When most people think of anxiety, they envision someone having a full-blown panic attack, but the truth is that anxiety may show up in subtle and sneaky ways. In fact, from a more Eastern perspective, any time you move away from a feeling of peace, you are experiencing a form of anxiety.
Consider the following questions.
Are you able to sit still regularly and feel at peace, or do you feel uneasy?
Do you feel on edge or like you constantly have something to do?
Is it difficult to stop checking emails or social media for 24 hours, because you feel like you’re missing something important?
Do you often feel like you are rushing?
Do you ever lie awake at night thinking about your to-do list?
Do you find it difficult to control your worries or sometimes feel they are out-of-proportion to reality?
Is your sense of worry accompanied by any of these other feelings: restlessness, easy fatigability, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, and/or sleep disturbance?
If you responded “yes” to any of these questions, then you may have suffered from anxiety. Anxiety is a normal response to a stressor, but when prolonged and hard to control, it can become pathological.1 My craniosacral therapist has a different name for it: rev. I get overly rev’ed in my body and feel “stressed.” Or you may identify the feeling as overwhelmed.
Regardless of the term that suits you best, if you feel anxious, you are not alone. Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million adults in the United States, and, even though it is highly treatable, only about one affected person in three gets treatment.2 Most of us like quick fixes, but more than anything, I want to show you natural ways to control your anxiety before you resort to medication. I urge you to talk to your primary care clinician, about your feelings and to get help. Natural hacks work best when you’ve been screened first by a knowledgeable
What’s Wrong with the Worries?
Because anxiety is a form of stress, it causes the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. They give you a quick boost of energy when you need to flee a dangerous situation. The problem is your body doesn’t know the difference between an overwhelming day and being chased by a deadly beast. For this reason your cortisol levels can remain at “high alert” status even when you are just feeling a little anxious and are not actually in danger. This is an unfortunate artifact of our ancient nervous system.
Over time, chronically high cortisol levels can stress your adrenal glands, create hormonal imbalances, increase your blood pressure, and “rev” belly fat, sugar cravings, and insulin levels.
Before you start feeling anxious about this too, don’t worry! Five anxiety hacks will help you get yourself into a healthier anxiety-free state of mind naturally.
Anxiety Hack #1 Avoid Blood Sugar Dips
When you go too long without eating, it can cause you to feel anxiety-like symptoms simply because your brain isn’t receiving enough glucose to function properly.3 I have found that for many people balancing blood sugar is enough to get rid of their anxiety completely.
Just like your car needs fuel to run properly, so does your brain, and it is important not to dismiss the importance of regular and nutrient-dense eating.
When I say your brain needs glucose to function, it doesn’t mean you should eat unhealthy snack bars or a bag of chips. Fake carbs will spike your blood sugar, which activates the release of the hormone insulin. Insulin will then work overtime to reduce your blood sugar quickly, often leaving your blood sugar lower than it was to begin with, keeping the low blood sugar/anxiety cycle going.
What to do:
Eating small protein/fat snacks throughout the day. Nothing works better than clean protein to stabilize your blood sugar. I keep almonds and macadamia nuts in my purse and car.
Anxiety Hack #2 Stop Drinking Coffee
When you first drink a cup of coffee, your adrenaline and epinephrine levels go up, this is why you feel like a rock star for the first 15 to 20 minutes. But after that, something else happens. You start to feel jittery and anxious.
This caffeine crash isn’t surprising since after about 15 to 20 minutes your adrenaline and epinephrine levels start to drop while your cortisol levels stay up.
Consider this: using coffee to increase your energy levels is like using a credit card to buy something you cannot afford. It feels really good—until the bill arrives! In this case “the bill” is out-of-whack hormones, jitters, anxiety, and belly fat.
As I describe in my new book, The Hormone Reset Diet, on page 133, coffee may make you anxious owing to contamination with mold toxins. Approximately 52 to 92 percent of coffee beans tested positive for mold,4 and about 24 percent of the population is especially vulnerable to symptoms of mold toxicity.5 These problems motivated my friend Dave Asprey to create a new form of coffee that is vanishingly low in mold toxins. Still, you may be sensitive to coffee’s cortisol effects.
What to do:
Drink decaf coffee instead. It still contains a small amount of caffeine, which I find is enough to feel noticeably more alert but without the anxiety. My favorite is Dave Asprey’s Decaf Bulletproof® Upgraded™ Coffee, which is low in mold.
Consider switching out coffee for organic black and green teas, which contain much less caffeine. Green tea in particular has many health benefits, including modest risk reduction of cancer, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, stroke, genital warts, and obesity.6
Anxiety Hack #3 Learn to Say No
It’s safe to say that if you only had one thing to do every day you probably wouldn’t feel anxious or stressed out. Generally, long to-do lists are what cause you to think, how the hell am I going to get through today?
Many people are suffering from what my good friend Dr. Pedram Shojai calls Time Compression Syndrome. I am sure you can relate to cramming your schedule so tightly that you don’t have enough time to get from point A to point B without running late and feeling anxious.
If you think you are a stellar multitasker, guess again. Research shows that multitasking is associated with poor attention skills, depression, anxiety, and a decrease in gray matter density in the brain.7
This is why, as hard at it might be, it is so important that you learn how to say “no.” Often, we say yes simply because we do not want to hurt someone’s feelings or we feel we should be able to do all things for everyone all the time. However, living this way only exhausts you mentally, physically, and emotionally.
What to do:
If you have a hard time saying no, you might find it easier to say, “Probably not” instead. For example if you are asked to volunteer for something at your kid’s school but you know you can’t fit it in your schedule, you can say, “Probably not, but let me get back to you.”
Anxiety Hack #4 Pause and Breathe
Stress and anxiety cause shallow breathing (breathing high in the chest rather than low in the belly) because they trigger your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) to activate. Alternatively, lower belly breathing stimulates your vagus nerve, helping to counteract the sympathetic nervous system by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing also causes your body to release its own form of valium, a neurotransmitter called GABA (short for gamma-aminobutyric acid).
Deep breathing is even more beneficial when it is coupled with meditation or mindfulness. Meditation lowers cortisol levels and raises serotonin, the “happy” brain chemical in charge of your moods, sleep, and appetite.
What to do:
Start with 5 minutes of deep breathing and meditation. Download the free trial of the popular app Head Space onto your smart phone, or simply take three belly breaths whenever you enter your passcode on a hand-held device. Even just a few seconds of quiet contemplation and deep breathing will help you hit the reset button.
Anxiety Hack #5 Try Yoga
Studies show that yoga is as or more effective than Xanax or Ativan. In Germany, a group of women with anxiety took two 90-minute yoga classes per week for 3 months and saw significant reductions in both anxiety symptoms and salivary cortisol levels.8 In another study from UCLA, women with mild depression were treated with yoga twice a week compared to a group who did not do yoga. The yoga group had significant improvements in mood and anxiety after only 2.5 weeks in class.9
What to do:
Start going to a yoga class once per week, and begin each day with “Just One Pose,” a free series of single poses that I created on YouTube. Often, movement is helpful for anxious people, rather than sitting on a cushion and trying to meditate.
Incorporate these 5 hacks to see if your anxiety lessens, or even that your need for medication falls away. Maybe you’ll need less Xanax to feel in the present moment. However, I am not suggesting that you dump your drugs without first consulting your clinician. You might find that managing your cortisol and anxiety levels naturally works even better for you than medication, without unpleasant side effects. Natural remedies often help dampen the rev more effectively than prescriptions.