Does your heart race when you're stuck in traffic on your morning commute? Are you up at night thinking about the things you have to do/don't have time to do the next day? Feel a little weird, overwhelmed, and like you just can't calm down? If so, you may be experiencing environmental stress, which is defined as stress resulting from the day-to-day operations and busyness of our lives, according to Jennifer Saltiel, a licensed clinical social worker in Manhattan. Saltiel has worked with patients coping with anxiety at a private practice in New York City—often cited as one of the most stressed-out cities—for more than 15 years, so she's heard it all and has offered to share her expert advice with us. Below, we've rounded up the seven best natural remedies for anxiety you can incorporate into your daily routine right now.
Develop good sleep hygiene
One of the best natural remedies for anxiety is sleep. "Your cell phone won't work if you don't charge it, and your brain and body can't function as highly without charging, and that's what sleep is," says Saltiel. Stress hormones like cortisone and adrenaline run through our bodies all day, and sleep is the time for us to rid them from our body. When we don't get enough sleep, our body isn't able to regulate the stress hormones, so you're kept in a constant state of stress.
Given what Saltiel has seen in her practice, she suggests getting seven to eight restful hours of sleep a night. How do you make sure your sleep is restful? It's all about good sleep hygiene, or the practices you keep to maximize good sleep. Saltiel suggests starting the process early: turn off all blue lights (iPads, computers, TVs, cell phones), dim the lights, have something nourishing like a warm cup of tea if it's been a while since your last meal, avoid alcohol, and keep your room relatively cool.
"If you do find yourself not able to fall asleep, or you find yourself up at night, the one thing that will add to the stress is to stress about stressing and stress about not sleeping," says Saltiel. It's all about acceptance. Some people find it helpful to get up out of bed, Saltiel says. She suggests taking a walk around your home, doing some light yoga stretching, or reading a hard copy of something fairly dense or boring (which can help make you drowsy).
Adopt a healthy diet
A nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet is best for those dealing with anxiety and is another natural remedy. It keeps your blood sugar steady and your organs well nourished, which helps keep stress at bay, says Saltiel. This may mean rethinking the things we often turn to in times of stress like cookies, cake, and high-sugar foods (alcohol, too), which are typically highly acidic and inflammatory. "Eating more of those foods will spike your blood sugar and will also oftentimes make you feel 'guilty,' which then serves to flood your system with more stress hormones," Saltiel says. This "sugar rush" we think of is actually stressful on both our body and brain.
There are certain vitamins and minerals that are particularly good at combatting stress: Opt for omega-3 rich foods (like salmon, sardines, and leafy greens) and antioxidant-rich foods (like blueberries and leafy greens). The latter are helpful because antioxidants help process the cortisol that’s going through your body, Saltiel says.
Also, if you're on the fat-free or low-fat bandwagon, be warned. "The brain really needs fat," says Saltiel. Opt for almonds, any sort of nut butters (except peanut butter), avocado, and olive oil, which are all healthy fats. Saltiel also suggests full-fat dairy because it's actually better for those dealing with stress (low-fat and nonfat milk also have a higher sugar content).
As a side note, Saltiel says vitamin B particularly helps combat stress in women. If you're having feelings of anxiety, be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor to get a full blood panel and make sure you're not suffering from a vitamin deficiency.
"Humans are meant to move, so when you sit sedentary all day in front of a desk, one typically can feel anxious and antsy, and there’s a real reason for that—your brain is screaming for you to get up," says Saltiel. Getting the stress out of your muscles doesn't have to be a long, time-consuming process—try wiggling your limbs, taking a brisk walk, going up and down the stairs, or dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups. Although cardio exercise like running will help, as long as you're moving, your brain will still release feel-good hormones, say Saltiel.
"If you're ever in the middle of a stress out, you can literally just drop to the floor and put your feet up," Saltiel says. She specifically suggests one simple yoga pose that tends to be extremely calming: Lay down and put your feet up on the wall (make sure to get your body as close to the wall as possible), and comfortably let your legs rest so your body is making a right angle (an "L" shape). Put your hands on your belly, close your eyes, and just breathe. This pose helps drain your lymphatic system and eliminate toxins, and it's one of the simplest natural remedies for anxiety.
Practice mindfulness meditation
Stress often comes from worrying about the past or the future, both of which we really can't do too much about. Sitting and doing nothing may seem strange, but the idea behind mindfulness meditation is to watch your thoughts—some stressful, some not—go by. "It's kind of like watching clouds," says Saltiel. Once you learn to let icky feelings pass, you become de-sensitized to these feelings of stress, which is good for you.
Saltiel often suggests her patients implement part of a four-part meditation when they are experiencing anxiety. It involves the four elements (fire, earth, air and water), and this practice focuses on water because the water element is helpful in times of stress. All Saltiel says to do is make saliva in your mouth, as weird as it may sound. The result is that your brain will send a signal to your parasympathetic nervous system that tells your body that all is calm. "Most people's minds shut off when they're feeling stressed, and they get that fight-or-flight kind of panicked feeling," Saltiel says. "If something’s too complicated, it’s going to be hard to do, so I like the idea of just saying, 'Okay, make saliva.'"
Turn to natural massage
Massage is a great way to calm or soothe feelings of anxiety, but it can be expensive. Thankfully, an at-home massage can be just as helpful, and this specific technique Saltiel tells her patients to use doesn't even require another person. Begin with your arms in a butterfly hug—cross your hands in front of your chest so your fingertips touch right below your collarbone, with your palms facing your body. Breathe and lightly tap back and forth on your body with your fingertips (like butterfly wings) to work your way through the stress. Afterward, move your hands to the top of your shoulders and neck (keeping your body in a "hugged position"), and give yourself a massage.
We can also use our olfactory system (which controls our sense of smell) to decrease feelings of anxiety. Lavender is a great essential oil to try first since the scent is typically soothing and not terribly stimulating, Saltiel says. Simply add a few drops of the oil on your pillowcases before sleep or pour a little into your bath to increase feelings of calmness (we like Now Essential Oils 100% Pure Lavender, $8).
Take a bath (or shower)
Baths can be helpful because you're putting yourself in a different environment and also in sort of a fetal position, which is naturally calming. If you don't have a bathtub, a shower will work similarly—just make sure either way, your water isn't too hot because that isn't good for your insides.
Just remember, when you're overwhelmed with feelings of stress and you think it's going to last forever, that isn't true. "Realize that stress is like the weather—try to accept it as it goes," Saltiel says. "There are ways that you can reduce it, but if you allow it to flow, you’ll find yourself sooner than later thinking about something like What am I going to have for dinner?"