That’s right: For well over a year, during one of the worst bouts of anxiety I’ve ever experienced, my defense was a tropical fruit. I started carrying a banana with me everywhere after a desperate Google search in mid-2021 revealed that the fruit could help alleviate anxiety. Yes, I’m well aware of how ridiculous that may sound, and at the time, I was skeptical, too. But I was also down to try anything to stop having panic attacks.
For well over a year, during one of the worst bouts of anxiety I’ve ever experienced, my defense was a tropical fruit.
For most of my life, anxiety has been like a little kid clinging to my lower leg—sometimes sleepy and tame, lying dormant; other times, roaring and disruptive, trying to drag me down hard in the middle of the room for all to see. Despite having more run-ins with anxiety than I care to recount, I've always been determined to move through it naturally, even if that's meant trying weird things like keeping a banana in my bag 24/7. Admittedly, it wasn't the most convenient thing to keep on hand. But much to my surprise, it worked wonders.
- Lena Elkhatib, LMFT, CST, relationship and sex therapist and founder of Avid Intimacy, in Chicago
- Romane Guerot, RDN, registered dietitian, sport nutritionist, and lifestyle coach at nutrition app Foodvisor
- Sara Chatfield, MPH, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition expert at Healthcanal
- Shari Botwin, LCSW, therapist with a specialization in trauma, abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression
Minutes after I demolished the aforementioned banana in front of the entire salon, I felt my shoulders relax. I reveled in a much-needed deep breath. It was like waking up from a bad dream. Once again safe within my body, I hoped I could hold onto this feeling, a wish I had on most days during this period of my life.
The immediate soothing effect of the banana was borderline unfathomable—so much so, I had a feeling it couldn’t just be the result of the fruit's biochemistry (more on that below). If it was that simple to knock out a panic attack with a piece of fruit, everyone would toss out their anxiety medications and start making smoothies instead. It turns out my relief may have been as much a product of the banana’s nutritional content as it was the calming power of simply knowing I had one with me, ready to wield it whenever necessary.
Why eating bananas may help to limit anxiety
While it may sound far-fetched, there’s some science to support the fact that bananas can help with anxiety. For starters, you might recall hearing that bananas are rich in potassium, which has given the fruit its reputation as a solution for muscle cramps: Potassium is a star when it comes to facilitating muscle contractions and healthy communication between muscles and nerves. But it can also have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system that may support mental health.
“When you feel anxious, you may have too much of a hormone called adrenaline [coursing through your body], which makes your heart race and your mind feel jumpy,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Romane Guerot, RDN. “Potassium can keep adrenaline in check.”
Indeed, research shows that potassium may act as a natural beta-blocker, lowering blood pressure by easing tension in the blood-vessel walls and blocking such blood-pressure-raising hormones as adrenaline. That's a fancy way of saying, “potassium helps your heart beat steadily and your muscles work properly, including the ones involved in the anxiety response,” says Guerot.
Over time, the supportive connection between potassium and heart health may have a ripple effect on mental health. A 2023 study of more than 500 people in China found that low potassium levels correlated with higher levels of anxiety and depression, suggesting grounds for increasing potassium intake. And given that bananas are rich in potassium (a medium one contains about 400 mg), eating them more often might help to keep anxiety levels at bay.
According to registered dietitian nutritionist Sara Chatfield, MPH, RDN, it’s not just the potassium that could give bananas their anti-anxiety effect, either. “Bananas are also high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid and serotonin precursor [meaning that it’s a building block of the happiness neurotransmitter], which may help to ease stress and anxiety,” she says.
Uncovering this wealth of research made me feel at least 10 percent more normal for carrying a banana around as a mental-health tool—and yet, it's worth noting that none of these studies point to the immediate effects of eating a banana on a panic attack. But as psychology would have it, even just believing in the power of my emotional support banana may have been enough to turn it into a bonafide anxiety solution.
How the placebo effect can play a role in managing anxiety
During the period of time when a banana accompanied me everywhere—to work, on errands, and to social plans—I felt more at ease just knowing I had it within reach. Sometimes, I wouldn't even eat it (unless I actually got hungry). Many times, I did use my tropical tool to stay calm. But regardless of consumption, I came to believe I'd be alright as long as I could down a banana before a panic attack downed me.
In medicine, this is called the placebo effect: a phenomenon that occurs when believing in the efficacy of a remedy makes us feel better, even if that remedy lacks any physiological impact. According to therapist Shari Botwin, LCSW, the placebo effect can work wonders when it comes to mitigating anxiety. “When we take concrete steps to manage emotions that feel out of our control, it gives our anxiety less power, and it becomes less consuming,” she says. In my case, the concrete step of packing a banana may have had that effect regardless of whether I ate it.
“When we take concrete steps to manage emotions that feel out of our control, it gives our anxiety less power, and it becomes less consuming.” —Shari Botwin, LCSW, therapist
There’s also a certain sense of psychological safety that can come with routine and predictability. “Carrying around a banana, or a ‘good-luck charm,’ can serve the purpose of interrupting the anxiety spiral and providing the feeling of being protected,” says therapist Lena Elkhatib, LMFT, CST. “That allows anxiety to take a step back and for positive outcomes to have their chance to be realized.” And the more positive outcomes occur, “the more data our brain has that positive outcomes are a possibility, helping protect against future anxiety,” she adds.
That means each time I ate a banana and had a positive outcome, my brain strengthened the association between the two, eventually leading me to feel less anxious just carrying a banana in tow. It goes to show how impactful the mind-body connection can be—something that may be helpful for us all to remember when symptoms of a panic attack arise. At the end of the day, we are (and always will be) the ones in control.
Finding an anxiety solution that works for you
Don't get me wrong: If you're taking medication for anxiety, don't ditch it for a bunch of bananas. (What works for one person isn’t necessarily what will work for the next.) And if your anxiety is keeping you from doing the things you need and want to do, it’s important to see a licensed mental health professional for support rather than relying on techniques for self-soothing.
That said, if you’re looking to explore different ways to support yourself in the face of anxiety, here are a couple other things to consider:
Research has shown that deep breathing can shut down the physical symptoms of anxiety. It might take some practice to get the rhythm down, but I can attest: This really can help. Try an app like Breathe+ to get started with 4-7-8 breathing, a technique that involves a four-count inhale, seven-count hold, and eight-count exhale.
Engaging all five senses
If you think you're inching close to a panic attack, try the 5-4-3-2-1 method to shut it down: Focus on five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. (Banana, anyone?) In fact, all those times I ate a banana to outsmart anxiety “may have also served the purpose of bringing you back to your five senses,” says Elkhatib. “The sensory process could have been a part of your nervous system relaxing.”
- Filippini, Tommaso et al. “Potassium Intake and Blood Pressure: A Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Journal of the American Heart Association vol. 9,12 (2020): e015719. doi:10.1161/JAHA.119.015719
- Wu, Zihao et al. “Lower 24-h urinary potassium excretion is associated with higher prevalent depression and anxiety status in general population.” Brain and behavior vol. 13,4 (2023): e2842. doi:10.1002/brb3.2842
- Richard, Dawn M et al. “L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications.” International journal of tryptophan research : IJTR vol. 2 (2009): 45-60. doi:10.4137/ijtr.s2129
- Jenkins, Trisha A et al. “Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis.” Nutrients vol. 8,1 56. 20 Jan. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8010056
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