Treating anxiety often involves the use of psychotherapy and various types of drugs that can ratchet down the chemical behaviors in the body that drive the anxiety disorder. Treatment for an anxiety disorder can also include non-traditional therapies that fall under the heading of complementary and alternative medicine.
Treating Anxiety: Understanding Alternative Medicine
Complementary and alternative medicine is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of approaches — from nutritional substances with health effects, like vitamin supplements and omega-3 fatty acids, to physical techniques such as acupuncture.
While some approaches have the muscle of scientific studies behind them, others remain more anecdotal. They may have merit, but are hard to evaluate scientifically in the absence of properly conducted trials. Here are some of the more popular alternative choices for treating anxiety.
Herbal Supplements for Anxiety
Studies have indicated that ingestion of preparations of the kava plant may help reduce anxiety, although Canadian and European health agencies have warned of the potential of liver damage from kava use.
St. John’s wort is a plant that may be effective in relieving anxiety and depression. However, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) warns that it may negatively interact with antidepressants, often prescribed for anxiety.
The herbs valerian and chamomile (the staple of that relaxing-on-the-couch herbal tea) are both popular for treating anxiety, but according to NCCAM, there are no scientific studies supporting their effectiveness.
This self-help approach is best done in consultation with your doctor, since some natural remedies for anxiety disorders might have unwanted side effects if combined with prescribed or over-the-counter anxiety medications. Also, natural remedies can still be sold without the stringent quality assurance precautions that are in place for conventionally produced drugs.
Meditation for Anxiety
The calming effects of meditation are well-known and have been linked anecdotally to easing symptoms of anxiety. The nuts-and-bolts scientific demonstration of these benefits is less clear. But the lack of information need not be a deterrent to use of the approach, since there are no side effects of meditation.
If a treatment like meditation "is proven to be safe, it may sometimes be recommended despite lacking conclusive evidence of effectiveness with the belief that it is unlikely to hurt but has a potential to help,” says Amit Sood, MD, director of research for Mayo Clinic’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program in Rochester, Minn.
Acupuncture for Anxiety
The science for the anti-anxiety benefits of acupuncture is more solid than for other alternative therapies. Several small-scale studies have demonstrated a “statistically significant effect,” meaning that the results are not likely due to a chance effect. Plus, the technique has the weight of thousands of years of use behind it. Acupuncture should performed by a physiotherapist or other health practitioner trained in acupuncture delivery.
Physical and Lifestyle Approaches
Adopting healthy eating habits and incorporating exercise into the daily routine is always a good idea. The list of beneficial lifestyle options is long and includes walking, jogging, yoga, biking, swimming, massage, and dance. Results may be a better mental outlook and less reliance on medications.
“Consider the options when treating stress. You can use a long list of medications to suppress symptoms, but many of these medications may have serious side effects, and some have hazardous ones. So it makes sense to consider options such as meditation, massage, and yoga to minimize the risk of side effects of medicines,” says Dr. Sood.
There are many alternative options, as well as traditional therapies, that can be helpful in treating anxiety. Just be sure to discuss any anxiety therapy you’re thinking of with your medical team, so that you aren’t using approaches that could counteract each other.