Does Science Back Up Anxiety and Depression “Miracle” Cures?

Colored viles

Fact: Americans are anxious. Research shows anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18.1 percent of Americans each year and one-third of Americans over their lifetimes. So, it’s no surprise that a blanket marketed as able to assist with uneasiness and nervousness raised $4.7 million on Kickstarter.

It didn’t start with blankets, however, and it doesn’t end with blankets. There are adult coloring books, aromatherapy candles, essential oils, sun lamps, and a slew of other products that claim are designed to calm people down. So, do they?

Do “Cure” Products Actually Work?

According to the experts, the answer is…it depends.

“They might work for some people but not for others,” Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S and Talkspace therapist, says. “While trying to find solutions to live happier lives, we encounter a world of marketing telling us what to buy and what to do to stop feeling anxious or sad. Desperate to find a quick solution, we allow social media and marketing firms to dictate what is popular or not. What works for one person might not work for another, and the idea of ‘one-size-fits-all’ can’t be used when treating anxiety or depression.”

According to Catchings, there is some science behind using certain products for anxiety and other mental health illnesses. She said that while there is not enough research behind all items and their efficacy, there have been at least a few studies that demonstrate the benefits of similar actions — cuddling and hugging, for example. These are two aspects that are part of the description of a weighted blanket: When the blanket is used, it resembles a hug.

“The benefits of hugging are well known,” Catchings said. “Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter that helps us feel happier, calm and less anxious. Studies have demonstrated that cuddling and hugging produce oxytocin, hence the idea of the blanket producing some type of relief for anxiety.”

Marketing vs. Medicine

But, the bottom-line is that products like these could be more marketing than medicine.

“These miracle items have become very popular because of the marketing campaigns run and some of the items being sold are hyped by people like you and me, such as in the essential oil category,” Catchings said.

Aromatherapy as an example

A majority of essential oils sold in the United States come from two companies based in Utah — Young Living and doTerra. Both companies follow a multi-level business model (often eerily similar to a pyramid scheme). Distributors buy products at wholesale prices and sell them at a retail markup, but, according to The New Yorker, the real money comes from recruiting other distributors into your “downline,” and getting a commission on their sales.

Benefits of essential oil products are often touted by a salesperson, and lack medical backing or official research citation. In this case, it’s up to the purchaser to determine its ultimate value, or the fact that its benefit may be attributable to the placebo effect.

However, again, research shows that there could be some benefits for individuals using essential oils. According to a U.S. World & News Report article, results of a 2016 clinical trial published in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research found that inhaling a lavender scent for four weeks helped prevent stress, anxiety and depression in women after childbirth. The 140 women were divided into a group that received aromatherapy — inhaling three drops of lavender essential oil every eight hours for four weeks — and a control group. The study found the patients who received aromatherapy had significantly lower depression scores at two weeks, one month, and three months after giving birth.

Similarly, a study published in 2014 in the Biomed Research International journal found that 44 older people suffering from chronic pain experienced significantly reduced anxiety and stress levels after they participated in a four-week aromatherapy program, compared to the 38 people in the control group. But remember that these are small studies and the result are not conclusive.

Interested in Giving These Products a Try? Consider These Tips…

If you are thinking about trying over-the-counter products that claim to help ease anxiety or depression, do the research, and read as much as you can about these items. There are different blankets, oils, and light boxes — and many other products that may help ease symptoms of major conditions.

Catchings provides these tips to patients who want to explore them:

  • Look for companies that offer free samples or allow you to try products and return them if you’re not satisfied.
  • When using the scented items, such as essential oils, keep in mind that some of them are strong and some smells might be offensive to others. They may also affect air quality.
  • Take into consideration that the help provided by a mental health professional is always better. There is no quick fix for anxiety. Overcoming a mental health disorder takes time and commitment. Therapy involves an individualized plan, and while these products can help you along that process, it is unlikely they are an all-encompassing solution.

No matter how you choose to treat symptoms of you anxiety or depression, make sure you understand the difference between medicine and good marketing. It may save you time, money, and potential disappointment. There may be more effective solutions for challenges, but there’s no such thing as a miracle cure.

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