Ellen Vora M.D., is a holistic psychiatrist practicing with Frank Lipman M.D., at the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. This week, we’re sharing Dr. Vora’s expertise in a new series on natural remedies to calm the body and mind. To learn more, check out her mindbodygreen class How to Control Anxiety: Doctor-Backed Natural Remedies for a Calm & Centered Life.
When it comes to treating anxiety, it can sometimes take months or even years to effectively address the root of the problem. As a holistic psychiatrist, acupuncturist, and yoga teacher practicing in New York City, I've learned a few easy "tricks" that can help people feel less anxious immediately. I'm always surprised that these aren't more well-known since they're so simple and they work so quickly. Here are three tips I tell everyone to try when they first tell me about anxiety.
1. Stabilize your blood sugar.
Problem: Anxiety occurs when the body is tripped into the "fight-or-flight mode" or "stress response." Sometimes the stress response is out of your control, like during a big presentation at work or traffic on your commute, but other times it's completely preventable. One very common and preventable cause of stress response is low blood sugar. Many of you are already familiar with the experience of feeling "hangry" (hungry/angry). For some people, blood sugar dips cause anxiety. And most of the time these folks aren't even aware of this connection. If this is you, you can make yourself significantly less anxious by maintaining stable blood sugar.
Solution: The definitive solution is to cut out (or down) sugar and refined carbohydrates, eat plenty of healthy fats and protein, and stick to safe starches like sweet potatoes and plantains. Short of that total diet overhaul, you can also rely on something like coconut oil or sprouted almond butter to give yourself a blood sugar safety net. If you feel your blood sugar crashing, take a spoonful of coconut oil or almond butter. If you're running out of the house and you know you'll be on the go without much time to pause and eat, take a spoonful. If you're about to go to bed and you often wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning with racing thoughts and anxiety, take a spoonful before bed. If you're headed to a happy hour or a wedding, and you know there will be booze aplenty but not necessarily healthy food, take a spoonful. You can even carry portable almond butter packets in your bag so you can always have a spoonful on hand. Taking these precautions to keep your blood sugar stable can prevent your body from going into a stress response, and this will curb your anxiety fast.
2. Cut out caffeine.
Problem: Nobody likes this one. Drinking coffee is our favorite ritual, culturally. It's warm, comforting, delicious, trendy, and often it's the only thing getting us out of bed in the morning. But if you suffer from anxiety and you consume any form of caffeine, it behooves you to at least do try life without caffeine for an extended period of time (not just a day). Caffeine makes your body much more likely to get tripped into a stress response—it's as though it makes your nervous system ready for a fight. If you combine coffee with a busy life and a stressful job, that's enough to make almost anybody anxious. You'll be able to handle the busy life and stressful job much more calmly without coffee revving up your nervous system.
Solution: A word of caution: Proceed slowly with any adjustments to caffeine consumption. Caffeine withdrawal is no joke, so make gradual adjustments and allow your body to acclimate before you take the next step. If you drink three coffees a day, go down to two. If you drink one cup, change it to half-caf. If you're drinking black tea, try green tea. And if you're a green tea drinker but still experiencing anxiety, do a trial completely off caffeine. Removing caffeine from the equation can make you more resilient to stress and lessen your daily anxiety level.
3. Try two (everyone has two!) minutes of breathwork.
Problem: Many of you know that breathing exercises are a powerful antidote to anxiety. They put the body directly into the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress response. This relaxed state protects us from anxiety, and can even treat anxiety as it's happening. Breathing exercises are safe, effective, free, and available to us anytime, anywhere. So why aren't we all doing daily breathing exercises?
Solution: Starting a new habit is always the hardest part. If I had the secret key to unlock the challenge of human behavioral change, believe me, I would share it with you. Let's at least say this: Lower your standards. Rather than holding onto a perfectionistic approach to meditation (I'll meditate when I have a half hour to devote to it, and I have a comfortable, quiet spot, and there's nothing left to do on my to-do list, and the moon is in conjunction synastry with Capricorn ascendant...then I'll meditate). No. We must collect ourselves to meditate today, right now, while there are tons of urgent matters waiting for our attention, while we feel like we have no time. That is when the magic happens. So set aside the phone or computer and after reading this article, just sit and focus on your breath.
Here's a super-quick and easy breathing exercise to combat anxiety. It's called the 4-2-4 breath. Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for 2 counts, and exhale to the count of 4. Set a timer and do this for two minutes at least once a day, or whenever you're anxious. Everybody has two minutes.
While these tips may not get you the same benefit as seven years of therapy or living in sync with nature in a utopian community, I hope you're able to at least put these three simple steps into action tomorrow (or even today) to curb your anxiety quickly.