Anxiety is a natural response to stress, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get out of hand to the point where it’s diminishing your quality of life. For extreme levels of anxiety, it’s important to speak with your doctor to discuss treatment plans and options, as there are many routes of therapy and/or medication that can often be crucial in treating this common but potentially devastating condition. However, if you’re coping with more mild levels of anxiety, or if you’re already in a treatment plan, you may be wondering what natural remedies for anxiety actually work.
First of all, if you’re an anxiety sufferer, know that you’re not alone: Just in the United States, around 40 million adults are coping with some manner of an anxiety disorder, making it the most prevalent mental health issue in the U.S according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I have to admit I’m a bit biased when it comes to which treatments are effective; I’ve been an anxiety sufferer for most of my life, with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), so I have plenty of personal experience. I’ve found both therapy and medication to be critical in helping me cope with my anxiety, but I also take a holistic approach in making lifestyle changes. Often my therapists have offered what I’ve found to be helpful suggestions, such as meditation and exercise, so I wanted to find out which lifestyle/natural methods of helping address anxiety are likewise recommended by experts.
I spoke to Jessica Gold, M.D., MS, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, about her belief in how lifestyle changes can be an integral part of anxiety treatment.
“There’s a point at which medication has done what it can do, and other things can push it the extra mile. Medications have more symptomatic relief, but there can still be so much going on in your life that is contributing to your symptoms. If you’re still having a lot of negative thoughts, if you’re still in college and your life is full of stress, you can’t fix that all with medication.”
Dr. Gold believes certain at-home remedies can be helpful, but warns against anything that claims to be a magical “cure-all” supplement: “People often think of natural remedies as something like taking supplements. But sometimes, these can actually have negative effects and can interact with medications. If you’re going to start a supplement that claims to help anxiety, run that by your doctor.”
So, according to the experts, here are some natural remedies that are actually proven to work.
“Meditation and yoga activate the body’s relaxation response and buffer the areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation which can help to reduce anxious feelings," Dr. Barbara Nosal, the Chief Clinical Officer at Newport Academy (a mental health facility for teens and young adults), tells Romper. Dr. Gold also believes meditation can help affect anxiety on the neurological level, explaining, “When people are good at it and can practice meditation (or mindfulness), it can affect the networks in your brain and may functionally allow you to have less anxiety.” Personally, I find meditation to be very helpful in interrupting anxiety loops. I usually search for free guided meditation sessions on YouTube or use a meditation app. Some therapists may recommend specific meditation courses.
Something that has been reiterated to me time and time again by therapists and psychiatrists is the importance of physical exercise to my mental health. Personally, I’ve found that moderate exercise has had a drastic and positive effect on my mood.
“Physical exercise, when used in a healthy way, can help combat anxiety," Dr. Nosal says. Research shows that physical activity improves mental health by producing hormones that lift mood — especially true for depression but also affects anxiety symptoms. Exercise can also help to improve sleep, which is vital for supporting mental health.”
3. Time in nature
In 2015, Stanford researchers found that a simple 90-minute walk was able to temporarily improve mental wellness: Participants who walked in nature (versus an urban setting) showed decreased activity in parts of the brain associated with negative emotional rumination. “There is also a large body of research that shows that time in nature improves mood. Going out for a walk, hike, swim, etc. can help to clear and settle the mind, reducing anxious feelings and thoughts,” Dr. Nosal says.
4. Distraction devices
Fidget spinners have become emblematic of supposedly frivolous millennials, however their origins are in fact quite practical: “The reason those toy fidget spinners became a thing is really because some people need them to be able to focus on something in order to reduce their focus on everything else,” Dr. Gold says. But it doesn't have to be a fidget spinner; anything that occupies your hands and your eyes can be of use. I’ve found that making my own stress balls or slime can be fun and helps engage my mind when anxiety sets in (and if you’re a mom, it can be a fun activity to do with your kids!).
5. Weighted blankets
Dr. Gold suggests that some people find weighted blankets to be helpful for anxiety. In fact, a study published in 2008 by Mullen et. al. found that 63 percent of participants reported lower levels of anxiety following weighted blanket use. You can find plenty of weighted blankets for sale online, or if you’re crafty, you can make your own using weighted beads as filling.
Dr. Nosal explains how art and creative expression can be a constructive way to improve your mood: “Creative expression through visual art, writing, music, and movement are additional ways to naturally help to combat anxiety.” And if you’re not particularly artistic, no worries. Some research suggests that simply coloring in geometric patterns can help reduce anxiety levels.
It’s intuitive that what you put into your body will have an effect on your brain. Dr. Nosal tells me, “Specific nutrients in food have been shown to have direct effect on mood. Eating healthy nutritional meals low on sugars and processed ingredients can overall help to improve mental health and mood.” The Harvard Health Blog reports that some research has indeed suggested that certain dietary choices may be linked to improved mood, such as getting enough magnesium in the diet (found in leafy greens, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains), eating foods rich in zinc (oysters, cashews, beef, egg yolk) and omega-3 fatty acids (salmon), and other healthy foods rich in nutrients.
However, while Dr. Gold does say a good diet may help with mental health, she warns against drastic dieting, saying, “I think we don’t understand diet enough yet. I think there’s some evidence to suggest there is an effect of food on mental health, and we know that eating or not eating can be related to mood and food can be addicting, but we don’t understand that completely. And certainly, restrictive dieting trying to maintain a recommended diet for your mental health can present a problem.”
8. Reducing caffeine consumption
Herbal teas are often touted as a natural way to soothe anxiety. However, as Dr. Gold explains, “Celebrities sometimes market things that aren’t proven, like drinking a certain tea. I can tell you that just drinking a certain tea won’t take away your anxiety.”
However, it's likely that the lack of caffeine (and sugar) is what makes herbal teas preferable to black tea, coffee, or other caffeinated beverages. A study by Nymberg et. al., published in 2018 in the journal Evidence-Based Practice, found that “Caffeine increases self-rated anxiety more than placebo,” and that “Patients with generalized anxiety disorder are more sensitive to the anxiogenic [anxiety inducing] effects of caffeine than patients with panic disorder or no psychiatric illness.” I’ve learned this lesson on a personal level: decaf is an anxious girl’s best friend.