Anxiety is a familiar sensation to most of us: It’s a normal stress response, after all. The uncomfortable and overwhelming feeling of wanting to jump out of one’s own skin helps us survive hazardous physical situations, when we need to move it or lose it. However, in modern life — where we aren’t fleeing predators on foot — anxiety can creep in, taking up residence and crossing over from an impetus for change to a daily companion that limits our enjoyment of life.
Collectively, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting roughly 18 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 18 each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders cover a range of behaviors, and the many treatment options range from prescription medication to professional counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Occasional anxiety can often be greatly improved with natural techniques as well, including herbal treatments and changes to our lifestyle habits. Note: We always recommend discussing treatment options with a health professional.
Herbs to Ease Anxiety
Herbs can be a powerful tool for easing occasional bouts of anxiety. One aspect of herbal remedies to keep in mind: Herbs generally take longer than pharmaceutical drugs to affect chronic issues. In some cases, the effect can also be milder than that of prescription or over-the-counter drugs. However, herbs typically have an overall system-strengthening effect when taken over time, while pharmaceuticals are more likely to have potential side effects. As always, consult a physician before using any herbs alongside pharmaceuticals, or while pregnant or nursing, and talk to your doctor if you have any pre-existing medical concerns.
Skullcap: This member of the mint family is known for its comforting effect. Skullcap (specifically Scutellaria laterifolia) is traditionally taken as a tincture or tea, and it is thought to help allay tense nerves during times of emotional distress. Used for more than 200 years for its ability to help us relax, skullcap was used before pharmaceutical sedatives came onto the market in the early 20th century. Today, early research supports skullcap’s calming effects. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled 2014 study, scientists found skullcap significantly improved mood without reducing mental alertness or ability to concentrate. Skullcap is rarely habit-forming, but it makes some people sleepy. It should not be combined with other drugs or herbs with a sedating effect. Be sure to get skullcap from a reliable source: It’s been known in the past to be contaminated with a group of plants that can cause liver problems. Stop using skullcap at least two weeks prior to any scheduled surgery. Pregnant women should not take skullcap.
Lemon Balm: Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is another herb from the mint family with years of traditional use as a calming herb for the nervous system. In fact, the 11th-century Persian physician Avicenna recommended the herb for its uplifting effects. Research has begun to confirm this historical use. A 2004 study found that a 600 mg standardized dose of lemon balm improved mood and calmness, plus reduced alertness. Lemon balm can be taken as a syrup, a tea, a tincture or a glycerite.
Chamomile: Long associated with relaxing in the evening before bed, chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) has been clinically shown to help us relax. A 2009 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania showed some participants’ anxiety improved when treated with 220 mg of chamomile (although the dosage was increased for some participants, as needed). Chamomile has natural anticoagulant properties, so beware if you are taking blood thinners of any kind. One to four cups of chamomile tea per day is generally considered safe for adults, and chamomile is also safe for children. Note: Some people allergic to ragweed may have an allergic reaction to chamomile, as well.
Natural Methods and Habits to Curb Anxiety
Herbs can be a wonderful tool for caring for occasional anxiety, but we can rely on other natural methods to help us feel calmer, as well. Try incorporating these tips into your routine when you are feeling stressed and anxious.
Fresh Air: Age-old wisdom tells us that fresh air can go a long way toward relieving anxious thoughts, and research bears that out. Whether related to an increase of endorphins, a rise in core body temperature, time in nature or simple distraction, many studies over the past 20 years have shown that exercise can contribute to improved mental health. For example, one Japanese study showed that people who walked in a forest setting for 20 minutes had lower stress hormone readings than those who did not. Take a daily walk in the fresh air to reap the benefit of a clearer mind and calmer spirit.
Aromatherapy: Inhaling botanical scents, such as essential oils, is thought to impact the brain’s emotional center via the olfactory system. In fact, a study examining the effect of breathing in lavender essential oil found that it can help lower systolic blood pressure. Another study at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center found that the anxiety of patients subjected to the noisy, confined nature of an MRI went down 63 percent when they breathed vanilla-scented air. Herbalist Kathi Keville also recommends rose, neroli, geranium, sandalwood and chamomile essential oils for promoting relaxation. Try putting a few drops of essential oil in milk and adding it to a warm bath to reap the benefits of aromatherapy. You can also use a diffuser—a simple reed diffuser is easy to make or you can purchase an electric diffuser.
Cut Out Caffeine: Caffeine, found commonly in the ubiquitous cup of morning coffee or tea, can actually exacerbate anxiety by ramping up the nervous system. If anxiety is interfering with your daily life, consider taking the step of cutting out all caffeine.
Meditation: Mindfulness meditation has long been used as an antidote to anxiety, but some doctors have questioned its measurable effects. In a review of 47 well-designed studies analyzed in JAMA Internal Medicine, Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that meditation has an overall beneficial effect on anxiety, as well as depression and pain, according to NPR. Even with little training, patients were able to achieve consistent results. A recent study by Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, found a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped “quell anxiety systems in people with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep and irritability,” according to Harvard Health Publications.