While medication and cognitive therapy are the two front-line treatments for anxiety, there is a LOT of natural remedies for anxiety that you can use to manage your symptoms.
If medications haven’t worked, or the side effects scare you off, natural remedies may provide some relief (and hope).
If you are on medications, or working with a cognitive behavioral therapist, adding natural diet and lifestyle protocols can dramatically improve your ability to effectively manage your anxiety.
In this article, we’ll look at diet, exercise, supplements, essential oils, sleep, and lifestyle/environmental hacks that you can use to manage your anxiety.
Diet And Anxiety
While you can’t cure anxiety or depression with diet, what you eat may have an impact on your mood. (And, of course, we know that mood has an impact on what you eat.)
Emerging research is starting to point to a connection between diet and how you feel.
A 2007 study in Greece found an interesting link between vegetarian diets and lower incidences of anxiety among women, who also ate fewer sweets. 1
In 2010, The American Journal of Psychiatry published results from an Australian study that also pointed to a link between a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods, and a lower incidence of anxiety.
Respondents who ate a typical Western diet that included processed foods, fatty foods, and sugary foods appeared to have higher levels of anxiety. 2
In 2011, the results of the Hordaland Health Study conducted in Norway found that among 5,731 male and female participants aged 45-49 and 74-79, those who ate higher quality, healthier diets were less likely to report anxiety or depression than those eating more of a “Western” diet. 3
Diet also appears to play a role in depression as well.
A health study at the Center for Epidemiologic Studies–Depression found that “participants with a high intake of processed foods had higher odds of depression compared with those with the lowest intake.” Study participants who followed a whole foods diet were also less likely to report depression. 4
A 2009 study found that obese or overweight patients, while losing the same amount of weight on a high carb or low carb diet, had a greater improvement in mood while following a high-carb, low fat diet.
Additionally, it was suggested that because high-fat diets have been shown to reduce serotonin (a mood-regulating neurotransmitter) levels in the brain, a high-fat diet might negatively affect mood. 5
As you can see, healthier diets that emphasize fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins, seemingly correspond to lower incidences of anxiety, while diets high in processed foods, high in fat, and high in added sugars tend to show an increased likelihood of anxiety.
Now this research is not saying that a healthy diet will cure anxiety, nor does it suggest that eating healthy will prevent the development of anxiety in the future.
But it does suggest that a healthy diet may alleviate or reduce some of the symptoms of anxiety, and possibly counteract the effects that stress has on your body and mind.
There isn’t yet any research pointing to specific foods or compounds in foods that directly alleviate anxiety or depression symptoms.
Emerging research is showing that the health of your gut microbiome might be related to your state of mind. 6
However, there is much more research that needs to be done before that connection is fully understood, or a “treatment protocol” for anxiety/depression is developed through adjusting the populations of beneficial gut bacteria.
The research does not yet point, however, to probiotics as an anxiety treatment. Yogurt won’t make you less anxious.
However, a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, that is high in fiber and lower in fat, provides the necessary ingredients to cultivate a thriving population of gut flora, and studies have suggested that such a diet may play a role in reducing anxiety symptoms and risk.
A plant-based diet (it doesn’t have to be strict vegan) can also provide many of the mood-boosting ingredients that support healthy populations of gut microflora, while increasing vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content in the diet.
Supplements For Anxiety
There are a TON of over-the-counter supplement for anxiety. Some of these supplements have well-documented, published research backing their claims.
However, there a lots of unregulated supplements that claim to provide anxiety relief, but lack any rigorous research.
Take a look at my in-depth article highlighting some of the most popular supplements for treating anxiety, and the research that backs it up.
Exercise As A Treatment For Anxiety
Daily exercise is something that works pretty well for me to reduce anxiety.
It’s hard to start an exercise regimen, though – particularly when you are having a bad day, or the exhaustion of anxiety makes it feel like you just want to lay on the couch and binge-watch TV.
But when I do exercise daily, I am much more energetic. I tend to make better dietary decisions, and the post-workout “rush” boosts my mood and outlook.
Research has shown that people who are more active have lower rates of anxiety and depression than people who are sedentary. 7
One study showed that people who got regular exercise were 25% less likely to develop anxiety or depression.
How Exercise Helps With Anxiety (And Depression)
Physical activity (like exercise) releases neurotransmitters like endorphins and endocannabinoids which help boost your mood and mitigate the effects and feelings of anxiety and stress.
Exercise also warms your body temperature, which may help to give you a calming effect.
Exercise can help boost confidence and self esteem, especially when you meet weight loss or fitness goals. As you feel physically stronger, you may also feel more mentally resilient.
Exercise is one of the healthiest distractions from worry and anxiety.
You don’t need to join a gym, or sweat it out for an hour or so.
A simple 10-minute walk, or a 25-minute workout (I love Focus T25 by Shawn T.) can work wonders.
But the hardest part isn’t the working out: it’s the motivation to start, and the willpower to keep going.
And that’s really, really hard for me.
For some of you, joining a gym, like Planet Fitness, might be the answer.
If you work out from home, getting your partner involved, or finding a “workout buddy” can also keep you on track.
Even posting about your workout progress on a blog, vlog, or support forum can keep you accountable.
Tips For Anxiety-Reducing Exercise
If you are new to exercise, or are not fit, ease into it. Trying to go gung-ho from the beginning can set you up for injury, or make you feel overwhelmed and wanting to quit.
But don’t hold back too much. Push yourself enough so that your heart rate is elevated. Sweat is good. Pain is not. So find that zone where you push yourself without hurting yourself.
I like doing 25-30 minutes per day with a mix of cardio and weight training. I’m currently doing Shawn T’s Focus T25 workout program, which is perfect.
Make it a priority! Think of exercise as part of your hygiene routine. It’s JUST AS IMPORTANT as taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and eating. It really is!
Find something fun. If you hate your workout program, choose a different one. If you hate working out, period, then find a physical activity that you can do. Dance, garden, clean the house, or join an amateur sports team. Find something you love that gets your heart rate up and do it as often as you can.
Try These Exercises
Cardio + Strength Training. I know I must sound like I’m being paid to say this (I am not!), but the workout routine that I’m using as of writing this is Focus T25. It’s a 25-minute workout, 5 days per week. I feel great after my T25 workout, and I honestly feel like it helps me get through periods where my anxiety is elevated.
Running. Running is one of the best exercises for anxiety and depression. Running causes your body to release endorphins, which help lift your mood. Running outside also gives you access to fresh air, and a natural setting, which also has a mood-enhancing effect.
Dancing. Dancing combines physical activity and music, two powerful weapons against anxiety and depression. You can either take a Zumba class, or dance in the comfort of your own home by following any of the fitness dance YouTube Channels (my two favorites are DanceFitnessWithJessica and TheFitnessMarshal).
Yoga. Studies have shown that people who practice yoga experience a reduction in anxiety and depression. 8
Hiking. As with running, hiking gets your heart rate up (especially if you are hiking uphill), and gets you out in nature.
How To Improve Sleep To Manage Anxiety
One of the most common symptoms of chronic anxiety is difficulty getting to sleep, as well as sleep that is not restful.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning so exhausted that I can’t believe that I had actually gotten 8 hours of sleep.
And then there are what I call “stress dreams”.
You know, the ones where you dream that you are in the mall and you lose your kid. Or you find yourself in a foreign country and absolutely nobody can understand a word you say, or won’t help you out. Or you dream that your wife leaves you, or your child falls of a cliff.
Yeah, and then you wake up in the morning all stressed out before you even start your day.
Lack of sleep is a vicious cycle. Anxiety causes insomnia, and lowers the quality of sleep which, in turn, ramps up your anxiety and stress levels, which make sleeping even more difficult.
So how can you fight back?
Here are five tips to get some rest:
Work on your anxiety. Obviously, working on your anxiety through cognitive behavioral therapy, stress-reduction techniques, as well as diet and lifestyle changes (and medication, if necessary) will help improve your sleep.
Take a sleep aid. I use 5 milligram melatonin to get to sleep. Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that your brain produces in low light, signaling your body to go to sleep. Anxiety (as well as bright light in the evening) can suppress melatonin. I’ve found it to be a very effective sleep aid.
Not all melatonin supplements work for me. My favorite is Natrol brand 5mg fast dissolve tablets (strawberry flavor).
Don’t use your phone/iPad in bed. I know, the temptation is just too hard, but really, your phone/iPad/laptop is keeping you up, and negatively affecting your sleep. Not only does the backlight on the screen mess with your melatonin production, it also stimulates your brain, keeping you awake.
And trust me, I know that messing around on an iPad is preferable to facing your own thoughts and anxieties in a quiet, darkened room, but try a different distraction like listening to music, instead.
Drift off to music or white noise. Soft music or even white noise (like the sound of a fan running) can help you sleep, while keeping your mind from dwelling on anxious thoughts.
Evening gratitude meditation. Make a habit of reflecting on positive things that happened during the day. Write down or talk about your favorite part of the day, or list at least three things that you are grateful for. Maybe even list things that you are looking forward to.
Essential Oils For Anxiety
While I researched the content for this series of anxiety articles, I just so happened to be gifted a bottle of lavender essential oil.
I read that lavender is calming, and the aroma can help improve sleep. So I put it to the test.
Diffusing lavender essential oil in my office definitely had a calming effect. I felt lower levels of stress, overwhelm, and anxiety.
In fact, I felt more relaxed and focused.
But the real miracle with lavender essential oil was when I tested it as a sleep aid. For seven nights, I diffused it on my night stand about a half-hour before bedtime.
The aroma was wonderful, and calming. And for five of the next seven nights, I did not take my nightly melatonin supplement. I didn’t need it!
For the first time in two years, I was able to drift off to sleep without a sleep aid thanks to the aroma of lavender!
Since this experiment, I have become obsessed with essential oils, and wrote an in-depth article on 30 essential oils for anxiety and stress.
Environmental Hacks To Reduce And Manage Anxiety
Your immediate environment can contribute to anxious feelings, or exacerbate anxiety.
Because of this, I try to make the following modifications to my surroundings:
Keep your area organized and decluttered. I know, it’s really hard. My desk looks like a category 5 hurricane tore through my office. But I definitely feel more calm and in control when my surroundings are also orderly.
Daylight & Daylight Bulbs. I find that getting sufficient daylight helps my mood a lot. I have also replaced every light bulb in my office with daylight florescent bulbs. These emit a bright white light in the daylight spectrum – and they are awesome on gloomy raining, or dark winter days.
Music can change your mood. It can excite you or calm you. It can inspire you. Check out my Motivational Mixtape of songs guaranteed to get you out of a funk ASAP!
Light an aromatherapy candle, or use a diffuser with essential oil to release a calming scent into your space.
Print out some inspiring quotes, or hang posters on your wall with motivational sayings. Yeah, maybe it’s a little hokey, but these visual reminders placed where you can see them are effective and can help interrupt anxious thought patterns.
And one more thing – studies show that being in nature can alleviate stress and tension. There’s a term for the curative effects of walking in a forest – “forest bathing”.
In fact, just looking at pictures of natural scenes, especially those dominated by the color green, can have a calming, de-stressing effect.
Being in nature helps calm you, provides physical activity that boosts mood, and exposes you to bright daylight, which also has a positive effect.
Don’t just rely on medications or therapy for anxiety treatment. Take a multi-faceted, holistic approach.
Add these tactics to your current treatment protocol, or use them if your treatment is not as effective as you’d like it to be.
There are many things that you can do to alleviate anxiety, or manage symptoms. You’re not powerless, even through anxiety often makes us feel that way.
Becoming higher functioning, and feeling better often comes from making a variety of micro-decisions about how we live our lives.
While none of these natural anxiety remedies are a cure-all, stacking them into a lifestyle protocol has had tremendous benefits in my own life. These strategies have made anxiety much more tolerable.
Return to How To Overcome Anxiety.
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2 – Jacka, F. N., Pasco, J. A., Mykletun, A., Williams, L. J., Hodge, A. M., O’Reilly, S. L., & et al. (2010, January). Association of Western and Traditional Diets With Depression and Anxiety in Women. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167, 305-311. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09060881.
3 – Jacka, F. N., Mykletun, A., Berk, M., Bjelland, I., Grethe, S. (July/August 2011). The Association Between Habitual Diet Quality and the Common Mental Disorders In Community-Dwelling Adults: The Hordaland Health Study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73:6, 483-490. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e318222831a.
4 – Akbaraly, T, Brunner, E., Ferrie, J., Marmot, M., Kivimaki, M, & Singh-Manoux, A. (2009, November). Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. British Journal of Psychiatry, 195(5), 408-419. PMID:19880930.
5 – Anderson, P. (2009, November 12). Low-Fat Diet Linked to Improved Mood. (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/712249)
6 – Schnorr SL, Bachner HA. Integrative Therapies in Anxiety Treatment with Special Emphasis on the Gut Microbiome. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2016;89(3):397-422.
7 – Carek, P., Laibstain, S., Carek, S. (2011, January) Exercise for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 41(1), 15-28.
8 – Shapiro D, Cook IA, Davydov DM, Ottaviani C, Leuchter AF, Abrams M. Yoga as a Complementary Treatment of Depression: Effects of Traits and Moods on Treatment Outcome. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM. 2007;4(4):493-502. doi:10.1093/ecam/nel114.