What is anxiety?
Anxiety is something just about everyone experiences to some extent. It’s how you feel when you’re worried about something, or if you feel uneasy or fearful. It’s also perfectly natural to feel anxious about some things in life – taking exams, for instance, doing your driving test, going for a job interview or speaking/performing in public.
However, it’s not normal to feel anxious most or all of the time.
Fight or flight
From an evolutionary point of view, anxiety is related to something called the fight or flight response. This is a natural reaction we experience when we feel under threat that, many years ago, helped us to survive.
When faced with a life-threatening situation, our ancestors’bodies released stress hormones including adrenalin and cortisol. This release of hormones helped them to feel more alert and react faster to threats, making their hearts beat faster so they could better face the danger or run away from it. In other words, the fight or flight response was actually useful.
The problem, however, is that while few of us these days face the same level of life-threatening situations our ancestors experienced, we still have the same biological reaction when we feel afraid or anxious.
Valerian , according to some evidence, may help to keep calm in stressful situations.
What causes anxiety?
If you have feelings of anxiety most or all of the time, and feel anxious about lots of different things rather than one thing in particular, you may have a condition called generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). There may be several reasons why you feel persistently anxious. For instance, some researchers believe it has something to do with an imbalance of serotonin and noradrenaline –brain chemicals that help to control your moods –or that some areas of the brain linked with emotions and behaviour become overactive.
You may also have long-term anxiety if one of your parents also suffered with anxiety issues (according to the NHS, people with a close relative with GAD are five times more likely to develop the condition). Things that happen to you may increase your risk of developing anxiety too, such as having stressful or traumatic experiences, having a medical condition that causes chronic pain or having a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Your age can have something to do with it too, with GAD more common in adults aged between 35 and 55.
How to tell if you have anxiety
Anxiety causes physical sensations such as shakiness, dizziness, feeling breathless or breathing too quickly, sweating, rapid heart rate, churning stomach, tense muscles, dry mouth and an inability to concentrate. It can make you feel nervous, stressed and panicky, as if you’re constantly on edge.
But how can you tell if you’re experiencing anxiety more often than is considered normal or natural?
Think about how often you experience the following:
- You worry all the time that something bad will happen.
- You always fear the worst will happen.
- You feel as if everything’s going too fast or too slow.
- You get obsessed with negative experiences, churning them over in your mind.
- You find it impossible to relax most of the time.
- You suspect everyone is looking at you and knows you’re anxious.
If more than one or two of the above apply to you on a regular basis, you may be experiencing long-term anxiety. This is often seen as a mental health issue, but it can cause physical symptoms too, including depression, problems sleeping, a change in your sex drive and problems with your immune system, making you more likely to be affected by a range of illnesses.
Long-term anxiety may also make you more likely to turn to crutches such as smoking, drinking or using drugs to help you cope with your feelings. All of these things may make it more difficult for you to keep your job, maintain relationships and have much enjoyment in your life.
If you have been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), there are a few treatments your GP may offer you, including talking treatments, medicines and self-help courses.
Your GP may also prescribe exercise as a way of treating a mental health problem such as anxiety, which means you may be enrolled on an exercise programme at your local gym or with a qualified trainer.
Ways to reduce anxiety
Thankfully there are several things you can do to help yourself manage the symptoms of anxiety, whether you experience it frequently or just every now and then:
Eat as healthily as possible
Sticking to a healthy diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day can help support your general health. Some foods may also be worth avoiding, as they may increase feelings of anxiety. These include sugar – which, after creating an initial ‘high’ by boosting your blood sugar levels can dip too low, making you feel irritable and shaky. Too much caffeine can also increase your anxiety levels, so try to choose caffeine-free or decaffeinated drinks instead of having too much tea or coffee.
Cut down on stimulants
As well as reducing the amount of caffeine in your diet, it’s also a good idea to give up if you’re a smoker and to cut back on your alcohol intake if you drink more than the recommended amount (the government suggests no more than three to four units of alcohol a day for men and two to three for women – find out more about alcohol units).
Exercise can help to boost your brain’s production of ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which can improve your mood and general wellbeing as well as reduce stress and tension. Aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, such as brisk walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, jogging and sports like tennis and football. Most people find five 30-minute sessions of exercise a week is the best way to break up the 150 minutes, though you could break it up into more, smaller sessions if it suits your lifestyle.
Talk it through
It may not be easy to talk about your feelings if you’re experiencing anxiety, but opening up to someone you trust – such as a friend, relative or co-worker – can help you cope with your problems.
Learn to relax
Making time to do something that will help you unwind could reduce your anxiety levels, especially when you feel you’re too busy to take any time out. It could be something simple like having a relaxing bath or reading a good book, or you could indulge your creative side and get involved in a hobby, or just get out and visit someone who makes you feel at ease. A few minutes of deep breathing could help to make you feel better when you’re anxious: try breathing in for a count of three, holding for a count of two, breathing out for a count of three and holding again for a count of two (repeat until you feel more calm).
Share and support
Spending time with others who are having the same feelings and experiences as yourself can help, especially if your anxiety is making you feel isolated.
Natural anxiety remedies
Whether you have long-term or occasional anxiety symptoms, there is a range of natural nutritional and herbal supplements that may help, including the following:
Magnesium may be useful for general muscle health as well as muscle and nerve function, but some experts believe your levels may be depleted if you’re feeling stressed (i). If stress is keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep, there is some evidence to suggest magnesium could help (ii). One study also claims anxiety and stress symptoms may be reduced by taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement containing magnesium, calcium and zinc (iii).
This herb has been used traditionally throughout Europe and is a popular remedy for stress. It may be useful for anxiety by improving mental alertness, especially if you’ve been having problems sleeping (iv).
There is some evidence that taking this herbal remedy may help to keep you calm whenever you face stressful situations (v), though valerian is more than often recommended for sleep problems, with studies suggesting it could help you fall asleep faster as well as tackling insomnia (vi).
This amino acid is often used as a natural remedy for depression and low mood, with studies suggesting it may be as effective as antidepressants (vii). It may also help if you’re finding it difficult to sleep properly (viii). 5-HTP has been studied to find out if it could help people with anxiety disorders, with the results suggesting it may well be effective (though not as effective as an antidepressant called clomipramine) (ix).
- St John’s Wort
This traditional herbal remedy may also help if your anxiety is causing mild to moderate depression, as there’s evidence it could be at least as effective as conventional antidepressants (x). However, this remedy may interact with some other medicines, so consult your GP before taking it if you’re on any kind of medication.
- Lemon Balm
Tea made from the herb lemon balm is often used to help aid relaxation. A couple of small-scale studies have also found it may help to reduce anxiety levels (xi), and there’s evidence that combining lemon balm with valerian could help if your anxiety is contributing to increased stress levels (xii). Lemon balm may also be combined with theanine, an amino acid found mainly in tea that relaxes the mind without causing drowsiness, with studies suggesting it may help to reduce stress (xiii).
- Vitamin B
Some of the B vitamins are needed for healthy nerve function, while vitamin B6 is needed for the body’s production of neurotransmitters. These brain chemicals include serotonin and norpepinephrine, both of which are needed to regulate mood (an imbalance of serotonin is thought to play a part in the cause of anxiety).
- Siberian Ginseng
Siberian ginseng (Elutherococcus senticosus) is described as an adaptogen – a substance that helps the body adapt to different kinds of stress. It may help to manage the effects of the ‘fight or flight’ response linked to anxiety because it may help to support the adrenal glands (the adrenals produce cortisol, the stress hormone). It may also be useful as general support for the immune system.
- Fish Oils
It may be a good idea to take fish oil supplements if you have anxiety symptoms, especially if you don’t eat oily fish very often. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil – are widely believed to support brain health, but there’s also evidence to suggest fish oil supplements may help to relieve short-term anxiety, such as when taking exams (xiv).
(i) Grases G, Perez-Castello JA et al. Anxiety and stress among science students. Study of calcium and magnesium alterations. Magnes Res 2006 Jun:19(2):102-6
(ii) Held K, Antonijevic IA, Kunzel H, et al. Oral MG(2+) supplementation reverses age-related neuroendocrine and sleep EEG changes in humans. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2002;35:135-143.
(iii) Carroll D, Ring C, Suter M, et al. The effects of an oral multivitamin combination with calcium, magnesium, and zinc on psychological well-being in healthy young male volunteers: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2000;150:220-225.
(iv) Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, et al. Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue—a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty. Phytomedicine. 2000;7:365-371.
(v) Kohnen R, Oswald WD. The effects of valerian, propranolol, and their combination on activation, performance and mood of healthy volunteers under social stress conditions. Pharmacopsychiatry. 1988;21:447-448.
(vi) Vorbach EU, Gortelmeyer R, Bruning J. Therapy for insomniacs: effectiveness and tolerance of valerian preparations [translated from German]. Psychopharmakotherapie. 1996;3:109-115. Leathwood PD, Chauffard F, Heck E, et al. Aqueous extract of valerian root ( Valeriana officinalis L.) improves sleep quality in man. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1982;17:65-71.
(vii) Byerley WF, Judd LL, Reimherr FW, et al. 5-hydroxytryptophan: a review of its antidepressant efficacy and adverse effects. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 1987;7:127-137. Poldinger W, Calanchini B, Schwarz W. A functional-dimensional approach to depression: Serotonin deficiency as a target syndrome in a comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan and fluvoxamine. Psychopathology. 1991;24:53-81.
(viii) Birsall TC. 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Altern Med Rev 1998 Aug:3(4):271-80.
(ix) Kahn RS, Westenberg HG, Verhoeven WM, et al. Effect of a serotonin precursor and uptake inhibitor in anxiety disorders; a double-blind comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan, clomipramine and placebo. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 1987;2:33-45.
(x) Singer A, Schmidt M, Hauke W, Stade K. Duration of response after treatment of mild to moderate depression with Hypericum extract STW 3-VI, citalopram and placebo: a reanalysis of data from a controlled clinical trial. Phytomedicine. 2011;18(8-9):739-742.
(xi) Kennedy DO, Wake G, Savelev S, et al. Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of single doses of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) with human CNS nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-binding properties. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003. Kennedy DO, Little W, Scholey AB. Attenuation of laboratory-induced stress in humans after acute administration of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm). Psychosom Med. 2004;66:607-613.
(xii) Kennedy DO, Little W, Haskell CF, et al. Anxiolytic effects of a combination of Melissa oficinalis and Valeriana oficinalis during laboratory induced stress. Phytother Res. 2006 Jan 27.
(xiii) Juneja LR. Suntheanine and its relaxation effect in humans. Trends in Food Science & Tech. 1999;10;199-204. Kimura K, Ozeki M, Juneja LR, Ohira H. L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biol Psychol. 2007;74(1):39-45.
(xiv) Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, et al. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: A randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Jul 19.