While many doctors are quick to prescribe medication for anxiety, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem and often causes debilitating side effects or may lead to addiction.
Doctors wrote 94 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines, the most popular pharmaceutical for anxiety and panic attacks, in the United States in 2013. And yet, it’s mostly family physicians, not psychiatrists, prescribing these powerful hypnotics for long-term use. Even more disturbing, they continue to refill prescriptions and ignore the fact benzodiazepines cause physical dependency.
There are many safe, natural alternatives for anxiety, from mind-body techniques to herbal supplements to calming teas. Some have an immediate effect, while others may help lessen anxiety over time. Learning how to manage anxiety involves better coping strategies, not higher doses of mind-altering drugs.
Benzodiazepines are widely prescribed for a variety of conditions, particularly anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia, and act as sedative-hypnotics on the central nervous system. Four of them – alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan) – are listed among the top 100 most commonly prescribed medications. They are not recommended for use beyond six weeks because they are easily habit forming.
Benzos act on the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at the GABA receptor, with sedative, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxant properties, leading to feelings of euphoria for patients. Users often act “stoned” and experience psychomotor slowing, with symptoms including drowsiness, poor concentration, memory impairment, slowed motor coordination, diplopia, muscle weakness, vertigo, mental confusion and irritability.
Since benzodiazepines change the way the brain works, long-term users experience withdrawal symptoms ranging from heighten anxiety and hypersensitivity to seizures and delirium when trying to wean themselves off the medicine. Many studies have shown they increase falls, motor vehicle crashes and cognitive impairment and can contribute to dementia and Alzheimer’s in elderly patients.
Lifestyle and behavioral changes can be a first line of defense against an anxiety attack or chronic bouts of anxiety.
Breathing techniques: Yoga breathing has been shown to be effective in lowering stress and anxiety. There are a variety of breathing techniques, or pranayamas (the yogic science of breath), including Ujjayi, alternate nostril breathing, and the 4-7-8 technique where you inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold for seven counts and let it out slowly through your mouth for a count of eight. One reason breathwork is recommended: You can’t breathe deeply and be anxious at the same time. It also increases oxygen to your brain and body and helps you stop worrying because you are too focused on breathing. Conscious, controlled breathing helps influence physical and mental well-being, increase energy, release old emotions and promote relaxation.
Exercise: Yes, breaking a regular sweat, even a 20-minute walk each day, reduces anxiety and depression and improves energy and self-esteem. Exercise releases endorphins and feel-good chemicals in the brain and helps regulate hormones and sleep. Studies show 21 minutes is all it takes for exercise to reliably reduce anxiety. If you can escape to the great outdoors, it’s even better. Interacting with nature has proven benefits similar to meditation. The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku, literally “forest bath.” Japanese researchers recorded body changes in people who walked for about 20 minutes in a forest. They had lower stress hormone levels after their walk than they did after a comparable walk in an urban environment. Plus, physical activity gets your heart pumping and blood and lymph circulating and helps eliminate toxins, which all prevent disease. Chronic illness and health concerns often contribute to anxiety – those are less of a worry when you feel good and fit.
Practice yoga or meditate: Mindfulness meditation has been shown as an effective way to reduce anxiety. Both yoga and meditation help quiet the mind and outside chatter and encourage people to let thoughts pass while focusing on breathing, body movements and lowering stress in the body. It’s as simple as paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way and experiencing each moment as it occurs, rather than worrying about the past or future or stressing over what may or may not happen. Yoga as a daily practice helps move energy through the body to release stress and connect body and mind.
Stop starving yourself: When you’re hungry, a drop in blood sugar can lead to physical symptoms that leave you feeling shaky, anxious and irritable. Make sure to start your day with breakfast and eat on a regular basis. Eggs are a good option for breakfast because they provide protein and nature’s top source of choline. Low levels of choline are associated with increased anxiety. Eat a snack, like a handful of nuts or carrots, or drink a cup of hot tea when you start to feel anxious. And mind what you put on your plate. Don’t overlook diet when it comes to reducing and managing chronic anxiety. Avoid inflammatory and processed foods, excess sugar and carbohydrates, as well as caffeine and alcohol. It’s best to eat whole foods, focus on a plant-based diet, organic meat and seafood, plenty of leafy greens (such as kale) to get folate, and a wide variety of phytonutrients to help reduce anxiety. Studies show omega 3 fatty acids also help reduce anxiety, along with improving heart health and fending off depression. Oily, cold-water fishes like salmon are the best sources of the fatty acids; anchovies, sardines, and mussels are other good picks or find a quality fish oil supplement.
Talk it out: Despite the stigma of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy – or talking it out with a trained professional – is often helpful in treating anxiety. Psychologists don’t prescribe medicine, but help you find new ways of solving your problems and recognizing what triggers your anxiety. Find a trained psychologist you trust. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be effective forms of trauma treatment for post-traumatic stress or unresolved emotional issues that may be manifesting as anxiety or panic attacks. Sometimes it helps to vent in a confidential setting or examine ways to avoid stressful situations. Simply being aware of your emotional state helps reduce anxiety because you can take steps to slow body reactions through breathing, positive self-talk and affirmations, cognitive reframing or relaxation strategies.
This information is educational in nature and not intended to replace medical advice. You should talk with your doctor about alternative ways to address your anxiety if you are concerned about becoming dependent on medication.