Anxiety is a perfectly natural reaction to stressful situations – it alerts us to dangers and allows us to rise and meet life’s many challenges. Without anxiety and fear, human survival would be unlikely (or tragically funny). Work performance evaluations, losing one’s job, divorce, waiting up for a child late getting home, illness, Mexican standoffs, interrogations conducted by Chuck Norris – all of these situations call for our worry, our anxiety. But this normally empowering primal response to problems can become a problem unto itself, as is the case with generalized anxiety disorder (chronic anxiety) and acute anxiety.
Feeling intense anxiety without cause (acute anxiety) or feeling generally anxious most or all of the time (generalized anxiety disorder) is neither helpful nor healthy. This unhealthy kind of anxiety can cause a variety of symptoms: fatigue, constant worry and unease, irritability, depression, muscle tension,insomnia, stomach ache, tightness in the chest, sweating, headaches, diarrhea…Overcoming these anxiety disorders requires treatment and resolve. In the doctor’s office, medication and psychotherapy are the two most often prescribed avenues to healing. There are also many effective lifestyle changes and alternative therapies for anxiety. Though I’ve researched well, I am no doctor, nor is this article a replacement for a visit to see one. Rather, it is an opportunity for you to see what your options are for combating anxiety.
Get Rid of Anxiety
Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be the best way to get rid of anxiety. Some people avoid therapy because they view it as a treatment for wilted, weak people and the foamy-mouthed insane. But therapy, specifically “cognitive behavioral therapy”, is arguably the most effective anxiety treatment available. In cognitive behavioral therapy, patients learn to identify anxiety triggers and distorted thoughts, employ coping strategies, and change patterns in thinking. Put simply, the idea behind CBT is that if we are what we think, we need to control and master how we think.
Get plenty of exercise. When your mind is crawling with restless scorpions, working out feels like the last thing you want to do. Behind therapy and medication, however, exercise is the most commonly prescribed anxiety treatment. Vigorous physical activity causes the body to release mood-enhancing chemicals and endorphins, while suppressing others that can worsen anxiety. Exercise provides an excellent distraction from life’s difficulties. It can lead to an improved self image, a more engaged social life, and greater overall health. What constitutes enough exercise? Most doctors recommend 30-40 minutes daily of any activity that raises your heart rate.
Practice relaxation techniques to get rid of anxiety. Living in constant anxiety and its accompanying stress and fear can only lead to bad decision making and more severe anxiety. At some point in your day, you need to deescalate – to calm down so your mind and body can relax and you can see things from a perspective unclouded by anxiety. Traditionally, yoga, meditation, visualization techniques, and tai chi have been recommended for relaxation. Formal “relaxation therapy” is another option. But what relaxation technique you pursue is less important than actually pursuing something. Hobbies such as gardening, scrapbooking, reading, dancing, art, fishing, hiking, and cooking can fill this role. Spend less time on the edge of that cliff; make time for fun and relaxation.
Avoid caffeine, drugs, and alcohol. Stimulants like caffeine (chocolate, tea, coffee, energy drinks) and nicotine are widely known to exacerbate anxiety, and should be avoided by anyone concerned about an anxiety disorder. Drugs and alcohol should also be avoided as substance abuse is one of the most common complications associated with anxiety disorders. Guzzling a fifth of bourbon with a generous helping of marijuana may curb your anxiety (and reason) briefly, but such practices often lead to dependence and a more profound, difficult-to-treat anxiety.
Sometimes, getting rid of anxiety means taking action.Severe anxiety can leave one feeling paralyzed to address the very problems that are causing anxiety. Break the cycle. If finances have been keeping you awake at night, it’s time to draw up a budget and perhaps get that second job (or change jobs). If you’re worried about an upcoming exam, study more studiously. If your alcohol use has gotten out of hand, it’s time for AA. Of course, identifying the roots of anxiety and actually breaking through the helplessness it creates may require the support of a therapist, support group, and/or loved ones.
While it may be true that our society is a touch overmedicated (or more than a touch), medication is strongly recommended if you’re suffering from severe or persistent anxiety. These medications allow individuals to keep functioning – to meet responsibilities and “keep it together” while working to unearth the roots of their anxiety. When dealing with anxiety disorders, doctors will usually prescribe antidepressants or benzodiazepines.
Antidepressants. While depression often accompanies anxiety, antidepressants will still be prescribed for anxiety alone – especially generalized anxiety disorder – because the chemical changes that cause anxiety symptoms are very similar to those that cause depression. Antidepressants work to get rid of anxiety by restoring the proper balance of chemicals in the brain. Commonly prescribed antidepressants for anxiety include fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft).
Benzodiazepines. For acute anxiety or anxiety attacks, benzodiazepines are the drug of choice. Unlike antidepressants, these medications begin working within a few hours instead of weeks or even months. They can be taken regularly or only when needed, as when an anxiety attack strikes. Benzos cause sedation and may even cause impairment (pleasurable, therefore potentially habit forming), especially when beginning a prescription. Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), and diazepam (Valium).
A Diet for Anxiety
Though people absorb and react to foods differently, there are a few dietary strategies used to get rid of anxiety. First of all, try eating smaller, more frequent meals as that will ensure stable blood sugar levels throughout the day. Get plenty of complex carbohydrates (whole grains, root vegetables, bran, etc), which increase serotonin levels in the brain. Eat foods rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, like salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines (regulate neurotransmitters, hormones, and other brain chemicals). Seek out foods containing tryptophan (milk, nuts, bananas, soy, poultry), as they encourage the brain to produce mood-enhancing chemicals. Also be sure to incorporate B vitamins and folic acid into your diet. Always stay well hydrated, as even slight dehydration can lead to foul moods and fatigue. Avoid simple sugars and processed foods, even when they are delicious.
On a closing note, it is fairly common for food allergies to cause or worsen anxiety symptoms. For this reason, many experts recommend keeping a food journal so you can monitor what you’re consuming when anxiety strikes.
Many therapists and alternative health practitioners teach patients anxiety-reducing breathing exercises. Some people scoff at such solutions because of their simplicity, but these coping skills can be a life preserver during an acute anxiety attack. For sufferers of generalized anxiety, they are a means to regain calm and focus. Here is one such exercise used to get rid of anxiety:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose to a count of four.
- Hold your breath for three seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth to the count of four.
- Repeat until calm. Try it – you’ll be surprised.
Natural Anxiety Treatments
Chamomile. A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania may lend medical credibility to this folk remedy for anxiety. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, researchers found that taking chamomile extract capsules can relieve mild to moderate anxiety. However, taking chamomile for extended periods can lead to a ragweed allergy. Herbal supplements can interact with medications, so be sure to get the go-ahead from your doctor.
Kava. This herb has long been used for stress and anxiety relief. It is said to have a calming effect on mind and body, reducing stress and muscle tension without causing drowsiness. Kava should not be taken if you have liver problems, enjoy boozing, or are already taking anti-anxiety medications. Look for kava supplements that have been extracted with water (water soluble) rather than acetone or ethanol.
St. John’s Wort. This herb, from the plant hypericum perforatum, is undoubtedly the most popular herbal treatment for anxiety and depression. In limited studies, it has proven to be an effective way to get rid of mild to moderate anxiety. The drawbacks? It can take weeks and even months to start taking effect, tends to make skin more sensitive to the sun and also interacts with a laundry list of prescription medications.
SAM-e. Short for S-adenosyl-methionine, this chemical substance is found in human cells where it performs many vital functions. It is thought to relieve anxiety and affect other mood disorders by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels. In Europe, SAM-e is a prescription drug, but in the US it can be found at any drug store as an over-the-counter supplement.
Valerian root. Anxiety disorders often go hand-in-hand with insomnia, and sleeplessness often hampers our ability to cope with stress and anxiety. If this sounds like your strain of anxiety, try valerian root, which acts as a sedative and is often taken in place of commercial sleep aids. It is said to get rid of nighttime anxiety attacks as well as reduce general anxiety and stress.