There’s something comforting about tea. Simply wrapping my hands around a warm cup and breathing in the aroma sets the mind at ease. But what about in the face of stress? Anxiety? Can different teas help reduce anxiety and tension?
Today I break down the science of stress and anxiety, and explore how tea can make a real difference. Learn:
- Stress vs anxiety: What’s the difference?
- What is anxiety anyway?
- What is mindfulness? and how does it help with anxiety?
- How can tea help with mindfulness?
- Are there specific teas that help reduce anxiety? What are they and how do they work?
Traditional Korean tea service, Busan, Korea. This tea house specialized in puerh teas and paired them with boiled potatoes, which the founders haven't encountered anywhere except Korea. The pairing worked surprisingly well!
What is Stress and How is it Different from Anxiety?
Stress is an emotional reaction to an external trigger. Those experiencing stressors can have mental and physical reactions such as anger, fatigue, trouble sleeping, digestive troubles and muscle pain (APA). We all know the feeling when something bad or stressful happens - the sudden adrenaline rush, the pounding heart, the tight muscles. And then, when the stressful event has passed, we relax again and the symptoms fade.
Anxiety is also an emotional response which may be triggered by a stressor, but the persistent worry remains even after the trigger has been removed. The symptoms are nearly identical to stress: insomnia, irritability, muscle tension and difficulty concentrating (APA). However, you may be feeling the symptoms a substantial time after the initial cause and even have no idea what is triggering them. Anxiety can stay with us for years.
What is the Science Behind Anxiety?
The APA states that an anxiety disorder will occur in 31% of Americans at some point in their lives. There are different types of anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (APA). Generalized anxiety disorder is accompanied by a persistent worry that something bad will happen and the person experiencing this feels unprepared. It may also cause excessive worry about other things unrelated to the initial stressor such as being late for an appointment or losing a job and rumination about possible problems (HH).
Anxiety disorders occur when the underlying brain mechanisms for fear and the fight-or-flight response react in an excessive way. The brain circuits activate in the face of perceived danger- and being late for that appointment is not any different than running from a tiger! Both events activate circuits in the brain responsible for assessment, decision making, emotional processing and response (HH).
The brain is wired to store, remember, and recognize patterns. The amygdala can become oversensitive and then it can overreact to situations that aren’t really life-threatening. This triggers circuitry which then causes an emergency stress response. When anxiety becomes attached to situations and patterns that aren’t truly dangerous it can lead to the brain inventing its own fears (HH).
Other contributing factors are neurotransmitter imbalances - and there are many neurotransmitters which are implicated in anxiety disorders. Some major ones are GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
1) Low levels of serotonin can lead to anxiety (CC), and fear and stress can activate these pathways (Neuro-t). The gut is important for serotonin balance because gut probiotics communicate with neurotransmitters and take an active role in their production. For this reason, gut health is very important for mood balance. In fact, gut bacteria produce a whopping 95% of the serotonin in the body (GUT).
2) GABA is strongly associated with mood disorders, and one of the main types of anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) bind to GABA receptors to carry out their anxiolytic responses. GABA imbalance is thought to be an underlier in anxiety disorders (CC).
3) Dopamine is also implicated in anxiety. It’s thought that imbalances in dopamine may contribute to social anxiety (CC).
Traditional Gong Fu Cha tea service, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand. The key to the Gong Fu Cha method is a lot of tea and very little water, with one pot filling up one tea cup. You only steep the leaves for a few seconds, gradually extending the steeping time until the leaves are spent.
An Introduction to Mindfulness
You’re probably aware of the growing mindfulness movement, as more and more people find that mindfulness helps them address their anxiety, and more and more studies show its effectiveness.
In one study, it was found that mindfulness was a protective factor against feeling disabled by anxiety symptoms (Mind). In terms of mindfulness and presence, one approach for addressing anxiety symptoms in the moment is to pay attention to sensory information, to ground yourself to where you are rather than the rumination or worries that take you into the past, or possible futures. Choosing to focus on one of the 5 senses, or moving through a list of sensory information for each can help return the mind to center.
For example, taking a moment to slow the breathing and listen to the sounds in the environment, or finding a touch tactile can help ground you (worry stones, anyone?) (Senses). This is called the 5,4,3,2,1 Exercise, and is a type of aforementioned grounding technique. It’s based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT, which allows for the understanding that thoughts lead to feelings - which are not always accurate.
This method brings you back to present and to an accurate interpretation of thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. This uses the 5 senses to bring awareness back to the present and to train the mind to interrupt unhealthy thought patterns (CBT, Panic Attacks).
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is a branch of CBT which focuses on emotional regulation and presence, and is known for implementing grounding techniques for mental and personality disorders (DBT). It uses four main strategies: Mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation (VeryWell).
How to Reduce Anxiety with Tea?
Mindfulness, Presence, and Tea Ceremonies
Earlier, I mentioned the comfort gained from wrapping my hands around a warm mug of calming tea. The fragrance of the herbs, the soothing taste, the ambient warmth of the ceramic and the easy feel of aromatic steam on my face all help center me in the moment and collect my thoughts. Almost like a meditation.
Which brings me to the tea ceremony. Many cultures have their own versions of ceremony, however at the core of all of them is bringing the mind to quietness, to solitary focus. The ceremony is choreographic, aesthetic, and purposeful. The ritual involves focus and presence and predefined movements (Ocha).
This is not something you get while refilling your mug from the office coffee-pot!
Happily, you don’t need a full Gong Fu Cha set to turn your tea making into a ceremony. You instead can take this premise and apply it to your tea routine. Be purposeful in the preparation of your tea, and bring a welcomed break to the busy mind, reminding yourself to appreciate even the smallest things.
Taking a moment to be fully present when preparing and savoring a cup of tea can bring a sense of tranquility and stillness to the spirit (tea). Listen to the dry leaves as you measure them out, smell them, touch them. While the water is heating, use that time for slow deep breathing and focus on the sounds of the water. Pour your tea slowly and notice the flow, the bubbles, how the leaves expand in the pot. Savor the taste of your tea, and the fragrance of the steeped leaves. Move slowly and purposefully, breathing and enjoying your tea.
This connection between mindfulness and tea is one we at MatchaAlternatives.com believe in and practice ourselves. The concept is exactly the same as existing mindfulness methods - to ground oneself in the here and now. With that, we hope you also can see how the preperation and enjoyment of tea can bring a stillness and reduce anxiety.
A modern take on serving tea at a Japanese tea house in Singapore, using the Gaiwan method and leaving the tea leaves steeping, encouraging focus on the flavor as it develops from light and floral to grassy and astringent. The founders' visited in 2018 as part of their tea travels - this tea house offers an 8-course tea tasting menu, with fascinating new takes on tea!
Which Teas & Tisanes Help Reduce Anxiety?
All of the above helps incorporate tea into your mindfulness practice, however what about specific types of tea? Can the antioxidants of certain teas actually change the chemical balance of our bodies and reduce anxiety that way?
In short, yes! Various herbal and true teas have been studied for this, with promising results:
- Chamomile has long been renowned for its calming sedative effects. There are many identified active constituents in chamomile such as Apigenin, a flavanoid with anxiolytic and antioxidant activity (CHA, APIG). For more information on Chamomile, read my spotlight Why Is Chamomile Calming? So Much More Than a Sleep Tea (Part 1)
- Tulsi Holy Basil can be brewed into an adaptogenic tea, named for its action on restoring balance and adaptation to the mind and body in the face of stress (TUL). Tulsi is also touted as having anti-anxiety effects similar to Diazepam, which you probably know of as Valium (TUL). Read Tulsi Holy Basil: An Ancient Tea for Modern Times to learn more.
- Remember how the gut bacteria produce serotonin? Tea can help with that, too! One study found that green tea may have prebiotic properties. Prebiotics are fuel for probiotics. Green tea also contains the calming L-theanine, an amino acid with strong antioxidant-like activity (L-, Nature). Dive into green tea here.
- Oolong is another tea that has shown benefits for improved gut health (Prebio-tea). Learn about oolong in our tea primer here.
- Moringa is a nutritive adaptogen. Nutrients like magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins can help ease anxiety, and Moringa is a good source of these (Harvard Medical, MOR). To learn more, check out Moringa: The Energizing, Caffeine-Free Matcha Alternative.
- Antioxidants in general! Did you know that anxiety is correlated with lowered total antioxidant state? Oxidative stress can lead to inflammation in the brain (neuroinflammation), which is involved in the pathophysiology of anxiety. It has also been suggested that ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species, aka free radicals) may contribute to spontaneous anxiety (Oxid). Increasing one’s antioxidant intake, not through individual supplements, but through whole foods and teas may help reduce anxiety (ANTIOX). Incorporating antioxidant-rich foods and teas into your daily routine, especially in a mindful way, is an excellent way to address feelings and symptoms of anxiety. To learn more about antioxidants, tune in to my antioxidants series.
A selection of herbal teas at a Chinese tea house in central Thailand. This was at the Udon Thani Chinese-Thai Cultural Center, which had an enormous array of Chinese tea and herbal tisanes. The founders visited in October 2019.
A Note From the Herbalist
It seems that we are learning more and more about anxiety, neurotransmitters, nutrition, and antioxidants every day! I have always been a firm advocate of medicinal teas for supplying nutrients and supporting balanced mood.
The knowledge that antioxidants may be one of the key players in anxiety is great news because it returns some aspect of control to the individual. What I mean is that a person may be able to manage their anxiety symptoms with nutritional therapy, tea ceremonies and mindfulness, and antioxidant-rich teas (all under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional, of course).
Lastly, all the photos I've used were taken by the founders of MatchaAlternatives.com from their tea travels! You can see more photos and learn more at their personal travel blog TravellingforTea.com where they traveled through 30 countries in 4 years of tea exploration :-)
Inspiration for how to tackle stress and anxiety:
- Interested in mindfulness and meditation? I recommend 5 Best Meditation Apps and Teas for Anxiety, Sleep and More
- An avid reader? 5 Best Tea + Book Combos: Thrillers, Comedy, Classics and More
- For music lovers try our Best Tea + Songs Combos to Lower Stress and Boost Your Mood
'The Purist' Organic Tulsi Holy Basil
A rich, warm, herbaceous flavor with a light spice and sweetness. Holy Basil is a powerful adaptogen that stimulates, relaxes yet energizes, all while being naturally decaf.
A relaxing taste combo of sweet pineapple, grassy bamboo and floral chamomile. Naturally caffeine free, this is ideal if you struggle to fall or stay asleep.
One of the most traditional Chinese teas, with a slightly smoky nose and a smooth, light taste. Ideal for a mindful tea ceremony, as you can watch the leaves unfurl.
Moringa: The Complete Vegan Protein
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All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.
References & Further Reading
Panic Attacks: Imran A (2020) Combat against Stress, Anxiety and Panic Attacks: 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique. J Trauma Stress Disor Treat 9:4. Retrieved from https://www.scitechnol.com/peer-review/combat-against-stress-anxiety-and-panic-attacks-54321-coping-technique-WiRy.php?article_id=12841
CBT: Hope Therapy Center: https://www.hope-therapy-center.com/single-post/2016/04/06/54321-method-to-reduce-anxiety
DBT: Lynch, T. R., Chapman, A. L., Rosenthal, M. Z., Kuo, J. R., & Linehan, M. M. (2006). Mechanisms of change in dialectical behavior therapy: Theoretical and empirical observations. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(4), 459–480. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20243 retrieved from: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.472.9570&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Williams, J., Sergi, D., McKune, A. J., Georgousopoulou, E. N., Mellor, D. D., & Naumovski, N. (2019). The beneficial health effects of green tea amino acid l-theanine in animal models: Promises and prospects for human trials. Phytotherapy research : PTR, 33(3), 571–583. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.6277 Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30632212/
Micozzi, M. S. (2015). Fundamentals of complementary and alternative medicine. (5th ed.). Retrieved from https://vitalsource.com/
Pre-biotea: Bond, T., & Derbyshire, E. (2019). Tea Compounds and the Gut Microbiome: Findings from Trials and Mechanistic Studies. Nutrients, 11(10), 2364. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11102364 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6835862/
TUL: Cohen M. M. (2014). Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine, 5(4), 251–259. https://doi.org/10.4103/0975-9476.146554 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296439/
CHAM: Srivastava, J. K., Shankar, E., & Gupta, S. (2010). Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Molecular medicine reports, 3(6), 895–901. https://doi.org/10.3892/mmr.2010.377 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2995283/
Mind: Hoge, E. A., Hölzel, B. K., Marques, L., Metcalf, C. A., Brach, N., Lazar, S. W., & Simon, N. M. (2013). Mindfulness and self-compassion in generalized anxiety disorder: examining predictors of disability. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2013, 576258. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/576258 Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24174978/
L-: Williams J, Sergi D, McKune AJ, Georgousopoulou EN, Mellor DD, Naumovski N. The beneficial health effects of green tea amino acid l-theanine in animal models: Promises and prospects for human trials. Phytother Res. 2019 Mar;33(3):571-583. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6277. Epub 2019 Jan 10. PMID: 30632212. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30632212/
Nature: The science of tea’s mood-altering magic, 2019, Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00398-1
Oxid: Bouayed J, Rammal H, Soulimani R. Oxidative stress and anxiety: relationship and cellular pathways. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2009;2(2):63-67. doi:10.4161/oxim.2.2.7944 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763246/
Antiox: Xu, Y., Wang, C., Klabnik, J. J., & O'Donnell, J. M. (2014). Novel therapeutic targets in depression and anxiety: antioxidants as a candidate treatment. Current neuropharmacology, 12(2), 108–119. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159X11666131120231448 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3964743/