Whether you’re seeking relief for anxiety, the common cold, indigestion or any other health problem, consider a holistic approach. Holistic health takes into account the whole person, body, mind and spirit as well as environmental, social, and lifestyle factors. A holistic approach also means addressing the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms. No two people suffering from anxiety or stress have the same experience, so the solutions can and should vary accordingly. When it comes to anxiety, there are many herbs that offer safe and effective relief for anxiety. However, because herbal medicine works best in a holistic context, I’d like to share with you five evidence-based practices for natural anxiety relief. In conjunction with the use of herbal medicine, these practices can be especially effective:

  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine
  • Develop a yoga practice
  • Develop a mindfulness-based meditation practice
  • Exercise regularly
  • Improve your sleep

Evidence-based Practices for Natural Anxiety Relief

Reduce or Eliminate Caffeine

Consuming too much caffeine can mimic symptoms of anxiety, causing the heart to race or pound in the chest, sweating, shakiness and irritability. Caffeine also causes an elevation in blood lactic acid levels, a significant biochemical disturbance common in people with anxiety. Research shows that eliminating caffeine can have a significant improvement on anxiety. Also, studies show that some people with anxiety disorders are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others, which may be due to a heightened sensitivity to lactic acid. Do you need to eliminate your morning coffee entirely? That depends. If you drink one or more cups of coffee a day, cut back, and see what happens. A holistic approach means listening to your body and doing what works for you.

Develop a Yoga Practice

The blissed out feeling some people get from yoga is real. Research shows that yoga increases levels of a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA, that is associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. A study conducted at the Boston University School of Medicine showed a positive correlation between yoga-induced increases in GABA and improvements in mood and anxiety scales.
In addition to being an herbalist, I also teach yoga and have been practicing for about 15 years. I mention this because I recommend yoga a lot, and I’ve heard every excuse imaginable about why someone can’t do yoga. I was almost forty before I went to my first yoga class and I understand why it can be intimidating. If you’ve developed a litany of reasons why you can’t do yoga, I recommend this article, 20 Reasons You Can’t Do Yoga…And Why None of Them Are True. If you seek out a yoga class, look for a yoga teacher and yoga space that feels friendly and supportive.

Exercise Regularly

If you’ve tried yoga and it isn’t right for you, consider other forms of regular physical exercise. Numerous studies reveal the positive effects of exercise on people with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Research methods and recommendations vary, but regular aerobic exercise involving the rhythmic use of large muscle groups (walking, jogging, swimming, cycling) shows significant reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements in self-esteem and an increased sense of well-being. The physiological mechanisms responsible for the anxiety-reducing effects of regular exercise are many, and the health benefits also include reduction in the risk of chronic disease and lower rates of age-related memory problems.

Develop a Mindfulness-based Meditation Practice

I have a well-established meditation practice and can attest to the profound effect meditation has on my mood and mental state. Numerous research studies affirm that meditation is a helpful strategy for people suffering from anxiety. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system which governs the body’s relaxation response. Repeatedly and intentionally activating the relaxation response through meditation counteracts activation of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight, flight or freeze” system. Frequent and heightened arousal of the fight, flight or freeze response results in an overall feeling state of anxiety and fear. In short, meditation helps balance the nervous system shifting it toward a place of relaxation. In a recent study reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, participants who practiced mindfulness-based meditation over an 8-week period showed significant reductions in anxiety, improved responses to stress, and a greater increase in positive self-statements compared to the control group.

Among the many styles of meditation, mindfulness meditation has been subjected to the most research. The practice involves a process of intentionally bringing your attention, in a non-judgmental way, to what is arising in awareness in the present moment, both internally and externally. It may include awareness of thoughts and feelings, bodily sensations, and your environment. In addition to relief for anxiety, research shows that mindfulness practices have a positive impact on depression, pain management, and chronic illness.

Beginning a meditation practice is not complicated, but can seem foreign. Having a supportive teacher helps. Check out your local yoga studios, many of them also offer meditation classes. The Insight Meditation Society is one of the premier teachers of mindfulness-based practices in the US. Their website includes numerous free guided meditations you may find helpful. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh is a great beginners guide book to meditation and includes many mindfulness-based practices.

Improve Your Sleep

Though anxiety and insomnia sometimes occur together, clinical research shows that sleep deprivation and poor sleep habits can increase anxiety and depression, even in healthy people. When we don’t get enough sleep, we react to challenging life events more negatively and have fewer positive reactions to pleasant events. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule and practicing good sleep habits are important strategies for anyone suffering from anxiety. When anxiety itself makes sleep more difficult, consider taking calming herbs at bedtime to relax the body and quiet the mind.

These simple tools can have a drastic affect on one’s quality of life. If you or someone you know suffers from anxiety, I hope these holistic practices for natural anxiety relief are beneficial and deliver some much-needed peace and calm. Is there something I’ve left off this list? I’d love to hear about other practices that have helped you or your loved ones overcome anxiety – leave me a comment below to share.

Peace and happiness,
suzanne

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References:

Caffeine abstention in the management of anxiety disorders, Bruce MS, et al., Psychol Med,
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Anxiety and caffeine consumption in people with anxiety disorders, Lee MA, et al., Psychiatry Res, 1985 Jul;15(3):211-7.

Caffeine and psychiatric symptoms: a review, Broderick P, et al., J Okla State Med Assoc, 2004 Dec;97(12):538-42.

Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study, Streeter CC, et al., J Altern Complement Med, 2007 May;13(4):419-26.

Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study, Streeter CC, et al., J Altern Complement Med, 2010 Nov;16(11): 1145–1152.

Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety, Anderson E, et al., Front Psychiatry. 2013; 4:27.

Exercise for anxiety disorders: systematic review, Jayakody K, et al., Br J Sports Med, 2014 Feb; 48(3):187-96.

Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood, Guszkowska M, Psychiatr Pol, 2004 Jul-Aug; 38(4):611-20.

Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity, Hoge E, et al, J Clin Psychiatry, 2013 Aug;74(8): 786–792.

An update on mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression, Edenfield T, et al., Psychol Res Behav Manag, 2012;5:131–141.

A Test of the Effects of Acute Sleep Deprivation on General and Specific Self-Reported Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms: An Experimental Extension, Babson K, et al., J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2010 Sep; 41(3): 297–303.

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