Even if you're not prone to panic, dealing with day-to-day life during the coronavirus pandemic is enough to trigger anxiety even in the most steadfast of us. “Sometimes stress is so strong that there's no way to avoid its negative effects on your mental health,” says Bruce Rabin, M.D., professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh. But with the right tools, you can help buffer it, he adds. Here are four natural ways to do just that.
1. Fuel up with the right foods
While there's no magic supplement that can — poof! — cure your anxiety, there is some good research that certain foods and nutrients may help alleviate its effects. A closer look: Fatty fish. It's rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which have been shown to improve symptoms of moderate and major depression and also to significantly reduce anxiety, says Tod Cooperman, M.D., president, founder, and editor-in-chief of ConsumerLab.com, an independent evaluator of dietary supplements. A 2018 review of 19 clinical trials published in the journal JAMA Network Open found, for example, that people who got over 2,000 grams of fish oil a day reported improvements in their anxiety symptoms. Since this may be difficult to get from food alone (five ounces of salmon, for example, has about 1,200 grams), then it's reasonable to supplement. Cooperman recommends 2,000 grams daily. Brands that have passed Consumer Lab's testing include Kirkland Signature Fish Oil (Costco), Life Extension Omega Super Omega-3 EPA/DHA, Minami Garden of Life Platinum Omega-3 Fish Oil, and OmegaBrite.
Probiotic-rich foods. Think a daily dose of pickles, sauerkraut or kefir. A study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety.
Leafy greens. Having low blood levels of magnesium and a low intake of magnesium from foods are each associated with an increased risk of depression, says Cooperman. The recommended dietary allowance for adults over the age of 30 is 320 mg a day for women and 420 mg a day for men. An ounce (about a handful) of almonds has 80, a half-cup of boiled spinach has 78, a half-cup of cooked black beans has 60, and two tablespoons of peanut butter have 49.
Protein in the morning. Protein helps synthesize serotonin, a brain hormone responsible for helping to lower anxiety and boost mood, notes Elsa Orivel, a dietician at Foodvisor. She recommends 15 grams at breakfast (the equivalent of about two large eggs).
Certain spices. A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that a combination of saffron and curcumin reduced both depression and anxiety in affected patients. Other research suggests that ginger may be effective in reducing anxiety, as well.
2. Be mindful
Whenever you feel anxious, practice some mindfulness techniques, suggests Amy Sullivan, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. “It teaches us how to stay in the here and now, instead of toward fear and uncertainty in the future,” she says. One easy exercise involves going no further than your own pantry. Grab an orange or other citrus fruit, and then take some time to really examine it as if you'd never seen it before. “Go through the process of describing it, peeling it, and eating it, using all five of your senses” — sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, advises Sullivan. As you are focusing intently, you will tune down your autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for producing that panicky fight-or-flight response you get when you're anxious. A 2014 review of 47 clinical trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that practicing mindfulness meditation can help ease anxiety.
“[Mindfulness] teaches us how to stay in the here and now, instead of toward fear and uncertainty in the future.” Amy Sullivan, Cleveland Clinic
Another way to practice mindfulness — and lower anxiety — is yoga. One 2019 Boston University study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice found that people who practiced yoga several times a week reported improvements in both depression and anxiety symptoms within just eight weeks.
3. Stay active — especially outdoors
You probably already know that exercise is good to both boost your mood and health. But taking any workout or walk outdoors reaps even more anxiety-busting benefits. A study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that people who did their exercise outside reported feeling more energy, and less tension and depression, than those who did indoor workouts. What's more, a 90-minute walk in nature lowers activity in the part of the brain linked to negative rumination, according to a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But if you're somewhere like an apartment complex or nursing home where you can't easily get outdoors, then any type of indoor physical activity — even just walking up and down a flight of stairs — can help, says Rabin.
4. Set a power-down routine
When it comes to sleep and anxiety, it's a little bit of the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome: Anxiety makes it hard to nod off, then sleep deprivation makes your mood worse the next day. But people with insomnia are 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety than more sound sleepers, according to the National Sleep Foundation. You may be tempted to try an over-the-counter sleep aid such as doxylamine (Unisom) or diphenhydramine (Sominex). But these have been linked to next-day drowsiness, confusion, constipation, dry mouth and difficulty urinating in older adults.
Instead, try resetting your nighttime routine. Ninety minutes before bed, hop into a warm bath or shower, advises Michael Breus, a Los Angeles sleep specialist and author of The Power of When. “Your body temperature will decrease once you get out of the tub, helping produce melatonin naturally,” he explains. Once you've toweled off, give yourself an electronic curfew. This means no CNN, and no checking Facebook or Twitter. “You need time to relax and destress,” says Breus. If you want to read and typically do so with a tablet, know that some Kindles automatically reduce the amount of blue light you get. If yours doesn't, don a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses (you can find them on sites like Amazon) if you read this way.
Finish with some deep breathing exercises before bed. “This kicks off a series of physiological changes that aid relaxation, including reducing muscle tension, slowing breathing rate and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and metabolism,” explains Breus. He recommends 4-7-8 breathing. In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed, inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale slowly for eight seconds. Repeat several times. “That slow exhale is very similar to the pace of breathing your body adopts as you're falling asleep,” says Breus. As a result, you're mimicking the breathing patterns of sleep onset. With luck, your body will soon follow.