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NCCIH Clinical Digest

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Anxiety and Complementary Health Approaches:
What the Science Says

August 2018


Clinical Guidelines, Scientific Literature, Info for Patients: 

Mind and Body Approaches


Although some studies of acupuncture for anxiety have had positive outcomes, in general, many of the studies on acupuncture for anxiety have been of poor methodological quality or not of statistical significance. In addition, because the research is extremely variable (e.g., number and variety of acupuncture points, frequency of sessions, and duration of treatment), it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about potential benefits.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2012 review of 32 studies of acupuncture for anxiety found that although there have been some positive outcomes, the generally poor methodological quality, combined with the wide range of outcome measures used, number and variety of points, frequency of sessions, and duration of treatment makes drawing firm conclusions difficult.
  • A 2014 meta-analysis of 14 studies involving 1,034 participants on the efficacy of acupuncture in reducing preoperative anxiety found that acupuncture has a statistically significant effect relative to placebo or non-treatment controls, but the sample size was small. The meta-analysis supports the possibility that acupuncture is superior to placebo for preoperative anxiety.


  • Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles. Reports of serious adverse events related to acupuncture are rare, but include infections and punctured organs.

Massage Therapy

In some studies massage therapy helped to reduce anxiety for people with cancer or other comorbid medical conditions; however, other studies did not find a statistically significant beneficial effect.  Little research has been done on massage for anxiety disorders, and results have been conflicting.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis of 18 randomized controlled trials involving 950 women with breast cancer did not find any significant effect of massage on anxiety.
  • A 2013 randomized controlled trial of 60 cancer patients examined massage therapy for perioperative pain and anxiety in placement of vascular access devices and found that both massage therapy and structured attention proved beneficial for alleviating preoperative anxiety in these patients.
  • A 2012 randomized trial involving 152 cardiac surgery patients found that massage therapy significantly reduced the pain, anxiety, and muscular tension and improved relaxation after cardiac surgery.
  • Findings from a 2012 randomized controlled trial of 120 primiparous women with term pregnancy suggest that massage is an effective alternative intervention, decreasing pain and anxiety during labor.


  • Massage therapy appears to have few risks if it is used appropriately and provided by a trained massage professional.

Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation therapy is commonly used and has been shown to be of small to modest benefit for people with anxiety-related symptoms. There is some evidence that Transcendental Meditation may have a beneficial effect on anxiety. However, there is a lack of studies with adequate statistical power in patients with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders, which makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about its efficacy for anxiety disorders.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2017 randomized controlled trial involving 57 participants with generalized anxiety disorder found that mindfulness meditation training was associated with a significantly greater decrease in partial work days and decrease in health care utilization.
  • A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis of 47 trials with 3,515 participants found that mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety. The reviewers concluded that clinicians should be aware that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.
  • A 2012 systematic review and meta-analysis of 36 randomized controlled trials found evidence of some efficacy of meditative therapies in reducing anxiety symptoms; however, most studies included in the analysis measured only improvement in anxiety symptoms, but not anxiety disorders as clinically diagnosed.
  • A 2006 Cochrane review of two randomized controlled trials concluded that because of the small number of studies, conclusions could not be drawn about the efficacy of meditation therapy for anxiety disorders.


  • Meditation is generally considered to be safe for healthy people. However, people with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving movement.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques may reduce anxiety in individuals with chronic medical problems and those who are having medical procedures.  However, research demonstrates that conventional psychotherapy, for individuals with generalized anxiety disorder, may be more effective than relaxation techniques.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2014 meta-analysis of a total of 41 studies involving 2,132 participants with generalized anxiety disorder found some indications that cognitive-behavioral therapy was more effective than relaxation techniques over the long term.
  • A 2016 randomized trial of 236 women undergoing large core breast biopsy found that adjunctive self-hypnotic relaxation decreased procedural pain and anxiety.
  • A 2012 randomized controlled trial of 39 participants with inflammatory bowel disease found that those who received the relaxation-training intervention showed a statistically significant improvement in anxiety levels as compared to the control group.


  • Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people. People with serious physical or mental health problems should discuss relaxation techniques with their health care providers.

Natural Products


There is some research that suggests that a chamomile extract may be helpful for generalized anxiety disorder, but the studies are preliminary, and their findings are not conclusive.
What Does the Research Show?    


  • There have been reports of allergic reactions, including rare cases of anaphylaxis, in people who have consumed or come into contact with chamomile products.
  • People are more likely to experience allergic reactions to chamomile if they’re allergic to related plants such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, or daisies.
  • Interactions between chamomile and cyclosporine and warfarin have been reported, and there are theoretical reasons to suspect that chamomile might interact with other drugs as well. 


Kava extract may produce moderately beneficial effects on anxiety symptoms; however, the use of kava supplements has been linked to a risk of severe liver damage.
What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2013 randomized controlled trial involving 75 participants with generalized anxiety disorder concluded that standardized kava extract may be a moderately effective short-term option for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder.
  • A 2011 review of 66 studies of herbal medicine for depression, anxiety, and insomnia found some evidence that kava may produce beneficial effects for anxiety disorders.
  • A 2003 Cochrane review of 12 randomized controlled trials found that compared with placebo, kava extract may be an effective symptomatic treatment for anxiety, although the effect size appears small.


  • The use of kava supplements has been linked to a risk of severe liver damage, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  • Kava has been associated with several cases of dystonia and may interact with several drugs, including drugs used for Parkinson’s disease.
  • However, a 2013 randomized controlled trial of 75 participants who received kava extract over a 6-week period found no significant differences across groups for liver function tests, nor any significant adverse reactions associated with kava administration. Long-term safety studies of kava are needed.


There is some research that suggests melatonin may help reduce anxiety in patients who are about to have surgery and may be as effective as standard treatment with midazolam in reducing preoperative anxiety.
What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2017 randomized trial involving 80 children undergoing surgery found that melatonin was as effective as midazolam in reducing children’s anxiety in both preoperative room and at induction of anesthesia. 
  • A 2015 Cochrane review of 12 studies involving 774 participants found that melatonin compared to placebo, given as premedication, reduced preoperative anxiety (measured 50 to 100 minutes after administration) and may reduce postoperative anxiety (6 hours after surgery). The reviewers also found that melatonin may be equally as effective as standard treatment with midazolam in reducing preoperative anxiety.


  • Melatonin supplements appear to be safe when used short-term; less is known about long-term safety.


Although some studies of lavender preparations for anxiety have shown some therapeutic effects, in general, many of these studies have been of poor methodological quality.
What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2017 meta-analysis of five studies involving 1,165 participants with anxiety diagnoses found Silexan (lavender oil) to be significantly superior to placebo in ameliorating anxiety symptoms independently of diagnosis. The study also found a tendency for greater clinical effect when analyzing separately generalized anxiety disorder patients in comparison with all other diagnosis.
  • A 2012 systematic review of 15 randomized controlled trials concluded that methodological issues limit the extent to which any conclusions can be drawn regarding the efficacy of lavender for anxiety.


  • When lavender teas and extracts are taken by mouth, they may cause headache, changes in appetite, and constipation.
  • Using lavender supplements with sedative medications may increase drowsiness.


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  • Braun LA, Stanguts C, Casanelia L, et al. Massage therapy for cardiac surgery patients–a randomized trial. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2012;144(6):1453-1459.
  • Chen KW, Berger CC, Manheimer E, et al. Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Depress Anxiety. 2012;29(7):545-562.
  • Cuijpers P, Sijbrandij M, Koole S, et al. Psychological treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: a meta-analysis. Clin Psychol Rev. 2014;34(2):130-140.
  • Errington-Evans N. Acupuncture for anxiety. CNS Neurosci Ther. 2012;18(4):277-284.
  • Generoso MB, Soares A, Taiar IT, et al. Lavender oil preparation (Silexan) for treating anxiety: an updated meta-analysis. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2017;37(1):115-117.
  • Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368.
  • Hansen MV, Halladin NL, Rosenberg J, et al. Melatonin for pre- and postoperative anxiety in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015;4:CD009861.
  • Hoge EA, Guidos BM, Mete M, et al. Effects of mindfulness meditation on occupational functioning and health care utilization in individuals with anxiety. J Psychosom Res. 2017;95:7-11.
  • Impellizzeri P, Vinci E, Gugliandolo MC, et al. Premedication with melatonin vs midazolam: efficacy on anxiety and compliance in paediatric surgical patients. Eur J Pediatr. 2017;176(7):947-953.
  • Keefe JR, Mao JJ, Soeller I, et al. Short-term open-label chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.) therapy of moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine. 2016;23(14):1699-1705.
  • Krisanaprakornkit T, Sriraj W, Piyavhatkul N, et al. Meditation therapy for anxiety disorders. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2006;1: CD004998.
  • Lang EV, Berbaum KS, Faintuch S, et al. Adjunctive self-hypnotic relaxation for outpatient medical procedures: a prospective randomized trial with women undergoing large core breast biopsy. Pain. 2006;126(1-3):155-164.
  • Mizrahi MC, Reicher-Atir R, Levy S, et al. Effects of guided imagery with relaxation training on anxiety and quality of life among patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Psychol Health. 2012;27(12):1463-1479.
  • Mortazavi SH, Khaki S, Moradi R, et al. Effects of massage therapy and presence of attendant on pain, anxiety and satisfaction during labor. Arch Gynecol Obstet. 2012;286(1):19-23.
  • Pan YQ, Yang KH, Wang YL, et al. Massage interventions and treatment-related side effects of breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Clin Oncol. 2014;19(5):829-841.
  • Perry R, Terry R, Watson LK, et al. Is lavender an anxiolytic drug? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials. Phytomedicine. 2012;19(8-9):825-835.
  • Pittler MH, Ernst E. Kava extract versus placebo for treating anxiety. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2003;1:CD003383.
  • Rosen J, Lawrence R, Bouchard M, et al. Massage for perioperative pain and anxiety in placement of vascular access devices. Adv Mind Body Med. 2013;27(1):12-23.
  • Sarris J, Panossian A, Schweitzer I, et al. Herbal medicine for depression, anxiety and insomnia: a review of psychopharmacology and clinical evidence. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2011;21(12):841-860.
  • Sarris J, Stough C, Bouseman CA, et al. Kava in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2013;33(5):643-648.
  • Sarris J, Stough C, Teschke R, et al. Kava for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder RCT: analysis of adverse reactions, liver function, addiction, and sexual effects. 2013;27(11):1723-1728.

NCCIH Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, DHHS. NCCIH Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on complementary health approaches, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCIH-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is dedicated to exploring complementary health products and practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary health researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCIH's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCIH Web site at NCCIH is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.


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This page last modified August 09, 2018