Anxiety disorders are some of the most commonly encountered mental health conditions. Approximately, 28.8% of adults will experience some type of anxiety in their lifetime (Kessler et al., 2005). Oftentimes, the first line of treatment for anxiety is prescription medication.
While medication can be extremely helpful, there are several reasons you may want to look at alternative approaches:
- You tend to prefer more natural solutions.
- You want to try some alternative methods before pursuing medically prescribed drugs.
- Anxiety medication has not worked well for you or has resulted in too many side effects.
- You have a history of substance or drug abuse and addiction and are worried about taking medications with a potential for abuse and dependence.
- You feel that a better fit for you involves a more holistic, integrative approach that may include both prescription drugs AND alternative medicine.
This article will present both natural and over-the-counter medications as well as some traditional and alternative therapeutic interventions that are sometimes used in the treatment of anxiety. Before trying any of the techniques listed below, it is important that you discuss your symptoms and treatment plan with a professional. You may also want to be sure that there are no medical causes underlying your anxiety, such as hyperthyroidism or hypoglycemia.
Anxiety-Reducing Lifestyle Changes
Oftentimes, a good place to start when looking for a more natural solution for anxiety reduction or management is to assess some of your current behaviors and make some lifestyle adjustments. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see what current behaviors, if any, may be contributing to your anxiety:
- What is your current level of physical activity? More and more research is showing that increased exercise is helpful in reducing stress and anxiety.
- How much sleep are you getting per night, and what is the quality of that sleep? The fewer hours of sleep you get per night and the more disrupted your sleep, the more you may be prone to symptoms of anxiety. Learning good sleep hygiene could help you feel better overall and make it less likely for some of your symptoms to surface.
- What is your current diet? Eating more whole fruits and vegetables and decreasing refined sugars and processed foods may increase general well-being and decrease feelings of anxiety.
- Are you ingesting substances that may increase your levels of anxiety? Try cutting down on nicotine, alcohol consumption, and caffeine to help prevent symptoms of anxiety.
While these lifestyle changes may certainly help and are generally recommended as part of a treatment plan, if you are struggling with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, these modifications may be insufficient on their own and are likely best utilized as part of an integrative approach.
Along with any lifestyle changes you have made, there are numerous nutritional supplements, nutrients, amino acids, and botanical medicines that some claim may help increase feelings of calm and relaxation. Keep in mind that some of these nutritional supplements can have very dangerous reactions with some prescription medications, and there may be some contraindications applicable to you as an individual. It is always best to add any of these alternative medicines to your regimen under the guidance of your doctor.
As a group, the amino acids comprise a diverse set of organic molecules. Among this group are the proteinogenic amino acids, which are those that form the building blocks of every protein in our bodies. Additionally, there are several that have been connected to anxiety reduction and relaxation (although these effects are debated; definitive evidence of their efficacy or lack thereof may be revealed with more rigorous scientific research). These include:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This amino acid acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, thus calming the brain down and decreasing anxiety. Some anti-anxiety prescription medications work by increasing GABA activity. You can purchase GABA as a dietary supplement over the counter.
- L-Theanine. Found in green tea, this amino acid inhibits glutamate’s effects (an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain) and stimulates the production of GABA (discussed above) to increase feelings of calm and relaxation.
- 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). This amino acid is converted to serotonin, a neurotransmitter often cited in the regulation of mood. In theory, supplements containing this amino acid may contribute to anxiety reduction by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. It is really important to remember that too much serotonin can cause a life-threatening condition referred to as serotonin syndrome, so you should not take this supplement if you are taking anything else that increases serotonin.
Other Vitamins, Nutrients, and Herbs
There are a number of other vitamins, herbs, and nutrients that may help you to reduce your anxiety naturally:
- Magnesium: Magnesium deficiencies have been associated with anxiety, so taking a supplement for this mineral may help alleviate your symptoms.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in fish oil, these acids may help to reduce anxiety when taken as a supplement.
- Inositol. This vitamin-like substance with a chemical structure similar to glucose may have a beneficial effect, particularly in relation to panic attacks.
- Passion Flower. This plant may be taken as a dietary supplement or consumed as tea for its anxiolytic effects. Its method of action is not fully understood, but may involve modulation of the GABA system.
- Valerian. This herbal remedy has been taken as a supplement for both anxiety and insomnia.
Therapy is a great starting point for treatment for many people suffering from anxiety.
While the alternative medicines discussed above may prove to be helpful in reducing your symptoms, it is important to note that the current research for most of them is very limited and some even have mixed results. Furthermore, if you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder these supplements may be best used as part of a holistic approach that combines these natural medications with some of the interventions listed below.
Therapy is a great starting point for treatment for many people suffering from anxiety. Utilizing additional therapeutic interventions can be important in:
- Discovering underlying causes.
- Understanding how your thoughts and behaviors contribute to your anxiety.
- Learning skills to manage it.
There are many different therapeutic interventions that could be beneficial for your anxiety, and sometimes it involves a trial and error process to determine what is best for you. Some you may be able to try on your own whereas others are best with the help of a trained professional who can guide you in the appropriate use of these techniques.
Participating in psychotherapy with a professional psychologist or counselor can help you work through issues in your past or present circumstances that may be contributing to your anxiety. You can also learn a variety of techniques that will assist you in the self-management of your symptoms.
Some of the interventions that may be a part of your therapy or that you can explore on your own include the following:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often utilized during talk therapy sessions to help you explore the particular beliefs, thoughts, assumptions, and expectations you hold that may be fueling your anxiety. You will also likely be taught specific relaxation techniques to help calm the body, which often translates into calming the mind. Some of the relaxation techniques that may help include diaphragmatic breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).
- Mind-body approaches that facilitate mindfulness can help you learn to be more in the present moment. This helps to mitigate anxiety, which typically has you ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. There are many different ways you can practice being more mindful, including meditation, yoga, and Qigong. Many therapists utilize mindfulness-based interventions and you can look for businesses in your area that host classes that teach these techniques. If you are eager to get started you can check out the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA’s free guided meditations.
- Nature therapy has been getting more attention recently as research has begun proving the positive effects that being in nature has on psychological well-being, including anxiety reduction. Sometimes even just stepping outside and getting some fresh air can make you feel better, especially if you are in the sunlight and soaking up some Vitamin D. Even better, go to a park, the botanical gardens, or an area with mountain vistas, and you may be able to help elicit your body’s relaxation response (the opposite of your body’s stress response, which is activated in moments of anxiety).
- Biofeedback is a way of using technology to monitor a physiological process in order to learn self-regulation strategies. One biological process that is commonly measured is heart-rate variability (HRV), and some studies have shown that learning to increase HRV can reduce stress and anxiety and improve psychological well-being.
- Art therapy is another technique that has been used to treat anxiety disorders. In psychotherapy, it can be used as a way of revealing and working through underlying issues and beliefs. In addition, the process of making art in and of itself can be relaxing and therapeutic.
- Pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been gaining popularity as a stress reduction technique, particularly around college campuses. Studies have shown that petting and being around animals, especially dogs, can help to reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety. If you don’t have an animal of your own or can’t find any pet therapy events near you, you can even head to a local animal shelter to volunteer and play with some of the animals there.
- Journaling or expressive writing may also be beneficial, as it can help you get your feelings out on paper so that you can process them and perhaps view them from a different perspective. Some people find that engaging in this process can help reduce feelings of anxiety.
As you can see there are many different avenues you can pursue in the treatment of your anxiety, and exploring some of these alternatives to medication may provide you with approaches that don’t carry the same addiction potential and side effects as certain prescription medications. If these techniques do not help to stave off your anxiety, make sure to revisit the issue with your doctor. Medication may be necessary in some situations where symptoms are especially persistent or severe. Remember, even if you do need to use anxiolytics, you can still incorporate therapy and alternative treatments for an integrative approach to treatment.