If you’ve never experienced a significant episode of anxiety, consider yourself lucky. It’s extremely common, affecting one in four people at some point in their lifetime. At any given time, nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.

Anxiety might sound like a small problem to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but it has a deep physical basis and can be debilitating in its worst forms.

When the brain perceives a threat, whether physical or psychological, it increases the output of neurochemicals designed to help a person survive. This raises your heart rate and blood pressure, increases muscle tension, and elevates nerve sensitivity. Anxiety is usually thought of as an emotional response, but it’s also a physical one. In other words, anxiety hurts.

Treatment

For some people, medication may be the answer to anxiety. However, most types of medications used to treat anxiety come with serious downsides ... in the form of side effects.

SSRIs, for instance, are known to generate suicidal thoughts in those who take them, and prompt agonizing withdrawal symptoms in those who attempt to stop taking them. Benzodiazepines, another common class of drug used to treat anxiety symptoms, can cause dizziness, fatigue, and cognitive decline over time. These side effects are just the tip of the iceberg. And unfortunately, the truth is these drugs only treat the symptoms of anxiety, not the root causes.

Rather than risk experiencing significant, dangerous, and unwanted side effects, there are a number of effective, natural anxiety treatments to try first. After all, it’s hardly worth treating the symptoms of anxiety if the “treatment” negatively affects your health in the long run.

So what else works?

1. Exercise

Exercise should be considered your first line of defense against anxiety symptoms. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that engaging in regular physical activity means you’re less likely to experience symptoms of anxiety or depression. There’s also a significant body of research the demonstrates that being inactive actually raises the risk.

According to additional research, both low- and high-intensity exercise decrease “anxiety sensitivity,” which can be roughly described as “being anxious about being anxious” (something that many people with anxiety understand all too well). The bottom line is that exercise is extremely helpful in terms of treating anxiety symptoms, and is obviously also good for overall health, as well.

2. Dietary changes

There are three specific dietary choices you can make to lower your risk of suffering from anxiety. The first is to drink less caffeine. There’s plenty of evidence to support this. For example, one study proved that not only does chronic caffeine consumption induce anxiety, but it can also lead to withdrawal anxiety, as well.

Second, those prone to anxiety benefit from not drinking alcohol. A large percentage of people with alcohol abuse problems also suffer from anxiety, and while that’s not enough to determine the cause-and-effect relationship, it’s well-documented that alcohol consumption can cause anxiety. A subsequent downward spiral of increased anxiety and self-medication can then develop.

Finally, anxiety sufferers benefit greatly from limiting sugar in their diet. A high intake of refined sugars causes a pattern of dramatically rising and falling blood sugar levels. These, in turn, lead directly to symptoms of physical anxiety. It’s no secret that sugar isn’t the body’s best friend -- but in addition to everything else, it can seriously worsen anxiety.

3. Meditation and deep breathing

You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to reap the benefits of meditation. Modern life has virtually all of us pretty stressed most of the time, and stress is one of the biggest contributing factors to anxiety. So take a few minutes to sit back, relax in a quiet space, and focus on your breath -- or nothing at all.

You can also use a meditation app like Calm or HeadSpace to begin a daily meditation practice. According to research out of Harvard, you only need to spend ~15 minutes meditating per day to experience the benefits. And evidence points to the fact that this can even be as effective as taking the exercise route (why not both?).

Results may vary

The truth is, everyone experiences symptoms of anxiety for slightly different reasons. You’re living your own life with your own challenges and successes, and your anxiety naturally increases or diminishes based on your unique life experience. Your response will also vary in terms of each method of treatment.

The main thing to keep in mind is that while medication can work for anxiety, so can a lot of other, healthier solutions. If overall health is the goal, implementing these natural remedies is the best way to begin, and by far the most optimal long-term investment in your wellness and vitality.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. David Minkoff and his wife, Sue Minkoff R.N. co-founded LifeWorks Wellness Center in 1997. Today, it is one of the largest alternative medical clinics in the U.S. This wellness center combines more cutting-edge alternative therapies and modalities under the same roof than almost any other alternative clinic in the country. The demand for the products and protocols Dr. Minkoff discovered as Medical Director of LifeWorks, in 2000, he became a catalyst for founding BodyHealth.Com, LLC -- this nutrition company manufactures and distributes cutting-edge solutions to practitioners and the public, and offers them the opportunity to have access to unique dietary supplements and education.

Dr. Minkoff is the author of the best-selling Amazon book, The Search for the Perfect Protein: The Key to Solving Weight Loss, Depression, Fatigue, Insomnia, and Osteoporosis.