Try these before you pop another Xanax.
When you live with chronic anxiety, you develop a set of coping skills.
Maybe you never leave the house without your trusty bottle of Xanax in your purse; maybe you’ve become extremely protective of your downtime and have implemented a rule about how many invitations you’ll accept in any given week, so you don’t get overwhelmed.
When I was diagnosed with anxiety, I made a few changes to my lifestyle, but for the most part I just accepted that I’d occasionally have moments where I can’t breathe, my palms start to sweat, and my mouth goes dry. Once in a while, though, I start to get pulled under again, and those are the times when I search out new ways to handle my anxiety.
These seven natural remedies for anxiety are all fairly intuitive, when you think about it – but they’re also all backed by real science. If you’re looking to reduce your medication intake and haven’t tried any of these yet, I can heartily recommend them all. (Just always remember to consult your doctor before making any changes to your medication.)
1. Say goodbye to caffeine
When I started having panic attacks, the first thing my doctor told me to do was stop drinking coffee. That’s because caffeine intake has been shown to significantly increase cortisol secretion in the brain. cortisol, known as ‘the stress hormone,’ is produced by our brains when we wake up in the morning, when we’re in danger, and anytime we need to be alert.
It’s a useful hormone – as an integral part of the ‘fight or flight’ response, it can keep us alive. But having your brain constantly flooded with cortisol can lead to anxiety attacks, weight gain, and a weakened immune system. So while I still feel a little sheepish ordering a decaf latté at my local coffeehouse, cutting caffeine has definitely been worth it.
2. Go to bed
Insomnia and anxiety are a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem: do you have trouble sleeping because you’re anxious, or are you anxious because you’re not getting enough sleep? Researchers say it’s a bit of both.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research showed that anxiety disorders were present before insomnia cropped up 73 per cent of the time, while insomnia preceded an anxiety disorder 69 per cent of the time. In any case, there’s no doubt that getting a good night’s sleep will help you feel calmer in the face of stress.
A 2013 study on anxiety and sleep loss, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that the regions of brain responsible for processing emotions, particularly fear, were more active in sleep-deprived research participants – leading them to respond more strongly to negative cues than positive ones, and to regard even neutral cues as negative. That explains why things look bleaker when you’re tired.
3. Limit screen time
Speaking of getting enough sleep at night – if you’re scrolling on your phone, watching TV, or reading on your iPad in bed, you’re increasing your chances of getting a crap night’s sleep, which, as explained above, contributes to feeling anxious.
Scientists at Harvard Medical School found that the specific wavelengths of light produced by screens suppress melatonin levels in the brain. Melatonin is a natural sleep-inducing hormone – lots of people take it to aid sleep. And when the National Sleep Foundation surveyed 1500 adults in six different countries to see how watching TV affected their sleep, at least two-thirds of study participants reported not getting a good night’s rest when they’d watched TV in the hour before bed. Why? The light from those screens plays havoc with your body’s circadian clock; the timekeeper that tells you when to sleep and when to wake up. Try reading an actual book before bed, instead.
4. Up your fish intake
Fish oil is good for lots of things: it increases heart health, may protect against depression – and it can make you less anxious, too. A 2011 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity looked at a group of medical students who took omega-3 fatty acid supplements for 12 weeks and found that they were less stressed before exams than students taking a placebo.
To get the benefits, you could eat a lot of salmon, anchovies, sardines, and mussels, or you could take a supplement. However, experts recommend getting those omega-3 fatty acids from food if you can. Oil, cold-water fishes are the best source.
5. Get outside
When you’re in the midst of an anxiety attack, getting some fresh air always seems to help. But there are specific, anxiety-alleviating advantages to two different fresh-air scenarios: heading to the beach, or trekking into the forest. Looking out into the distance over the water – or, what scientists call ‘blue space’ – has been proven by scientists to lower stress levels and quiet the mind.
If you prefer a more woodsy scene, you can try ‘forest bathing,’ which Japanese researchers have found to lower stress hormones. They call it Shinrin-yoku, and it entails simply walking in a forest for about 20 minutes, taking in the smells and sounds of the woods.
6. Break a sweat
When I’m feeling anxious, going for a run always makes me feel better. Turns out, there’s a good reason. A Princeton University research project published in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that regular exercise actually caused mice to form new neurons that released a neurotransmitter called GABA. They call these ‘nanny neurons’ because they quiet down activity in the brain, actually inhibiting other neurons from firing randomly.
Elizabeth Gould, who headed up the study, concluded that “the hippocampus of runners is vastly different from that of sedentary animals.” And although the study was conducted using mice, not humans, Gould says “it’s not a huge stretch to suggest that the hippocampi of active people might be less susceptible to certain undesirable aspects of stress than those of sedentary people” and notes that many other studies “show that physical exercise reduces anxiety in humans.”
7. Be still
Psychologist Teresa Edenfield uses ‘mindfulness meditation’ with her anxiety patients, and explains that it “allows one to experience the true essence of each moment as it really occurs, rather than what is expected or feared.” Originally a Buddhist practice, meditation has become mainstream; there are even apps you can download for your phone to aid you in meditating.
But you don’t have to have an app, says Edenfield. All you have to do is pay attention “to the present moment, intentionally, with curiosity, and with an effort to attend non-judgmentally.” So next time your mind is racing, get quiet, slow down, breathe, and just focus on the here and now. Listen to the sound of your breath entering and leaving your body, and become aware of the beat of your own heart. Every little thing is gonna be all right.
Comment: Have you found any natural ways to combat anxiety?