According to the National Institute of Mental Health, research shows that 19.1 percent of adults in the United States experience an anxiety disorder within a given year, and 31.1 percent have an anxiety disorder at any time during their lives (1). Given the high prevalence of anxiety disorders, medication use is also common to treat anxiety. A 2013 report in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders shows that nearly two-thirds of adults with anxiety have taken medication during their lifetimes, which is an increase since 2004. The use of a type of anxiety medication called benzodiazepines has also increased, with nearly one-third of adults using these drugs at some point.
While medication use is common and can be helpful for some people, there may be unpleasant effects associated with anxiety medications. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School, benzodiazepines can cause side effects, such as drowsiness, coordination issues, and memory problems. Over time, they can become addictive, as people can become physically dependent upon them and develop withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the medication.
Given the potential side effects of medication use, some people turn to alternative therapies for treating anxiety. Fortunately, the research shows that there are numerous effective ways to treat anxiety without medication.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) operates according to the theory that distorted ways of thinking can influence the way we feel and in turn cause anxiety. In CBT, people learn to replace dysfunctional, anxiety-provoking thoughts with healthier thinking patterns. For example, a person who thinks that she will fail a test because it is too difficult may learn in cognitive behavioral therapy to tell herself that the test may be hard, but she can study to be successful. The research has proven CBT to be beneficial; a report in a 2008 edition of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reviewed the results of multiple studies and concluded that CBT is effective for treating adults with anxiety.
Another medication-free solution for anxiety is mindfulness meditation. When people learn to become mindful, they are able to focus on the present moment without worrying about what may happen in the future. Mindfulness meditation also teaches people to acknowledge their thoughts, including worrisome thoughts, without fixating on them or reading into them. This sort of intervention sounds useful for anxiety in theory, and it is also supported by science. A 2013 study in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that a mindfulness intervention significantly reduced anxiety and improved people’s reactions to stressful situations.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
In addition to meditation, progressive muscle relaxation offers a strategy for treating anxiety without medication. According to the University of Michigan, this technique involves tensing muscles while breathing in and then relaxing them while breathing out, working different muscle groups in a specified order. A 2006 study in the International Journal of Stress Management found that this technique was effective. When study participants completed progressive muscle relaxation for 20 minutes, their anxiety levels were lower when compared to people in a control group. After being exposed to a stressful situation, those who underwent progressive muscle relaxation recovered from the stressor more quickly in comparison to those in the control group.
Exercise for Anxiety Relief
Beyond specific anxiety treatment techniques such as muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy, simply getting enough exercise can provide relief from anxiety. Some people who live with anxiety find that exercise offers a way to cope with stress and tension and improves their mood, making anxiety less severe. This fact is also supported in the research. In fact, a 2008 report in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology reviewed the results of 49 different studies and found that exercise reduces anxiety when compared to no treatment at all. There was also some evidence that exercise may be slightly more effective than other established anxiety treatments.
Toastmasters for Social Anxiety
People who live with general anxiety symptoms, such as excessive worry, irritability, and muscle tension may benefit from the natural anxiety treatments discussed here, and those who struggle with a specific form of anxiety called social anxiety disorder (SAD) may find relief by joining a Toastmasters group. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with SAD are fearful of being judged by others, and they experience significant distress when faced with social situations, such as meeting new people or engaging in public speaking. They may feel nauseous and embarrassed during social situations and may avoid people entirely because of their level of distress. Fortunately, Toastmasters provides a solution. This organization offers a network of clubs across the globe, and its goal is to teach people to be effective public speakers. The organization offers an online search tool to allow people to find a club in their location. People who live with SAD can join a local Toastmasters club for a small fee and learn the skills they need to be more confident when speaking in public.
Toastmasters clubs and other medication-free treatments, such as exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and therapy offer natural relief from anxiety without the side effects of prescription drugs. While these natural methods may be beneficial for some people with anxiety disorders, those who have severe anxiety may find that they require medication to treat their symptoms. In some cases, medication may be paired with natural remedies, and over time, the medication can be phased out as anxiety improves and people develop the skills to cope with it. If you are uncertain about whether you can treat your anxiety without medication, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider about your options.