Anxiety can take many forms from generalized anxiety disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder. Lifestyle changes, herbs, and supplements offer relief.
It’s human to periodically feel and experience anxiety. Unfortunately, some people experience anxiety daily or chronically and feel very vulnerable as a result. But anxiety is also a life-saving survival mechanism.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety merely describes a mental and physical state that all of us have experienced at some point in our lives. While it likely served our Paleolithic ancestors, it seldom serves us unless we are faced with something truly threatening, such as veering out of the way of an oncoming car.
It does seem protective to have a system that produces more false positives (as opposed to false negatives) since that would provide a survival advantage. The problem is that this built-in system causes a cascade of neurochemicals to be released, resulting in very uncomfortable feelings and physical reactions that become increasingly more difficult to control and tolerate as the anxiety circuit becomes more established and automatic.
Who experiences anxiety?
Across studies, anxiety disorders are approximately twice as prevalent among women compared to men (see sidebar). Some of the reasons for this might arise from psychosocial stress, of having to be both caretaker of the family and income generator. Other reasons might be due to the unique biochemical impact of a woman’s menstrual cycle, which can affect behavioural and physiological responses to stress, and provoke and/or maintain panic and anxiety.
What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety represents a state of chronic unbuffered stress. Patients with anxiety have a “supersensitive” nervous system and poor resilience to stress. These patients find it very difficult to cope with the demands of life, becoming easily overwhelmed, often resulting in numerous signs and symptoms that characterize anxiety.
When a patient experiences anxiety, he or she will feel a loss of control and experience emotions that are unfettered and overwhelming, as well as very uncomfortable physical sensations.
The emotional aspects of anxiety can include negative thoughts, ruminations, catastrophizing, feelings of impending doom, obsessions, worries, insecurities, and an overall lack of internal confidence.
Patients fear the physical symptoms the most, even though so much of their anxiety arises from habitual thoughts and behavioural patterns. Physical sensations include the following symptoms, or a combination of them:
- brain fog or freeze
- difficulty articulating thoughts or speaking
- increased respiration rate and shortness of breath
- facial flushing
- dry mouth
- sweatiness, coldness, or feeling faint
- chest pounding or chest discomfort (as if having a heart attack)
- numbness of the hands, legs, or feet
- muscle weakness or tightness
Treatment of specific anxiety disorders
There are many types of anxiety disorders, each based on specific symptoms, although all of them exhaust and frustrate the afflicted individual.
Several natural health products (NHPs) are clinically beneficial for each specific anxiety disorder. Only through meticulous trial and error will the right combination be found. Individuals with anxiety should find a qualified health care practitioner to provide oversight when NHPs are taken, since the treatment of anxiety is complex and involves much more than simply taking an NHP. It may take a trial of one or two NHPs over the course of six to eight weeks before relief is found.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
The individual with GAD constantly worries. He or she has catastrophic thoughts, and has great difficulty trying to control them. A general feeling of unease is often felt, as well as a feeling of discomfort in one’s own skin.
These NHPs offer relief for GAD:
B-complex vitamins and vitamin C
A simple B-complex vitamin in combination with 500 mg of vitamin C per day lowers daily anxiety, improves mood, and moderates stress.
A therapeutic dose of niacinamide (a non-flushing form of vitamin B3) calms the nervous system since it possesses effects similar to benzodiazepine medication without tolerance and dependency issues.
Rhodiola rosea, camomile, and St. John’s wort
Extracts from the herbs Rhodiola rosea, camomile, and St. John’s wort are psychoactive just like psychiatric medication, but they possess far fewer side effects and a lot of potential benefits.
Social anxiety disorder
Fear of negative evaluations by others, public scrutiny, or humiliation result in extreme shyness and discomfort in social settings.
Treatments for GAD would also moderate symptoms of social anxiety disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by recurrent or persistent mental images, thoughts, or ideas with compulsive behaviours that become repetitive, rigid, and self-prescribed (sometimes ritualistic) in order to prevent the associated obsession.
The following NHPs are recommended for treating OCD:
The amino acid N-acetylcysteine has been formally studied for the reduction of compulsive behaviour and may hold promise as a low-risk treatment strategy.
When delivered in therapeutic doses, inositol powder lessens OCD symptoms.
Therapeutic doses of the amino acid glycine, in powder form, were helpful in a study involving a patient with treatment-resistant OCD and body image issues.
Panic disorder (PD)
Characterized by periodic attacks of anxiety or terror, PD may occur with or without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia often co-occurs with panic disorder. It is provoked by being outside the home (for example, being in lines, crowds, or on public transportation) and arises when escape might be difficult. Individuals with this disorder may fear embarrassment or believe that when they experience panic-like symptoms, help will not arrive.
To ease panic attacks, turn to these NHPs:
Valerian functions much like a benzodiazepine medication but has far fewer significant side effects. If valerian is used for more than a couple of months, it has to be slowly tapered down instead of abruptly discontinued.
To calm the nervous system down so that panic attacks are less frequent and/or less intense, some combination of valerian root extract, gamma-aminobutyric acid, and powdered glycine can be helpful.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
When a trauma leads to PTSD, one re-experiences distressing symptoms and exhibits avoidance behaviours, increased vigilance, or hyperarousal.
Any combination of the aforementioned treatments would potentially be helpful for PTSD, as would
DHA and EPA
There is also some research showing high-dose docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with low-dose eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can help patients with new-onset PTSD. Both DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids that play an important role in brain health. They appear to minimize PTSD symptoms by preventing the consolidation of traumatic memories if given early in the course of the disorder.
How to build resilience
Ultimately, all of us want to be capable of perceiving stressful events in less threatening ways and coping with them appropriately. People with anxiety have trouble with this.
It is important for anxiety sufferers to engage in some form of counselling. Forming a healthy interpersonal relationship with a counsellor fosters more resilience to stress and fewer symptoms of anxiety, and successful psychotherapy will also structurally change the brain in a favourable manner.
Mindfulness training is a form of meditation that helps people focus attention on the present and encourages a positive attitude toward that experience. Mindfulness training is excellent for excessive worry and emotionality, which are common symptoms among patients with chronic anxiety.
Going to support groups is often helpful, as they build relational skills that help buffer life’s stresses.
Therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs)
Dr. Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry and human behaviour, recommends incorporating a combination of TLCs into one’s life to build resilience and lessen anxiety.
Get regular exercise to help moderate biochemical processes that lessen anxiety. It enhances self-efficacy and self-esteem, abolishes negative thoughts and ruminations, and lessens chronic psychosomatic muscle tension.
Adopt a pescovegetarian diet to help prevent or lessen symptoms of anxiety. Choose multicoloured fruits and vegetables combined with cold-water fish, such as salmon. Avoid those that contain high mercury levels, such as shark, swordfish, tuna, and king mackerel. Such a diet is also neuroprotective since it contains fewer calories and greater nutrient density than other diets.
Spend more time in nature to reduce the impact of modern society and mitigate stress.
Limit media immersion and hyper-reality since excessive media, in combination with a heavy workload, may lead to psychological dysfunction.
Embrace religious and/or spiritual practices for mental health benefits, including increased psychological well-being and reduced rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Volunteer because studies show that increasing our altruistic behaviour enhances our psychological, physical, and social well-being.
Increase social competence by joining an organization such as Toastmasters. While not a support group, this organization provides easy-to-access courses that build social confidence and competence by gently helping attendees become more proficient in public speaking.
For individuals who want a more natural way to lessen anxiety, the good news is that many NHPs can effectively reduce symptoms. However, the only real way to manage anxiety long-term is to do the hard work of change. Resilience can be built with a combination of the approaches described in this article. Anxiety will become much less of a burden over time, and life will become more meaningful.