UNC Health Talk

9 Nonprescription Ways to Fight Anxiety

Occasional anxiety is part of life—whether you’re preparing to have an uncomfortable conversation, starting a new school or job, or making a big decision. But for some people, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.

Many effective prescription medications help treat the symptoms of anxiety, but medication is not the only option available for people looking for relief. Here are nine other things you can try.

1. Talk to a therapist.

Therapy—alone or in combination with medication—can help you uncover the cause of your worries and fears, learn how to relax and give you the tools to manage your anxiety, says UNC Health psychiatrist Rachel Frische, MD.

“Therapy—specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—can be a very helpful part of a treatment plan for anxiety,” she says.

CBT is a form of psychological treatment that teaches people the skills to change their thinking patterns. For example, a therapist can help you identify and change destructive thought patterns that increase your anxiety.

“We help someone who is feeling anxious to rationalize those thoughts and hopefully change their behavior,” Dr. Frische says.

2. Take a breath.

Simple breathing exercises can help ease anxiety, Dr. Frische says.

Start by taking a deep breath in, counting to five and then blowing it out slowly to the count of eight.

“You are pushing out all that negative energy, which is calming,” Dr. Frische says. “In that moment as you’re breathing and focusing on your breath, you are removing the anxious thoughts and focusing on something in the here and now.”

3. Meditate.

Meditation takes deep breathing a step further, but it doesn’t need to be hard. It’s about learning to focus on your breath and allowing thoughts to come in and out of your mind without struggling with them. Studies show meditation can help to ease your mind and reduce worrisome thoughts.

Don’t know where to start? Try a meditation app on your phone.

“There are plenty of websites and free meditation apps you can get on your phone to walk you through a meditation,” Dr. Frische says.

4. Clench your muscles.

Another technique Dr. Frische recommends is progressive muscle relaxation.

“You tense and relax muscles throughout your body, and in doing so you achieve a feeling of relaxation,” Dr. Frische says.

For example, if you carry tension or stress in your shoulders, by the end of the day, you might notice that your shoulders feel tense and tight.

Using progressive muscle relaxation, you would raise your shoulders high, even closer to your ears, for one to three minutes and then relax them all the way down.

“By doing this, you expend all that energy in those muscles, which then relaxes them,” Dr. Frische says. “In response to doing that, your muscles are no longer tense because they’re physically unable to contract anymore. So there is an automatic reflexive relaxation that takes place.”

5. Find something that grounds you.

Do you have a favorite raspberry lip balm, lavender-scented candle or soft scarf? Pull it out when you feel anxious.

“The goal here is that you’re using your senses when you can notice that you’re anxious so you can refocus that attention onto more calming stimuli,” Dr. Frische says. “For me, I really, really enjoy the strongest smell of vanilla. That brings me back to a feeling of comfort and safety, so that smell triggers an automatic response in my brain.”

The same concept applies to touch, taste and other senses. So whether it’s a cashmere scarf you love to touch or a favorite butterscotch candy, if you associate it with positive feelings, it could help you reduce anxiety, Dr. Frische says.

6. Move your body.

Studies show that exercise is effective in reducing anxiety and depression.

“The actual runner’s high is a very real thing. The endorphins that we give ourselves when we do expend energy through exercise is very impressive,” Dr. Frische says.

You don’t have to run 3 miles a day to experience the anxiety-reducing benefits of exercise. Yoga, tai chi or taking your dog for a walk also can calm your mind.

“Even if it doesn’t feel like a lot of exertion, it can be incredibly therapeutic when it comes to treating anxiety,” Dr. Frische says.

7. Connect with your spiritual side.

For some, prayer or spiritual engagement can reduce anxiety.

“We have great data that says that those who take a moment to activate their spiritual side or are involved in religious activities find more peace and can reduce anxiety,” Dr. Frische says.

Tapping into your spiritual side, if that’s something that is meaningful to you, can help you take a broader perspective that might help calm your mind.

8. Journal.

Keeping a journal is also helpful in reducing anxiety.

“Writing is a cathartic way to get out emotions that aren’t helpful or maybe causing your anxiety,” Dr. Frische says. “Write those down and get them out.”

A journal can help you identify patterns in your thoughts and behaviors and figure out what makes you anxious.

9. Talk to your doctor about complementary medicine.

Dr. Frische says natural remedies can be used in conjunction with psychiatric medications. These include massage, acupuncture, biofeedback or hypnosis, some types of vitamins and herbs, and modifying your diet.

“These can be utilized in tandem with working with a therapist, doing your own individual therapy, and medications if you need them,” Dr. Frische says.

For example, L-theanine, an extract from green tea, mimics the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain to boost your mood or has a calming, relaxing effect.

An over-the-counter supplement that also boosts GABA is ashwagandha, she says. But it’s very important that you talk to a doctor before trying these complementary therapies.

“Talk those over with your doctor because we have seen cases of people using too much of those, or even small dosages, and having rebound anxiety,” Dr. Frische says. “It’s important to monitor these just as you might any other medication.”

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.