To put it mildly, we live in an anxiety-triggering era which can do a number on your mental and physical health. With life in an almost constant state of rapid, and occasionally head-spinning change, it can be a challenge for even the mentally healthiest among us to keep anxiety at bay. Doom and gloom flooding the news, social media and our everyday conversations, saturating our psyches 24/7, small wonder people are on edge these days. The good news is that while anxiety may be almost impossible to completely avoid, there are a number of toxin-and-drug-free non-addictive ways to tame the beast. Here are a few of my favorite healthy approaches to help take it down a few notches, on-demand:
The struggle is real – and all-too-common.
Occasional or frequent bouts of anxiety are almost inevitable and, in some ways, a pretty understandable response to life’s more unsettling aspects. As defined by the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotional state “characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure,” sweating, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, etc. Recurring intrusive or catastrophizing thoughts are often part of the package as well. In contrast to fear, it’s often considered a future-oriented response, aimed at a diffuse threat rather than a specific one.
Keep in mind, having bouts of anxiety is a normal, albeit uncomfortable part of life. Just how normal is it? According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness around, affecting about 40 million in the U.S. alone.
Anxiety isn’t all bad, in limited doses.
Anxiety does have a purpose. It’s nature’s way of telling us something’s not quite right, an alarm system that lets us know that a threat may be present, to pay attention. Though we can’t be happy and joyful every waking minute – that’s an expectation that just asks to be disappointed – anxiety can go off the rails. That happens when irrational thoughts or emotional overreaction becomes the default, with alarms going off all the time, no matter how large or small the perceived threat may be. And here’s a fun fact for you: while the recipe for anxiety includes a number of risk factors, like your brain chemistry and your life experiences, by some estimates, roughly 30 – 50% of the anxiety trait is inherited, so thanks, mom and dad.
Anxiety delivers more than a few body blows.
In addition to making you feel tense and nervous in the moment, anxiety takes a longer-term toll on the body, which is why it’s so important for you to be able to nip it in the bud. In the short term, anxiety can make its presence felt with uncomfortable physical clues nobody enjoys, like shallow or rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, headache, stomachaches, nausea and digestive problems.
When anxiety digs in its heels and manifests as a more chronic disorder – like severe social anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, PTSD, OCD – the health implications grow too. It can impact your digestive and immune systems (think IBS, reduced ability to fight infection, etc.) as well as your cardiovascular system, weakening the heart muscle, raising blood pressure and boosting risk for cardiac events . Your noggin doesn’t take well to chronic anxiety either. It can lead to atrophy of the brain’s hippocampus, which is important for the formation of long-term memories, their retrieval, and spatial memory. What’s more, research indicates strong links between anxiety disorders and dementia, so opting not manage or treat a significant problem – roughly 60% of those with anxiety disorders don’t – is a dangerous game to play with your health.
Get your head in the game – and make some adjustments.
To deal with anxiety, start by reframing how you look at it. See it as a common problem that needs to be managed as it comes up, instead of some massive, insurmountable emotional Mt. Everest. Deflating or “de-catastrophising” the idea of anxiety can help you feel like you have more power over it. It will also help you tamp down the urge to dedicate a lot of time and energy to unnecessarily fretting, worrying and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Once you’ve reframed how you perceive anxiety, have some anxiety-busting tools at the ready to troubleshoot anxious feelings as they arise. When anxiety levels start to creep up, take a moment to really figure out what’s making you anxious. Feel and acknowledge the emotions — don’t suppress them – and then address them head-on with one (or more) of these anxiety busters.
Make meditation your medication.
Meditation cultivates adaptability and resilience and reduces reactivity. A steady practice can help you manage strong emotions and ride the choppy waves of life, whether that’s an angry teenager, a demanding boss, bumper-to-bumper traffic, or virtually anything in-between. Just 10 -20 minutes of meditation, a few times a week. helps create a solid, chilled-out, low-anxiety foundation from which you won’t be easily rocked or overwhelmed.
But OK, let’s say you’re having a bout of serious anxiety before heading into a big meeting. Fair enough. What to do when getting into the lotus position just isn’t in the cards? Have a seat, close your eyes and take a 3-minute time-out to get your emotions under control. Here’s a super-simple guided mediation to pull up when you find yourself long on anxiety and short on time to tame it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABK0SYFxyEY
Connect with ‘belly breathing’.
Did you know that your belly possesses some major anxiety-busting power? When anxiety starts to rise, try doing a few minutes of ‘belly breathing.’ Do it anywhere, be it on the commuter train, in your car or at your desk while waiting for your next conference call to start. Why belly breaths? Because inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, helps stimulate the vagus nerve and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, which means lowered anxiety for you. Here’s how:
- Get into a relaxed position, sitting upright in a chair, or if space permits, lying down.
- Put your hands on your abdomen.
- Close your mouth gently and touch your tongue to your upper palate and breath through your nose.
- Inhale deeply and slowly, being aware of your diaphragm moving downward and your abdomen expanding. Your hands on your abdomen will feel the expansion like a balloon filling.
- At the end of the inhalation, don’t hold the breath – let your abdomen fall automatically as you exhale.
- Try get all the breath out of your lungs on the expiration. The expiration should normally be about twice as long as the inhalation when you are relaxed.
- Keep repeating this, maintaining your focus on your hands rising on the abdomen on the inhale and falling on the exhale.
Rather take your belly breaths with a little guided assist? Then try an app like Breathwrk to help show you the way, or check out any one of the numerous belly breathing videos on YouTube.
Get your head out of the bottle.
OK, now it’s lifestyle time, and we’re going to start with alcohol. Simply put, alcohol doesn’t play well with anxiety. Though it may initially help you unwind, the feeling is fleeting. After that relaxation wave comes the downward dive into the depressive mood trough, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and disrupting the quality of your sleep, which in turn, makes anxiety worse. To help calm your anxiety, try tapering off, then quitting booze for a few weeks and see for yourself. Though you may miss your regular tipple at first, it’s all but guaranteed that your mood and sleep will markedly improve, helping you get you off the drinking-depression-anxiety-rinse-and-repeat merry-go-round.
What to drink instead? Anything that won’t amp you up, particularly at the end of the day when you need to prep for a good night’s sleep that’s essential for warding off anxiety. Try a small cup of warm, unsweetened almond milk that’s rich in calming magnesium; decaffeinated green tea which contains anxiety-taming theanine; or classic chamomile which contains glycine, which helps relax nerves and offers a mild sedative effect.
Fill your head (and heart) with music.
Our bodies respond to music, and depending on what you listen to, music can connect you with deep emotions and, you guessed it, even help ease anxiety. Though people respond differently to different types of music, when looking to tame anxiety, tap into a playlist of soothing tunes which help lower heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, while also boosting serotonin production. Topping the list of anxiety tamers: classical music; sound healing music; and binaural beats.
Dig into foods that keep anxiety off your plate.
Pile it high with foods that are rich in B vitamins, like grass-fed and pasture-raised animals; omega 3s from small ‘oily’ fish like mackerel, anchovies and sardines from clean waters; and lots of leafy greens. Think of it this way: good food has medicinal effects, like keeping blood sugar stable, which will enable you to side-step the stress response that boosts anxiety.
There are countless reasons why I always encourage my patients to eat well, and to pile their plates high with as in fresh organic and farmers’ market foods that are unprocessed and rich in B vitamins – think grass-fed and pasture-raised animals; omega 3s from small ‘oily’ fish like mackerel, anchovies and sardines from clean waters; lots of leafy greens; low-sugar fruits; and healthy fats.
But here’s one more reason to eat well: doing so can help keep anxiety at bay. Eat carelessly and anxiety levels can soar. Among the musts-to avoid if anxiety is dragging you down:
- Caffeine – agitates your nervous system, overtaxes your adrenals and suppresses serotonin which can boost anxiety and irritability.
- Sodas and fruit juices – liquid sugar bombs are linked with encouraging anxiety symptoms and mood swings, so a big no thanks to that.
- Sports drinks, and energy drinks – pack a double-whammy of both sugar and caffeine, so keep them out of your fridge
- Sweet stuff and simple carbs – which dump too much sugar into your bloodstream far too quickly. While a sugar rush may briefly goose energy levels, the effect is fleeting. As your body pumps up cortisol, adrenaline and then sends in insulin to move the sweet stuff out of your bloodstream, blood sugar levels come crashing down in a hurry, leaving you stressed, anxious and irritable, so take a hard pass here too.
Pop some pills – no prescription needed.
If you’re looking for a natural, healthy alternative to a pharmaceutical like Valium or Xanax (and I hope you are!) I recommend a blend of nutrients and herbs known as ‘adaptogens’ that help support healthy adrenal function (think “fight or flight” response) and help regulate a whole menu of hormones and neurotransmitters that influence energy and mood. Adaptogens like Rhodiola, ashwagandha, American ginseng, and eleuthero support a healthier response to stress and anxiety, as do anxiety-taming supplements like magnesium, L Theanine and GABA. Another well-tolerated option is cannabidiol, or CBD oil which can be enormously helpful – and non-addicting – for managing anxiety and encouraging relaxation without impairing or intoxicating.
Move, move, move, move, move!
When anxiety’s got you on the run, don’t forget to move! Walk, run, stretch, cycle, dance! Whatever you can do to keep your body active will go a long way toward taking the edge off anxiety – by releasing feel-good endorphins and other brain chemicals that boost feelings of well-being.
Hose your nose – and spray anxiety away.
A more recent development on the anxiety-fighting front is the nasal spray Selank. Though it is ‘by prescription only,’ it’s not a conventional pharmaceutical but rather a synthetic equivalent of a naturally-occurring peptide called tuftsin. What’s interesting and useful about Selank is that it helps modulate the activity of several different types of cells, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This makes the peptide effective at balancing mood-boosting brain chemicals like dopamine and anxiety-soothing serotonin. A number of my patients have had great results using Selank — sometimes called a natural version of Xanax — to combat anxiety without the addiction concerns.