Common Sense Health: Natural Approaches to Anxiety

Maureen McDonnell

Anxiety… what to do when it becomes too much

If you have been reading this column for awhile, two things have probably become obvious to you.  One is, I have a strong belief that common sense approaches (including healthy food, lifestyle changes and appropriate nutrient and herbal supplementation) play major roles in preventing and treating many chronic illnesses. Also, I’m pretty stubborn in my stance against big pHARMa’s domination of our health care system.

Now that I’ve confessed my personal prejudices, let me forewarn you that this month’s discussion on anxiety is no different.   Although the article contains opinions from other health care practitioners, therapists, and healers (many from our own WNC community), the overarching theme is that there are plenty of natural, non-pharmaceutical ideas and remedies to help reduce the symptoms associated with anxiety.

Most of us are familiar with feelings of anxiety, especially the ones that precede important events such as having to speak in public or going on a first date. Some anxiety in response to life’s challenges is normal. Anxiety disorders, however, differ in that they cause one to feel frightened and uneasy for no apparent reason. When these disorders are not addressed or treated they can drastically reduce a person’s ability to function, as well as diminish quality of life.

Anxiety disorders include:

Panic disorders; obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD);
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias.
According to the National Institute of Mental health, 40 million people (or 18% of adults over age 18) suffer from anxiety disorders—making them the most common form of mental illness in the US.  Directly and indirectly, the cost associated with this disorder is approximately $46.6 billion dollars per year.

Drugs to the Rescue:

As is true with much of the research being done on other types of illnesses, underlying causes of anxiety are rarely explored.  Instead, research money is spent on the development of newer drugs. Drugs have their place, but when it comes to treating anxiety, many are ineffective and some cause a cascade of health problems.   According to Joseph Mercola, MD, “… drugs are rarely ever the solution for treating the cause of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, which are frequently the result of bioenergetic malfunctioning due to either emotional, biological, or environmental stress.”

Commonly prescribed medications for anxiety include benzodiazepine drugs like Ativan, Xanax, and Valium. They work by increasing the action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which in turn activates dopamine in the brain (referred to as the gratification hormone).  Since these are the same pathways that are used when heroin is taken, you can see why these anti-anxiety meds can be so addictive.  These same drugs also have common side effects that include: an unsteady gait, dizziness, increased risk of car accidents, thinking impairment, and memory loss.

As if that wasn’t enough, many researchers agree that the drugs used to treat anxiety and depression simply don’t work.   In several studies, antidepressants have been shown to work only slightly better than a placebo. Dr. Mercola also states on his website: “Medication (for anxiety) will merely serve as a Band-Aid to these “patterned” emotional challenges, and most people would greatly benefit from practicing stress reduction techniques and exercise rather than resorting to drugs as their first choice.”

I’m not suggesting that there is never a time for pharmaceuticals.  I’m just pointing out that they are currently overused, they mask symptoms instead of addressing underlying causes of disorders, and the quick-fix approach they offer has a price that many of us are no longer willing to pay.

What else can be done to minimize the symptoms associated with anxiety?

For most of my 34 years as a registered nurse I’ve been preaching the value of nutrition for almost anything that ails you. So, I used to think just cutting out caffeine, taking an herb like Kava, making the right dietary change or taking specific doses of Magnesium and B vitamins were the answers to treating anxiety. But if I’ve learned anything as I’ve gotten older, it’s that rarely does just one approach or intervention resolve a complex problem like anxiety.  In addition to the nutritional components, I now acknowledge the importance of examining issues from our past that may be at the root of certain health and mental health problems. Working with someone qualified to assist you in discovering and letting go of old thought patterns that no longer serve you, can be just as critical as nutrient support.  In other words, anxiety may be an indicator that we need to release or change in some way, and a variety of strategies (including behavioral and other types of self-healing methods) may be necessary to resolve it.

As Erin Everett, the former editor and publisher of The New Life Journal said in a brief interview:  the anxiety she experienced was an indicator that her life was out of balance.  Once she listened to herself, made changes—including practicing meditation, working with a plant spirit medicine practitioner, shifted her career, and reconnected with nature—her anxiety diminished remarkably.

More Natural Solutions for Reducing Anxiety Include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: According to the National Association of Cognitive Therapists ( Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events.  The benefit of this fact is that we can change the way we think to feel and act better even if the situation does not change.

The Orthomolecular Approach: According to Bonnie Camo, MD, author of the upcoming book:  Natural Medicine, For a Healthy Mind and Body, and a Healthy World,  “The term Orthomolecular Psychiatry was coined by Linus Pauling (winner of two Nobel prizes, for chemistry and peace) in his famous article in Science magazine in 1968.  It refers to the treatment of mental illness with substances that occur naturally in the human body, such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids.  The brain is dependent on nutrients supplied by the body.  If these are inadequate due to a poor diet (deficiency) or a genetic need for more than the usual amount of a particular nutrient (dependency), the brain may be unable to function normally. Orthomolecular psychiatry attempts to determine the biochemical cause of the brain malfunction and treat it with the appropriate nutrients.”

Although not endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, you can obtain additional information on nutritional approaches for anxiety and other forms of mental illnesses via or consult an integrative medical physician familiar with this approach.

Other Nutritional Interventions that can ease anxiety

Stabilizing blood sugar levels by eating a whole food, organic-based diet that includes a healthy form of protein every 4-5 hours and minimizes sugar and chemically laden foods.

Minimizing caffeine and alcohol—both substances, taken in excess, can cause the excretion of nutrients (such as B vitamin, Magnesium, Zinc, etc.) that are essential co-factors in the formation of  neurotransmitters.

Optimal Nutrients such as those found in a comprehensive, high potency (especially Magnesium and B vitamins) and absorbable Multi-Vitamin with added fish oil can make a big difference.  One of the B vitamins, Inositol is often referred to as “the poor man’s Valium.”  One study found that at very high doses it was as effective as SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) in reducing the intensity and frequency of panic attacks.

Exercise changes the level of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that (when properly balanced) helps us sleep soundly and maintain a good mood.
Exercise also increases the body’s production of endorphins which are our “feel good” chemicals.

Meditation and Yoga both help reduce stress by providing tools that calm the mind and relax the body.

Herbs such as Valerian and Passionflower are known for their ability to help calm nervousness and reduce anxiety. Several studies have found the herb Kava reduces symptoms in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorders.

Homeopathics: consult a qualified Homeopath for individual remedies to help with anxiety.

Acupuncture: There is some research showing acupuncture may help reduce the symptoms of general anxiety disorders.

Reflexology: Caroline Hobson Zocher, a licensed massage therapist in Weaverville, finds in her practice that reflexology can be helpful in activating endorphins and reducing anxiety.

Aromatherapy: using essential oils such as lavender and rosemary have been shown to be effective.

Breath Work: breathing deep into the belly and repeating several times slows down the mind and relaxes the body.

Hormone Balancing: estrogen dominance and lack of progesterone can contribute to anxiety.

Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT works by balancing the meridians in a way similar to acupuncture but instead of using needles, the meridians are stimulated by tapping your fingertips on the specific acupuncture points. EFT can be learned by anyone and can be self-applied.

Doing what you love: Eve Davis, the owner of the beautiful holistic Hawk and Ivy B & B in Barnardsville, says in addition to eating a piece of very dark chocolate, she minimizes her anxiety by stopping what she is doing and laying down on the earth.  She suggests taking time to do something that feels good each day.

Train your mind toward positive self-talk, whatever subject you’re thinking about.

There’s no one simple solution that will be effective for everyone dealing with anxiety. But when we view anxiety as a form of communication from our body and spirit letting us know something in our life is out of balance (whether that be physical, emotional, or spiritual), we can view it in a more positive light.  As Cathy Pidek, a dance and movement therapist told me, she encourages her clients to “pay attention to anxiety, say hello to it and not try to run or hide from it.”   Once we open up to its message, rebalancing our life using some or all of the suggestions listed above can make a big difference.

In the middle of the night if I awaken with my own version of anxiety, I repeat the affirmation from the book You can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay:  “I love and approve of myself and I trust the process of life.  I am Safe.

If I haven’t had too much wine or caffeine and I remembered to put on my hormone cream, it usually works!


Maureen McDonnell has been a registered nurse for 34 years (in the fields of: childbirth education, labor and delivery, clinical nutrition, and pediatrics.)  She provides private health consultations at her office in Weaverville, NC and can be reached via email for an appointment ( or call 609-240-1315.  Maureen is the former national coordinator of the Defeat Autism Now! Conferences and is the co-founder of children’s green health expos: Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet.  Her published articles on autism and general health can be found at     In addition to writing a monthly column Common Sense Approaches to Women’ Health, she is the owner of Nutritionist’s Choice multi vitamin:  www.   Maureen and her husband H Hanson have five grandkids and feel blessed to be living in the beautiful mountains of WNC.


Written by Maureen “Mo” McDonnell, BS, RN