Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the U.S., affecting about one out of five people at any given time, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Anxiety can take many forms — generalized anxiety disorder (constant worrying about everyday things), obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
While medications to treat these anxiety conditions are often an important component in the management of anxiety, there are also many natural, do-it-yourself techniques that can help calm you down, either in place of medications or as a supplement to them.
Next time you’re too tense to cope, consider trying one of these natural options for relief.
1. Laugh it off. Cultivate a good sense of humor and laugh, says Karen Lynn Cassiday, Ph.D., president-elect of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and a clinical psychologist in Chicago. “Even if you do a fake laugh, you get an instant hit of dopamine,” says Dr. Cassiday. Dopamine is a brain chemical that controls feelings of reward and pleasure.
If you’re too tense to laugh on your own, try using technology, she suggests. For example, find a laugh track phone app. Just google phone apps for laughing.
2. Schedule relaxation. “Sit down and look at your schedule,” says Katherine Raymer, MD, ND, associate clinical professor of naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University, Seattle.
“Is there a time to put in a half-hour to do whatever you do that is relaxing?” Dr. Raymer asks. That can be a walk, meditation, yoga, tai chi, or anything you find relaxing.
Researchers trying to help shy men with social anxiety found that a period of relaxation helped them, lowering their heart rates after they interacted with people.
3. Take GABA. The supplement GABA, sold online and in health food stores, may help calm anxious people, Raymer says.
Researchers found that individuals who ate chocolate enriched with GABA before tackling an arithmetic task were less stressed after completing it than those who didn’t have the GABA-infused chocolate.
It is important to remember that supplements such as GABA can interact with medications, so it’s crucial to check in with your doctor before taking them on your own, she says. “Get your doctor’s permission, even if you are not taking other medication.”
4. Try lavender. Try lavender essential oil to calm yourself, Raymer says. “We have people put a drop of it on their collarbone,” she says. “The smell wafts up. The odor is very relaxing.” Or, you can rub it gently into your temple, she says.
In a 2012 study of women anxious about having a medical procedure, researchers found that those who inhaled lavender a half hour before the procedure were calmer than those who did not.
Again, don’t forget to check first with your doctor before using the essential oil lavender, Raymer says.
5. Ground yourself. When anxiety hits, ”do something tangible,” says John Tsilimparis, MFT, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles and adjunct professor of psychiatry at Pepperdine University.
“Take your house keys out, run your fingers along the keys,” says Tsilimparis. “That sensation will give you ‘grounding.’ Pick up a paperweight, hold it in your hand. Or, get an ice cube. Hold it as long as you can do it.”
Why does this work? “Your brain can’t be in two places at once,” he says. The activity distracts you from the anxious feelings. “Your mind will shift from racing, catastrophic thoughts [that accompany anxiety] to the cold ice cube in your hand,” he says.
According to some research, using a virtual reality distraction system can reduce anxiety during dental procedures. Patients immersed in VR — a computer-generated realistic environment — reported less pain and anxiety than when they didn’t use it.
6. Face the fear. “If something makes you scared, face it,” says Cassiday. If you feel shy, go out to social functions, she says. Scared of clowns? Go to the circus.
It can help, too, to understand that when you worry about what might happen — such as no one will talk to you at the party — your anxiety just rises. Your anxious worry is about the uncertainty, she says. “What a worrier really wants is a promise that everything is going to be OK.”
But uncertainty is part of life, she says. Exposure therapy, or facing the fear, helps you learn to live with risk and uncertainty.
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