Anxiety can be crippling. It makes it hard to relax, difficult to focus, and leaves you feeling confused, unproductive, and helpless, which only feeds into the problem more. Whether you experience it as tightness in your chest, or in your belly, it’s unpleasant. If it makes it difficult to fall asleep or wakes you up in the middle of the night with your mind racing, life can get even more difficult - what might have been a simple daily task can become a challenge.
I first experienced anxiety when I was living in New York while in graduate school studying Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. At first, I didn’t even know what it was, just that it was unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and confusing. I never felt calm, my mind was always running and at the same time I couldn’t think through anything. I felt nervous and couldn’t enjoy the fun and beautiful things in my life because I was always worried. My neck and shoulders were always tight and I would get headaches. When I finally realized I was feeling anxiety, I tried my best to figure out why. I never considered myself an anxious person or dealt with constant worry, cloudy and constant thinking, and never feeling calm (though I had worked through bouts of depression earlier in life). Fortunately, I was surrounded by people studying and practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and learned very quickly just how effective and efficient acupuncture and Chinese medicinal herbs can be in confronting anxiety, along with some certain lifestyle modifications.
Let’s start with a number of natural things you can do on your own to help reduce anxiety. These are tips and techniques that I talk to my patients about at my acupuncture clinic in Boulder. I know that with time, you can eliminate anxiety altogether so you can feel resilient and at home in yourself again. Below we’ll discuss some tools and practices you can use on your own to begin easing your experience with anxiety now.
Professional support along with these self-supported practices below can make a big difference in the speed and ease of your release from anxiety. If you have any questions while reading this piece, you can always contact me or make an appointment to come into my Boulder acupuncture practice.
To start, let’s focus on simple steps you can do on your own at home.
Balancing Anxiety with Diet
Believe it or not, blood sugar levels can have an impact on your mood and mental state. Have you ever gotten so so hungry that you become “hangry” and yell at your spouse or loved one? Or how about that desire to slumber that can overcome us after a large meal? Nutritional guidelines from the perspective of Chinese medicine can vary from simple cornerstone rules to nuanced and detailed meal plans. Here are a few basic principles.
On the simplest level, make sure you’re eating enough food frequently enough. It is essential. Be sure to include protein with each meal/snack which has a grounding effect on your body. In addition to eating regularly, be sure to eat nutrient dense foods like vegetables, whole grains, and fruits. Vegetables are a vital source of nutrition and the easiest to miss out on. Rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, all essential ingredients for optimal health, vegetables, whether starchy or leafy, juicy or dry, crunchy or soft, serve as a great cornerstone of every diet.
Finally, avoiding foods that can exacerbate anxiety is important too. Unfortunately, this might mean reducing intake of those stimulating foods we love so much like sugar or caffeine. This can be difficult at first because sugar and caffeine are both addictive. Having a clear strategy around how you’re going to reduce or eliminate them is important. This would include ways to cope with cravings (exercise is a great one) and other withdrawal symptoms (headaches, irritability, fatigue). You may also want to identify your “triggers” - the things that lead you do consume sugar/caffeine so that you can anticipate and avoid them when possible. For more in-depth ideas and understanding on this topic I find the Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” to be a great resource.
Nutrition is a BIG topic and everyone has different nutritional needs. If this is an area where you need some guidance consider getting in touch so we can come up with a plan for you.
Supplements that help with anxiety
I recommend consulting a qualified healthcare practitioner before adding any supplements to your routine.
Fish oil or flaxseed oil - Healthy fats are vital for a healthy nervous system and these oils have the added benefit of being anti-inflammatory. A couple of capsules per day (usually 2,000 mg total) of fish or flaxseed oil alone will by no means provide you with all the fat you and your nervous system need to stay healthy, but you can get some of the anti-inflammatory and mood enhancing benefits that come from fish oils with this simple supplement usually available at most supermarkets in Boulder, CO.
Magnesium - it is hard to get enough magnesium in your diet. It has a calming effect on the nervous system and can help with muscle tonicity (preventing and reducing muscle tension). There are a number of different varieties of magnesium on the market. I recommend magnesium glycinate because it can be more easily absorbed into the bloodstream than some of the of the other forms.
B-Vitamins - These nifty little vitamins are essential for a healthy nervous system and can help improve your mood and alleviate your anxiety, if a Vitamin B deficiency is part of the cause of your anxiety. There is a common mutation called MTHFR that makes it more difficult to metabolize some of the B vitamins for some people. To ensure complete absorption get a methylated vitamin B supplement.
Vitamin D - This powerhouse of a vitamin not only has positive effects on the nervous system and mood, but it can also support a strong immune system. Even in Boulder, Colorado where we get 300+ days of sunshine, it can be hard to get enough naturally during the winter months. Most of us are deficient in vitamin D.
Exercise to manage anxiety
Exercise is one of the simplest, and most essential practices for health in general and has direct implications for mood and anxiety. Including 30 minutes daily of vigorous movement in some form or another has profound effects on physical and mental health. And the beauty of this one is it doesn’t have to be difficult or radical. You don’t have to join a crossfit gym or start training for a marathon (as many in Boulder do). You can find something you like doing and do it regularly. It can be walking with a friend, yoga, running, swimming, cycling, or weight lifting. It can also be something less traditional like dance or tai qi. What matters is not how you’re incorporating regular physical activity that gets your heart pumping, but that you’re doing it consistently and that you enjoy the activity enough to keep doing it.
Sometimes we need a little help getting motivated. There are a number of different ways you can help ensure that you stay with it. For starters, schedule it in. Block out time (at least 4 days a week) to do what it is you committed to doing and then follow-through on those blocks. But make sure you’re blocking out the right time. If you hate mornings, it might be a little more challenging to get into a routine of exercising before work than if you’re up at dawn because you love it. Find a friend to exercise with so that you keep each other honest, or join a class, or find another accountability agent like a personal trainer. And of course remember, if you miss a day, that doesn’t mean it’s all over. You can always get back up the next day and continue where you left off.
Meditation to help fight anxiety
Meditation is something you’ve probably heard about. You may have tried it and not liked it, or avoided it altogether because you didn’t know where to start. The research is confounding that meditation can help alleviate anxiety and even prevent it. It doesn’t have to be a lot, you can start with as little as 5 minutes once or twice a day and work up from there. There are great apps like headspace or breathe that you can use. The practice of directing your focus and attention is incredibly powerful. That said, like most things in life, it’s not a “one and done” practice, but something that requires ongoing consistent practice. You don’t want this to turn into one more thing on your to-do list that stresses you out, but you do need to do it regularly to get the positive benefits.
I find that acupuncture, which elicits a state of deep calm and relaxation, can serve as “meditation with training wheels.” It helps your mind and body reach the state you’re trying to get to when you meditate which can make meditation easier and more fruitful.
Sleep is important in the treatment of anxiety
As a parent of two young children, I understand that sleep is sometimes out of our control. That said, to the degree that you can control your sleep habits and patterns, this can make a big difference in how “resourced” you feel and in how much life events impact you. I recommend avoiding screens for the last hour before bed, having a nightly pre-bed ritual such as a shower, a little lavender on your feet and a nightly prayer, and avoid activities other than sleeping in your bed. Many factors contribute to good sleep from diet to hormones, to routines and attitudes about sleep. identifying what the cause of your sleep challenges are is the first step to addressing them.
Social Support is an essential part of anxiety treatment
Isolation, loneliness, and a lack of support from friends and family exacerbate anxiety. Feeling like you have to face challenges alone makes them much harder. Sometimes after moving to a new home or office, or starting a new job, we may feel a lack of connection. Often, opening up and sharing with someone you trust leads to the surprising result of connection, compassion, and empathy. Anxiety is an experience shared by many people whether it’s situational or chronic. Talking about it with friends and family members can be a relief.
When is it time to ask for professional support?
A lot of us have been taught that we should be able to do things on our own. We may believe it’s a sign of weakness and defeat to ask for help, especially when it comes to our mental health. The reality is that life can be challenging, and that sometimes the support of a trained professional can make all the difference we need to move from surviving to thriving. Deciding who that person is can also feel challenging too. Let’s move beyond a paradigm of shame and guilt around receiving help when we need it most. If you’ve been experiencing significant levels of anxiety or anxiety for long periods of time and don’t seem able to move through and beyond it, it may be worth connect to a professional.
Medicinal Herbs to treat anxiety
As an herbalist trained in a 4 year clinical masters program, I shy away from recommending simple single herb solutions for anxiety. In Chinese medicine, we diagnose the underlying cause of disease and treat that. Three different people may be experiencing anxiety, all for different reasons that require different herbal formulas. Plant medicine can be very helpful for treating anxiety and I recommend consulting a trained practitioner.
Looking for more help?
I have so much more information to share, and I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with too much (and bring on more anxiety...ahhh…<humor is helpful too, if and when you can access it>).
I recently wrote a comprehensive article on how acupuncture can help treat anxiety naturally which includes 2 case studies to illustrate how each individual gets a unique and personalized treatment because we all experience anxiety in different ways.
Give the suggestions above a try and see what happens. Feel free to leave comments below about what worked best for you here so others can try them out.
If you are looking for professional help with the treatment of your anxiety or anxiety related disorder, acupuncture and herbal medicine may be the solution. If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment at my Boulder, CO acupuncture clinic, click here.