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Natural Remedies and Treatments for Anxiety
Anxiety is a complex state of mind and body, encompassing thoughts, feelings, and physiology. Chronic anxiety is characterized by a persistent state of stress and fear, and thoughts that are overrun with irrational worry. Such a state can be viewed as a maladaptive stress response: it is distinct from fear or worry needed to avoid or protect oneself against a legitimate threat.
In western society, anxiety has been medicalized, and is often discussed in the context of generalized anxiety disorder. This condition is often treated with medications, called anxiolytics. I take a much less medical and more mundane approach to anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder is just a label; the diagnosis is ill-defined and overlaps in fluid ways with other so-called mood disorders such as depression or borderline personality disorder (both of which are also ill-defined to a large degree), and also overlaps a great deal with basic stress that everyone deals with from time to time.
While medication may be helpful or even necessary to treat serious psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and perhaps severe cases of anxiety, I think that the mainstream psychiatric approach of prescribing medication for routine cases of anxiety, often without pursuing other approaches, is counter-productive for most people, as it fails to address the root causes of stress and anxiety.
Cognitive Approaches to Reducing Stress
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one approach to treating anxiety which addresses the cognitive aspects of anxiety. Stressful and anxious feelings are generated by certain cognitions or thoughts, and in turn, these feelings create a state of mind in which anxious thoughts become more likely. An anxious mood is thus self-perpetuating, and in the context of chronic problems with anxiety or stress, the brain pathways and thought patterns associated with this anxious state become hyperactive, making it more likely that people will respond in stressful ways or that their minds will be overwhelmed with worry.
One self-help book that is rooted in a cognitive approach is When Panic Attacks, by David D. Burns. This book addresses both acute panic attacks as well as questions of chronic anxiety. I particularly like this book because it is rooted in solid science, and has a healthy skepticism to the drug-based approach dominating much of modern psychiatry. I find the cognitive approach particularly effective at stopping panic, as it exposes the thought processes that trigger panic attacks, enabling a person to catch themselves and redirect their mental focus before they spiral into panic.
Confronting Your Fears
Confronting your fears can be one of the most effective ways to deal with anxiety. Anxiety is often fueled by avoidance: a person feels anxious, so she avoids confronting her fears. In reality, when you finally confront your fears and face the feared situation head-on, people find that their anxiety diminishes. This technique is relatively easy to carry out; you place yourself in the situation and allow yourself to feel as much anxiety as you can. The key is to want to experience the anxiety. Anxiety is fueled by fear and avoidance, so if you deliberately seek out the feelings of anxiety and allow yourself to experience them, you will find that they dissipate fairly quickly. Each time you confront the feared situation, your anxiety level will be even lower than the last time.
This approach is more effective when you have anxiety associated with a specific situation, rather than generalized anxiety, although it can still be helpful in the case of more general anxiety. If you find yourself holding back in general from life, because of what you're afraid of, putting yourself in situations you are uncomfortable with and seeking out those feelings of anxiety, allowing yourself to experience them fully, can still help.
In the context of formal psychotherapy, confronting your fears is a key aspect of exposure therapy, a type of therapy that has strong evidence of being effective for treating both specific phobias and generalized anxiety. But confronting your fears is something that anyone can benefit from, with or without a counselor.
Simple breathing exercises can be very effective at reducing stress in the moment. Breathing exercises can be as simple as drawing attention to one's breath, counting seconds, and spending more time exhaling than inhaling. These exercises are effective for a number of reasons; by slowing the breath and decreasing the oxygen flow, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, producing a relaxing effect throughout the body. The mindfulness of drawing attention to the breath also serves to focus the mind on peaceful, safe physical sensations, helping to keep fearful and worrying thoughts at bay.
I have found a number of other physical exercises and practices, particularly ones originating in eastern cultures, to be very beneficial for relaxation. These include Tai Chi, Yoga, and Qi Gong. I find these practices to be helpful because they all emphasize mindfulness, promote a mind-body connection, and help raise awareness of the body so that proper posture and relaxation come naturally. These things all help reduce stress and anxiety in your daily life. I have sometimes achieved similar results from certain dance lessons or dance classes, especially dance classes in blues dancing which emphasize quality of movement, relaxation, and awareness of one's body and motions.
Exercise is one of the most effective ways to treat both anxiety and depression. Exercise has been shown to be as effective as the best antidepressant medications, but unlike these medications, it has positive overall effects on health and no negative side effects. Exercise improves virtually all aspects of physical health and is one of the best things for all people to do, regardless of whether or not they suffer from anxiety.
Exercise does not need to be complex and involved, and you do not necessarily need to set aside special time to do it. Walking places in your daily life and being active in the course of your work can be just as effective as dedicated time for exercising. Try walking instead of driving, whenever possible. If you have a desk job, try rearranging your desk so that you can work when standing, and take frequent breaks to move around physically. These little details are often just as important as formally organized "exercise time".
Diet and Nutrition
Traditional diets are thought to be far superior to a so-called "Western Diet". A traditional diet is loosely defined as one rich in fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and meat and fish that is either wild or raised in a more natural way (i.e. grass-fed beef rather than corn-fed beef). There is evidence that a traditional diet may help prevent anxiety and depression.
The Mayo Clinic provides a number of recommendations for a diet to lower anxiety. Their guidelines can be summarized as:
- Eat more frequent small meals instead of fewer large meals.
- Eat more complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, and avoid simple carbs such as sugars.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Eat foods containing tryptophan; the Mayo clinic draws attention to milk, bananas, oats, soy, poultry, cheese, nuts, peanut butter and sesame seeds.
Caffeine is known to aggravate anxiety, especially when it is consumed in large levels. For this reason, reducing caffeine intake (such as by switching from coffee to tea) is a good choice for helping to prevent or alleviate anxiety.
Physical Contact / Touch
Physical touch is a key remedy to anxiety that is often neglected in our modern society. The New York Times has an outstanding article about the benefits of physical contact. Some people, especially those struggling with anxiety, are fearful of touch, especially if they are only used to experiencing it in the context of aggression or sexual activity. But touch is a powerful and essential part of human contact: it relaxes people and also helps people to empathize more and become more comfortable with each other over time. Having strong bonds with people based on mutual empathy will in turn make you feel more relaxed the next time you interact with them.
Here are a few ideas for how to experience more positive physical touch in your daily life:
- Make a point of greeting your friends with a hug, and saying goodbye with a hug.
- Touch people in small and simple ways appropriate to the setting; virtually every environment has some type of touch that is appropriate, from a business handshake, to a high-five, to placing your hand on someone's back as a supportive gesture. If you have trouble with this, spend some time observing other people to get ideas of how you can comfortably touch others.
- Make yourself open and available to touch. Choose to sit on a sofa, near others, rather than in a chair away from people. Try to keep more open body language (relaxed posture, making more eye contact, smiling) rather than closing off (crossed arms, serious expressions, avoiding eye contact).
- Make a point of being affectionate with the people closest to you, such as your spouse or significant other, your family, close friends.
- Get a massage, and learn to give massages. Professional massages can have an immense relaxing effect in terms of reducing muscle tension, which can in turn affect your mood and state of mind. But even casual massages from your friends can make a big difference. There is some scientific evidence that massage can relieve anxiety in particular.
- Take up social dancing; I'm a huge fan of contra dance, swing dancing, and blues dancing, and there are lots of other social dance forms out there. Contra dance in particular is easy to learn quickly, even with no prior dance experience. I find blues dancing to be the most helpful social dance form for promoting relaxation.
Even if you're by yourself, physical comfort can be relaxing. I find that wearing comfortable clothing, especially, soft, fuzzy clothing can be very relaxing and comforting. Warmth also has a powerful relaxing effect, which is why people enjoy holding a warm cup of coffee or tea in their hands (and for this purpose, ceramic is far superior to styrofoam). If you have a dog, cat, or other pet, snuggling up with your fuzzy critter can often be just as relaxing as cuddling with a person--and at times, even more so, as pets, especially dogs, tend to be more unconditional in their affections.
Focus & Purpose
People tend to become overwhelmed with anxiety when they are faced with more tasks or more things to think about than they can handle. It makes sense then to use focus and narrowly-directed purpose as a way to curb anxiety. Multitasking can sometimes be a way to use time effectively, but multitasking is difficult and requires a certain mental state to be executed effectively. If you are suffering from anxiety, multitasking is probably not the best option. Focus on one task at a time and you will find that your anxiety vanishes. If a task or problem seems overwhelming, try breaking it into small, simple parts or sub-tasks and tackling each one, one step at a time.
Herbal Remedies to Treat Anxiety
Herbal remedies walk the fine line between diet and drugs; as I'm not a fan of the drug-based approach to treating anxiety, I tend to prefer herbs that tend more towards the "food and drink" end of the spectrum: herbs, usually consumed as herbal teas, that are pleasant tasting and safe for general consumption. I avoid herbs such as kava or valerian which are less tasty, which function more like potent medicines, and which are less safe for general consumption. A number of different herbal teas and other herbal medicines have been used traditionally to treat stress and anxiety.
I am by no means a medical professional, but I have formed a few personal opinions and preferences on herbal teas for use to treat anxiety. These opinions are formed both by reviewing the scientific literature, and by actually drinking various herbal teas and reflecting on how they make me feel and affect my thinking process. Other people will likely have other experiences. I am providing this list just as a casual reference; people wishing to use herbal teas as a medicine or drug would do best to consult a professional herbalist.
- Chamomile Tea - This is a favorite bedtime tea; it has a mild but noticeable relaxing effect.
- Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) - Less well-known because it does not dry well and is thus not commercially available, this herb is easy to grow (and is perennial in warm climates) and makes a pleasing tea that has shown some promise as a potential anti-anxiety treatment.
- Tulsi or Holy Basil - This tea used in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, seems to have a number of benefits for cognitive function, and has shown promise for treating generalized anxiety disorder. Modern herbalists consider it an adaptogen, an herb that has a normalizing effect on the body. Tulsi also shows evidence of being able to protect the body against some of the damage caused by stress, and is a good general plant to use when under stress.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) - This pleasing lemon-scented herb, similar to but milder in aroma than lemongrass or lemon myrtle, has also shown potential for treating anxiety.
- Passionflower Tea - For a more potent medicine; passionflower seems to act similarly to benzodiazepines, yet without exhibiting the same problems with tolerance and dependency. It also seems to be useful for helping people deal with the withdrawal symptoms of discontinuing other medications or drugs. However, passionflower is a powerful medicine and may not be safe for widespread consumption in high doses.
I recommend avoiding sedative herbs (such as valerian) except in individual cases such as one or two nights when you are having trouble sleeping. Although stress and anxiety often interfere with sleep, sedatives do not address the root cause of anxiety in cases where the insomnia is caused by anxiety. Relaxing herbs, however, address the stress without making a person sleepy; rather than forcing sleep, they make space for a person to sleep naturally, and for this reason, I prefer using relaxing herbs rather than sedatives.
Getting outdoors and getting adequate sunlight may be important in easing anxiety. Anxiety and depression are related, and sunlight has been demonstrated to have a positive effect on alleviating depression.
Some people find having a familiar object that they can carry with them, such as a piece of jewelry or something they put in their pocket, can be comforting when they are nervous.
Aromatherapy can also be useful in treating anxiety; our sense of smell has a way of arousing emotion that can have a strong pull, a sort of centering effect when your mind is spiraling into a bad place. Carrying an object with a familiar or comforting smell can help you to stay in a peaceful, mindful place when faced with stressful thoughts or situations.
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