I have never considered myself an anxious person. In fact, I spent the first 40 years of my life utterly convinced that anxiety was a problem for other people, but not for me. Then I figured out (okay, my current doctor figured out) that the hives that I break out in on a fairly regular basis are not, in fact, caused by food allergies or sensitivities–thank goodness, because I was running out of foods to try eliminating from my diet!–but by stress, a/k/a anxiety.
The proof is that if I take anxiety-reducing medication such as Xanax–and for me it usually only takes a very tiny crumb of Xanax to be effective–I immediately start to literally feel the hives receding. Which is totally spooky and totally cool. Imagine if you had a mosquito bite (which itches about as much as my stress hives) and could watch or feel it getting smaller and smaller over the course of 30 minutes. That’s what I’m talking about.
I should have guessed that stress was the issue, since my mother breaks out in hives whenever she gets worried about me or my brother (like the many pre-cell-phone occasions when I did not get off a plane that I was supposed to be on and she had no idea where I was). But, it didn’t occur to me that there might be a connection until much later.
As an aside, I went to many different doctors, both alternative and Western, including an allergist and a dermatologist, before I started dating my now-husband, who dragged me to see his doctor/friend, who barely even looked at me–it was a slow day and he literally diagnosed me standing in the waiting room next to the receptionist’s desk–before saying, “that is neurodermatitis and it is probably caused by stress; I will write you a prescription.” I was skeptical because I often turn out to be allergic to Western drugs, but he was 100% correct. (My husband’s response: “looks like SOMEONE has an anxiety problem.”)
So why would anyone ever need an alternative to Xanax? (Aside from the fact that it’s a controlled substance and is very addictive? Aside from the fact that it treats the symptom and not the underlying source of the anxiety?) Because Xanax is so incredibly relaxing that if you take it during the day, when you are trying to get stuff done, you are quite likely to find yourself asleep instead. (Don’t take it and then drive, EVER.) Particularly if you are supersensitive to drugs, as I am. I can break those pills in half and then in quarters until the cows come home, but I can never get them small enough to not knock me out. I can fight the sleep for a couple of hours with coffee or Red Bull if I have to, but it will still get me in the end.
So here are my alternatives–and you should find at least a few of them helpful even if you have never reached the point of having to resort to Xanax!
1. A nice hot cuppa. Personally, I find even black tea to be very soothing, although the National Institutes of Health note that it has been studied as a remedy for stress and found to be ineffective. Maybe my tea is more effective because I add a drop of peppermint oil (using a food grade essential oil, which is fairly easy to find on Amazon), although that too, the NIH claims is ineffective for stress (though it admits a strong beneficial effect for people with irritable bowel syndrome). Several of my favorite herbals, however, DO recommend peppermint for its soothing, anti-stress effects. Billie Potts writes in Witches Heal that peppermint is a good remedy to have on hand for shock; while Lalitha Thomas writes in 10 Essential Herbs that peppermint is very soothing to the nerves and has a sedative action for many people. You may find this surprising if you know that some people also use peppermint tea as a substitute for coffee! Maybe the answer here is that coffee is a natural antidepressant, and some people–no matter what they may be telling themselves–drink coffee not really to wake up but rather to shake off the mild depression that otherwise threatens to paralyze them first thing in the morning. (If you drink massive amounts of coffee all day, ask yourself whether that might be your real reason.) Want one more source for peppermint? Here it is, from David Hoffman’s The Herbal Handbook: A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism: “As a nervine it acts as a tonic, easing anxiety, tension, hysteria etc. In painful periods it relieves the pain and eases associated tension. Externally it may be used to relieve itching and inflammations.”
Lalitha Thomas writes in 10 Essential Herbs that clove tea is also extremely helpful for anxiety and tension, but that it also tends to make people sleepy. I haven’t tried clove myself. To my amazement, she also recommends garlic, saying of it “I was very skeptical when I first learned of this nervine effect of Garlic, yet it has proved itself repeatedly.” Hey, it’s worth a try, and I can’t think of any negative side effects.
Some people will tell you to drink chamomile tea for stress. That’s all well and good, and I personally love chamomile; it DOES help me with stress, though it also makes me sleepy (just like Xanax, though not as severe), and scientific studies show that chamomile is beneficial for the skin; the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (which is a nice resource to know about when you are researching this stuff) has studied it for generalized anxiety disorder. The problem with chamomile, though, is that many people are allergic to ragweed and to other plants, like chamomile, that might fall into that category. That’s a pretty strong contraindication if you are prone to hay fever. If you know for sure that you are not allergic to chamomile, you can find it in many forms in addition to tea, such as tinctures and capsules. A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that this can be helpful for patients with mild to moderate anxiety.
You can also find valerian, the herb that Xanax (a relative of Valium) is closely related to (if not actually derived from–if you look into this you’ll find that Xanax is made in a lab but does share some chemical similarities with valerian), in a tea or tincture form, or in capsules. In fact, Celestial Seasonings makes a tea that is a chamomile-valerian combination (with a warning on the label telling you not to give it to anyone under the age of 18). Valerian has thousands of years of history behind it; it was used in ancient Greece and Rome, was written about by Hippocrates, and later was prescribed by Galen for insomnia. It’s being studied for use in relieving anxiety, but NIH claims the jury is still out (how that can be the case when valium works the same way valerian does, I don’t know–both are believed by scientists to increase the amount of GABA in the brain). The University of Maryland Medical Center disagrees with the NIH on this one, saying that valerian has been used to ease anxiety since the second century and that valerian is approved in Germany for use as a sedative. My experience and that of people I know is that it does help, but some people think the cure is worse than the disease in this case, because most people think valerian tastes absolutely awful, especially if you take it in the stronger tincture form rather than as a tea. If that’s true for you, and valerian tincture ends up being the thing that works best for you, my advice is to just put a dropperful of it into orange or cranberry juice. It won’t be that bad!!
There are lots of other herbal remedies that you can look into for anxiety. Phyllis Balch’s Prescription for Nutritional Healing recommends not only the previously mentioned chamomile and catnip, but also several others, including passionflower, which you will find as an ingredient in many herbal teas that claim to reduce stress. It’s a good idea to carefully research any herb that you are considering using for stress, and consider consulting your doctor before using it, unless it’s one of those herbs that are so common that you already are aware that it’s safe for you (as might be the case with herbs that are commonly used for cooking). The University of Maryland Medical Center also mentions lemon balm (in addition to several of the previously mentioned herbs).
It’s interesting how so many of these herbal remedies will make a person as sleepy as Xanax will! Sometimes I wonder if nervous tension is the only thing keeping some of us awake at all!
So, now that’s move on to some anxiety remedies that are NOT for ingestion and that will NOT make you sleepy (that latter point is an important one for those of us who are really trying not to sleep through our entire lives).
My two favorites here are lavender and ylang ylang. Lavender is very soothing; while ylang ylang reduces the tendency to panic. Citrus oils, believe it or not, are also somewhat calming. According to Valerie Ann Worwood’s The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy, lavender actually seems to be helpful in reducing the effects of clinical shock. (But if you are suffering from shock or know someone who is, please bear in mind the basic first aid principles for treating shock: have your patient lie down with his or her feet raised about a foot higher than the head, to increase the flow of blood–and oxygen–to the brain, and keep the person warm and comfortable–there’s a reason why police put a blanket around people at crime scenes, and shock is that reason. Be sure to call a doctor, as well.)
For hives specifically, though, I strongly recommend a lavender salt scrub in the shower. You will be amazed at the soothing effect this has on your skin (assuming you don’t have any open scratches or anything of that sort, in which case don’t do this, as it will sting!). Trader Joe’s makes an awesome lavender salt scrub that costs about $6 if you buy it in the store (strangely, it costs more than twice that if you search for it online; WTF?). Origins makes a very nice salt scrub too, but it seems to range from $30-40 for about the same amount and same quality (in my opinion) of scrub. I will sometimes make a homemade version that is nice as well. Here’s how: I take the empty salt scrub jar, fill it with epsom salt, add olive oil, and then add about 30 drops of lavender oil. Then I close the jar, and give the whole thing a few good shakes. Ah! Skin relief, just waiting for my next shower! Don’t discount this method, because it not only soothes your skin, but also gives you the benefit of aromatherapy in the shower.
For my hives, personally, though, salt scrub isn’t enough, so I also buy large containers of lotion (anything cheap, super mild, and not tested on animals) and add my favorite essential oils to them. The thing is, hives need a double-pronged approach: yes, you have to face your anxiety and deal with it, but at the same time, you also MUST attack the problem at skin level with plenty of moisturizing and soothing, because dry skin (which is a real issue in a cold winter), will make those stress-induced hives itch so much more than they did already. So: salt scrub in the shower, followed by slatherings of aroma-infused lotion (lavender, please, because it will ease the burning and redness of those hives), are an absolute necessity.
Citrine and rose quartz, one in each hand, right up against the point where your heart meridian reaches your palm. You’ll be surprised at how effective this is. Like many other anxiety remedies, citrine and rose quartz together can knock me right out. Sigh. But hopefully that won’t be the case for you! For more information about these crystals, see Judy Hall’s The Crystal Bible.
You can also turn to the biggest crystal of all: our planet. Go outside in nature. Let the air whisk the anxiety out of your aura. Plant your feet on the Earth. It helps.
Do I really have to explain this one? Take time to slow down, stop, and follow your breath. Go up to the search bar on this website, and search for meditation, and I think you’ll find a lot more information about it! But this post is getting very long as it is.
5. Oracle cards
This is the time to turn from tarot to oracle cards, if you’re trying to do divination around the source of your anxiety. Why? Because oracle cards will give you a sense of gentle perspective that will help to ground you. Those times when you are feeling anxious are not the world’s greatest times to do tarot readings for yourself–the anxiety will cast a cloud over whatever cards you draw, and it will be extremely difficult to interpret cards and images clearly, or even to truly hear the interpretation being given to you if you ask someone else to read for you. But oracle cards may get you through the anxiety, and then you can always do tarot a bit later, when you are feeling calmer and more grounded.
A final comment: why isn’t alcohol on my list? Well, here’s the thing. I’m absolutely not against drinking if you do so in moderation, which I do. And I do find that sometimes a drink will soothe my hives without knocking me out the way certain other remedies will. So it’s a possible go-to remedy, yes. But, an acupuncturist once told me, and I believe this is true, that sugar increases heat in the body, and heat leads to hives. Alcohol has soooooo much sugar in it. Thus, I regard it as a potential remedy that must be used with EXTREME care. The last thing you want to do is end up itchier than you were to begin with! So you want to use mindful observation — and this is true with any other remedy, as well — to see how it affects you and in what amounts. Channel your inner scientist! You can do it! :-)
What are your go to remedies for anxiety? Please feel free to list them in the comments!