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Alternative Medicine for Anxiety Disorders

By Friedemann Schaub, M.D., Ph.D. ; Updated August 14, 2017

Besides medication and psychotherapy, there are a variety of non-conventional treatment options for anxiety, some of which show promising results. These treatments are either used as alternatives or in conjunction with 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 the hands or knees, to activate both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. 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 anxiety 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 that 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 complementary 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 have shown that acupuncture is an effective method to alleviate chronic pain and preoperative stress, more research is needed to investigate its benefits in the treatment of chronic anxiety disorders.

Herbal Treatments

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 that are frequently used for anxiety, OCD and depression. Research trials, however, have not proven that either of them have any benefits on reducing anxiety symptoms.

It is important to keep in mind that herbal supplements can interfere with prescription medication and may lead to either a decrease or an increase in their potency. Therefore, it is important to consult your doctor before taking herbal medications.


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 that 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 emotional challenges. A large number of studies have provided compelling evidence that hypnotherapy is an effective treatment for anxiety and anxiety-related complications, such as headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.

Mindfulness Meditation

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 nonjudgmental 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 rather 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, such as chronic back pain, heart disease, fibromyalgia and autoimmune diseases.

Relaxation Techniques

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 the mind and body and thus restore balance between the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-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.

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