Anxiety is a normal reaction to the stresses of everyday living. For example, every feels insecure or worried at times. It's also common to feel anxious about job interviews, public speaking and meeting new people. But approximately 40 million American adults experience anxiety that is so persistent or excessive at some point during their lives that it interferes with their ability to function.
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems in men and women. Health effects associated with anxiety include high blood pressure, tension headache, diarrhea and fatigue.
When people suffering persistent anxiety seek help, doctors typically prescribe anti-anxiety drugs, such as alprazolam (Xanax).
What many people don't realize: Drugs used to treat anxiety can be addictive and create severe withdrawal symptoms when patients try to stop using them. They also may be harmful to the kidneys and liver.
ARE YOU AT RISK?
Anxiety is first learned by being around anxious parents or caregivers. If you have an excitable personality which may be your temperament or genetic-based, you are more prone to anxiety. Abuse victims and people who witness death, such as hospital workers, soldiers and firefighters, are prone to anxiety.
As a holistic nurse practitioner who has grappled personally with anxiety at different times during my lifetime, I've spent more than 30 years devising an effective nondrug approach to help myself and the people I treat. Best strategies...
REVIEW YOUR DIET
- Caffeine triggers the release of the brain chemical norepinephrine, which increases alertness. However, caffeine also causes your body to release adrenaline—just as if you're undergoing stress.
It's best to forgo caffeine altogether. Slowly withdraw over a few days. Try adding more decaffeinated coffee to your cup and less caffeinated coffee. Remember that coffee isn't the only source of caffeine. Tea, cola, cocoa and many over-the-counter medications, such as Anacin and Excedrin, may contain caffeine.
- Sugar is bad news for people with anxiety. It's well-known that simple sugars, found in candy, cakes, cookies and ice cream, cause your body to release too much of the blood sugar-reducing hormone insulin. This imbalance leads to a severe drop in blood sugar that causes many people to feel light-headed and anxious. But all simple sugars—including com syrup, fructose and honey—may have this effect.
What your body really needs is complex carbohydrates to burn as energy-producing fuel. Good sources include unrefined grains, found in cereal...vegetables, such as asparagus and avocados (both are rich sources of stress-reducing vitamin B)...and fresh fruit.
- Salt does more than raise blood pressure in some people. It causes the body to excrete potassium, which helps keep your nervous system healthy.
Read food labels to minimize your sodium intake, and avoid salting your food. Instead, use a natural salt substitute, such as tamari (available at specialty food stores), or lemon or herbs, especially basil and oregano, for seasoning.
GET THE RIGHT MINERALS
- Calcium acts as a natural tranquilizer. People who are calcium deficient often suffer from heart palpitations, insomnia and nervousness. To increase your dietary intake of calcium, eat more sardines, tofu, broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage, etc.
- Magnesium works with calcium to relieve anxiety. People who are magnesium deficient often experience nervousness, irritability and weakness. Magnesium-rich foods include halibut, avocados and almonds.
Eating a diet rich in the minerals potassium (salmon, cod and apricots)...zinc (whole grains, kidney beans and chickpeas)...and phosphorus (oat bran, chicken and sunflower seeds) is also important for alleviating anxiety. To ensure adequate mineral intake, take a multimineral supplement.
USE GENTLE HERBS
Because herbs can be as powerful as drugs and sometimes interact with prescription medication, I recommend those with the best safety records. Tell your health-care practitioner which herbs you are taking.
- Chamomile is a mild relaxant. Drink a cup of chamomile tea before bed or during a "coffee break." Start with one to two cups daily. Do not use this herb if you're allergic to plants of the daisy family.
- Peppermint leaf calms the nerves. Drink one cup of peppermint leaf tea after meals to help with digestion and promote relaxation.
- Nutmeg promotes sleep, which often is disrupted in people with anxiety. For best results, grind one whole nutmeg in a coffee grinder and place the powdered herb in empty capsules, which you can buy at health-food stores. Keep the capsules in the refrigerator and use within one week. As a sleep aid, take one nutmeg capsule four to five hours before bedtime. For daytime anxiety, take one capsule in the morning.
EXERCISE EVERY DAY
Exercise provides an ideal outlet for your body when you're exposed to excessive adrenaline due to stress. By triggering the release of "feel-good" chemicals known as endorphins, physical activity acts as a natural tranquilizer.
Everyone knows the benefits of exercise—but few people do it daily. Thirty minutes daily is ideal. If you have difficulty scheduling this, break your activity into three 10-minute sessions or two 15-minute workouts. You don't have to go to a gym—climb up and down some nearby stairs, garden or take a brisk walk at lunchtime.
To successfully integrate physical activity into your daily life, don't do the same thing all the time—instead, mix it up. For example, try swimming...yoga...weightlifting...team sports...and dancing. The more variety, the more likely you are to stick to an exercise program.
CREATE NEW HABITS
Anxiety can encourage people to adopt bad habits, such as drinking too much alcohol and/ or smoking. Do whatever you must to stop these behaviors—go to Alcoholics Anonymous, use a smoking-cessation program, etc. Subtle habits—ones that you might not realize are harmful—also contribute to anxiety.
- Living with negative "self-talk." Indoctrination from as far back as childhood can make for an anxious adult. Think back: Were you taught unhealthy beliefs, such as, "Life is dangerous" or, "I must be perfect"? Do your best to change these beliefs and replace them with affirmations.
Examples: "I am becoming more relaxed" ..."I believe in myself"..."I can relax and breathe calmly." By replacing negative thoughts that cause tension with more positive ones that calm you, anxiety is reduced.
- Not being assertive enough. If you tend to do too much for family members and/or friends, learn to say "no." This may be easier said than done. That's why I often recommend taking a course in assertiveness training. Call your community college or look in your local newspaper to find a course near you.
Lack of assertiveness causes people to hold in feelings, which allows anxiety to mount. Assertiveness allows you to say what is on your mind in a constructive and respectful way, which reduces the tension associated with anxiety.
- Accepting bad relationships. Many times, family members and/or friends mean well but replicate old patterns that create anxiety. Speak to them about your anxiety. If they don't make changes that help relieve your discomfort, avoid these people whenever you can.
If they are binding relationships, it is important to seek out therapy or learn self-help skills, such as total body relaxation or imagery, to learn how to cope.
Diet and lifestyle changes should relieve some anxiety within a few days. Assertiveness skills may take longer. If you don't get adequate relief, seek counseling with a mental health professional or a counselor skilled in behavioral change.