Treatment Options For Reducing Anxiety Symptoms Without Medication

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When it comes to mental health, a treatment that works for one person may not work as well for the next. While pharmaceutical medication is one of the common treatments for anxiety, it’s not appropriate in every case. Some people experience undesirable side effects, while others can’t take anti-anxiety medications because of other, existing health conditions or medications. Still, others may not have a prescribing mental healthcare professional. Some people may simply want to try natural remedies or methods of treatment without medication. Medication and non-medication options for treating mental health conditions can both be effective under the supervision of a licensed clinician. For those who are interested in exploring non-medication options for treating anxiety symptoms, see below.

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Symptoms of anxiety disorders

Anxiety symptoms vary based on the type of disorder, of which there are several—including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, and others. That said, all of these are characterized at least in part by a persistent sense of anxiety, fear, and/or worry that interferes with everyday life and/or functioning. Other common symptoms across anxiety disorders may include:

  • Physical symptoms like a racing heart rate, fast, shallow breathing, increased blood pressure, tense muscles, sweating, shaking, and headaches or stomach aches with no other cause

  • Behavioral symptoms like irritability, significant changes to eating and/ or sleeping habits, and going to great lengths to avoid anxiety triggers

  • Psychological symptoms like trouble concentrating, mood swings, brain fog, panic attacks, and a persistent sense of fear, anxiety, or impending doom or danger as mentioned above

These symptoms all have the potential to negatively impact a person’s day-to-day functioning, relationships, work, and overall well-being. That’s why seeking treatment for anxiety symptoms can be important since effective treatment can relieve anxiety and significantly improve an individual’s quality of life.

Non-pharmacological strategies for managing anxiety symptoms

The first line of defense when it comes to treating anxiety disorders is usually some form of psychotherapy. Even when medication is prescribed, psychotherapy is often recommended in conjunction with it.

There are several therapeutic modalities that can be used to treat anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—which focuses on the connections between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—is a common anxiety treatment method. In a systematic review of the effects of CBT for several anxiety-related disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), researchers found that this form of treatment led to sustained improvements in symptoms. 

Other forms of talk therapy can also reduce anxiety. Exposure therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy can all be used as anxiety treatment without medication being prescribed.

Brain stimulation therapies may also be used to treat anxiety without medication. These modalities involve the use of electrical currents to activate certain regions of the brain. Research suggests that transcranial magnetic stimulation—one of the most widely utilized brain stimulation therapies—can help manage anxiety symptoms.  

Non-pharmacological coping strategies for anxiety

In addition to psychotherapy, your doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist might also recommend certain at-home remedies or lifestyle changes that may help you ease anxiety. Some of these coping mechanisms are listed below.

Exercise and movement

Getting some form of physical activity can be helpful to those experiencing symptoms of anxiety. For example, cardiovascular exercise can help decrease muscle tension and release feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin to boost mood. In fact, according to an article from Harvard Health Publishing, exercising “may be the single best non-medical solution we have for preventing and treating anxiety”. 

Support groups

There is an established connection between social support and mental wellness. A support group can connect individuals with a built-in community of people who are experiencing similar challenges. Members can provide one another with emotional support and guidance while addressing their own concerns. Support groups can also give members the opportunity to learn and practice strategies for alleviating anxiety without medication, such as deep-breathing techniques, art therapy, or meditation. 

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Mindfulness meditation

Meditation is an ancient cultural and religious practice that originated in India and is now practiced all over the world. One likely reason for its rise in popularity is the wealth of research that points to its potential health benefits. A variety of studies support the theory that mindfulness meditation in particular can help increase feelings of calm and decrease symptoms of anxiety, especially when practiced consistently. Mindfulness meditation is centered around increasing one’s awareness of the present through deep breathing, non-judgment, and acceptance. 

Diet

The foods you eat can impact both your physical and mental health. As a 2021 review on the topic reports, diets that are rich in fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, and nutrients like magnesium and zinc and low in fat and sugar tend to be associated with lower levels of anxiety. Although it’s recommended that you speak to your doctor or nutritionist before making any significant dietary changes, incorporating more of these nutritious foods could help you control your anxiety symptoms.

It’s also worth noting that how often you eat can play a role in how you feel mentally as well. If you skip meals or otherwise go long stretches without eating, your blood sugar can drop. When blood sugar drops, in an effort to control blood glucose levels, the body will release adrenaline and cortisol (the “stress hormone”), which triggers the “fight-or-flight” response—a biochemical process that is also associated with anxiety. Eating regular, nutritious meals can help you avoid these dips in blood sugar that can make you feel anxious.

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Lavender oil

The scientific literature on this topic is limited, but one review reports that “oral administration of lavender essential oil proves to be effective in the treatment of anxiety”. It notes, however, that more studies are needed to confirm the consistency of these results. Before taking any essential oil orally, it may be wise to consult with your doctor. Using lavender-based products such as lotions or diffusers, however, are generally considered to be safe and could result in a calmer mood. 

Less caffeine

Some people find the ritual of drinking their morning coffee to be comforting or soothing, but caffeine can increase the wired, jittery feeling many already experience as a result of anxiety. Caffeine consumption can also lead to poor sleep hygiene, which can worsen or induce anxiety. Scaling back your daily caffeine intake or eliminating it altogether could be a worthwhile experiment if you’re interested in non-pharmacological strategies for managing anxiety. A decaffeinated alternative like herbal tea can help you avoid worsening stress and anxiety. Or you might consider switching to green tea, which can provide an energy and alertness boost while potentially increasing feelings of calm because of its L-theanine content.

Physical warmth

One study suggests that physical warmth can inhibit the fear response. That’s because it acts as a “prepared safety stimulus”, which is a stimulus that’s not generally associated with threats and, therefore, is less associated with the fear response. It may also have this effect because we tend to associate it with interpersonal warmth from supportive social connections. Either way, you might find that taking a hot shower or wrapping up in a warm blanket can help soothe anxiety in the moment.

Journaling

Many people with anxiety find it helpful to get their thoughts out by journaling, whether with pen and paper or on the computer. It can allow them to separate themselves from their thoughts and find release in the process. One study indicates that certain types of journaling may be associated with a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety and greater resilience to them in the future.

Seeking therapy for an anxiety disorder

There are various forms of therapy that may be helpful for those with anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most commonly used types. In this practice, a cognitive behavioral therapist helps an individual learn to become aware of and then shift distorted, distressing thought patterns in a healthier, more realistic direction. As a 2021 study in a growing body of research reports, “CBT is an effective, gold-standard treatment for anxiety and stress-related disorders”. 

Speaking with a mental health care provider in person about anxiety symptoms and sources can be intimidating to some, and traveling to in-person appointments can be difficult or even impossible for others. In cases like these, online therapy can be a viable alternative. Research suggests that both formats can offer similar benefits in many cases, so you can generally feel comfortable choosing whichever one feels best for you. If you’re interested in trying online therapy, you might consider a platform like BetterHelp. You can connect with a licensed therapist via phone, video, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing, all from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection.

Takeaway

A method that helps one person soothe their anxiety might not help another, which is why it’s typically worth speaking to your doctor or therapist for personalized suggestions if you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety. In addition to the first-line treatment of psychotherapy, there are a variety of other options that may help decrease symptoms. Medication is one, and diet, exercise, meditation, and journaling are others.
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