"What if I can't make my mortgage payment? Or if my health suddenly turns?" We all have nagging worries that keep us up at night. In fact, worrying is hard-wired into our DNA, and can even be beneficial, especially when it motivates us to save for the future. But worrying can become toxic to your health when it turns into anxiety and leads to panic attacks. Here, we look at natural methods to manage your anxiety, without the use of prescription medication.
“If you want to be relaxed and open, make lifestyle changes instead of relying on drugs. They can interfere with mental function, contribute to depression and lead to dependence.” — Dr. Andrew Weil
Break the Worry Loop: Quiet the Brain
Constant worry is a neurological process, rather than simply a "feeling," then we can take steps to relieve it.
Deep inside our brains is an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala, which acts as our fear and anxiety center. When we experience a potential worry, the amygdala sends warning messages to the cortex, the rational part of our brain, which can assess whether that worry is of true concern. As the rational cortex is flooded with more and more warning signals from the amygdala, however, it is unable to process them all, leading to worry loops or anxiety.
Fortunately, there are several steps we can take to quiet the brain and worry less:
Deep belly breathing, whether in a yoga class, at the office, or on your couch, is helpful in interrupting irrational thoughts. If you frequently experience toxic worry, Hold your breath!
Ok, let it out now. We're not recommending that you turn blue, but yoga breathing has been shown to be effective in lowering stress and anxiety. In his bestselling 2011 book Spontaneous Happiness, Andrew Weil, MD, introduced a classic yoga breathing technique he calls the 4-7-8 breath.
One reason it works is that you can't breathe deeply and be anxious at the same time. To do the 4-7-8 breath, exhale completely through your mouth, then inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Now let it out slowly through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat at least twice a day. Watch Video Here
2. Get Warm
Ever wonder why you feel so relaxed after a spell in the sauna or a steam room? Heating up your body reduces muscle tension and anxiety, research finds. Sensations of warmth may alter neural circuits that control mood, including those that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin. Warming up may be one of the ways that exercise—not to mention curling up by a fire with a cozy cup of tea—boosts mood.
As one group of researchers put it, "Whether lying on the beach in the midday sun on a Caribbean island, grabbing a few minutes in the sauna or spa after work, or sitting in a hot bath or Jacuzzi in the evening, we often associate feeling warm with a sense of relaxation and well-being."
Exercise is safe, good for the brain, and a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety, both immediately and in the long term. "If you exercise on a regular basis, you'll have more self-esteem and feel healthier," says Drew Ramsey, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University, who blogs at www.DrewRamseyMD.com.
"One of the major causes of anxiety is worrying about illness and health, and that dissipates when you are fit."
The 21-minute cure
Twenty-one minutes: That's about how long it takes for exercise to reliably reduce anxiety, studies show, give or take a minute. "If you're really anxious and you hop on a treadmill, you will feel more calm after the workout," Dr. Ramsey says.
"I generally ask my patients to spend 20 to 30 minutes in an activity that gets their heart rate up, whether it's a treadmill or elliptical or stair stepping—anything you like. If you rowed in college, get back to rowing. If you don't exercise, start taking brisk walks."
4. Make a List
Spend 15 minutes a day acknowledging your worries in a tangible way. Create a list of your top 10 worries or a calendar of stressful upcoming events allows you to strategize and deal with each problem directly, so they don't balloon to an unmanageable size.
A good time to make your list is after a meal.
When you need to calm down quickly, try Aromatherapy. The scents of bergamot, lavender, eucalyptus, and others go straight to the amygdala (the brain's fear and anxiety center) creating an immediate sense of calm and lowering your blood pressure. Many oils, candles or diffusers are readily available at your local health food store or online. You can even carry a small roll-on to apply to your wrist if you are out in public and begin to feel anxiety or panic.
Your stomach acts as a "second brain" when it comes to worrying. In fact, like our brains, our stomachs have their own nervous systems, called the enteric nervous system. When we worry, millions of receptors embedded in the gastrointestinal tract react to fear by speeding up or slowing down our digestion, which can lead to nausea, diarrhea and heartburn.
Simple, natural treatments for anxiety-related stomach issues:
1. Eat something, quick
"Almost universally, people get more anxious and irritable when they are hungry," says Dr. Ramsey, coauthor of The Happiness Diet. "When you get an anxiety attack, it may mean your blood sugar is dropping. The best thing to do is to have a quick sustaining snack, like a handful of walnuts, or a piece of dark chocolate, along with a glass of water or a nice cup of hot tea."
In the long term, diet is key to reducing anxiety, says Dr. Ramsey. His advice: Eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet with carefully selected meat and seafood, plenty of leafy greens (such as kale) to get folate, and a wide variety of phytonutrients to help reduce anxiety.
2. Eat breakfast
Stop starving yourself, advises Dr. Ramsey. "Many people with anxiety disorders skip breakfast. I recommend that people eat things like eggs, which are a satiating and filling protein, and are nature's top source of choline. Low levels of choline are associated with increased anxiety."
3. Lemon balm
Named after the Greek word for "honey bee," lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), has been used at least since the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, and help with sleep. In one study of healthy volunteers, those who took standardized lemon balm extracts (600 mg) were more calm and alert than those who took a placebo.
While it's generally safe, be aware that some studies have found that taking too much can actually make you more anxious. So follow directions and start with the smallest dose. Lemon balm is sold as a tea, capsule, and tincture. It's often combined with other calming herbs such as hops, chamomile, and valerian. Don't take Lemon Balm or other sedative herbs when you are also taking a prescription sedative.
4. Switch to Green Tea
If you drink coffee or black tea, the caffeine might be adding to your anxiety. Try cutting back to 1 cup with or after breakfast and then drinking green tea the rest of the day. Green tea still contains some caffeine so it can help keep you energized, but because green tea contains L-theanine it can also help you relax.
Research shows that L-theanine helps curb a rising heart rate and blood pressure, and studies have found that it reduces anxiety. In one study, anxiety-prone subjects were calmer and more focused during a test if they took 200 milligrams of L-theanine beforehand.
Try an anti-anxiety elixir of 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, and a half teaspoon of honey, taken 3 times per day in tea. This traditional Indian remedy is thought to balance the body by increasing energy in the digestive system, thereby reducing excess energy in the mind. Additionally, studies show that lemon juice lowers blood pressure by strengthening capillaries and may stimulate weak constitutions. Ginger calms the stomach, while honey controls the blood sugar instability that accompanies worrying.
Conventional medicine views worry on a physiological level; integrative medicine seeks to evaluate the mind, body and spirit in conjunction, looking for imbalances in "energy."
Take a 'forest bath'
The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku, literally "forest bath." You and I know it as a walk in the woods. Japanese researchers measured body changes in people who walked for about 20 minutes in a beautiful forest, with the woodsy smells and the sounds of a running stream.
The forest bathers had lower stress hormone levels after their walk than they did after a comparable walk in an urban area.
While all the above techniques will no doubt provide immediate relief, you may want to manage and even rid yourself of anxiety permanently. Exercise, like Yoga and Tai Chi can help ground it’s practitioners while showing them how to breathe and be flexible in encountering the stress of or day to day lives.
Learn mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation, originally a Buddhist practice but now a mainstream therapy, is particularly effective in treating anxiety, says Teresa M. Edenfield, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Durham, N.C., who often uses it to treat anxiety patients. "The act of practicing mindful awareness allows one to experience the true essence of each moment as it really occurs, rather than what is expected or feared," she says.
How to begin? You can start by simply "paying attention to the present moment, intentionally, with curiosity, and with an effort to attend non-judgmentally," Edenfield says.
Breath and question
To stay mindful, ask yourself simple questions while practicing breathing exercises, Edenfield suggests. "Sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and focus on how your breath feels coming in and out of your body. Now ask yourself silent questions while focusing on the breath."
What is the temperature of the air as it enters your nose? How does your breath feel different as it leaves your body? How does the air feel as it fills your lungs?
Give yourself credit
Are you having anxious thoughts? Congratulations. You're aware of your emotional state, and that awareness is the first step in reducing anxiety, says Edenfield.
"Remember to give yourself credit for being aware that you are having anxious thoughts, and probably body changes. This is truly a skill of mindfulness that must be learned, and is essential in making the next steps of intervening through strategies such as positive self-talk, cognitive reframing, or the use of mindfulness or relaxation strategies."