T here are so many different options for anxiety relief. We have everything from medication to acupuncture. In this article, I have researched the top 5 tried and tested, most effective techniques you can start using right now to get some anxiety relief.
Feeling a bit of anxiety or worry occasionally, in response to a particular situation is all part of the normal spectrum of human emotion. These “normal” feelings of anxiety or stress usually disappear once the situation or event is over.
Having anxiety is when these feelings don’t go away once the situation or event has passed.
Having anxiety isn’t the same for everyone but some of the symptoms are:
- Racing thoughts: eg. worrying about future events or stressing out about past situations
- Persistent thoughts: eg. being unable to stop thinking about a particular person, situation or event
- Feeling of fear: this can also be a feeling of dread (once someone described it to me as a feeling of impending doom)
- Restlessness: finding it hard to be still and calm
- Physical symptoms: eg. a tightness or pressure on the chest or a churning stomach, tingling or numb hands or feet, shortness of breath
- Fatigue: feeling tired or exhausted for no good reason
- Irritability: eg finding other people or situations annoying, for no reason
- Panic attacks: sometimes also called anxiety attacks, or panic disorder, this is when our fight or flight response is switched on at times when it is not needed. People having a panic attack often feel terrified and have heart palpitations as well as feeling tense, sweaty, cold, nauseous and dizzy. See below for more detail
- Insomnia or problems sleeping: this can include problems getting to sleep and also staying asleep
There are 6 types of anxiety and it can feel different for each person
There are 6 types of anxiety and it can feel different for each person.
When feelings of anxiety or stress are present for an extended period of time and for no particular reason, they can start to negatively impact a person’s life. For example it can prevent them from attending social events, or it can affect their relationships. This is when that person could be considered to have anxiety. There are also anxiety tests that can be taken to determine if anxiety is, or is starting to become, a problem.
Ways to relieve your anxiety
The good news is that there are many ways to provide anxiety relief. We have options that include everything from medication to acupuncture. Different solutions work for different people. I’ve put together a list of the top 5 proven anxiety relief techniques that you can try yourself.
Foods for anxiety
For centuries we have understood that the food we eat affects our mood. Hundreds of years ago in France for example, artichokes were believed to be so strong an aphrodisiac that women were forbidden from eating them.
In medieval times, if people were feeling depressed they would eat quince or dates or if they were looking for anxiety relief they would reach for lettuce or chicory. The idea that there are foods for anxiety relief is nothing new. There has been increasing research in this area, proving that there is a link between the food we eat and our mental health.
Although we need to look at our diet as a whole, certain foods and nutrients play an important part in balancing our moods and emotions.
I’ve picked out the 8 key nutrients below: what they are, what they do and what to eat to ensure you are getting enough of them.
Selenium is a nutrient that has been proven in many studies to have an impact on mood. Scientists have shown that the lower the level of selenium in the diet, the more reports of anxiety, depression and tiredness. As selenium levels are raised in the diet, there is a general elevation of mood and in particular, a decrease in anxiety. Selenium in Australian foods is low.
From highest quantity (per 100g) to lowest: Brazil nuts (commonly imported) 540-830ug/100g; Fish (in particular tuna) 12-63ug/100g; Meat (in particular lean pork, lean beef, chicken, turkey) 5-38ug/100g; eggs 9-41/100g; grains (in particular brown rice, oats, barley, millet, buckwheat, popcorn, wholewheat bread) 1-20ug/100g; dairy 2-6ug/100g; fruit and vegetables trace-3ug/100g
A deficiency of this vitamin is associated with many mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. It is estimated that as much as half the world have low levels of vitamin D. People with darker skin and people who mostly completely cover up their bodies under the sun are most at risk. If you are vitamin D deficient and have anxiety and depression, then you are likely to benefit from correcting that deficiency. Having said that, even if you have sufficient vitamin D, it doesn’t rule you out from having anxiety and depression. My take on this is that it’s best to ensure enough regular sun exposure to be on the safe side.
Full body exposure to sun – about 15-20 minutes a day is ideal for anxiety relief
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel
Omega-3 fatty acids
In a study posted to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers observed that populations that do not eat enough omega-3 fatty acids might have higher rates of depressive disorders. Eating omega-3 fatty acids may increase the level of healthy fats available to the brain, keeping the brain working at the highest level. This in turn reduces the risk of mood disorders and brain diseases as well as gives some anxiety relief.
Cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, nuts such as almonds and walnuts, avocado
The lower the level of selenium in the diet, the more reports there are of anxiety
Antioxidants fight free-radicals. Free radicals are produced as a by-product of the normal metabolic processes in the human body (plus other, environmental pressures such as natural and artificial radiation, toxins in the air, food and water; and miscellaneous sources of oxidizing activity, such as tobacco smoke).
Free radicals are electronically unstable atoms or molecules that take electrons from other molecules in an effort to achieve stability. In their wake they create even more unstable molecules that then attack their neighbours in domino-like chain reactions. By the time a free radical chain fizzles out, it may have ripped through vital components of cells causing extensive cell damage (which leads to accelerated ageing).
When there is a disturbance in the balance of free radicals and antioxidants, it is called oxidative stress. Stress and anxiety are linked with increased oxidative damage.
The brain may be more prone to this type of damage than other areas of the body. As a result, it needs a good way to neutralise these free radicals and avoid problems. Foods rich in antioxidants are believed to neutralise free radicals by donating electrons to them and cutting off the chain reactions early in their course.
A recent study showed that people with anxiety and depression had lower levels of antioxidants in their system than the control group. After increasing the levels of antioxidants in those with anxiety and depression for 6 weeks, the study showed some anxiety relief: a significant reduction in their anxiety and depression scores.
The foods mentioned below contain antioxidants in the form of flavonoids and polyphenols (plant based compounds) that may support oxidative damage.
Vitamins A, C and E: found in orange or yellow fruit and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potato, apricots, rockmelon. Dark fruits and berries: blueberries, cherries, grapes, prunes, goji berries.
Citrus fruit, garlic and onions (contain allyl sulphides which can actively work to reduce carcinogens (cancer causing substances)). Broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts.
Ginger, rosemary, turmeric
Herbal teas and green tea
B Vitamins B6, B9 and B12
Deficiencies in vitamin B are linked to panic attacks, anxiety and depression. In particular deficiencies in B6, B9 and B12.
Vitamin B9, also known as folate, may help to decrease the risk of depression because folate helps to prevent the build-up of homocysteine, a substance that can impair circulation and delivery of nutrients to the brain. Excess homocysteine can also interfere with the production of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which regulate mood, sleep and appetite. (Homocysteine testing through your GP is an inexpensive way to diagnose if this is a potential cause of anxiety along with being a great “heads up” indicator of accelerated ageing and common lifestyle disease risk (eg. Heart disease). Usually increasing your natural folate intake from plant based sources fixes the problem.
B6: Chicken, turkey, tuna, prawns, beef liver, cheese, beans, spinach, carrots, brown rice, sunflower seeds
B12: Wild salmon, prawns, grass-fed beef, venison, eggs, yogurt
B9 (folate): Dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, avocado, brussel sprouts, citrus fruit.
Zinc and Copper
There have been a few studies showing that individuals with anxiety have higher levels of copper and lower levels of zinc (than the control group). Elevated levels of copper have been associated with women having a history of postpartum depression. There is commonly an inverse relationship between zinc and copper in the body; when a person has elevated copper, their zinc level is low.
These studies suggest that ensuring adequate levels of zinc could provide anxiety relief. Zinc is well known as one of the most important trace elements in the body. Dietary zinc deficiency is associated with anxiety as well as a variety of physiological defects including anorexia, skin lesion, and growth retardation.
Sources of dietary zinc
Oysters contain more zinc than any other food, but red meat and poultry are also good sources, as are crustaceans (particularly crab and lobster) and fortified breakfast cereals. There’s a moderate content of zinc across lots of different foods so variety in your diet is key. Try to include pumpkin seeds, chick peas, yoghurt, milk, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, chicken and cheese.
Research suggests magnesium could be useful in treating mild to moderate anxiety. Magnesium is an essential mineral and is used in the human body in more than 300 biochemical reactions. 41% of men and 35% of women do not consume adequate amounts of magnesium.
Dark leafy greens, seeds, beans, fish, whole grains, nuts, dark chocolate, yogurt, avocados and bananas are good sources. The current daily value (DV) for magnesium is 310-420mg. Australian foods may be low in magnesium due to poor soil content.
A word on gut health
It seems that one of the answers to a clear, relaxed and happy brain may lie with the microscopic bugs (bacteria) living inside our digestive system. More than 90% of our dopamine and serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitters that send signals from our brain and around our bodies) are actually produced by beneficial gut bacteria.
To boost beneficial gut bacteria (and support production of dopamine and serotonin):
- Include fermented foods like live-cultured yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, tempeh and kimchi in your diet. These foods contain beneficial gut bacteria (probiotics).
- Base your diet on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. These foods have pre-biotic properties (they act as a fertiliser for your good gut bacteria).
Meditation is one of the most powerful ways of defeating anxiety.
There are many studies showing the effectiveness of meditation as anxiety relief. It is useful to meditate of course while you are feeling anxious, but the studies also show that having a regular meditation practise causes less feelings of anxiety to come about in the first place.
Meditation trains your brain to focus on the present, breaking negative thought patterns
By focussing on the present moment and what is in a particular moment, anxiety subsides. When we have anxiety, persistent, racing thoughts can be troublesome as we buy into these thoughts and get carried away in worries and imagined outcomes. Meditation teaches you to allow these thoughts to pass without engaging with them, which enables a calmer mind.
Meditation changes the physical structure of the brain
I love this Tedx Talk by Sara Lazar. In it, she explains how, through an experiment she conducted, she discovered that meditation causes parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, emotion processing, empathy, compassion and perspective taking to get bigger. She also discovered that the amygdala – which is part of the limbic system and is responsible for fear and the fight or flight response – got smaller in those who meditate. This is important for those of us who experience anxiety because it shows that through meditation, we can change the physical structure of the brain to make us less fearful and susceptible to panic responses and more compassionate, empathetic and able to gain better perspective on life.
Meditation reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in the body
When we react to something we perceive to be a threat in our lives, we turn on what is called the “fight or flight” response in our nervous system. Our adrenal glands release a surge of adrenalin and cortisol into the body. This shuts down some systems (salivary glands for example) and activates others (eg sends blood to the muscles to get ready to either fight or run). When the threat is a wild lion this is obviously exactly what you want.
However in our society, it’s unlikely to be a wild lion and more likely to be a boss, your mother-in-law or even the driver that cut you off at the traffic lights. The problem is that we turn on these reactions over and over again without being able to release the cortisol from our systems.
Humans are also able to turn on this fight or flight response by thought alone. This means that there doesn’t even need to be an actual physical threat in the room. The thought of say, your overdue bills can turn on this stress response. Anxiety can come about from prolonged, heightened cortisol levels.
Any type of meditation will lower cortisol and give some anxiety relief. Meditation engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease cortisol.
Meditation cultivates gratitude
Meditation also cultivates an attitude of gratitude. Through meditation you learn to turn your mind towards the good in life rather than focussing on the negative. It’s almost impossible to feel anxious at the same time as also feeling grateful.
Meditation helps you to sleep peacefully
Meditation lowers stress levels and evokes the “relaxation response” in the body. Coined by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s, the relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. Most people with anxiety also have trouble sleeping as stress is very closely tied with poor sleep. As you meditate, you will find your stress levels lower and your quality of sleep improve.
Click here for some practical tips on meditation for beginners.
To get started with meditation, have a look at our free library of guided meditations here.
We believe using a combination of psychological techniques gives the best result for those looking for anxiety relief. In The Nurture Project‘s 12 week program, we use the following therapies.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
At the heart of CBT is the concept that your feelings result from the messages you give yourself. It has been used to successfully treat anxiety and depression for decades and is considered to be as effective and in many people, more effective than medication.
Exposure Therapy (sometimes called Behaviour Therapy)
Exposure therapy gradually exposes us, over time, to the situation or object that is making us anxious.
This type of therapy is often used for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and specific phobias. Exposure therapy may also be useful for social phobia and panic disorder.
Exposure therapy helps us to ‘face our fears’ and challenge them in a controlled way. We may confront our fears in person, or even via virtual reality.
Exposure therapy must be administered by a highly-trained mental health professional.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness training. It’s about being aware of what’s happening in the present moment. At the same time, it helps us to not make judgements about whether we like or dislike what we think.
- cultivating our ability to pay attention in the present moment
- disengaging from mental ‘clutter’ and having a clear mind
- responding rather than reacting to situations. This can improve our decision-making and our potential for physical and mental relaxation.
Rather than focusing on what went wrong, or the condition of anxiety, positive psychology looks at what contributes to human happiness and emotional health. It focuses on strengths, virtues, and factors that help people thrive and achieve a sense of fulfilment, as well as more effectively managing stress or anxiety.
Narrative therapy is based on understanding the ‘stories’ that we use to describe our lives.
Narrative therapy sees problems as being separate from people. It helps us recognise the range of skills, beliefs and abilities that we already have (but may not recognise) that we can apply to problems in our lives.
Narrative therapy differs from many therapies in that it puts a major emphasis on identifying our strengths. It examines where we have mastered situations in the past, and therefore seeks to build resilience rather than focus on shortcomings.
We all know about the physical benefits of exercise. Exercise is good for our bodies and helps to fight disease. But of course, exercise is now considered vital for our minds too.
Studies have shown that exercise is very effective at giving anxiety relief. It helps you to feel less tired, improves alertness and concentration and also improves cognitive function.
Physical activity releases endorphins – the “feel good” hormone in our body. It acts as a natural painkiller and triggers a positive feeling in the body. This helps to with stress and anxiety relief. It is also accompanied by a positive and energising outlook on life.
Endorphins also act as a sedative, which helps to improve the ability to fall asleep as well as the quality of sleep. This in turn helps to combat anxiety.
In addition, exercise increases the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which works as a natural antidepressant.
Lastly, exercise increases the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that activates the reward centre of the brain. Dopamine is released in response to any form of pleasure, from food to exercise (even if you don’t think of exercise as being particularly pleasurable).
Just from exercise we are producing these three powerful chemicals: endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. So it is no surprise that regular exercise is linked with lower stress and anxiety relief as well as enhanced mental health and emotional wellbeing.
The good news is that about five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
Having said that, the key for exercise to be effective against anxiety is for it to be regular. Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise decreases overall levels of tension. It also elevates and stabilises mood, improves sleep, and improves self-esteem. The reality is, physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people.
And you don’t have to hit the gym or go for a run. There have been many studies showing that 30 minutes of moderate exercise (eg. brisk walking) per day, 5 days a week, is enough. Walking has been proven to give significant anxiety relief and in some cases even cause it to go into remission.
Studies have found that those who participate in even more exercise, with 4 more vigorous, 30-minute sessions per week have low levels of anxiety. (All participants in The Nurture Project gradually increase their activity levels during the program to reach this target by the end of the 12 weeks.)
Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for our mental and physical wellbeing. It is especially important for anxiety sufferers.
In every study on sleep and psychological distress (ie stress and anxiety), the data is unequivocal: when people get an adequate amount of sleep, psychological distress decreases.
Sleep is essential to help stabilise our emotional and mental health. Without sleep, the emotional circuits of our brains become hyperactive and irrational. This means that our moods and emotions can swing drastically from one extreme to the other in a very short space of time: eg. going from giddy or happy to angry, disillusioned or upset in only a few seconds.
The general consensus is that the number of hours sleep needed each night is:
Adults (18-64 years): 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
If you are having problems falling asleep, try this meditation for restful sleep.
At The Nurture Project, we believe the best way ensure anxiety relief is to use a combination of psychological techniques as well as exercise, nutrition, meditation and sleep. Find out how to develop these life skills in our 12 week program to beat anxiety.