12 Alternatives to Anti-Anxiety Pills
Feeling more anxious due to the coronavirus pandemic? Join the club. A report published mid-April of 2020 shows that the number of prescriptions filled for anti-anxiety medications spiked by over 34% during the pandemic. And the number of new prescriptions filled for drugs like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan while people were under COVID-19 quarantine orders was even higher at nearly 38%. This is very troublesome.
The Dangers of Anti-Anxiety Medications
What’s wrong with popping prescription drugs to feel better fast? All psychiatric medications—like all prescription drugs—come with side effects, but those associated with the anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines are some of the most concerning. Although they may be helpful in the short-term, anti-anxiety drugs can cause long-term problems, including:
- Reduced brain activity: Brain SPECT imaging studies show that benzodiazepines decrease overall brain activity and give the brain a toxic appearance.
- Addiction: Once people start taking these drugs, they can be very hard to stop and may lead to addiction.
- Memory problems: Long-term use of these drugs increases the risk of dementia by over 50%, according to a 2019 review in Journal of Clinical Neurology that examined 10 existing studies.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety—even during high-stress periods like the pandemic—asking your primary care physician for Xanax or other anti-anxiety medications is literally the last thing you should do. Here are 12 alternatives you should try before considering medication.
Note: If you’ve taken Xanax or another type of benzodiazepine for a long time, don’t stop taking it abruptly as this can heighten anxiety. Work with a physician to gradually taper off the drug as you try these other techniques.
Smarter Ways to Calm Anxiety
1. Attack your BRIGHT MINDS risk factors.
In Dr. Daniel Amen’s book The End of Mental Illness, he details the 11 BRIGHT MINDS risk factors that steal your mind and can increase mental illness, including anxiety. BRIGHT MINDS stands for:
B is for Blood flow
R is for Retirement/Aging
I is for Inflammation
G is for Genetics
H is for Head Trauma
T is for Toxins
Mi is for Mind-Storms
I is for Immunity and Infections
N is for Neurohormones
D is for Diabesity
S is for Sleep
In The End of Mental Illness, you can learn how to prevent, treat, or minimize your risk factors to help calm anxiety and other mental health issues. You can also watch below for more information on how the BRIGHT MINDS risk factors impact anxiety and what you can do about them.
2. Check for hypoglycemia, anemia, and hyperthyroidism.
Low blood sugar, anemia, and an overactive thyroid can cause symptoms of anxiety. If you have anxiety that doesn’t respond to other solutions, it’s a good idea to have your healthcare provider perform the following 3 tests:
- Glucose tolerance test. This test measures blood sugar levels over a period of a few hours and can show if you have hypoglycemia. If you do have a problem with low blood sugar, learning to eat a brain healthy diet that stabilizes blood sugar is key to reducing anxiety.
- Complete blood count (CBC). A CBC test can reveal if you have anemia, which indicates an iron deficiency. Boosting iron levels can help.
- TSH, T3, and T4. These tests measure thyroid activity and can detect hyperthyroidism. Work with your physician to optimize thyroid levels.
3. Eliminate artificial dyes, preservatives, and sweeteners from the diet.
Aspartame can cause anxiousness, red dye #40 is associated with irritability, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been linked to anger and irritability. Be sure to check nutrition labels for these ingredients. Be aware that MSG is sometimes listed only as “natural flavors,” so you may not know you’re ingesting it.
4. Try an elimination diet for 3 weeks.
Food can trigger allergies, which often impact the brain. Anything that impacts the brain can affect your mind because your brain creates your mind. To see if foods are contributing to your anxiety, eliminate sugar, gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and other categories of potentially allergenic foods from your diet for 3 weeks. Then add these back one at a time (except for sugar, which you should eliminate for good) and be alert for reactions to them, which would indicate that you should permanently avoid that food.
5. Practice prayer, meditation, and hypnosis.
Research shows that these techniques can calm stress and anxiety. You can use helpful audio programs for guided meditation and self-hypnosis on BrainFitLife. If you respond to prayer, Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Stones of Remembrance offers Bible verses for anxiety, such as:
Worry weighs a person down;
an encouraging word cheers a person up.
I know the Lord is always with me.
I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.
You can find many more soothing verses on anxiety, depression, fear, loneliness, and more in the book.
6. Do heart rate variability (HRV) training.
Research in Frontiers in Psychiatryshows that anxiety is linked to low levels of HRV, but you can hack your way to a healthier HRV with biofeedback apps, such as HeartMath.
7. Practice diaphragmatic breathing and hand-warming biofeedback.
Deep breathing can help calm anxiety, and it’s so easy. Just take a deep breath in for 3 seconds, hold it for 1 second, then exhale for 6 seconds, and hold it again for 1 second. Do this 10 times, and it will trigger a relaxation response. Watch Dr. Amen’s Facebook Live on the 2-Minute Anxiety Solution where he describes in detail how to do this exercise. As you practice diaphragmatic breathing, do a hand-warming exercise at the same time in which you imagine that you’re holding a hot cup of tea or you’re holding your hands up to a fireplace.
8. Eliminate the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts)
The automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that invade your thinking drive anxiety. Some of the most anxiety-inducing thoughts are called Fortune-Telling ANTs, such as:
“This pandemic is never going to end.”
“I’m never going to get a job again.”
“I’m never going to have a successful business again.”
Fortunately, you do not have to believe every stupid thought you have. You need to develop an internal ANTeater to get control of your thoughts. Whenever you feel sad, mad, nervous, or out of control, write down what you’re thinking. That helps get the thought out of your head. Then, use a powerful exercise developed by Byron Katie and ask yourself, “Is it true?” Then write down the opposite of your negative thought, such as:
“This pandemic will end.”
“I will get another job.”
“I can have a successful business again.”
Ask yourself which statement is more true. You can find an ANT-killing exercise on BrainFitLife.
9. Engage in calming exercises.
Yoga, qigong, and tai chi are wonderful exercises that can reduce stress and fight anxiety. They help you learn how to direct your energy in a positive way. A 2017 study using EEG in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that qigong affects brainwaves in a positive way that induces relaxation.
10. Take nutraceuticals.
Several natural supplements have A-level or B-level scientific evidence for anxiousness and stress. What does that mean? A-level means there is robust research conducted with more than 2 placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials. B-level means there are multiple studies where at least 2 are placebo-controlled, double-blind studies. Among these well-studied supplements are l-theanine, GABA, and magnesium—all found in BrainMD’s GABA Calming Support. To help you feel calm under stress—like during a pandemic—you can also try Magnesium Chewables.
11. Check your omega-3 level.
Did you know that 93% of the population is low in omega-3 fatty acids? The Omega-3 Index is a blood test that measures your omega-3 level. Try to get it above 8% by using 1,400mg (or more) of omega-3 fish oil with a ratio of approximately 60/40 EPA to DHA. Make sure to choose a high-quality fish oil like Omega-3 Power.
12. Try neurofeedback.
Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that measures brainwave activity in real-time and gain control of your brainwaves to achieve the desired brain state, whether the goal is to experience greater relaxation or to maintain better concentration.
Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever, and waiting to get treatment until the pandemic is over is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.
At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples, as well as in-clinic brain scanning to help our patients. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.