CALM DOWN: 9 Herbs for Anxiety + Panic Attacks
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
At some point in our lives, almost all of us will experience some type of anxiety, if only briefly. In the United States, anxiety is one of the top mental health concerns. Over 40 million adults—more than 19% of the general population—will experience anxiety disorders, along with seven percent of children between the ages of 3-17, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
As herbalist, doctor, and midwife Aviva Romm writes:
“Anxiety is real. In many cases, it can be fleeting, natural even [...] However, chronic anxiety is not meant to be a daily part of the human experience. If you have anxiety, you know it’s no joke to feel that something is constantly holding you back.”
The Mayo Clinic breaks down some common anxiety signs symptoms:
- Feeling nervous, restless or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
Though most people will recognize the inevitable feelings of anxiety, there are also several types of disorders and phobias that exist when those feelings escalate. More extreme in nature, these are characterized by intense fears (phobias) and worries caused by (or that end up causing) acute mental and physical health challenges.
WHAT ARE PANIC ATTACKS?
Unlike anxiety, which can build over time or even last a long time, panic attacks happen suddenly when there is no real danger. Out of nowhere, intense fears surface in one terrifying moment, producing a physical reaction that can be as jarring as a heart attack.
Most often, panic attacks will only strike once or twice in a lifetime (if at all), but they can be recurring or produce panic disorder, a stress response that triggers constant fears of another episode. While symptoms vary, escalation typically happens within minutes.
The Mayo Clinic also breaks down some of the signs of a panic attack:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
According to NAMI, “Many people will go to desperate measures to avoid an attack, including social isolation.” Both anxiety and panic attacks are tied to stressful situations, whether real or imagined, and both have effective treatments. Read on for some of the plants our herbalists recommend to manage symptoms before it’s too late.
BIG PHARMA: A SHORT-TERM SOLUTION
Dr. Aviva Romm writes that the most prevailing antidote to anxiety and panic attacks is pharmaceuticals, including but not limited to: Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium. These prescription medications are not only highly addictive benzodiazepines, they are riddled with potential side effects. Both short- and long-term in nature, Dr. Romm cautions that the “potentially permanent impacts on cognitive function” may “mute” symptoms in the moment, but won’t stop them from returning. Nor do these drugs get to the root causes.
Harvard Health offers effective mind-body solutions (we’ll get into these in more detail later), such as hypnosis, biofeedback, breathing exercises, and body scanning. And this scientific study from 2018 compiled even more coping mechanisms, including “doing it badly” (rather than not at all) as a form of liberating yourself from anxiety and “waiting to worry” to avoid unnecessary stress from situations that haven’t even occurred yet.
So, while reaching for relief in a pill form can be enticing, it likely won’t do you as much good as you think it will. Let’s talk about how to manage anxiety, whether in its short- or long-term forms, before it makes you feel out of control, hopeless, or helpless.
Alternatives to anxiety medications aren’t some passing fad; they’ve been around for centuries. Even Western medicine best practices typically advise psychological treatment before any prescriptions are ever issued, according to the UK’s biggest health website, NHS. Dr. Shaikhah Alorf, who specializes in preventative medicine and public health, told Arab News she believes yoga is “as important as any medication” to improve quality of life, achieve greater balance, and improve health challenges related to anxiety and stress.
Dr. Joe Dispenza, author of You Are The Placebo, writes:
We can turn on anxiety, stress and depression by thought alone. And no organism can tolerate living in emergency mode for extended periods of time. The long-term effects of firing the hormones of stress such as [...] anxiety, fear, etc. dis-regulate and down-regulate genes to create disease and imbalance. That means then your habitual thoughts and feelings can make you sick.
And natural stress relief isn’t just more cost effective, it’s also more widely available than we might think. It may help to curb anxiety and panic attacks, and it provides longer term relief, whereas pharmaceuticals cannot be safely used for an extended time. The Greek “Bios Pythagorikos” (Pythagorean Way of Life) included “a healthy vegetarian diet, daily rigorous physical exercise, and philosophical group discussions (dialectical discussions) that were meant to help a person better understand their universe and their purpose within that universe,” according to Dr. Nicholas Kardaras.
Dr. Kardaras also cites work by author of The Depression Cure Dr. Steven Ilardi, whose “cure” essentially boils down to six things: (1) eating an omega-3 rich diet; (2) getting regular daily exercise; (3) getting plenty of natural sunlight; (4) getting ample sleep nightly; (5) being involved in some type of social activity where social connections are made; and (6) participation in meaningful tasks, which leave little time for negative thoughts (Source: Psychology Today). Doctors Kardaras and Ilardi agree our ancestors practiced or had access to these six things “in abundance”, and therefore had less stress, anxiety, and depression than we do as a society today.
Natural stress relief can take many forms, whether in our diet, physical or social activities, among countless other strategies for avoiding and coping with anxiety. But, what if we need to get more immediate relief (i.e. we feel a panic attack coming)? Enter nervines …
NERVINES TO THE RESCUE
If you’re a regular Anima Mundi reader, you may know a little something about adaptogens, the highly renowned chronic stress fighters that combat damaging effects. Less familiar may be nervines, a class of herbs that can instantly restore your nervous system.
There are different kinds of nervines: from deeply nourishing herbs that round out the edges like fresh milky oat and chamomile to strong relaxants like valerian, kava kava, and hops. Some nervines help beat depressive energy, confusion and anxiety, such as albizia and lemon balm. And calming adaptogenic herbs are the perfect complement to nervines. Together, they tackle the damaging effects of stress by providing an instant “chill pill”. These include herbs like ashwagandha, reishi, and tulsi — read more on these below.
Because nervines are used to help relieve a wide array of symptoms that directly impact the nervous system, their effect may be felt instantly. Want to learn more about our all-time favorites that Anima Mundi herbalists use weekly? Check out the herbs we use to instantly calm down, whether you’re in need of nervine stimulants or relaxants. If you are suffering from a combination of anxiety and depression, here are five additional supportive herbs.
In 2019, we discussed Ashwaganda's Top 9 Healing Benefits Backed by Science on our blog, so you know we’re big fans of this anti-stress, anti-anxiety, and anti-depression root! Specifically used to calm the nerves, a 2016 clinical trial confirmed: “Ashwagandha root reduces psychological and physiological markers of stress, improves mental well-being, and reduces serum cortisol levels.” Other studies show how ashwagandha can reduce anxiety, depression, mood swings and hormonal imbalance, while also increasing muscle growth and decreasing severe anxious food cravings.
Kava Kava is best-known and studied as an herb that addresses acute stress responses, nervous and social anxiety, and insomnia. The roots of Kava Kava have been used as a medicine and ceremonial beverage throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, including Hawaii, Vanuatu, Melanesia, Palau, Fiji, and more. It is one of the strongest known herbal muscle relaxants, and can greatly reduce emotional tension and anxiety disorders. Unlike the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) promoting benzodiazepine category of anti-anxiety drugs, Kava Kava promotes GABA while also increasing noradrenaline signaling. Therefore, it is capable of promoting relaxation without impairing cognition. Important to note: prolonged heavy consumption of Kava Kava is not recommended due to potential liver impairment.
Herbalist Jim McDonald says Kava Kava is most effective when one is overwhelmed and muscular tension is present (McDonald, n.d.). Kava Kava helps us to let down social barriers. It can also help with social anxiety or stage fright. Some feel this is a relaxing herb, while others feel it acts as more of a hypnotic and sedative. Studies have shown that when Kava Kava is appropriately dosed and administered, it causes no negative cognitive effects or physiological dependency (Gendle, Stroman, & Mullin, 2011; Singh, 1992), making it an effective option for a variety of anxiety-related imbalances.
Both the herb and its essential oil are effective allies in the battle against anxiety and panic attacks before they begin. This herb can be used for food and drink (teas, syrups, etc.), while the oil can be diffused, inhaled, or dabbed on the skin or sleeping surfaces like pillowcases. Researchers found affirmed lavender can produce “a calming effect without sedation, as well as a lack of dependence, tolerance, or withdrawal.” Moreover, its “onset of efficacy is more rapid than current first-line agents” and evidence from the study showed promising results for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Its advantages over benzodiazepines or pregabalin are numerous, with results taking root within two weeks, according to the researchers’ trials, whereas monoamine reuptake-inhibiting antidepressants take four to six weeks to produce similar results.
Also known as Melissa officinalis, Lemon Balm has a delicate, refreshing taste and a lemon scent. This natural anxiety remedy has been used at least since the Middle Ages as an antispasmodic, analgesic, and calming remedy. Lemon Balm may also be helpful in treating digestive issues, headaches, and even migraines. Celebrated for both calming and soothing properties, it also helps with sleep disturbances and quieting general nervous excitement. Lemon Balm is a key ingredient in our Calm Stress Relief Tonic Tea, originally developed as a communi-tea to support Black Lives Matter, women, and other marginalized communities; learn more and order yours here.
The power of calming chatter behind both our Dream Tea and our Lucid Dreaming Elixir comes from Passionflower, a beautiful velvet blossom frequently used as natural anti-anxiety medicine. These third eye tonics employ passionflower to ease the mind and body to sleep, relying on its abilities to treat sleep problems and anxiety disorders. Studies about Passionflower extract have demonstrated that in people suffering from anxiety disorders, 30 out of 41 patients felt a “positive effect”. Additionally, the patients reported being less irritable, and their sleep improved. Read more about the energetic properties of Passionflower, and check out our Passionflower Chai recipe on the blog.
For more than two millennia, the Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacopeia has revered Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)—a.k.a. Lingzhi in Chinese-—as a spiritually potent “mushroom of immortality” with one of the longest therapeutic histories of all mushrooms. Historically, the 400-some bioactive compounds in this medicinal mushroom have been used to promote vitality, increase stress tolerance, boost immune function and strengthen mental clarity, among numerous other therapeutic benefits. Like most adaptogens, this funghi can make us more resilient to stress. Donald Yance, CN, MH, RH(AHG), describes it as an “elite herb” and “the perfect remedy for the typical American suffering from constant stress.” With our stress levels lowered and our minds clearer, we tend to also experience less fatigue and sleeplessness.
Also known as “golden root”, Rhodiola is considered one of the most important adaptogens for mental health due to its strong effects against depressive moods, and mood disorders overall. Rhodiola can help treat fatigue, both mental and physical, improve energy, stamina and gently stimulates energy in cases of deficiency, depression, and lethargy in association with low moods. Rhodiola rosea can also help during recovery from trauma, both physical and psychological. Because of its mild stimulating effect, we highly recommend this tonic if you’re dealing with chronic deficiency, mood imbalances, or general weakness. We use Rhodiola in our Happiness Formula, which you can enjoy as either a caffeine free, coffee-like super powder or a high potency tonic.
Scientifically known as Hypericum perforatum or Hypericum, St. John’s Wort is among the most well researched herbs for treating mood disorders, so it will be well known to many of our readers. St. John’s Wort can be used for both anxiety and depression, and research shows the plant may increase levels of dopamine, GABA, serotonin, and noradrenaline in the neural synapses. Most importantly, it is capable of improving mood by many mechanisms simultaneously. Hypericum may modulate stress-induced emotional distress. However, it’s also a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), so there are some concerns about drug-herb interactions related to its usage. In contrast to other types of neuro-transmissions, St. John’s Wort favors dopaminergic transmission, resulting in mood enhancing effects. Important to note: If you are currently on anti-depressants or anxiolytics, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider prior to ingesting St. John’s Wort, and do not attempt to self-diagnose.
*A Note on Kids:
Recently I have received many questions regarding kids, and how they're experiencing high levels of anxiety, stress, symptoms like panic attacks and lots more. Safe herbs that that have greatly helped many parents to assist their kids in these processes are Tulsi and Lemon Balm. They are both very safe, and can be easily incorporated into tea, lemonades, and foods. As always, please consult with your healthcare practitioner, doctor or therapist if ever in doubt.
In 2020, The Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine published a study that suggested “valerian is not a simple hypnotic or anxiolytic agent,” but rather a “safe and useful herb alone and also in combination in treating sleep problems, anxiety, and associated comorbidities.” In both children and adults, valerian was shown to help enhance quality of life factors by improving quality of sleep. This, the researchers argued, is a key factor in preventing a diverse range of psychiatric and cognitive dysfunctions. In other words, the valerian root gets to the root of anxiety! It’s important to keep in mind that the source of our problems can be in the mind and impact the body as much as it can be in the body and impact the mind. In many cases, plant allies like valerian can address this even better and more sustainably than any pharmaceutical.
OTHER TOOLS FOR MANAGING ANXIETY, STRESS, & PANIC
When considering what natural stress relief is best for you, take some time to inventory Dr. Ilardi’s “six things”. How is your diet? Do you regularly exercise? Are you getting enough sunlight and sleep? What type of social network and meaningful tasks are you creating and participating in? Talk to family, friends, and trusted health professionals (therapists, mind-body practitioners, herbalists, etc.) to help you evaluate honestly.
Here are a few more tools to help keep your stress, anxiety, and panic at bay:
Did you know retraining your breath could literally save your life? Check out the American Psychological Association’s breathing instructions for a simple guide to practicing breath retraining, a way to calm down for a moment or a lifetime.
No experience? No time? Neither of these (or any of the many excuses we’re quick to come up with) need to get in the way of your daily Om. Research has shown that brief, daily meditation can enhance mood and emotional regulation, among other health benefits, even in non-experienced meditators.
Release those endorphins! When you commit to regular exercise, your hormone regulation is increased, you sleep better, and as a result, that anxiety build up is lessened or eliminated completely. Remember, Harvard Health says “doing it badly” is better than not doing it all, so start with one healthy choice and build up to a regular routine that can treat many anxiety symptoms in just one session.
It’s no secret that many Americans’ diets are deficient in key nutrients due to our culture of busy-ness and other stress-inducing factors that leave little time for, or access to, a healthy way of eating. These supplements may help offset what’s lacking on our plates. Discuss with a healthcare provider prior to consuming:
- L-Theanine is an amino acid found most commonly in tea leaves and in small amounts in Bay Bolete mushrooms. Its effectiveness for anxiety and panic attacks have been widely studied. L-theanine increases serotonin levels (the so-called “happiness hormone”). Apart from that, L-theanine increases GABA production. GABA is our main inhibitory neurotransmitter and a key regulator of both anxiety and addiction, as well as aiding us to remain in a calm state.
- Omega 3: Several pieces of research showed that patients with clinical depression showed signs of improvement after taking Omega-3. Experts generally recommend that you get your Omega-3s from food whenever possible. Oily, cold-water fishes like salmon are the best sources of these fatty acids.