Shortness of breath. Stomach knots. Heart palpitations. Anxiety shows up in many different ways, from mild discomfort to debilitating panic attacks. While anxiety is a normal and common part of the human experience, some of us have lost the ability to easily shift back to a centered, calmer state of being with a rational perspective of our stress and anxiety. Often, these experiences of anxiety arise from feeling a lack of control over a situation, or having an external locus of control. For individuals with an external locus of control, the world seems like a much harder place to navigate and becomes overwhelming.
People who experience anxiety in some form wait years before seeking help, and often believe that their symptoms are normal, just something to live with. Because everyone experiences anxiety in their own unique way, one of the first steps to identifying anxiety is recognizing the difference between two kinds: day-to-day anxiety—that, while at times may feel overwhelming, can be brought back into balance safely and effectively—and medically recognized anxiety disorders that need support from a trained professional.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in the world, and can be categorized into six primary types: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a long-lasting anxiety not specific to a situation or object; Panic Disorder, classified by an immediate feeling of terror and often followed by trembling and difficulty breathing; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, characterized by repetitious obsessions and compulsions; Social Anxiety Disorder, which involves an intense fear of social interactions to the point of avoidance; Specific Phobias, or fear of a particular object or situation; and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, resulting from a traumatic experience.
Symptoms of both day-to-day anxiety (sub-clinical anxiety) and anxiety disorders can include feeling constantly on edge, avoiding everyday activities, shortness of breath, insomnia, abnormal sweating, and a pounding heart. While herbal medicines, lifestyle changes, and dietary changes can all help balance a disrupted nervous system and ease symptoms of day-to-day anxiety, it is important to remember that most of these anxiety disorders can be debilitating, if not dangerous. If you or a loved one have an anxiety disorder, herbal medicines can become an incredible complement and support system for work done with a therapist or other mental health professional.
Nervines: Nourishing the Nervous System
Nervines are a category of herbs that work to calm down the immediate stress response by nourishing nervous system tissue. Nervine herbs are gently relaxing without being sedating, and work to take the “edge” off of feelings of anxiety. Paired with adaptogenic herbs that work at a deep level to rewire the endocrine response to stress, nervine herbs work at the surface level of the nervous system to restore our sense of homeostasis and locus of control. Often, adaptogenic herbs and nervines are used together to create a complete approach to stress and anxiety management.
Skullcap: One of the most popular North American nervine herbs is skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora known for its ability to relax tension in the nervous system. Skullcap was used by early Eclectic and Physiomedicalist herbalists for conditions such as nervousness, epilepsy, insomnia, and delirium tremens. This herb has a cooling energetic, and is perfect for those whose anxiety shows up as feelings of flushed heat in the head and individuals who are easily stimulated or prone to hysterics. Because of its ability to relax muscular tension, skullcap is also excellent for people who develop muscle spasms or nervous tics when agitated, as well as for tension headaches. When combined with certain other herbs and used under the guidance of a trained professional, skullcap has shown clinical efficacy in managing panic disorders. Modern use classifies skullcap as a neurotrophorestorative, meaning that the use of this herb actually restores health and vigor to nervous system tissue.
Passionflower: Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata is arguably one of the most beautiful North American wildflowers, and has great value in the management of anxiety. Passionflower is an anxiolytic herb that is specific for people whose anxiety stems from an overactive mind that simply won’t shut off, also known as circular thinking. Similar to skullcap, passionflower is also anti-spasmodic and was once used by traditional herbalists for the tremors induced by alcohol or opiate withdrawal. This is also an excellent herb to take before bed if you are prone to nightmares or overactive dreams.
Milky Oat Seed: Milky oat seed, Avena sativa is the perfect herb for the overworked, under-slept individual who feels as though they are burning the candle on the top, the bottom, the left, and right—anyone who feels that classic anxiety known simply as “fried”. This nervous exhaustion often shows up as general shakiness and dark circles under the eyes, or an anxiety that is truly draining to one’s energy resources. When combined with motherwort, Leonorus cardiaca milky oat can be especially effective for individuals prone to anxiety with heart palpitations. Like skullcap, milky oat is also a neurotrophorestorative and works to repair damage to actual nervous system tissue.
Albizia: Albizia, Albizia julibrissin is an herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat symptoms of disturbed shen, which include anxiety, irritability, disturbed sleep, poor memory, and mild depression. Herbalist David Winston, founder of Herbalist & Alchemist, combines albizia with hawthorn and rose petals to treat depression and anxiety arising from grief or a broken heart.
Lemon Balm: Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis is an incredibly uplifting nervine that is especially useful for those who experience nervous upset in their stomach during periods of anxiety, and for those whose anxiety manifests as hyperactivity. The volatile oils in this plant, as with most members of the mint family, are wonderful for alleviating mental fatigue and brain fog so common to anxiety. Lemon balm is such a gentle, happy medicine which makes it excellent for children experiencing anxiety as well.
Supplements to Ease Anxiety
B vitamins are also an incredibly important piece of an anxiety protocol: They are necessary for optimum nervous system function and maintenance. Most individuals do not consume enough dietary B vitamins, and several medications, including birth control, actually deplete levels of B vitamins in the body, making them an important nutrient to supplement.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish oil supplements have been shown in several studies to have an uplifting effect on mood and energy, and in some studies resulted in greater feelings of wellness when taken alongside antidepressants than the drugs on their own. Taking New Chapter WholeMega on a daily basis is the equivalent of eating three whole servings of wild caught salmon per week.
Our dietary choices also influence our predisposition to experience anxiety. Highly inflammatory foods such as processed food, fried food, or foods high in sugar wear on our nerves over time, making our whole being much more fragile and susceptible to outside influence. Removing inflammatory foods from our diet makes us healthier overall, as well as increases our resilience to stress and disease. Minimizing nervous system stimulants, such as caffeine and cigarettes, will also help increase resilience towards anxiety.
Root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and carrots, have a very grounding energetic to them in addition to being incredibly nutritious. Foods rich in tryptophan such as turkey, bananas, oats, and nuts are important because tryptophan is a natural precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which promotes a feeling of calmness. Beef, eggs, leafy greens, legumes, and nuts contain B vitamins necessary for maintaining nervous system health. Salmon—rich in the Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA—not only reduces your risk of heart disease but also improves the quality of your nervous system tissue. Reducing the physical stress on your body by eating a highly nutritious diet—eating more whole, cooked foods—eases the amount of effort your body has to put into the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, and puts more energy towards tissue maintenance and repair.
Lifestyle management is an incredibly important piece of relieving anxiety. For those with more debilitating anxiety, such as social anxiety disorder, working with a mental health professional absolutely falls under the category of lifestyle management.
Recognize Triggers: Individuals experiencing more mild forms of anxiety can start with a practice of recognizing symptoms as teachers to help them identify sources of their anxiety. When feelings of anxiety start to arise, try paying attention to the primary ways you uniquely experience anxiety, such as clenching your hands into fists, breathing shallowly, or feeling your stomach knot. Learning to recognize the early stages of anxiety through these body signals teaches us what our triggers are so we can effectively remove ourselves from the source of the anxiety or begin to shift our perspective over a situation.
Practice Deep Breathing: As with many conditions, deep breathing can help us switch out of panic mode and help us to regain a sense of control within a given situation. Simply taking five deep breaths before responding to a person or event can be the turning point between immediately going into the anxiety reaction or shifting our perspective to one where we choose how to respond. Another excellent deep breathing technique to help ward off oncoming anxiety is alternate nostril breathing, known as Nadi Shodona in the Yogic tradition. This exercise is done by inhaling deeply and slowly through one nostril (using a finger to press the opposite nostril closed), holding the breath in, then exhaling through the opposite nostril. Repeat by inhaling through the other nostril first, holding, then exhaling through the opposite nostril. Repeat several times per side.
Ask for Support: Most importantly, while herbs, foods, and lifestyle habits can be powerful allies when living with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, the most powerful ally will always be the ability to ask for support when needed. Having a support network builds a sense of comfort, safety, and inclusion, and when met, these needs are incredibly effective in helping an individual recover from anxiety.
Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness
Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.Contact Betsy