Growing up, Tara Mackey frequently had panic attacks. Anything from a fight with her family or answering a question wrong at school would send her into a spiral. At the age of 16, she was diagnosed with anxiety (one of the most common mental illnesses in the US, according to the National Institute of Mental Health) and put on meds.
But her medications made her feel horrible and powerless instead of in control. “I was on a concoction of Valium and Xanax and I literally did not care about anything,” says The Organic Life blogger. “[The medication] never had a good effect on me and it definitely didn’t address my anxiety. It didn’t give me any coping mechanisms.”
At 24, Mackey decided to stop her medication cold turkey (which she doesn’t recommend, FYI). In her new book, Cured by Nature, she shares her story and the herbal remedies, breathing exercises, and mind-strengthening techniques that eventually helped her.
“When I came off my meds, my mission wasn’t never to take them again. I thought [the natural remedies] might work a little, but I wasn’t expecting it to work better than the medication,” says Mackey. After all, she was a pre-med student and thought she knew everything about science and the body. “But I found that the natural stuff does for you what the prescription drugs promise.”
Today, the 29-year old is happier and healthier than ever. And she continues to manage her anxiety without pills. “I treat it every day, from when I wake up until I go to sleep. Luckily, I found ways to treat it naturally,” says Mackey.
Here, Mackey shares 5 techniques that give her the most relief when her stress levels start to soar.
1. Start off centered
Whether you wake up ready to crush your goals or you’re still hung over from The Walking Dead finale, you need to set the tone for your day. After Mackey wakes up in the morning, she meditates. While she typically does this for an hour, don’t worry: You don’t have to block out a whole 60 minutes to experience the benefits of meditation.
“Time doesn’t matter as much as the energy and effort you put into it,” says Mackey. “It can be five minutes to an hour every day.” (And scientific studies have shown that meditation can help to relieve anxiety.)
To get started, Mackey suggests the Identification Meditation from her book: Sit up straight in your chair with your feet firmly on the ground. Breathe in and feel the areas in your life where emotional discomfort may be manifesting physically. Acknowledge these areas and imagine them hugged by light. As you breathe, follow these mantras:
Breathe in: I am light.
Breathe out: I release all dis-ease.
With each inhale, picture your unease, emotional distress, or physical discomfort bathed in light. With each exhale, release it.
By breaking up the word disease as dis-ease, it’s a way to move the focus away from any particular health ailment. “The intent is to place emphasis on the natural state of ease,” says Mackey. Practice this meditation for at least seven breaths. When you are ready, open your eyes and greet your day.
2. Take a dip
Many of the techniques Mackey relies on focus on centering the mind. “You can take anything from Valium to Xanax to herbal teas, but if your mind isn’t in the right state, it’s not going to do much,” she says.
While meditation is the cornerstone of her morning routine, there’s another practice that might surprise you: a bath. You may typically indulge in a tub soak to destress after a long day, but Mackey reaps those benefits first thing in the morning. “It’s another way for me to wind down, relax, and sort things out for the day,” she says.
3. Boost your smoothie
In addition to centering her mind, Mackey uses herbal tinctures to quiet her anxious mind.
“Valerian, passionflower, and skullcap are my current jam,” says Mackey. “They all combat anxiety. Anxiety starts with the GABA receptors in your brain.”
GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) is an amino acid that calms the nervous system and works almost like a natural, super-mellow tranquilizer. “Each one of these herbs helps to smoothe out those receptors so the GABA works better.” She adds approximately five drops of a tincture (AKA a concentrated form of the herb) of each to her morning smoothie.
4. Dose up on vitamin D (and Mother Nature)
The sun on your skin, the wind through your hair, and Instagram-worthy vistas: You can almost feel the pitter-pat of your heart start to slow down when you think of going outside. In fact, studies show that physical activity (like running for example) can help ease the symptoms of anxiety.
That’s why Mackey heads outside every day for a walk or hike with her pup. “It gives your mind the tools to deal with things. It gives you a new perspective—physically and mentally,” she says. “Medication doesn’t address what’s triggering the anxiety. That’s why it’s important to get out and find out where all this stress is coming from.”
5. Prepare to face your fears
When you’re faced with a stressful situation, those butterflies in your stomach sometimes can lead to a panic attack. Rather than shrinking away from it, Mackey suggests confronting those experiences. “The more times you face it, the less scary it becomes,” she says. Just prepare yourself beforehand.
For example, Mackey recently had to make a stressful phone call and wasn’t looking forward to it at all. Before picking up the phone, she took a few minutes for herself: “I took a deep breath, did a one minute meditation, and assured myself that I can handle anything that comes my way.”