Taking supplements for anxiety can often be reasonably effective in those cases where an anxiety attack is mild, if for no other reason than there are various supplements that can help you to relax, which is one good way to combat feelings of anxiety. Whereas mild anxiety forms are quite natural, severe or chronic cases are not and, in extreme cases, often need to be treated as mental diseases. In such cases, the use of supplements may or may not be of any help. In any event, anxiety is one of those things that are often treatable but for which there is no cure, and taking greater and greater amounts of supplements to fight off feelings of nervousness could in the end do you more harm than good.
Different Kinds of Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety in most instances is quite normal. It is a reaction to a certain situation, usually a situation that arouses feelings of discomfort, such as being faced with appearing before a large group of people when you are not used to doing so. The feeling of discomfort will usually be even more extreme when facing a genuinely dangerous or life-threatening situation. You can also experience bouts of anxiety when the situation you are confronting is an imagined one, a situation that, for the moment at least, exists only in your mind. The feelings of anxiety you experience can vary in intensity considerably. At times, they are mild and fleeting, at other times, they are more pronounced, and for some people, these feelings are chronic and can be triggered by a number of different things or situations.
Most anxiety cases are completely natural however in that your body is simply preparing you to react appropriately to what you perceive to be a threatening situation. What is not natural is falling into a habit of overreacting to situations that don’t warrant that overreaction, or experiencing feelings of uneasiness when the situations you are facing exist only in your imagination. When you overreact to a situation, your ability to react appropriately to that situation will often be impaired, as is the case when you find yourself ‘frozen with fear.’ If your uneasiness tends to be chronic, you could on the one hand be classified as being a worrywart. On the other hand, you might be having serious mental or emotional problems. There is a difference therefore between normal feelings of anxiety and having a true anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are more than a series of experiences. They are diseases, and they include such things as phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, posttraumatic stress disorders, and panic disorders. They can be based on life experiences, on biological factors, or a combination of both. They sometimes run in families, and they tend to be more common in women than in men. Unless caused by a traumatic event, these disorders often come about gradually, with the affected individual often going through the worrywart phase before entering a phase in which he or she becomes a chronic worrier and in some instances becomes incapacitated at times from worrying, fretting, or becoming overly fearful.
Is the Use of Supplements to Treat Anxiety Helpful or Harmful?
First of all, taking supplements is rarely – if ever – a cure for anxiety, or for most any disorder for that matter. The whole purpose behind taking supplements is to get some short-term relief while building towards a long-term solution. Herbal remedies most often differ from prescribed medications largely in terms of their strength, and the positive effects that are claimed for many herbal medications are for the most part yet to be clinically proven. In addition, the more powerful an herbal medication is, the more likely it is to cause side effects. If an herbal medication or supplement does indeed appear to be helpful, taking more of it will not necessarily be better.
If you’re planning to take supplements to treat anxiety and your feelings of uneasiness are anything except mild ones, you should always consult with a physician, most especially if you’re taking a medication of one kind or another. Be prepared to be told in some cases that you should never take supplements to treat anxiety since some doctors have a closed mind when it comes to taking supplements of any kind, whether they are herbal supplements or not. You need to remember that, while the role of a doctor is to treat or cure injuries or illnesses, doctors are also taught to ‘do no harm’ and, for that reason, are unlikely to recommend to you taking something that they are not overly familiar with. On the other hand, there are physicians that will have no problem in suggesting a supplement that they know something about and believe may be helpful, or at least will ‘do no harm.’
To state that taking supplements for anxiety is harmful or not harmful is in either case an oversimplification. Whether a supplement is harmful or beneficial depends upon your particular condition, upon the nature of the supplement, upon the strength or dosage of the supplement, and upon any other types of treatment you are undergoing, whether for anxiety or for something else. This is an area you don’t want to walk blindly into, or simply rely on advertising claims as your chief source of information. Supplements can be very helpful or very harmful, and unless you choose to do some research or simply take a change, you have to leave it at that.
The most common claim made for natural supplements is that because they are natural, they are safe. That is simply not true in all cases, although it must be admitted that natural supplements are often safer than various synthesized chemical compounds. Nevertheless, if a chemical compound causes a certain action to take place in your body that results in an undesirable side effect, a natural supplement that causes the same action to take place will cause the same side effect.
If you do plan to take a supplement, take only one type at a time. If you experience side effects, you may be able to pinpoint the cause. If you happen to be taking several supplements and suffer undesirable side effects, you will have to either discontinue taking all of them or go through a sometimes lengthy process of elimination to determine which one is causing you a problem.
Three Types of Supplements
The supplements that you might consider taking to relieve anxiety symptoms fall into three general categories. Knowing these categories may not be of extreme importance in the sense that if a supplement is beneficial, the category it falls in may not seem all that important. Still, the supplements in the different categories do have some different characteristics, so there might be some value in seeing what these categories are. One of the categories is herbal supplements. Popular herbal supplements include kava, hawthorn, valerian, and passionflower, to name just a few. The second category is nutritional supplements; of these, magnesium, and possibly vitamin B complex compounds, appears to be of some benefit. The third category of supplements consists of neurotransmitter or hormonal precursors, many of which claim to be highly beneficial but are not supported by substantial clinical studies. In addition, some of the supplements that lie within the latter category are known to produce undesirable side effects. In summary, herbal supplements appear to be the safest and most effective of all, with the possible exception of magnesium.
The Benefits to be Gained from Taking Supplements
That said, there are definitely certain benefits that supplements have over prescription medications. If one of the causes of anxiety is a nutritional deficiency, taking vitamin or mineral supplements can often be valuable. B complex vitamins and magnesium are two cases in point. If your anxiety disorder is not easily diagnosable, or not diagnosable at all, herbal supplements can often be a better choice than prescription medications since they are less likely to cause side effects and for the most part carry no addiction risks. Dosages are usually not as critical with supplements as they are with prescription medications and few, if any, herbal supplements are known to cause personality changes, which can sometimes happen when you are taking prescription medications.
Four Supplements for Anxiety that Appear to Hold the Most Promise
If you go down most lists of supplements that are recommended for treating anxiety, you will find that for the vast majority of those listed, there is insufficient clinical evidence to prove whether the supplement in question is of any use or not. That does not mean that a given supplement is necessarily useless. It may be, but then again there may be some evidence to show that it can be of some help. Not everything that can benefit you can necessarily be clinically proven to be able to do so. There are at least four supplements that appear to be beneficial when it comes to treating anxiety:
1) Kava seems to top the list of recommended supplements to treat anxiety. Kava is in fact one of the few supplements for which a substantial amount of research has been conducted with respect to its effects on anxiety. There are several different types of compounds in kava called kavalactones that have been shown to be strongly psychoactive in promoting relaxation. Kava is in a sense a super supplement when dealing with anxiety in that it seems to provide everything that is needed in an anti-anxiety drug, including being a mild sedative, a muscle relaxant, and a pain reducer or reliever. In addition, kava has been shown to improve a person’s cognitive performance. As a cautionary note, one should only use natural kava supplements and not synthetically derived supplements since the latter has been shown to produce occasional side effects, resulting in certain products having been taken off the market.
2) Passionflower is another useful herbal supplement that has properties similar to kava, but those properties are not quite as strong. Passionflower has not been subjected to the same amount of research as is the case with kava, but it is generally agreed that this herb definitely has some beneficial values. Passionflower appears to be a good choice for those with only mild or easily manageable anxiety symptoms. There are several species of passionflower, some being more effective than others. Only one species, the maypop flower, has been the subject of a substantial amount of research.
3) Magnesium will not cure anxiety problems any more than other supplements will. Anxiety issues are simply not medicinally curable, whether the medications are prescription medicines or over-the-counter supplements. What supplements can do, magnesium supplements included, is to lessen the anxiety symptoms and in some cases prevent flare-ups of those symptoms. It’s not exactly clear why magnesium can be of help, but there is some evidence to suggest that it indeed can. Magnesium affects several hundred processes that are continuously going on in your body, so it stands to reason that a magnesium deficiency can lead to health problems. One of the areas in which magnesium plays an important role is in your nerve health. Nerve health therefore appears to be the most likely connection between anxiety symptoms and the possible benefits of magnesium. While magnesium is not a cure, having a deficiency of that nutrient could potentially make anxiety attacks worse than they otherwise would be.
4) Valerian root is another herbal remedy that is often recommended to counteract anxiety symptoms. Counteract is the key word here in that what valerian root is very good at is to promote sleep and relaxation. If you are prone to anxiety attacks, your overall situation is likely to improve if your sleep patterns improve and you have an easier time relaxing. More than anything else, valerian root can offer a break from chronic or ongoing anxiety. Not all that much is known about valerian except that it acts as a depressant, which you should bear in mind if you plan to take valerian root supplements along with other supplements or medications.
Non-medicinal Ways to Treat Anxiety
In addition to taking supplements to either cope with or prevent periods of anxiety, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make that can prove to be helpful. Yoga can have a very positive influence in that it can reinforce proper breathing and meditation practices, both of which are beneficial in treating anxiety. Very often, when people have an anxiety attack, no matter how mild, they tend to hold their breath in some instances and hyperventilate in others. Breathing deeply, slowly, and naturally is one of the best anti-anxiety measures you can take. Controlled breathing not only reduces or relieves anxiety but will also give you a feeling of control and even of empowerment. Practicing yoga also trains you to focus on the moment, looking neither ahead or behind, which is the same way meditation is approached. Meditation practiced regularly can often significantly reduce the negative effects of anxiety over the long term.
Eliminating caffeine and other stimulants from your diet can also be helpful. If your morning cup of coffee makes you feel relaxed and ready to start the day, it’s one thing; but if you drink several cups of coffee a day to try to help settle your nerves, you’re probably accomplishing the exact opposite. At least keep in mind the fact that too much caffeine will not be good for you if you experience frequent bouts of anxiety. You simply need to determine how much is too much, or if any caffeine at all is too much.
Just as too much caffeine can be harmful, so can too much exposure to the media. Since much of what is reported tends to be exciting, but is often bad news, which helps to make it exciting, an overabundance of bad news day after day isn’t likely to ease your worries and concerns. One of the reasons many people feel so good after having taken a vacation is they’ve avoided watching, listening to, or reading the news for a few days or weeks. Watching the evening news can easily become a habit. Not watching it can as well and can also leave you with a feeling of empowerment. If you don’t know what’s happening, you’re less likely to worry about it, unless of course you find an absence of news a cause to worry.
Another way to banish negative thoughts, at least temporarily, is through exercise. If you can take a walk, take a brisk one, or take your dog with you and hold regular conversations with it. When you’re in the midst of a good, refreshing walk or jog, it can be difficult to hold on to negative thoughts. When you’re running, it’s almost impossible to do so.
There is no quick fix for anxiety. What all supplements can do for you is to help you cope and perhaps lessen the intensity, duration, or frequency of anxiety attacks. Supplements can indeed be useful as a coping tool, but they are not a cure, and for that matter, no medications are. The long-term solution to chronic anxiety attacks most often has to be determined by a physician or therapist.