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Besides medication and psychotherapy, there are a variety of non-conventional and alternative treatment options for anxiety, of which some show promising results. These treatments are either used as alternatives or in conjunction to conventional approaches.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR):
EMDR, a new psychotherapy technique, is especially effective in helping people overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. This form of therapy uses bilateral stimulation, either through right-left eye movement or tactile stimulation of for example the hands or knees, to activate both brain hemispheres. As the patient is asked to recall anxiety-triggering events, the therapist initiates bilateral stimulation to release the emotional charge, which has been trapped in the nervous system. Once the patient no longer feels distressed about the distressing memory, EMDR can also be used to install a new, positive belief or perspective on the target event.
Biofeedback is a technique, which teaches a person to gain control over their mind and body. Using electrical sensors, biofeedback measures changes in physical functions, such as heart rate, skin temperature and brain wave activity. People with anxiety learn during a biofeedback session how certain relaxation techniques can change the signals of their own bodies. The objective and measurable physiological feedback helps them to gradually develop a greater proficiency in their abilities to calm down and relax. While only two decades ago biofeedback had been considered a fringe method, it is now widely accepted as an effective complimentary treatment of anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
Acupuncture is based on ancient Chinese medicine principles and aims to increase and balance the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. Sterilized needles are placed onto specific points of the body, which is thought to stimulate the release of stagnant energy. While studies showed that acupuncture is an effective method to alleviate chronic pain, as well as preoperative anxiety, more research is needed to investigate its benefits in the treatment of chronic anxiety disorders.
Kava (Piper mesthysticum), which is found in the South Pacific, is one of the most commonly used herbal treatments to reduce anxiety. Some studies demonstrated a moderate decrease in anxiety symptoms, while others couldn’t confirm these findings. In rare cases Kava consumption has been linked to liver toxicity.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) are two other herbal supplements, which are frequently used for anxiety, OCD and depression. However, so far research trials couldn’t prove that either of them has any benefits on reducing anxiety symptoms. It is important to keep in mind that herbal supplements can interfere with prescription medication and lead to either a decrease or an increase in their potency.
Hypnotherapy, or hypnosis, addresses emotional or physical problems by activating positive changes on a subconscious level. This form of therapy uses guided imagery, progressive relaxation and intense focus to induce a trance state, which is usually experienced as calm and comfortable. In the trance state a hypnotherapist can explore with the client potentially underlying root causes of the anxiety and introduce coping patterns and new positive beliefs to better deal with the emotional challenges. A large number of studies provided compelling evidence that hypnotherapy is an effective treatment option for anxiety and anxiety related complications, such as headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.
Meditation, which has its origin in many eastern spiritual practices, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, is defined as the intentional focus of one’s attention on the present moment for the purpose of calming and relaxing the mind and the body.
Mindfulness mediation emphasizes the non-judgmental observation of the sensations, thoughts, emotions and physical states as the way to stay present in the moment. Distracting thoughts or feelings are not ignored or pushed aside, but acknowledged with an attitude of openness, curiosity and acceptance.
A large number of studies support the benefits of mindfulness meditation on diminishing anxiety, stress and stress-related health issues, for example chronic back pain, heart disease, fibromyalgia and auto-immune diseases.
Autogenic training, progressive relaxation, body scanning and visualization are some of the most popular relaxation techniques. The goal of these methods is to learn to relax mind and body and thus restore balance between the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight and flight response and the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates rest and digestion. Research supports the notion that these techniques can be useful to reduce anxiety and anxiety-induced health problems.
There are other alternative treatment forms that are worth mentioning, such as homeopathy, healing touch, Reiki, Yoga and Tai Chi. More research is needed to establish how beneficial these methods are for treating anxiety. As most of these alternative treatments focus on reducing the symptoms and not addressing the mental, emotional root causes of the anxiety, they should be mainly considered in conjunction with psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Meditative Therapies for Reducing Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials*
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): a meta-analysis
Hypnosis in the treatment of anxiety- and stress-related disorders
Relaxation treatments and biofeedback for anxiety and somatic stress-related disorders
Current Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders