by Dr. Denise Renye, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Sex Therapist, PsyD, MA, MEd, in San Francisco, CA
I spoke with a friend of a friend recently who said he copes with anxiety solely through medication because that’s all he’s been exposed to. It got me thinking about how some people don’t know what else to try for anxiety other than pharmacological interventions because they may not have considered therapy as an option. And even many people who have considered therapy may not be able to afford it. Learning how to cope with anxiety in healthy ways can make such a difference.
This is quite the conundrum because anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Anxiety affects 40 million adults in the U.S. ages 18 and older — about 18.1% of the population. Also, anxiety disorders are highly treatable, but only 36.9% of people receive treatment.
Therapy and medication are two ways to manage treatment, but they’re not the only ways. What follows are strategies to cope with anxiety without going to therapy or taking drugs.
7 Non-Pharmacological Strategies for Anxiety
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? Anxiety is associated with energy; it’s why we have expressions like “fidgeting nervously,” or “a nervous tic.” Exercise is an outlet for that anxious energy. In addition, there are numerous studies that show exercise and regular activity are beneficial for anxiety, meaning exercise reduces it.
2. Change Your Diet
Did you know 95% of your serotonin receptors reside in your gut? It stands to reason then what you feed your gut affects your mood. That’s true and in fact, a 2016 study found healthy eating can alleviate anxiety. Is your diet high in processed foods such as frozen dinners, shelf-stable cookies, and potato chips? If so, those foods could be exacerbating your anxiety. What happens if you try eating differently?
It’s not uncommon for a person to experience swirling thoughts when they’re anxious. Thinking about the future in a negative way can promote anxiety such as repeating to yourself: “I don’t look good in pictures,” “No one will come to my party,” “Everyone hates me,” or “What if I lose my job?” Writing those thoughts down, letting all your worst fears become expressed, can help release them from your brain and soothe the anxious parts of yourself. This is also helpful if you experience insomnia that may stem from anxiety.
It seems so simple because we breathe all day long, but conscious breath can go a long way in alleviating anxiety. I’m a proponent of breathing into your belly, alternate nostril breathing, and circular breathing. I also have a free, guided, breathwork meditation. To start, set a timer for 30 seconds (and work up to three minutes) and see how you feel after breathing with intention and awareness. What I love about breathwork is it encourages a pause. Many of us are conditioned to fear a pause, to fear silence. With anxiety, your brain can run off without you, imagining ten steps into the future. Pausing, sitting in silence, brings your brain back to where your feet are, here, in this present moment. Noticing the present moment, being with the pause, the silence, you may notice things aren’t as terrible as they first seemed.
5. Yoga & Meditation
There are numerous kinds of yoga and meditation in the world, but nearly all of them help with anxiety. Experiment with different kinds until you found one that works for you. Yoga and meditation incorporate many of the characteristics I listed above: pausing, breathwork, and focusing the mind.
I view a spiritual practice as complementary to therapy and depth coaching because it can help provide access to the internal world. Spirituality can be defined simply as a sense of connection to something greater than yourself and can offer meaning as well as purpose in your life. Cultivating a meaningful connection with something bigger than yourself just may result in emotions such as peace, awe, and contentment. In other words, a spiritual practice — tailor-made for you — can help you cope with anxiety.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping, combines cognitive therapies with acupressure for the treatment of psychological distress. A 2016 study found EFT demonstrated a significant decrease in anxiety scores, even when accounting for the effect size of control treatment. More recently, in 2019, researchers found EFT helps physiologically, meaning not only did study participants self-report that they felt better, but their bodies also showed a decrease in resting heart rate and blood pressure and an altering of cortisol levels.
Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)
Sometimes it’s really hard to manage anxiety on your own and you just may need support. If money is an issue, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) meetings are a great option. The meeting is open to not only children raised in alcoholic homes, but anyone raised in a dysfunctional environment. The program functions like other 12-step groups in that members share for a limited time and there’s a sponsor or fellow traveler to help a person through the steps. That means there’s a community of people to support you as you learn how to cope with anxiety. However, what’s unique about ACA is that it also addresses post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has literature devoted to nurturing an inner loving parent. Creating a strong, secure, attachment figure within yourself could help calm anxious parts of yourself, especially if the anxiety is arising from your inner child.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, you don’t have to suffer through it. Anxiety is treatable with a multitude of drugs, therapy, and any of the methods I mentioned above. If one method doesn’t work, try another. And try it for some time as it may take a while. Just know, relief is possible. Start your search for a therapist today.
Anderson, Elizabeth; Shivakumar, Geetha. “Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety.” Front Psychiatry. 2013;4:27. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Facts and Statistics.” https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics, accessed November 18, 2021.
Bach, Donna; Groesbeck, Gary; Stapleton, Peta; et al. Clinical EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Improves Multiple Physiological Markers of Health. J Evid Based Integr Med. 2019;24:2515690X18823691. doi:10.1177/2515690X18823691
Carpenter, Dr. Siri. “That Gut Feeling.” American Psychological Association. September 2012; 43(8): 50. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling
Clond, Morgan. “Emotional Freedom Techniques for Anxiety: A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis.” J Nerv Ment Dis. 2016;204(5):388-395. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000483.
Null, Gary; Pennesi, Luanne; Feldman, Martin. “Nutrition and Lifestyle Intervention on Mood and Neurological Disorders.” J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017 Jan;22(1):68-74. doi: 10.1177/2156587216637539.
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