There Are Ways To Treat Anxiety Without Medication. But No, ‘Try Harder’ Is Not One Of Them

There Are Ways To Treat Anxiety Without Medication. But No, ‘Try Harder’ Is Not One Of Them
This is Ali Madeeh’s fourth article in our series on Mental Health. In this article he explains the non-medication treatments of anxiety. However, 'use your willpower' is not one of the ways he suggests to treat it. "Asking a person with a psychiatric illness to 'try harder' or 'convince yourself to get better' is the same as asking anyone with a medical illness to do the same", he argues. The previous article on the kinds of anxieties can be read be clicking here.

The treatment of anxiety, whether the person is suffering from terrifying panic attacks or the relentless drum beat of ongoing anxiety, generally falls along two lines. This is similar to treatment for most emotional illnesses. For the sake of simplicity, we may divide treatment into non-medication and medication treatment.

Non-Medication Treatment of Anxiety

This is the underutilised and often misunderstood option in the treatment of emotional or psychiatric illness. By non-medication treatment, we do not mean the lay person's definition of simply 'trying harder' or 'using your willpower'.

Asking a person with a psychiatric illness to 'try harder' or 'convince yourself to get better' is the same as asking anyone with a medical illness to do the same. If you would not advise a person with, say, hepatitis or a heart attack to 'try harder', why would you say that to a person with anxiety or any mental illness?

By non-medical treatment, we are referring to the kinds of treatment that do not involve the use of medications which many people are, correctly, apprehensive about. Non-medical treatment may also roughly be divided into two categories.

Self-Help for Anxiety

While asking a person with anxiety to simply 'try harder' may not make much sense, there are, in fact, things that one can do that can improve the symptoms of anxiety. In cases of mild anxiety, these steps can improve symptoms to the extent that consultation with a mental health professional may not be needed.

Some steps that everyone can take to improve symptoms of anxiety (and enhance their quality of life even if they do not have anxiety) include:

  • Getting at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night

Sleep is such an essential component of both mental as well as physical help that it deserves a separate column. Suffice to say that if there is one thing most of us can do to help improve our lives on a day to day basis, it is to get more good quality sleep.

  • Eating a healthy diet

This too is a very general piece of advice that can not only improve most mental health conditions but also improve physical health and generally increase energy levels and productivity. What is a healthful diet? A diet that is abundant in as much 'unprocessed' food as possible. This means much more fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, lots of water, lean protein and healthy fats (such as those found in nuts). It also means as little as possible of processed foods, minimal or no sugar, less salt and reduced amounts of most fats. Basically, if your food item comes packaged in a foil or plastic wrapper and does not spoil in 2-3 days, it's not good for you.

  • Regular physical exercise; at least 30-45 minutes at a time, at least 4-5 times a week

The type of exercise matters little. Walking, cycling, gym, swimming, even vigorous house work all count. The important thing is to move and do it regularly. Exercise has huge benefits for both your mental and physical health.

  • Avoidance of excessive use of alcohol, drugs and other mind-altering substances

Besides these, there are many other things one can do to reduce anxiety. Making time for leisure activities including spending time with family and friends, improving the quality or your relationships (which a professional can also help with), learning how to deal with deadlines and projects in a healthy way, learning and practicing specific activities that reduce anxiety such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercise etc. Nowadays, there is an app for pretty much everything and one can learn basic principles for all of these things and more if one invests the time and energy.

If you are doing all of this and still find it hard to manage anxiety symptoms, it may be time to consult a professional. Your first stop should, if possible, be a psychotherapist, psychologist or counselor. More on that in the next column.

The writer is a psychiatrist practicing in Lahore. He taught and practiced Psychiatry in the United States for 16 years. He tweets @Ali_Madeeh