How to reduce anxiety
Feelings of anxiety — uneasiness, dread, fear, or an inexplicable sense of impending doom — can be deeply unpleasant. Whether anxiety presents itself as an upset stomach, heart palpitations, a nervous tension that colors everything, or even a panic attack, the discomfort and distress can be extremely challenging.
We’re not talking about general, everyday anxiousness here, but clinical anxiety — the kind that can be all-consuming and, sometimes, debilitating. When classified as a disorder, anxiety is “persistent and excessive worry” where individuals can lose rational perspective and “expect the worst, even when there is no apparent reason for concern,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Chronic or severe symptoms may be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which affects close to 40 million adults in the US and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 13 globally. Thankfully, there are effective therapies and medications as doctors and healthcare professionals determine the best treatment options that are right for you.
No matter where you are on the scale, there are natural remedies for anxiety that are worth considering, either on their own or as a complement to traditional treatments (though if you are getting professional care, talk to your doctor first). Some are lifestyle changes that can help lessen anxiety over time, such as a regular meditation practice, physical activity, spending time outdoors, or making a few food swaps. Others, like deep breathing and distraction techniques, can provide natural anxiety relief the moment your mind sends an SOS.
With the right skills and lifestyle changes, we can better regulate our emotions and train our brain to view life with a more balanced, less fearful perspective. Here’s how to relieve anxiety naturally, and with awareness.
When anxious, our breath becomes rapid and shallow. Deep belly breathing helps decrease anxiety by stimulating the body’s relaxation response, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure. It’s a powerful technique that works because you can’t breathe deeply and be anxious at the same time. There are many variations to try, including this simple exercise: Inhale deeply for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4. Repeat several times.
Exercise is one of the best anxiety remedies, immediately and long term. Going for a walk creates a diversion from your worries and releases muscle tension. Grab your headphones or earbuds on your way out; studies show that listening to music brings its own calming effects.
Long term, regular exercise triggers the release of feel-good neurochemicals in the brain, building up resilience against stormy emotions. It boosts your confidence and your mood, and you don’t need to run a marathon to feel the benefits. Washing your car, hiking, gardening, a pick-up game — anything that gets you moving counts. Thirty minutes, 3 to 5 days a week can help to significantly improve anxiety symptoms, but even 10 minutes can make a difference.
No matter what’s causing your anxiety, take a pause and try this 3-minute meditation to anchor your mind and body in the present.
Sitting down, take a few deep breaths, in through the nose, and out through the mouth, feeling the breath move through the body, the rising sensation as you breathe in, the falling sensation as you breathe out. Do this a few times, then allow the breath to return to its natural rhythm.
Begin to focus your attention on the physical sensations, either of the weight of the body on the seat beneath you, or the feet on the floor. That’s your anchor, something that doesn’t change, no matter how many thoughts come and go. The moment you realize you’re caught up in thought, come back to that sensation, that feeling of being grounded. It’s as though you’re stepping out of all the business of the mind, and just being present in the body.
If you’re feeling jittery, pour a cup of chamomile or green tea. Known as a sleep aid, chamomile contains a compound called Matricaria recutita, which binds to the same brain receptors as drugs like Valium. Chamomile’s sedative effects may also come from the flavonoid apigenin. In one study at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) who took chamomile supplements (1.2 % apigenin) for 8 weeks showed a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms compared with patients taking placebo. (Despite improved quality control, herbal supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA the way medications are, so before taking any supplement, check with your doctor.)
Green tea, long used in Chinese medicine to treat depression, contains the amino acid L-theanine, which relieves stress, and reduces blood pressure and muscle tension. Nuts, whole grains, and broccoli are also rich in L-theanine.
If you’re feeling anxious, try a distraction technique — anything that redirects your attention away from distressing thoughts or emotions. Run your fingers around the edge of your phone, put your hands under running cold water, color, or draw on a piece of paper. Distractions work because your brain can’t be in two places at once, and shifting your attention to any activity will interrupt a string of racing thoughts.
Overcoming a challenge takes strength and courage, so it’s a good idea to show up nourished and well-rested. (Supporters in your corner don’t hurt either.) Here’s how to help lower anxiety naturally.
Taking care of yourself is key. Research shows that after a good night’s sleep —7-9 hours is ideal — you’re likely to feel less anxious and more confident. Physical activity during the day will help you sleep better, but you know that! Eating real, unprocessed food — lean protein, whole grains, legumes, fruit, nuts, veggies, the occasional piece of dark chocolate! — will keep your energy level on an even keel. Fast food and processed snacks (cookies, candy bars, French fries) cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar that can leave you jittery. Here are 6 natural cures for anxiety worth considering.
Science is discovering more about the “gut-brain connection.” Researchers often refer to the belly as the second brain, since about 95% of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut. (It’s why you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re anxious.) Science shows that foods containing certain vitamins and minerals may help reduce anxiety, so when you’re thinking about natural ways to help anxiety, consider filling up on these:
If you have anxiety, it’s a good idea to limit caffeine and alcohol — both of which can aggravate symptoms.
Research shows that B vitamins have many health and quality of life benefits, and supplementing with B vitamins is gaining scientific traction. This 2018 study found that people who ate food high in B vitamins showed significant improvements in their anxiety and stress scores than those who did not. Taking a high-quality B-complex supplement is generally very safe, since B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning the body excretes what it doesn’t use. But always consult with your doctor before taking any supplements since they can interact with medications or have side effects.
Most of us associate feelings of warmth with a sense of calm and well-being — much the same way we would relaxing in the sun on a powdery-sand beach. Research shows that heating up your body, whether in a bath, steam room, or sauna, reduces muscle tension and anxiety. Sensations of warmth may alter neural circuits that control mood, including those that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin. You could also cozy up by a fire with a cup of tea or hot cocoa.
Most of us intuitively feel relaxed and less anxious when we’re outdoors, but in fact there’s science to back that up. Spending time in any natural setting lowers our blood pressure, heart rate, and our body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School in England analyzing data from 10,000 people found that those living near more green space reported less mental distress. Said one psychology professor from Canada’s Trent University, “We underestimate the happiness effect of being outdoors.”
When it comes to the healing power of nature, Japan is clearly at the forefront with their practice of shinrin-yoku, roughly translated as “forest bathing,” or “taking in the forest atmosphere.” It’s about experiencing nature through all 5 senses, being mindful and present, absorbing the beauty, sounds, scents, and light in your surroundings. It’s a cornerstone of preventive healthcare in Japan, with officially designated trails, organized walks, and guided meditations.
With regular meditation, we increase our ability to manage anxiety. Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe says that we’re not trying to get rid of the anxiety when we sit to meditate — that’s not how you tackle anxiety. As Andy says, “Meditation isn’t about resisting anxiety or pushing it away; it’s about changing our relationship to it, being at ease with it, and being okay with it when it arises, without buying into it. When we’re able to watch the anxiety come and go, then that’s a really comfortable, healthy place to be.”
Studies show that with a regular meditation practice, we can develop the skills to better manage anxiety and stress, and cultivate peace of mind. With the Headspace app, you can take a breather anytime, anywhere.
Join over 40 million users who are already getting some Headspace. Download the Headspace app for your free trial. Subscribe and unlock the entire Headspace Library — hundreds of hours of content including courses on performance mindset, personal growth, kids, and parenting, and more. You’ll also find mini-meditations, videos, plus tips and support. Begin your mindfulness journey today.
Body Scan Meditation - 3 minutes