Anxiety can make you feel like you are trapped - supportive complementary and alternative therapies can offer a way out. [Photo: Bigstock]

Effective alternatives for anxiety

1 April, 2014

Anxiety has become such a part of daily life that many of us barely notice it any more.

Along with stress and depression , anxiety has become a kind of background noise in many people’s lives, with the volume increasing and decreasing as life challenges present themselves and yet another world disaster is played out in the 24/7 media.

Anxiety is a general feeling of being worried. Everyone experiences anxiety once in a while. People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), however, feel anxious often or feel very anxious, not necessarily because of a situation or any specific threat to their well being.

Left to become a chronic problem, anxiety and the stress that it causes, can take over a person’s life and have a devastating effect on both their mental and physical health.

The most effective way of removing the stress is to remove the source of it. However, this is not always practical, at least in the short term. Anxiety and stress will often interfere with sleep patterns, and so end up creating a vicious circle with tiredness exacerbating stress and vice versa.

Often when a person goes to the doctor with anxiety they are given pill – usually sleeping pills – to help them cope. This can set them on the road to dependency and a host of unwanted adverse effects such as memory loss, impaired thinking, dizziness and hip fractures. Worse, this year a large study showed that common anti-anxiety and sleeping medicines have been linked to double the risk of premature death.

If you are suffering from anxiety we would always recommend getting to the root of what is causing your emotional distress – a good counsellor is always a good start. But several natural therapies can be supportive along the way.

For quick relief

Paying conscious attention to your breath is a simple form of meditation and a quick way to relax. With each breath, try to slow your breathing down. Allow yourself to exhale fully and a natural, deep inhalation will follow with very little effort. When you are feeling anxious, try 10 minutes deep, regular breathing, to calm things down.


Many herbal remedies can help deal with the symptoms of anxiety

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) has long been valued by herbal practitioners for its calming and sedative actions and it has been used over the years for anxiety, fatigue and insomnia.  The effects of passionflower tend to be milder than other anti-anxiety herbs like valerian (Valeriana officinalis) Passionflower is often combined with valerian, lemon balm, hops or other calming herbs. In a few studies, passionflower worked as well as some of the benzodiazepines in relieving anxiety.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) contains several unique substances, such as valerenic acid and valeranon that have a relaxant action that is particularly effective in treating stress and anxiety. It is widely used for sleep problems, particularly sleep disturbances due to anxiety.  Valerian helps to calm the brain and body rather than inducing sleep directly, allowing sleep to occur naturally.  It is often combined with other herbs such as lemon balm and hops, both of which are well known for their. Studies show that it can be particularly effective when combined with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).

Anxiety sometimes goes hand in hand with depression which is why St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum L) can also be a good choice.  This herb is a popular herbal medicine for the treatment of low mood, and dozens of studies show that St John’s Wort can be an effective remedy for mild- to-moderate depression without the side effects of more conventional anti-depressants.

Other herbs sometimes suggested for anxiety include ginger (Zingiber officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra).

When taking any anti-anxiety herb it is important to be aware of any interactions with medication you are currently taking. Talk to your practitioner or doctor for advice.

Since chronic anxiety can also take its toll on your immune system consider supportive herbs like barberry, poke root, Echinacea and Siberian ginseng. The Indian herb Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 2500 years to treat stress and has been shown to be effective support for the immune system.


The following remedies may be helpful in specific situations:

Aconitum – for anxiety accompanied by irregular or forceful heartbeat, shortness of breath, or fear of death.
Arsenicum album – for excessive anxiety that has no clear cause and is accompanied by restlessness, especially after midnight. It also may be used for perfectionists, including children, who worry about everything.
Phosphorus – for an impending sense of doom and anxiety when alone. It also may be used for impressionable adults and children who are easily influenced by the anxiety of others.
Lycopodium – for performance and other types of anxiety in those who are insecure, yet hide their low self-esteem with arrogance and bravado. It also may treat children with anxiety accompanied by bedwetting.
Gelsemium – for performance anxiety resulting in diarrhoea, headache, dizziness, weakness, shakiness and trembling, or trouble speaking.
Argentum nitricum – for performance anxiety (such as before tests in school-age children) with rapid heart rate, feeling of faintness, diarrhoea, or flatulence.

Essential oils

Essential oils are a quick and effective way to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. They are portable and easy to keep on hand in your pocket, bag or on your desk. In emergencies, try sprinkling a few drops on a hankie and inhaling deeply.

There is some research evidence to support the benefits of essential oils, for example:

Valerie Ann Wormwood, in her classic book The Fragrant Mind outlines the following mixtures remedies for different kinds of stress:

For tense anxiety with symptoms like bodily tension and muscle pains and aches, try mixing 10 drops of clary sage, 15 drops of lavender and five drops of Roman chamomile.

For restless anxiety with symptoms like dizziness, sweating, over­activity, heart palpitations, a lump in the throat and stomach upsets, try five drops of vetiver, 10 drops of juniper and 15 drops of cedarwood.

For apprehensive anxiety with symptoms like worrying, brooding, unease and a sense of foreboding or even paranoia, try 15 drops of bergamot, five drops of lavender and 10 drops of geranium.

For repressed anxiety with symptoms of edginess, lack of concen­tration, irritability, insomnia or chronic exhaustion, try 10 drops each of neroli, rose Otto and bergamot.


Acupuncture can help ease anxiety by acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and switching off the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry. Some evidence shows that acupuncture may help reduce symptoms of anxiety, especially when combined with behavioural therapies including psychotherapy. A 2013 study showed it was an effective treatment for Generalised Anxiety Disorder. For depression acupuncture may be as effective as counselling.

Flower remedies

Amongst the classic Bach Flower Remedies there is a wide variety to choose from, including hornbeam, oak, olive, aspen, white chestnut, gentian, chamomile, periwinkle and skullcap. But it is worth investigating other flower remedies as well, including Bush Flower Essences.

Diet and more

A good diet can support good mental health in many ways. Ensuring healthy gut flora, for example, could do wonders for your ability to cope. Recent evidence suggests that probiotics in fermented foods like yoghurt can help support emotional resilience.  Essential fatty acids support the brain and supplements have been shown to produce a 20% reduction in anxiety amongst medical students. Recent evidence has also shown that panic attacks can be linked to low levels of B6 and iron. A visit to a nutritionist could help devise a dietary regime that supports body and mind.

Almost anything that helps you take your focus away from your fears and concerns can help reduce the impact of anxiety. This can include a hobby that absorbs you or regular exercise but also Transcendental Meditation, chiropractic or osteopathy, massage, hydrotherapy, shiatsu, meditation, biofeedback and hypnotherapy. If you are new to alternative therapies, see our Learn More pages to find out what each of these therapies entails.