by Joanna Powell
It can come without warning—or reason. Suddenly you’re woozy with dread, your breath gets short and quick, and your heart thrums in your ears like a low-flying helicopter.
Anxiety. Panic. The mean reds. Whatever you call it, everyone suffers that queasy, uneasy feeling of angst and trepidation at some point in life. Since the turn of the millennium, anxiety has surpassed depression as the most prominent mental-health issue in America, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And while just 18 percent of adults suffer a serious anxiety disorder, freak-outs become universal when specific stress-laced situations flood the nervous system with hormones like cortisol, triggering the “flight or fight” response.
The roots of anxiety are complex—from genetics and brain disorders to overprotective upbringings by high-strung parents—and episodes of dread are further compounded by today’s frenetic pace and economic uncertainty. Add in the vagaries of the digital age, and the loss of real-life bonds to social-media relationships that are quantified with “likes” and “shares,” feelings of unease can skyrocket off the charts.
However unavoidable these bouts of nerves are, we don’t have to succumb to them. Experts insist there are natural remedies for the cold sweats that don’t require wolfing down chocolate or swilling boxes of wine for comfort.
The first step is to realize that “much of anxiety is the tendency to equate uncertainty with bad outcomes,” notes Robert L. Leahy, PhD, the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York and author of The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You (Harmony, 2005). “You can never be certain. Almost everything you do every day you do with uncertainty.” Once we accept that we will never have complete guarantees in life, we can begin to create a toolbox of natural de-stressors—from practicing mindfulness to something as simple as sipping hot tea.
Here, we pair those common worry triggers with strategies for dealing with them, so that before your next anxiety attack spins into a nauseating tizzy, you’ll be armed and ready.
Scenario: You’re driving and late to work (or your Pilates class) for the second time in a row when you get stuck in an epic traffic jam—a situation over which you have no control. The feeling of being trapped in your vehicle, a common phobia, escalates with the added risk of arriving disastrously tardy again.
Top Tool: Deep breathing. “Changing the way you breathe will lower stress levels in minutes,” says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, breath coach and the author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016). “It works faster than a Valium, a double shot of Scotch or a good massage.” The breath, which oxygenates the blood and signals the brain to calm down, creates a physiological response in the body that naturally decreases stress and anxiety. “Deep breathing can lower your blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels,” adds Dr. Vranich.
Technique: Arizona-based celebrity physician Andrew Weil, MD, advocates a breathing technique he calls the 4-7-8 breath. Described as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system,” the 4-7-8 breath helps to reduce tension in the body. To perform it, inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Now let it out slowly through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat five to 20 times.
Extra Power Tool: While you probably don’t want to practice full-on meditation while driving, “listening to meditation apps like Calm (calm.com) or Headspace (headspace.com), which have libraries of 10-minute meditation lessons and practice sessions, can further promote mindfulness and prevent anxiety from taking over,” says Peter Fiasca, PhD, a Pilates instructor, author, editor and the producer-director of Classical Pilates Technique video programming. “Meditation can have a generalized full-spectrum effect on anxiety reduction,” he notes.
Scenario: You’re freaking out because you’re going to your parents’ (or worse, your in-laws’) for the long Thanksgiving weekend. This is a double whammy since overprotective parents often are the root cause of heightened anxiety in their offspring.
Top Tool: Dietary changes. When you have time to prepare for an upcoming emotional minefield, consider tweaking your diet. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may ease anxiety symptoms by lowering levels of stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Technique: If you feel an anxiety attack coming, grab a quick snack such as a handful of walnuts, suggests Drew Ramsey, MD, coauthor of The Happiness Diet (Rodale, 2012). Seeds and fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon, are other great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, or take fish oil supplements (look for ones that provide 2,000 mg a day). A 2005 Israeli study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience found that students given omega-3 supplements had markedly less anxiety before an exam than students taking a placebo.
Extra Power Tools: Eating eggs for breakfast can also help ward off worry, says Dr. Ramsey. They’re packed with choline, a deficit of which has been linked to increased anxiety. And who knows? If you cook eggs for the whole family, maybe they’ll chill out, too.
Scenario: You have to give a big speech before all the bigwigs at your company and are developing full-blown stage fright. The good news? You’re not alone. The 2016 Chapman University Survey on American Fears found found public speaking to be America’s top phobia. Equally nerve-wracking: asking the boss for a raise. Researchers say fear of rejection and insecurities about negotiation skills keep countless employees from requesting their due.
Top Tool: Essential oils, especially lavender. “I always use essential oils before public-speaking events to calm my nerves and help me focus,” says Heather Edwards, LMHC, BCC, NCC, a NYC-based psychotherapist and board-certified coach. “Oils with lavender, Roman chamomile, and tree or grass oils like spruce and vetiver have both calming and grounding properties.” A 2010 study in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology found that dental patients were less anxious if the waiting room was scented with lavender oil, and in a Florida study published in Holistic Nursing Practice in 2009, students who inhaled lavender oil before an exam had less anxiety.
Technique: Just one drop of pure essential oil on your hands or feet can have an instant effect, says Edwards. You can reapply every 20 minutes or so.
Extra Power Tool: “Sometimes I put a drop in my seltzer water for flavor and an extra boost of those calming properties,” adds Edwards, who cautions: “Always make sure your oils are pure and safe for internal consumption.”