Holistic Strategies for Anxiety Relief
Under the umbrella term of anxiety, there are multiple expressions of it that show up differently in the body and mind. Some of these include panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder. Since GAD is the most common form of anxiety, we will be focusing on understanding how herbal medicine, nutrition and lifestyle changes can support.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is described as excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about everyday events, things and people. These worries often interfere with daily functioning. Common worries we hear from people who experience anxiety include jobs, money, relationships, health, the safety and wellbeing of children, death, and the environment.
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Increased muscle tension
- Heart palpitations
- Lack of appetite
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor memory
- Chest pain
- Rapid breathing or inability to take a full breath
- Insomnia/sleep issues
- Increased blood pressure
Conventional medications and treatment of generalized anxiety disorder include benzodiazepines, tricyclics, cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management, biofeedback, and therapy/counselling. A combination of medication and therapy is commonly used in anxiety.
Acupuncture, breathwork, massage therapy, somatic therapy, exercise, mindfulness and meditation can all help reduce anxiety. For people who have experienced significant trauma in their lives and who may have PTSD, a team of healthcare professionals is recommended (if accessible/affordable).
Lifestyle and nutritional therapies:
- Talk and somatic (body) therapy helps you develop awareness around how anxiety feels in the body and strategies to reduce it. Some practices include noticing all five senses, and becoming aware of something you can hear, smell, see, taste, and touch when you’re acutely stressed or anxious. Progressive muscle relaxation is a method that helps to release tension and involves tensing up a group of muscles as you breathe in, and then relaxing the muscles as you breathe out. Another really simple practice includes taking a moment to mentally zoom out of your life, seeing it from a wider lens. This helps you focus less on the minor details of everyday life and more on the bigger picture of your journey.
- Nature therapy: Getting some exercise and fresh air boosts serotonin, relieves anxiety and uplifts the mood. Forest bathing has been shown to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, hostility, depression and anxiety, and has a very rejuvenating and calming effect on the body/mind.
- Maintain blood sugar balance: Eat breakfast that is rich in protein and fats, include a protein, fat and complex carbohydrate at every meal, bring snacks with you on the go, reduce or avoid processed sugar in beverages (stick to water and herbal tea). If you are very active, make sure to get enough protein throughout the day. Eat whole, fresh and unprocessed foods that are rich in fiber.
- Hormone balance: Learning about the phases of the menstrual cycle and how anxiety can increase in the lead up to menstruation can be an important tool for anxiety relief. Low progesterone or high estrogen can lead to increased anxiety in the few days or week before menstruation. There are many herbs and nutritional strategies to support hormone balance and liver detoxification. Talk with a herbalist if you think this would benefit you.
- Thyroid: Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) can cause increased anxiety, insomnia, diarrhea, heart palpitations, and hair loss (among other symptoms). Get your thyroid hormones tested, especially if thyroid disorder runs in your family.
- Iron deficiency anemia can increase anxiety and sleep issues. If you menstruate, are vegan or vegetarian, or have inflammatory bowel disease, get some bloodwork done to check iron levels.
- Reduce consumption of caffeine and alcohol. Avoid caffeine after noon to help sleep at night (caffeine can still be circulating in your blood hours after drinking). Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it disrupts REM sleep and causes blood sugar dips during the night. If you drink alcohol at night, make sure to do it while eating dinner, and avoid drinking right before you go to bed.
- Consistent and good quality sleep is so important for our mental health. Some people (shift workers, parents, and folks who experience anxiety and depression) have a hard time falling and/or staying asleep. Melatonin works well in shift workers and jet lag, whereas depression and anxiety requires a more individualized approach.
- Develop sustainable stress management techniques that you can incorporate into your daily lifestyle. Completing the stress response cycle in our bodies, even if the stressor hasn’t gone away, is vital to reduce burnout and fatigue. Some practices include becoming aware of breathing (and taking deeper breaths throughout the day), nature, exercise, creativity, crying, laughing, positive social interactions, and physical touch. (These practices are from the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski).
Damiana: Grounding, soothing and relaxing, Damiana puts you back into your body, uplifts a low mood and reduces anxiety.
Passionflower: A beautiful nervine sedative that relaxes mental overactivity and irritability, reduces muscle tension and promotes deeper sleep.
Skullcap: A wonderful nerve tonic that relaxes nervous tension, Skullcap works great for those who have an over-active mind and find difficulty falling asleep at night because of circulating thoughts.
Ashwagandha: A building, nourishing adrenal tonic and adaptogen, this plant is wonderful to support those in states of high stress, burnout and anxiety. It supports deeper, more nourishing sleep, and is also iron rich.
Oatstraw: Both the straw and seed of oats are incredibly nutritive and building; wonderful to add to anxiety reducing tonics. Rich in vitamins, minerals, trace minerals and proteins, it is great to add in formulas if someone has a reduced appetite or low nutrient diet to help replenish. The straw is considered to be more anxiety reducing, whereas the seed has a mood uplifting effect.
Chamomile: A special herb that is great for children and digestive issues associated with anxiety. Chamomile is gentle, effective and very healing for the gut. Reduces muscular tension, irritability and sleep issues. This herb is great to add to a bath for children who have trouble sleeping!
Lavender: We love to add this to teas, tinctures or diffuse it in the bedroom to help reduce nervous tension, irritability, anxiety, panic or shock. It simultaneously reduces anxiety while also uplifts a low mood. Lavender can help reduce headaches and insomnia associated with stress, and is lovely to infuse in kids’ rooms at night to help them sleep.
Vervain: A sacred nerve tonic that helps alleviate mental overactivity, Vervain is helpful to add in cases of both anxiety and low mood. It can alleviate tension headaches, premenstrual headaches and migraines. Its bitter constituents aid the liver and ease digestive complaints.
Supplements to support:
L-theanine: Derived from black tea, L-theanine at higher doses aids in reducing mental overactivity without causing sedation. We recommend the chewable form for quick absorption and relief.
GABA: GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it blocks or inhibits brain signals and decreases nervous system overactivity.
Magnesium: Wonderful to add in for muscle tension, anxiety and mental overactivity, sleep issues, chronic stress and menstrual cramps. Choose magnesium bisglycinate for best bioavailability.
Iron: Find an iron supplement with vitamin C, methylcobalamin (B12) and folate. Increase consumption of iron rich foods (spinach, broccoli, meat and poultry, eggs, beans and legumes, fish and shellfish, organ meats, etc).
Methylated B complex: To help support many processes in the body, taking B’s regularly is especially beneficial for our mental health. They support the adrenals, energy levels, blood sugar stabilization and liver detoxification.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health complaints I hear and talk about in practice. It is difficult to slow down and listen to the body in the current global climate, as it seems like there is always something to worry about. Developing awareness around how you experience anxiety and what specifically triggers it is the first step. A mental health practitioner, especially one that specializes in somatic therapy and trauma informed care, is always beneficial. Adding in (slowly) lifestyle changes, herbal medicines and whole foods is a practice that will take time but can produce profound effects in anxiety reduction.
Reach out if you need support and take care.
Riley Craven - Medical herbalist and holistic nutritionist