That pounding heart, sick-feeling gut, quickened pulse: anyone’s who has ever suffered from anxiety knows those awful feelings. (And I’d venture to say that those of us who hadn’t suffered from anxiety previously might have gotten a taste of it this past year during the coronavirus pandemic!). But there are natural solutions to anxiety.
You aren’t the only one who is anxious. Anxiety disorders affect nearly 1 of 5 Americans. (And younger people especially just don’t feel secure, from climate change, to loan debt, to future jobs and technology replacement, to current politics, to random violence.) With symptoms such as excessive worry, racing thoughts, irritability, and fatigue, anxiety makes changing habits and routines, like overeating and sedentariness, hard to sustain.
There are lots of ways to manage anxiety, from medication to meditation — but as a doctor, farmer, and chef interested in ecomedicine and nature therapy, I’m personally always looking for natural solutions to anxiety, both for myself, my loved ones, and my patients.
So what are some natural solutions for anxiety? Here are three of my favorites.
1) Go outside! Yes, it can actually be that simple. Going outside for just five minutes has been shown to have a significant effect on cortisol levels and parasympathetic nerve activity—as well as just viewing outside, smelling outside, or hearing outside when outside was a forest.
A recent Stanford study of nature therapy showed significantly reduced rumination after a 90-minute walk in nature compared to a 90-minute walk through an urban environment. In this same study, those who walked through nature for 30 minutes a day reported a decrease in negative thinking. Magnetic resonance imaging showed that the nature walkers had lower activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared to urban walkers.
2) Become a plant parent. If you’re unable to go outside for whatever reason — safety, weather, climate — thankfully you can bring the outdoors in. Keeping plants in your home or office cleans the air and reduces particle penetration into the lungs.
One landmark study in 2009 looked at the effect of indoor plants on hospital patients, in which 90 patients recovering from a hemorrhoidectomy were randomly assigned to either control or plant-filled rooms. The result? Patients who had plants in their rooms reported less fatigue and pain, were hospitalized for shorter periods, experienced less anxiety, and reported higher hospital and room satisfaction than those without them.
I actually did my own study on this phenomenon called Plant with a Doc—a four week, medically proven, nature-based stress management and burnout (moral distress) technology for employees—and even presented it at the University of Chicago. It’s definitely worth a look if you want to learn more about what this research looks like in action.
3) Go hiking. Rigorous physical activity is known to have a marked effect on our physical and mental health — an effect amplified when said physical activity takes place in nature. Exercise impacts our serotonin levels, as noted in this 2011 study. A separate 2013 study that looked at participants with depression who exercised three times a week found that after 12 weeks of regular exercise, ten out of the 12 participants were no longer categorized as depressed.
In this week’s video, I chat with Brookes Regenhardt, medical student, about how she learned to manage her generalized anxiety disorder with natural solutions: namely, hiking. Watch to find out the surprising ways her anxiety transformed when she started hiking.