The Bigger Issue With "Natural Remedies" For Stress & Anxiety

Photographed by Kara Birnbaum.
Lately, I've been very into this one type of cannabidiol (CBD) gummies because they taste like Sour Patch Kids, come in cute packaging, and make me feel relatively relaxed and focused. The only problem is the name "Sunday Scaries" makes me roll my eyes, and the claim printed on the bottle, "gummies for anxiety," seems like a stretch for someone like me who's naturally skeptical and sees a therapist for anxiety. But I'm still obsessed with them.
We are currently living in an age of "anxiety consumerism." From weighted blankets to fidget spinners, essential oils to adaptogens, every Goop-y corner of the internet is desperately trying to help people chill out. This trend is indicative of just how many Americans are struggling with anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the U.S. every year. Although anxiety is highly treatable with therapy and medication, only 36.9% of people will receive professional care.
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While it's a good thing that these products are getting people to address their mental health needs, they also present a larger dilemma: the mental healthcare system does not feel accessible to most people due to stigma, cost, and ineffective systems for meeting clinicians, says Drew Ramsey, MD, integrative psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. This "anxiety milieu" has created a perfect storm for people to turn to alternative aids that aren't always as effective as they seem.

If you're part of a social media community that really supports the idea that CBD is amazing for anxiety, that means those products are actually going to be more effective for you, because they're in line with your beliefs. But it doesn’t mean they’ll treat an underlying anxiety disorder.

Drew Ramsey, MD, integrative psychiatrist
"It's a very common thing, whether you're using essential oils, or extracts, or whatever it may be," says Karen Lynn Cassiday, PhD, ACT, owner and managing director of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago, and past president of the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. "It’s self-administered, you don’t have to get a diagnosis, it doesn’t affect your ability — all those kinds of things are something that I think are part of [the appeal]." Unlike finding a therapist or psychiatrist, which can be an anxiety-inducing process involving insurance and scheduling, ordering CBD products is just a matter of adding something to your cart and placing an order.
Lots of people believe that holistic anxiety aids or supplements are safer or gentler for you than a psychiatric drug — but that's a misconception, Dr. Cassiday says. In reality, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate dietary supplements to the same standard as drugs, and many of them lack scientific evidence to support that they do anything at all. While "there are legitimate supplements and herbs that we know are helpful for anxiety, they don't work the same way for everyone," she says. "They tend to work well with mild cases, as opposed to someone who really needs to see someone who has trained background."
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Still, plenty of people swear that natural aids, such as CBD for example, work for anxiety. "What I think is interesting about CBD, is people take it and say, I didn’t feel anything, so it didn’t work. Or, I felt amazing, which isn’t how it works," Dr. Ramsey says. Given the gospel of CBD, and the fact that it's all over Instagram, there's a powerful placebo effect at play. "If you're part of a social media community that really supports the idea that CBD is amazing for anxiety, that means those products are actually going to be more effective for you, because they're in line with your beliefs," he says. "But it doesn’t mean they’ll treat an underlying anxiety disorder."

I'm not against integrative medicine — I love it. What we're finding as we do more research is that an individualized approach is the superior one.

Karen Lynn Cassiday, PhD, ACT past president of the Anxiety & Depression Association of America
The biggest challenge with relying on natural anxiety aids to treat mental health issues is that most of them don't involve a "next step," Dr. Ramsey says. A clinician serves as a expert partner, so people can discuss what to do if treatments aren't working, he says. To that same point, if you are seeing a mental health professional, it's important to let them know what types of natural aids you're using to cope, Dr. Cassiday says. "I have patients who are self-medicating on the side of their psychiatric drugs, because they say they're not 'feeling the results,'" she says. Being honest about what you're using will not only ensure that you get the appropriate treatment, but also save you a lot of money. "Most people spend much more on ineffective supplement regimens than they ever do on mental healthcare, and they feel it's very expensive to see a mental health clinician," Dr. Ramsey says. "Somehow the math of that doesn’t make sense to me."
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In a perfect world, non-pharmaceutical treatments would be used with a mental health clinician. (Ironically, the most powerful evidence-based treatment for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy, Dr. Ramsey says.) "I'm not against integrative medicine — I love it," Dr. Cassiday says. "What we're finding as we do more research is that an individualized approach is the superior one."
So, if you're suffering from some level of anxiety and find that popping a CBD gummy offers some relief, that's great. But, if you suspect your anxiety is more serious, or you want to be sure that your self-medicating is as effective as it can be, it's highly recommended that you visit a mental health professional.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
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