The psychology of herbal medicine use for anxiety: a complicated treatment decision

Lots of people experience anxiety. In fact, it is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions in the Western world. Anxiety can cause a significant amount of distress for people. The good news is that there are evidence-based treatment options for anxiety, which include psychological therapies and pharmaceutical drugs. Unfortunately, these treatments aren’t always effective for people, which may be one reason why herbal medicines have become a popular treatment choice for people with anxiety and mental health problems more generally.

It’s important to understand a person’s motivations for using herbal medicines to treat anxiety symptoms, as they may not be getting the most suitable treatment for their situation. It is also important because research has found that people will combine their use of herbal medicines with prescribed pharmaceuticals, which carries a risk of harmful herb-drug interactions. There are safe and effective ways to use herbal medicines for anxiety symptoms, but it isn’t always a simple treatment choice.

Consequently, in the final publication from my PhD I used a theoretical model to understand why people use herbal medicines to treat anxiety symptoms. The study found that people wanting more control over anxiety symptoms, having a stronger belief that people important to them supported their use of herbal medicines, having positive attitudes to herbal medicines, and having more severe anxiety symptoms were more likely to use herbal medicines for anxiety symptoms.

The findings of this study suggest that mental health care practitioners need to better support people experiencing anxiety to feel more in control of their health through engaging in shared decision-making, and having a conversation with them about evidence-based treatment options with consideration of their beliefs and attitudes towards treatments.

So, if you are a person who uses herbal medicines for anxiety symptoms ensure you talk to your health care practitioner about the most suitable treatment, and check for possible herb-drug interactions.

If you are a health care practitioner ask your patients about herbal medicine use, and ensure you are well equipped with information about herbal medicines so you can support them with their treatment decisions.

At the policy level, people experiencing anxiety need access to accurate and reliable information about herbal medicines to ensure they can engage in safe and effective self-care.

If you’d like to read about this study in detail: McIntyre, E., Saliba, A. J., Wiener, K. K., Bishop, F. L. (2017). Predicting the intention to use herbal medicines for anxiety symptoms: A model of health behaviourJournal of Mental Health. 1-8.

For comprehensive information on evidence-based herbal and nutritional medicines for anxiety disorders read: Camfield, D., McIntyre, E., & Sarris, J. (Eds) (2017) Evidence-Based Herbal and Nutritional Treatments for Anxiety in Psychiatric Disorders. Springer International Publishing: Switzerland.

For a review of the beliefs and attitudes that predict herbal medicine use see: McIntyre, E., Saliba, A. J., Wiener, K. K., & Sarris, J. (2015) Prevalence and predictors of herbal medicine use in adults experiencing anxiety: A critical review of the literature. Advances in Integrative Medicine, 2, 38-48.

Read more about how people are using herbal medicines for anxiety symptoms in: McIntyre, E., Saliba, A. J., Wiener, K. K., & Sarris, J. (2016) Herbal medicine use behaviour in Australian adults who experience anxiety: A descriptive study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 16, 60.


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