Tell us if this sounds familiar before a big race: Crazy thoughts, sweaty palms, exhaustion, trouble sleeping, maybe some nail biting, and worry. Oh, so much worry.
We’ve all felt a little (or a lot) anxious at some point in our lives. Maybe it’s that ridiculous work deadline, uncertainty in how your training went, or general unease with the state of the world that’s making you feel on edge. And learning how to deal with anxiety is not just inconvenient. Uncontrolled anxiety can be downright debilitating, sending you down a chaotic spiral of negative thoughts and feelings.
“Anxiety is how we internally react to stress,” says Ellen Albertson, Ph.D., R.D., psychologist and nutritionist in private practice. “It’s a product of our negative or worrisome thoughts and can leave us feeling totally helpless.”
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About 40 million adults in the United States have some form of anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental illness in the country. But even if you don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, you can still experience anxiety’s ugly symptoms from time to time.
The good news: You probably don’t need medication or formal therapy to get your symptoms in check. Everything from choosing the right foods to reframing your thoughts to a little strategic breathing can help keep you calm.
Here are eight expert-approved natural remedies for anxiety to get you feeling balanced again.
Have eggs for breakfast
“You don’t want to get too hungry,” says Drew Ramsey, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and creator of the new e-course Eat to Beat Depression. “So make sure to eat a good source of protein and fat in the morning, like eggs, and skip the sugar and refined carbs.”
That’s because hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can cause or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, especially symptoms like sweating, shaking, irritability, and heart palpitations. But consuming enough protein and fat will keep blood sugar levels stable and prevent any mood-altering spikes or dips.
“Eggs are also great because they contain choline,” adds Ramsey. One study found that low choline levels were significantly associated with increased anxiety symptoms, and several other studies suggest that choline enhances cognitive functioning and overall brain health.
Take a few deep breaths
Deep breathing is one of the simplest, most effective ways to calm yourself down in the midst of an anxiety-induced freakout. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the fight or flight response and helps neutralize stress and anxiety.
Albertson suggests trying a simple 4-7-8 breathing technique: Exhale completely, inhale through your nose for a count of 4 seconds, hold it in for a count of 7 seconds, and exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat about five times, or as needed.
Nosh on some chocolate
A varied, whole foods based diet with plenty of plant foods helps support the right balance of brain chemicals for a calm state of mind. But if you have to pay attention to one nutrient in particular, it should probably be magnesium, a mineral responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body and that about 68 percent of us need more of.
Making sure you’re eating enough magnesium when you’re feeling frazzled is so important for two reasons, says Albertson: low magnesium levels can make anxiety feel worse, and anxiety and stress can further deplete levels of magnesium.
Foods that are high in this essential mineral: dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dark chocolate, avocado, and black beans. Meaning, yes, you now have an excuse to indulge in those dark chocolate-covered almonds from time to time.
Head outside for a quick walk (or run)
Spending time in nature is key for maintaining a sense of calm and balance in your life. “Forest bathing, essentially just walking in the woods, is the latest rage in Japan, and just 15 minutes of it can have an amazing effect on lowering your blood pressure and increasing your sense of calm,” says Susan Albers, PsyD, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food.
No forest to walk in? That’s fine. Even looking out your window for a bit while you practice some deep breathing could work—research shows that just being in close to proximity to natural green space is associated with reduced depression and anxiety symptoms.
Trade your coffee for matcha
Despite your undying love for coffee, it’s not so great to consume in excess if you’re prone to anxiety. That’s because caffeine stimulates the production of adrenaline, which activates the fight or flight response in your body, which can further exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety. All of which is to say you’ll just feel more on edge, says Albertson.
If you can bear to part with your morning cuppa joe, consider trading it in for a lower-caf option like matcha tea (or one of these matcha tea recipes). Matcha not only has about half the caffeine of coffee, but it also contains the amino acid l-theanine, which helps buffer the effects of caffeine and is associated with a more calm alertness (rather than a jittery high).
Want to ditch caffeine altogether? Albers recommends sipping on chamomile, rooibos, or valerian tea when you’re feeling anxious, all of which are naturally caffeine-free and contain antioxidants and other compounds that promote relaxation and sleep.
Get warm and cozy
Here’s something you’ve definitely experienced: feeling more tense and anxious when you’re cold and more relaxed when you’re warm (yet another reason to sip on the herbal teas mentioned above). Which makes sense, considering how most of us physically tense up our bodies in response to cold temperatures.
Research backs this idea up, too, with one small, preliminary Japanese study finding that people felt less anxious after spending time in a sauna. Other research suggests that warming sensations may have an impact on serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter.
Of course, this won’t work in the office, so having a blanket or sweater stashed in a desk drawer for these anxious occasions can make all the difference, especially when that A/C is blasting.
Give yourself a mini massage
What’s better than a massage to physically break up and eliminate the tension and anxiety you’re holding in your body? Probably nothing, but getting one every week would probably bust your budget. That’s why mini massages are your new BFF. Albers recommends keeping a tennis ball at your desk, or even in your purse so you have access to it at all times. “When you feel stressed or anxious, pull it out and roll it under your feet or behind your shoulders,” she says.
While you’re at it, go ahead and do some gentle stretches or yoga poses, too, which are great for relieving physical tension and providing you with a moment to pause in your day, evaluate what’s making you anxious, and (hopefully) let it go.
Tune into your emotions
You can never truly rid yourself of anxiety until you first acknowledge what you’re feeling. To do that, try this simple “soften, soothe, and allow” exercise. Here, Albertson explains:
“First, stop what you’re doing when you notice you’re feeling anxious. Then name the emotion connected with the anxiety (maybe it’s anger, or maybe it’s sadness). Next, locate where on your body you are feeling the anxiety, such as a tightness in your chest or butterflies in your stomach. Then, try to soften and soothe that area with some type of physical touch. Finally, allow the feelings and sensations to come and go.”
Sometimes just sitting with these feelings can help quell the anxiety that accompanies them.