Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress, and most people will experience it occasionally.1
However, it can start becoming a problem when it begins to affect your day-to-day life. Read on for things you can do to help and reduce feelings of anxiety.
Not one single thing causes anxiety; it can also affect people in different ways. They are not limited to, but can include2:
It’s common for things that may have happened in the past, either as a child, adolescent or an adult, to trigger anxiety at the time, as well as for many years afterwards. These experiences include physical or emotional abuse, neglect, being bullied or socially excluded or losing a parent.
Current life situations or problems can make people feel anxious. Some examples include having to work long hours, feeling lonely, money problems, being unemployed, feeling the pressure of studying or feeling exhausted.
Issues like these cause people to feel anxious or make their anxiety worse. Serious, on-going health issues can cause anxiety. It’s also common for people to develop anxiety while dealing with other mental health problems, e.g. depression.
Anxiety can sometimes be a side effect of taking certain psychiatric or physical health medications or recreational drugs or alcohol.
Panic attacks are a symptom of panic disorders. According to the NHS, panic disorders involve feeling anxious, stressed and panicked at any time, for no apparent reason.
They usually happen on a regular basis too.
Panic is the most severe form of anxiety, and worrying about experiencing a new attack can make people feel more on edge and susceptible to having more panic attacks.3
Anxiety can often arise from unexpected changes to your daily routine. For many, the disruptions of national lockdown have triggered feelings of uncertainty and doubt about the future, which can contribute to anxiety. If you have been worried about your mental health during lockdown, know that you’re not alone.
Even as we approach the end of lockdown in the UK, there are a number of factors that still may be contributing to your anxiety. With restrictions being lifted, the idea of adapting to a new lifestyle after months of being at home might seem tough.
If you are feeling anxious about going to work when lockdown ends, or find that you experience anxiety when going out in public, it may be helpful to understand more about where the feeling comes from and how to manage it.
Fortunately, there are many ways to cope with anxiety. With the right support you can learn to deal with it in a way that works best for you.
Anxiety can cause changes in how you’re feeling physically or mentally and also be responsible for any behavioural changes.
It can be challenging to know when anxiety is contributing to how you’re feeling or acting, so keep an eye out for the below signs and symptoms:4
Acknowledging anxiety can help you understand what triggers these feelings and learn which coping mechanisms work for you.
If you’re unsure why you’re experiencing anxiety, keeping a journal and seeking support can help identify the causes.5
Finding the right support and coping mechanisms can help in dealing with the problem. The following steps are those that might help in managing your anxiety:6
Everybody’s anxiety is caused by different things. If you know what your triggers are, then hopefully you can then minimise or remove them from your routine.
Some examples of general triggers include driving/travelling, phobias, caffeine and work-related stress.9
Avoid setting yourself unachievable targets if you’re suffering from anxiety, as trying to complete everything at once can add to your stress and worries.
Focus your time on the things you can change and ignore the things you have no control over. Resist using alcohol, drugs or cigarettes as coping mechanisms because they can contribute to poor mental health in the long run.9
Remember, you’re not alone. Most people experience stress, anxiety and fear throughout their lives.
It’s possible for people who experience on-going anxiety and stress for a while to develop health issues. Over time, the anxiety and stress can take its toll on their health, making them more susceptible to issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and panic disorders.10
Anxiety and stress can also become harmful when people develop thoughts about harming themselves or others. In these instances, they should seek medical help as soon as possible. The same applies to if their thoughts are getting in the way of being able to go about their day-to-day life.
Anxiety and stress can be treated and there are many resources, strategies and treatments available to enable people to understand and manage their anxiety and stress levels.
If you’re driving, at work or in another public space and are feeling overly-anxious, then you may want to try and calm yourself down as soon as you possibly can.11
While it’s not always possible to immediately feel less anxious, there are plenty of self-help tactics you can follow to help make yourself feel calmer sooner. They include:
Breathing is such a natural process that most of the time, we do it without being aware. However, when in times of stress, breathing can become rapid and shallow, adding to feelings of anxiousness.
Taking time to learn about different types of breath and practising simple breathing exercises for anxiety can help you overcome these feelings.
If you feel stressed or anxious, your body will typically instigate its fight-or-flight response. The brain doesn’t differentiate between physical or emotional threats but reacts in the same way, increasing the breathing and the heart rate to get blood to the muscles faster.12 This increased heart rate is to prepare you to tackle a physical threat or run away from it.
Nowadays, we don’t often experience these sorts of threats. But, when facing modern-day concerns, the brain will still produce this response.
This increase in breathing, or hyperventilation, causes an upset in the balance between our body’s oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. You may begin to feel lightheaded, as this unbalance reduces the blood supply to the brain, and your fingers may start to tingle. Severe hyperventilation can even result in a loss of consciousness.13
This reaction can increase levels of anxiety, exacerbating the situation. However, learning to control your breathing through simple breathing exercises can reduce stress and allow your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to return to normal.
There are two ways of breathing. These are thoracic breathing (from the chest) and diaphragmatic breathing (from the abdominals).
The rapid, shallow breathing experienced when feeling anxious comes from the chest. This way of breathing can add to feelings of anxiety, as the intakes of breath do not feel satisfying, and can make you feel as though you are suffocating.
The diaphragm is a muscle located at the base of the lungs. When you breathe diaphragmatically, this muscle contracts and moves downwards, providing more space for your lungs to expand. This downwards movement pushes on the stomach muscles and forces the abdominal wall out.14
Diaphragmatic breathing encourages the optimal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It slows the heart rate and can lower blood pressure. The knock-on effect is that we feel more relaxed, and anxiety levels drop.15
Practice this simple breathing exercise to help lower levels of anxiety.16 You can be standing, sitting or lying when completing this exercise. However, focus on relaxing your body and ensure there is no tension through your shoulders.
If focusing on your breathing in this way is making you feel more anxious, stop. It can take practice to feel the benefits of this technique, so try to do a little at a time and build up slowly.
Some natural supplements can also be helpful alongside these breathing techniques to relax, reduce feelings of anxiety, and improve your sleeping patterns.
Getting enough shut-eye every night is vital for both our physical and mental health. When we sleep, our bodies perform a variety of functions, from repairing damaged cells to strengthening our immune systems.17
Sleep is also crucial for our brain as it’s when it processes all the information we’ve soaked up during the day and consolidates it into long term memories.18
If you don’t get enough sleep every night, you’ll likely feel lethargic the following day, much more irritable and probably have poorer concentration levels. These can all have a big impact on your everyday life and may make any anxiety you’re experiencing seem much worse.
Experts say that between seven and nine hours of sleep a night is a good figure to aim for.19
Nevertheless, this needs to be good quality sleep to properly nourish our minds and bodies. That means uninterrupted periods of dozing when our bodies are able to complete three to four REM sleep cycles.20
If you find yourself regularly lying awake at night with a thousand thoughts running through your head, you might be after some tips on how to relax. Luckily, there are numerous things you can do to help promote sleep when you’re feeling anxious:
It’s important that you wind down properly and avoid stressful situations in those few hours before you go to sleep.
Developing a bedtime routine is a great way to do this, whether that’s choosing to read every night before you sleep, doing some gentle yoga or having a warm bath to soothe your muscles.
Try to go to bed at the same time every night, too, to help maintain a good sleep routine.21
Studies show that sleeping in a room that’s cooler is actually better for promoting sleep. That’s because our bodies naturally get cooler when we’re asleep as our heart rates drop and our blood circulation slows down.22
Before you go to bed, turn the heating off or down, close all the curtains properly and make sure your bed is as comfortable as possible.
Technology can have negative effects on us for a number of reasons, particularly when we’re trying to go to bed.
That’s largely down to the fact that most electronic devices emit blue light which stimulates the brain, making it much more difficult to switch off for sleep.23
Avoid looking at your phone or tablet for at least an hour before bedtime if you can.
If you’ve tried counting sheep and got nowhere, you might want to switch to a breathing exercise instead. You’ll find numerous apps online, like Calm, which guide you through meditation sequences and deep breathing routines.
There are a handful of vitamins, herbal remedies and essential oils out there which may promote sleep.24 These include:
In addition to using natural remedies for anxiety, such as the examples we listed above, there are herbal remedies for anxiety available too. They include:25
Some clinical trials have been carried out that suggest passionflower can potentially help with anxiety.
It works by increasing the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain, which may help people to relax and sleep better.26
Studies of people who’ve taken valerian root for anxiety have shown that their anxiety and stress levels have decreased.
One study of 36 people with GAD found that 50mg of valerian root extract given three times a day for four weeks, significantly reduced one measure of anxiety compared to placebo.27
Chamomile is a well-known herbal remedy for anxiety and has been shown to be effective in aiding relaxation, and also helping with anxiety, depression and insomnia.28
According to traditional folk medicine, the smell of lavender calms the nerves.
More recent research also suggests that there’s a compound in lavender that can lessen anxiety by stimulating the nose to pass signals to the brain.29
Lemon balm is particularly useful for reducing nervousness and excitability.
It works by balancing your stress response system. It’s also known for helping create a healthy fight-or-flight response.
If you experience anxiety, there are several essential oils that could help you, whether you experience it on a daily basis or just occasionally.
They not only smell incredible, but these aromas can have a hugely positive effect too when you add a few drops to your bath water, spray some on your pillow or apply them topically onto your skin.
Essential oils have been used for thousands of years by those who experience feelings of anxiety.30
They are extremely concentrated fragrant extracts. For instance, it takes 220Ibs of lavender flowers to make just 1Ib of lavender essential oil.31
They’re used in all sorts of different ways.
They’re commonly used to help ease feelings of stress, boost mood, calm the mind and repel insects.
When it comes to using them to help achieve some of these benefits, there are a number of ways they can be used.
This typically involves applying a few drops to a cloth and gently breathing the fragrance in or putting some in a diffuser, so the scent can be circulated in the air.
It’s believed that inhaling essential oils stimulates the olfactory system - the part of the brain connected to smell.
Essential oils sometimes are applied directly to the skin to treat pain in a specific area, for instance, to ease tired muscles.
Certain oils are also applied directly to the body because of their soothing qualities, e.g. putting tea tree oil on acne or clove oil on fungal infections.32
Note – certain essential oils can aggravate skin and should be diluted before being applied. They include but are not limited to: bay, clove, cinnamon, lemongrass, citronella, oregano and thyme.33
Some essential oils can be used in cooking or even swallowed in small doses as medication, but this should be done with great caution.
While many are safe in small doses, others are poisonous and should never be ingested.34
It’s highly recommended that you try using essential oils if you are feeling anxious, and it’s all down to the power of scent.35
Simple smells, such as lavender, chamomile and rosewater can instantly help us feel calm, particularly if you’re gently breathing in or rubbing these essential oils on to your skin (be sure to dilute them first to avoid any irritation).
It’s essential you dilute them as they’re far too potent to be used neat.
To dilute essential oils, simply mix them with a carrier oil.
The amount you dilute them down by depends on their original strength.
As a general rule of thumb, the higher their percentage, the more likely you are to have a reaction, so it’s important to mix them correctly.
Always check the usage instruction before using essential oils.
Why do essential oils have the ability to help people feel less anxious?
It’s believed that they’re capable of sending chemical signals directly to the part of our brain that’s responsible for controlling our mood and our emotions.
Having said that, essential oils can’t take away feelings of anxiety altogether, but they can potentially take the edge off and help you relax.
For instance, just the thought of a dreamy hot soak in a lavender bath is relaxing, and has even more of a calming effect in reality too.36
You can’t just apply them anywhere and everywhere, no matter how keen you might be for them to help with your anxiety or how good they smell.
There are certain ‘rules’ to applying essential oils.
For example, oils that are okay to put on your arms and legs, may not be safe to put inside your mouth, nose, eyes or private parts.
Lemongrass, peppermint, and cinnamon bark are prime examples.37
You should never apply essential oils to injured or inflamed skin, as it may make your skin react and worse overall.
Generally speaking, diluted essential oils can be safely applied to the crown of your head, behind the ears, to your neck and to your temples.38
There are a few different aroma options to choose from, but the scents that are most commonly used to help with anxiety are:39
Lavender is renowned for its soothing properties and is often associated with helping people relax and rewind.
It’s a scent that’s said to be a real mood-booster and help reduce feelings of nervousness.
It can be used at any time of day to help create a calming effect. It can be especially beneficial to use before bed to promote restful sleep.
This article shows you ‘How to Make Your Own Lavender Oil.’
This essential oil is thought to reduce feelings of sluggishness, fatigue and sadness.
The scent of lemon oil is believed to help lift people’s mood, improve concentration, reduce fearful thinking and relieve feelings of stress.
Bergamot oil can help people feel refreshed and energised.
It is believed to help stabilise fearful thinking, lower anxious feelings, and promote deep relaxation.40
For more on this essential oil read, ‘What is bergamot?’
Top tip: Add 2 -5 drops of bergamot essential oil to products (ensuring it is correctly diluted), such as body wash, shampoo and facial scrubs.
This fragrant oil is believed to be able to help relieve feelings of tension, sadness and worry.
Research has shown that ylang-ylang is good for improving mood and attitude.
Lavender is the most popular of all essential oils.
This wonder scent can help ease anxiety and stress, so much so that researchers at the Royal Berkshire Hospital NHS Trust, Reading, used it on patients in the intensive care unit.
Several studies have shown that it can be hugely beneficial to patients who are sleep deprived.
Top tip: You can apply it to your skin with or without a carrier oil to form a lotion.41
Inhaling rose oil promotes calmness and reduces any feelings of tension that you may be feeling; it’s often recommended to those who are grieving or depressed.
Popular in India and Sri Lanka, vetiver essential oil is often referred to as the ‘oil of tranquillity.
It has a sweet, smoky scent that’s similar to sandalwood essential oil. It can alleviate feelings of emotional stress, anxiety and depression.
This tropical scent is both calming and uplifting.
It is one of the best essential oils to use if you want to boost your emotional wellbeing.
Frankincense has a rich, warm aroma.
It can lift your mood and stimulate the senses, helping to bring your emotions back into check.
Adding to your bath should help relax both your mind and body.
With a sweet scent similar to roses, geranium oil can help you replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
Many believe it can help restore hormone imbalance too.
Top tip: Geranium oil also has also been known to display antimicrobial properties.42
This essential oil has been used for centuries to help reduce feelings of anxiety.
Studies have shown that jasmine can help to stimulate your brain and improve your mood and energy levels. It may also calm your mood and senses.
Top tip: It’s an ideal oil for putting into a diffuser to evaporate and disperse its floral fragrance into the air.43
Try massaging chamomile oil (not directly) onto your skin or inhaling it when you’re feeling anxious.
It has a slightly herby aroma and you’ll no doubt think of chamomile tea as you breathe it in.
Top tip: Chamomile oil can also be used to care for skin concerns.
Bergamot oil is a popular aromatherapy oil for relieving anxiety due to its fresh and citrusy fragrance.
A study carried out in 2013 found that compared with inhaling water vapour, aromatherapy with bergamot orange essential oil reduced anxiety in people awaiting minor surgery.44
Clary sage is a medicinal herb that’s widely associated with relieving feelings of anxiety.
It’s believed to be able to lower blood pressure levels and respiratory rate; this was the finding of a small study of 34 women carried out in 2013.45
Rich and citrusy, just like bergamot, lemon oil has been proven in animal studies (rats and mice) to reduce feelings of anxiety.46
Be sure to use lemon oil in moderation, as it is believed that overusing it can trigger stress.
Top tip: Citrus essential oils can increase sensitivity to sunlight, so make sure you protect your skin by wearing an SPF.
Also known as orange blossom oil, neroli oil is sweet and citrusy, and studies have shown that it may have calming properties and potentially specifically help support restful sleep.47
You can also try out these other essential oils:48
As with all skincare products, you should always use essential oils in line with the recommended guidance.
As we’ve already mentioned a bit further up, pure essential oils are highly concentrated solutions and can therefore potentially be toxic.49
Before using essential oils, especially if you’re planning on applying them to your skin, make sure you dilute them down in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Using diluted essential oils can reduce the likelihood of them irritating your skin, eyes or lungs.
Undiluted essential oils should never be applied to people’s skin or eyes.
If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may potentially develop an allergic reaction or your skin may become irritated by essential oils.
If it becomes blotchy, starts to itch, hurts you or becomes red, it’s best to avoid using them.
The best and safest way to use essential oils, is to carry out a patch test on your skin first.
If your skin responds negatively, clean it with some soap and warm water and stop using the oil.
When it comes to using essential oils for relaxation and reducing anxiety, there are plenty of different options to choose from.
What’s more, it’s also possible to use them in many different ways too, depending on your own personal preference.
Take your time getting to know essential oils and the effect they can have on your mind and body, it’s an enlightening journey to be on that can deliver many self-care and health benefits.
For more insight on using essential oils to help with anxiety read, ‘Top 5 essential oils for stress relief.’
Counselling is a talking therapy that involves a trained therapist listening to you and helping you find ways to deal with emotional issues. It can help with:
If you’re keen to support someone close to you with anxiety, it’s understandable to feel a little out of your depth at first.
While identifying the cause of someone’s anxiety can go a long way in easing their nerves, there are also various other things you might be able to do to help.
If somebody you know is feeling particular anxious or experiencing a panic attack, there are certain things you can do to help them feel better.52
They may already have some coping strategies they follow, e.g. breathing exercises or key phrases, they’d benefit from you doing with them.
Offer to arrange an appointment with their GP for them and to go with them or help them to find a therapist or simply explore the support options available to them.
Stress and anxiety can be overwhelming for people who experience it. Asking them how they are feeling and learning more about their situation, as well as doing your own wider research about it, will enable you to understand what they are going through.
There are a number of herbal remedies which have been used for centuries to help relax those who suffer from anxiety.
Valerian root has been used for hundreds of years as a herbal remedy for nervousness, anxiety and insomnia, based on traditional use only. It’s able to relax the muscles and slow down brain activity so you feel calmer.53
St John’s Wort is another millennia-old herbal remedy used to relieve symptoms of mild anxiety, based on traditional use only.
St John’s Wort is thought to work by reducing the time it takes for the brain to use up serotonin – the body’s ‘happy’ hormone.54
Put pressure on them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. This will most probably make them feel more anxious.
Assume you can’t help - even if they feel you can’t help them at the time, you may be able to help them at a later date. What’s more, knowing you’re there to support them is a huge help in itself.
Ask them to breathe into a paper bag - you should never encourage someone to breathe into a paper bag during a panic attack. This isn't recommended and it might not be safe.
If you’re worried about someone who has anxiety and think they might need professional medical help, try to gently encourage them to speak to their GP or a charity like Anxiety UK, who specialise in supporting those with anxiety.
Anxiety impacts people in different ways and can be triggered by different things too, both past and present experiences. Fortunately, help is available to help people understand and manage their anxiety; the biggest hurdle is recognising it in the first place.
Now that you’ve read this article, we hope it’s answered any initial queries you may have had about anxiety and that you’ve found it a useful starting point for dealing with anxiety. For more practical advice for dealing with anxiety, read '8 ways to be kind to yourself'.
Dr Zoe Williams, perhaps best known as one of the resident GPs on This Morning, has a warm chat with fellow GP Gemma where they discuss:
Last updated: 10 June 2022
Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry
Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.
After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.