that underlie PD may contribute to depression. However, it is important to remember that biology is not the only cause; thoughts and behaviors play a significant role. These three factors influence one another and intervening anywhere in the interconnected cycle can help treat depression.

Setting Goals to Change Behavior

The first step in positively changing behavior is to make plans and set goals for activities. Emotions can take control when feeling depressed or anxious. Instead, set clear goals and let these action plans guide you. Think strategically about increasing your involvement in meaningful activities — avoiding being busy for the sake of it. Goals should be small and realistic.

Focus on three areas when goal-setting:

  1. Exercise. Identify a reasonable daily exercise goal, whether it’s Tai Chi or seated exercises. Ask for guidance from a physical or occupational therapist.
  2. Socialize. Keep social goals small and do-able. Don’t jump to hosting a dinner party, instead try simple things like answering the phone or saying hello to a cashier.
  3. Self-soothe. Take time every day for an activity that will lead to a positive emotion — something that just feels good. For instance, relax with a cup of hot tea, take a bath or listen to music.

While planning activities that guide your day, consider these questions:

  • Are there things you used to love to do that fell off the radar with a PD diagnosis? Consider re-introducing those activities.
  • If the daily activities you used to enjoy are no longer feasible, are there new activities that can replace them?
  • Can you modify an activity that used to be enjoyable?

Dr. Dobkin’s friend Howard used CBT to gradually take control over and improve his mood. Howard was a career firefighter. Five years into his PD diagnosis, he was no longer physically able to fight fires. He became depressed and withdrawn, cutting off ties with his firefighter friends, who were like family to him.

During therapy, Dr. Dobkin and Howard tested different ways he could re-connect with his friends. First, he went to a chili dinner — and it wasn’t embarrassing like he thought it would be. Then, he began attending (not participating in) weekly training sessions and pool games at the firehouse. Gradually, Howard began to reconnect. He even helped with the fire department’s fundraising campaign. He realized that even though he couldn’t ride a fire truck, he could stay connected and contribute in many meaningful ways.

Tips to help you set daily goals:

  • Make them small and meaningful.
  • Choose activities that make you feel productive and satisfied.
  • Plan around your physical limitations and “off” time.
  • Pace yourself.
  • Be flexible. If you can’t walk for 30 minutes, start with 15.
  • Ask your doctor for referrals to physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Examine Negative Thoughts to Achieve Balance

When depressed or anxious, thoughts tend to include a lot of negative predictions — the typical response is to think that things will not go right. Most of the time, these predictions are not accurate. Yet, negative thoughts influence what people do and how they feel.

Cognitive behavioral therapy aims to recognize, analyze and test negative thoughts, evolving them into a more balanced, healthier mindset.

Try this cognitive behavioral therapy technique:

  • Write down negative thoughts. For example, “my PD makes my friends uncomfortable.”
  • Share the thought with a loved one and discuss it together.
  • Recognize that it is your opinion and ask, “do others share my perception? Is there evidence against it? Is there an alternative explanation?”
  • Revise your thought or prediction in a way that helps you cope with the challenges of PD more objectively.
  • Fight the urge to think in worst-cases.

If possible, find a way to test your thinking. Perhaps you think you can’t eat at a restaurant because of your tremor. Find out. Make plans to test your thought. Increase your chances of success by taking your symptoms into account — for example, go when the restaurant is not crowded, order food you don’t need to cut or ask for a lid and straw for your drink.

Then see what happens. Identify what worked. Can you revise your original negative thought? Going forward, try using more balanced, accurate thoughts to guide how you feel and what you do during the day. Healthy thoughts will help you cope effectively with PD, whereas destructive ones derail your efforts.

Care Partners

Caregivers play an essential role in supporting people with PD who cope with depression. Research has shown people with Parkinson’s using CBT have more improvement in their depression, and for longer, when their care partners receive educational sessions on CBT. Additional benefits for people with PD included less anxiety, fewer negative thoughts and better ability to reframe them, more social interaction and better motor function. The more a loved one was involved with therapy for a person with PD, the better the outcome. 

Reinforcing Success

For a person who is depressed, taking action is hard. A surprising effect of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it is self-reinforcing. Set small, specific goals and let the goal guide your behavior, no matter how you feel. When you feel a glimmer of success, your enthusiasm to do more will kick in. A small change in activity can improve a person’s mood. A better outlook can inspire more activity, and a more objective assessment of the future.

Conclusion: Don’t Suffer in Silence

Your mood is a critical aspect of living with PD that you can control. Talk to your friends, family, and doctor about your mood. Any feelings of sadness or hopelessness that negatively impact your day deserve attention. If symptoms are severe, you and your medical team might consider one of the many antidepressant medications. But effective, non-drug treatments also are available, both in combination with drug therapies and on their own. If you are depressed, speak up and seek help.

For more information on depression, anxiety and treatment, read the Parkinson’s Foundation book, Mood: A Mind Guide to Parkinson's Disease or call the foundation’s free Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636) to speak with a Parkinson’s specialist.

CBT: How to Find a Therapist

  • Ask your doctor or neurologist for a referral
  • Ask support group members for referrals
  • Call the Parkinson’s Foundation’s free Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636) 

Tips for Better Sleep to Help Ward Off Anxiety and Depression

  • Go to bed and get up at around the same time every day.
  • Use the bed for sleep only.
  • Limit daytime naps.
  • Don’t lie in bed unable to sleep for long periods — get up and do something else until you feel tired, then try to sleep again.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol in the evening.
  • Read more tips.
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