How To Treat Anxiety: Things You Can Do Outside Of Medication & Therapy (Better Than Reddit)
Updated: Mar 17
As an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner, I have worked with lots patients who struggle with anxiety. While medication can certainly help manage symptoms, I'm a big believer in the power of exploring non-medication remedies that reduce our need for pills and complement traditional treatments. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the use of medication. Sometimes, we can manage without medication. We also need to be mindful of the limitations, side effects, and our expectations of prescriptions for the management of anxiety.
Feelings of anxiety can be managed with more than medication alone.
Incorporating exercise, quality nutrition, mindfulness, social connections, creative activities, and gratitude can help reduce anxiety.
Working with an integrative provider who conceptualizes mental health holistically can be very helpful in overcoming symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety can be overwhelming. Therapy is a great way to explore the underlying causes that may be contributing to anxiety. However, here we are going to discuss alternative and non-medication remedies that can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and improve overall mental health.
Shake up anxiety with exercise
Exercise is a powerful tool when it comes to managing anxiety. Even a simple walk around the block can help release powerful chemicals, reduce tension, and increase feelings of well-being. Regular exercise has been shown to be an effective way to reduce anxiety and stress by helping upregulate certain neurotransmitters, reduce inflammation, and increase brain capacity in key areas associated with anxiety.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that exercise was just as effective as medication in treating major depression. This study also found that exercise had a more significant effect on reducing anxiety than medication.
Exercise can help improve mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and increase feelings of calm, focus, and clarity. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. This can include anything from walking, running, swimming, or cycling. Don’t forget to lift weights a few days a week, too. We’re now starting to understand the lifting weights can help mitigate chronic inflammation, which can be a major contributor of mental health disorders including anxiety.
Mind your nutrition to curb anxiety
What we eat can have a big impact on our mental health. The gut-brain connection is well-established, and studies have shown that the health of our gut microbiome can impact our mood and mental health.
In some cases, anxiety can be exacerbated internal imbalances from nutritional or absorption deficits. It's good practice to (mostly) avoid foods that can contribute to anxiety, such as caffeine, sugar, and highly refined packaged goods. These foods can contribute to blood sugar imbalances, inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies which can lead to mood swings, irritability, and anxiety. Remember, I don’t endorse “diets” that exclude entire food groups. My approach is all about HAT foods (here and there), so indulge in the cupcake, just don’t let that sort of thing be the primary source of your nutrition.
Instead, opt for a diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. These foods contain nutrients that support brain health and can help manage anxiety. For example, omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and nuts have been shown to reduce inflammation in the brain and improve mood.
It's also essential to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, brain fog, and anxiety. Things like alcohol and smoking can also contribute by adding toxins to the mix. If you’re a smoker or drink a wee bit too much, I’m not singling you out! The summation of your mental health is more than one factor.
Practice mindfulness to reshape your brain
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool for managing anxiety. By focusing on the present moment, you can calm your mind and reduce feelings of worry and stress.
Research continues to pile up that mindfulness can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, regular mindfulness can literally transform the neurocircuitry in the brain creating resiliency toward things like anxiety, stress, and depression.
There are plenty of apps and guided meditations available to help you get started with mindfulness meditation. Even just a few minutes of meditation each day can have a significant impact on your mental health.
Get plenty of rest to ward off anxiety
Sleep is essential for good mental health, so make sure to prioritize rest. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and establish a bedtime routine to help signal to your body that it's time to wind down. Some adults think 4-5 hours (or less) is plenty. This is just not the case. Sleep is the only time our brains get to restore. Regularly getting too little sleep compounds over time. Studies now indicate lack of sleep can lead to long term cognitive impairments, accelerate age-related decline, and reduce our ability to manage otherwise easy situations.
Lack of sleep can lead to fatigue, brain fog, and anxiety. It's essential to prioritize sleep and establish good sleep habits. This includes things like turning off screens an hour before bedtime, establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, and creating a comfortable sleep environment. Think of sleep like an investment, over time you will reap the rewards of the investment. Skipping sleep too often will hurt performance down the road.
Anxiety can be reduced by connecting with others
Social support is a determining factor of good mental health. So, make sure to connect with loved ones regularly. Whether it's a phone call, a Zoom chat, or a walk, make time to nurture your relationships. The number one determinant of a long life is the quality of social connections we have.
Social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. If we prioritize social connections and find ways to connect with others regularly, we are less likely to be isolated. Moreover, should we need something in terms of emotional support, don’t be shy to turn to your support system. Struggling with something like anxiety can be overwhelming. You don’t have to struggle alone!
Anxiety can be tricky, so outsmart it!
Engaging in creative activities can help reduce anxiety. How so? Well when we do new activities or learn new skills we are actually creating new neuropathways in our brains. When we do this our brains go through a major restructuring called neurogenesis. If we use this process for novel, creativity we are less likely to activate negative pathways that lead to anxious or negative thoughts.
Whether it's painting, writing, or playing music, creative expression can help calm the mind, reduce symptoms of anxiety, and stress. Remember, there is no right answer here. The key is to do something new and different to jumpstart the neurogenesis process. Doing things that include multiple senses tend to be the most transformative, meaning learning to garden and actually gardening would be more beneficial than reading a book about gardening.
Think of anxiety like an old path between two towns. This path is in vast valley in full bloom, with tons of ruts and potholes from years and years wear. You want to go enjoy the flowers, but you can’t seem to get off that damn path. Now, think of creating new path through the tall wildflowers and grasses. At first it is hard. You may not see your feet and there may be thorns. But pretty soon you’re amongst the flowers. You’ve just created a new path, one you forged yourself. This creative and explorative process is transformative and critical if we want our brain to grow, too.
Practice gratitude to overcome anxiety
Gratitude is a powerful tool when it comes to managing anxiety. Focusing on what you're grateful for can help shift your mindset away from worry and stress. This is like turning off the negative pathways in exchange for positive ones. Gratitude is helpful for pretty much anyone, including those with feelings of depression.
One simple way to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. Each day, write down a few things you're grateful for, no matter how small they may seem. This can help shift your focus towards the positive and improve your overall mood. It sounds silly, but this training your mind. The old path like we talked about earlier applies here. It’s all about creating new neurocircuitry.
In conclusion, anxiety can be a challenging experience, but there are things we can do other than medication that can help ease symptoms and improve overall mental health. By getting moving, minding your nutrition, practicing mindfulness, getting plenty of rest, connecting with others, getting creative, and practicing gratitude, you can help manage anxiety and improve your mental health.
However, remember that alternative remedies may not work forever one and may not replace the need for medication or professional health. It's important to speak with your provider before adding any new supplements or making significant changes to your lifestyle. Together, you can develop a comprehensive treatment plan that works for you.
If you have questions about anything related to integrative psychiatry, please reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am working to spread the word about integrative psychiatry, so feel free to repost this blog!