Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but some people have frightening episodes called panic attacks, or are profoundly uneasy so often that anxiety interferes with their normal lives. Taking B vitamins, certain minerals and calming herbs may help.

What is it?

When you're in a potentially dangerous situation – facing a large barking dog, for example – anxiety is a healthy response. Your brain, sensing the danger, signals for the release of hormones to prepare your body to defend itself. Muscles tense, heartbeat and breathing rate increase, and the blood even becomes more likely to clot (in the event of injury). In some people, however, this response is set in motion even when there is no obvious threat. Such a reaction can be bad for your health, causing exhaustion, poor concentration, a sense of detachment from yourself or your surroundings, headaches, stomach problems and an increase in blood pressure.

Anxiety disorders come in two basic forms. Generalised anxiety disorder is a chronic condition that involves a recurring sense of worry and foreboding accompanied by mild physical symptoms. A panic attack, on the other hand, comes on suddenly and unexpectedly, with symptoms so violent that the episodes are often mistaken for a heart attack or some other life-threatening condition.

What causes it?

Some scientists think that the central nervous systems of people with anxiety disorders may overreact to stress and take a longer time than most to return to a calmer state. Anxiety may begin with an upsetting event – an accident, a divorce or a death – or it may have no identifiable cause.

There may also be a biochemical basis for anxiety. Studies have shown that people who are prone to panic attacks have higher blood levels of lactic acid, a chemical produced when muscles metabolise sugar without enough oxygen. Other research suggests that anxiety could be caused by an overproduction of stress hormones by the brain and adrenal glands.

What are the symptoms?

Acute anxiety

  • Extreme fear.
  • Rapid heartbeat and breathing.
  • Excessive perspiration, chills, or hot flushes.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Dizziness.

Chronic anxiety

  • Muscle tension, headaches and back pain.
  • Insomnia.
  • Depression.
  • Low sex drive.
  • Inability to relax.

Are there any natural therapies?

Herbal and nutritional remedies for anxiety can often be used in place of prescription drugs, which may be addictive and have other unpleasant side effects. Several studies have shown that the herb kava is very useful for anxiety – perhaps as effective as prescription drugs. It reduces symptoms such as nervousness, dizziness and heart palpitations. In addition, people with anxiety should add calcium, magnesium and a vitamin B complex supplement, plus extra thiamine. These nutrients are important for the healthy functioning of the nervous system, especially for the production of the key chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters.

Valerian, known as a sleep aid, can be used at low doses throughout the day for a calming effect. Try this herb if kava doesn't work for you. Even if you're taking kava during the day, you can have a bedtime dose (250-500 mg) of valerian if you have trouble falling asleep. St John's wort can be added to kava or valerian if you are depressed as well as anxious. At least a month is needed before the full effect of St John's wort will be felt. The other supplements begin working immediately.

What else can I do?

  • Cut out caffeine, alcohol and excess sugar, which may trigger anxiety.
  • Do aerobic exercises regularly. they burn lactic acid, produce natural feel-good chemicals (endorphins) and enhance your use of oxygen.
  • See a therapist to develop more positive ways of coping.

Did you know?

Panic attacks are surprisingly common: about 10% of Australians and New Zealanders will experience at least one in their lifetime. And as many as 2.5% of adults have these attacks frequently.