Desperation. That's the emotion that scammers look for when they try to sell you useless products. The more desperate you are, the more likely you are to believe anything you hear or read, and the more likely you are to make a purchase hoping that it will provide you with the relief you need.
It's a common problem, and unfortunately, it's a problem with no easy solution. Scams are a part of society, and there are essentially no consequences for scamming those that are in need. In late 2012, Forbes published a story about a for-profit hospital that was treating cancer patients with placebo treatments in addition to scientifically validated treatments because the patients were not in a position to say no, costing them thousands of dollars for absolutely no medical benefit. These types of stories are sadly common.
How Anxiety Scams Are Making the Rounds
Anxiety creates severe desperation. Those that suffer from anxiety or panic attacks regularly need immediate relief. They search for something - anything - that can give them a break from the symptoms they're experiencing. So they look for something fast - something that can provide them with immediate relief.
There are very few options available to provide this type of relief. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an incredibly long process and one that can be prohibitively expensive for most modern day anxiety sufferers. Anxiety medicine is prone to side effects and there is a culture of medicinal avoidance in today's mental health community. Most other "at home" therapies and treatment options take weeks of commitment and are unlikely to improve anxiety now.
All of those issues create an environment which makes people desperate for an alternative treatment option that will work right away, and that means that they're more likely to fall for anything that looks "too good to be true."
Enter the anxiety scam.
Many treatment options base their success on the placebo effect, and unfortunately, most people that take anxiety treatments that don't have true clinical research support are putting themselves in a position to fall for it.
The placebo effect is something that most people know about, but few people truly understand. For something like anxiety, the human brain actually has power over recovery. Remember, while anxiety is caused by thoughts, emotions, etc., it's also created through problems with neurotransmitter balance. When you have anxiety, your neurotransmitter levels become less than ideal, leading to anxiety symptoms.
That's why you'll find that the placebo effect actually works as an anxiety treatment. If you're convinced a treatment will work, and you take that treatment, your own belief that the treatment will be effective can actually improve your neurotransmitter production and increase your feelings of relaxation. That means that the treatment will work, but not because of any medical or spiritual basis.
So What's the Problem With Placebos?
The next question is - even if there's no reason for a treatment to work, who cares if it's a placebo? What's the harm if your brain was fooled into curing your anxiety as long as your anxiety is gone? The answer is that even if a placebo treatment works for you because your brain has convinced you it will work, it will rarely solve the underlying problem and can lead to long-term issues in curing your anxiety.
Essentially, over time your anxiety will come back. When it does, you're going to have missed a lot of time learning actual, valuable coping tools. So when it comes back, it's possible that you'll actually have a harder time coping than you did before you tried the treatment.
In addition, there are others that are going to be depending on these anxiety scams that won't be affected by the placebo benefits. You're doing those people a disservice by supporting fake treatments and helping those companies stay in business.
What Are Some Harmful Anxiety Scams?
Of course, what you're looking for is examples of these anxiety scams so that you know what to avoid. Remember, in this case, we can define the term "harmful" in two ways: First, it can actually be harmful, possibly causing damage to the body. Second, it can be harmful in that it sets back your ability to use a better treatment without necessarily providing you with any benefits.
The following represent common anxiety scams that you should strongly consider avoiding:
Homeopathic Anxiety Patches
Homeopathic relaxation patches, anxiety patches, and stress relief patches are a prime example of a common anxiety scam and one that takes advantage of modern marketing and placebo in order to make it seem as though it's better than it actually is.
There are actually two issues that make this a scam. First, it's highly unlikely that homeopathic medicine has any benefit to modern health. Second, the patches themselves try to take advantage of a completely different placebo methodology. Combined, the two are likely to provide zero benefits to anyone suffering from anxiety.
Let's break them down by issue:
Homeopathy is a widely misunderstood natural treatment option. It's essentially water. Those that believe in homeopathic medicine take droplets of harmful ingredients (like nicotine and arsenic) and dilute it with gallons upon gallons of water to the point where only a few molecules of the original harmful supplement remain. They believe that this diluted strategy provides a "water memory" that will cure the illness you suffer from.
The problem is that A) water has touched nearly every element in existence already, so if there was a water memory it would already have the diluted minerals in it. B) there is no such thing as a water memory. And C) there is no evidence that a diluted ingredient has any effect on the body.
Homeopathic medicine is relatively harmless, but there's also simply no reason to believe that it has any benefit at all. Nobel Prize Winner Murray Gell-Mann called the idea that undetectable molecules can cure any illness "garbage physics."
Homeopathic medicine was so controversial in the medical community that the foundation of the homeopathic institute was actually responsible for the creation of the American Medical Association - because doctors were afraid of the dangerous notion that homeopathic medicine could cure disease.
The second part to this is the idea that patches have an effect on anxiety. Companies that use these patches make two very unusual claims about patches that should raise red flags with those that are actually trying to heal their anxiety symptoms.
Claim 1: That the patches work because they're placed on acupressure points. Acupressure and acupuncture are both already considered to be placebos since there is little evidence that they have any effect on mental health. But even if they did work, a sticker/patch doesn't supply any pressure to the right area. Supposedly pressure points work because pressure is applied. Patches apply no pressure and therefore differ from the very tenants of acupressure belief.
Claim 2: That even though the homeopathic medicine isn't absorbed by the skin, it still works because of its placement. This is an actual claim by a stress relief manufacturer, and it goes against everything modern medicine knows about how medications work.
It also raises the question of why homeopathic medicine is added to the patches in the first place if they don't go into the skin, and why it is supposed to be beneficial.
So we have a type of medicine that has been debunked as "garbage physics," a patch placed in points that shouldn't show any benefit even if it wasn't placebo and the acknowledgment that the natural medicine doesn't seep into the skin. This is a clear example of an anxiety scam, one that should be avoided.
Some Kava Extracts
Kava is an herbal remedy with a confusing history. For years it was one of the top 10 most popular herbs on the market for treating anxiety and stress. Then, in 2001, it was pulled from nearly all shelves. That's because some studies linked kava to severe liver damage, and in an effort to avoid lawsuits most companies simply pulled their products. Medical experts and the FDA also started advising against kava use.
Since then, the situation has gotten murkier. Follow up studies revealed that many of the kava plants indicated in the liver damage were improperly prepared (some used stems and leaves, rather than just the root. The stems and leaves are known to be toxic), and others used chemically prepared kava rather than pure kava extract.
Studies also indicated that many of those that had liver problems from kava were also using a considerable amount of alcohol, and similar research indicated that alcohol and kava produce a severe increase in harmful enzymes that attack the liver.
So we see that kava may be safe and helpful. It is strongly believed to be comparable to modern anxiety medications and beyond the potential for liver damage there do not appear to be any side effects or addiction risk, so kava is, in some ways, an ideal herbal medicine for anxiety. Why is it also an anxiety scam?
That's because not all kava is created equal. The following are very common, very real problems with kava herbal supplements:
- The VAST majority of supplements on the market today do not provide enough of kava's bioactive nutrients to be beneficial. Most supply only 30 to 60 kavalactones (the active ingredient in kava) per serving. The dosage believed to work is as high as 150 kavalactones or more. Since you should never take more than recommended by the manufacturer of the kava supplement, this means that most kava supplements, teas, etc., are essentially useless. Not to mention that it is strongly believed that kava is fat soluble (meaning it needs to be taken with fat, like butter) but it rarely says that on the labels of most of these supplements.
- Because kava is an herbal supplement and because there are few manufacturers still willing to produce kava, there is very little oversight. While kava should still be effective according to modern research, you'll have to look for a manufacturer that you trust to take the time to ensure that no leaves, stems, or other ingredients get into their kava supplements and beverages, otherwise you're putting yourself at risk.
- Some kava is actually served in alcohol. In most cases it's probably too small to matter - for example, there are kava tinctures where the kava is placed in a small amount of grain alcohol. But it stands to reason that avoiding these types of options is important because, even though there is unlikely to be any harm, there is also no reason to use something that's placed in a drug that it is known to interact with when alternatives are available
Despite the warnings about kava, kava should actually still work according to the research. But very, very few kava supplements on the market today are likely to be effective beyond placebo since most aren't made with the right amount of kavalactones to be effective.
It's one thing to take kava for anxiety when you get benefits. It's another thing to risk the potential dangers when you're falling for placebo. Because of that, some kava supplements represent a potentially dangerous anxiety scam.
Self-Hypnosis for Panic Attacks
Another problematic anxiety treatment is self-hypnosis. Self-hypnosis has been around for a long time, but with the internet, it really started to take off because downloads and various CDs became more readily available.
Self-hypnosis is exactly as it sounds. You listen to a tape or mp3 of someone that uses various words and phrases to hypnotize you during your free time - sometimes as you sleep - in order to improve your overall anxiety and stress levels.
There is no research supporting the use of self-hypnosis. Hypnosis itself - the type that you receive from a trained hypnotherapist - is controversial enough, and many believe that it has no effect on most mental illnesses; at least not for a long enough period of time.
But self-hypnosis is seen as even less effective:
- It's expected to work as you sleep or while you're not paying attention.
- It's completely untested and each person creates their own self-hypnosis tool.
- It assumes that words are enough to create coping tools.
This is something that simply doesn't make sense. While there are those that swear by self-hypnosis, we're again looking at a subset of the population that is likely prone to the placebo effect. Those that even consider trying to use self-hypnosis are more likely to believe it works and make it work than those that have never heard of it before and are using it because it's "effective."
But again, there are many examples of treatments that are just the placebo effect. What makes this much more of a scam is that in some ways it can actually increase your anxiety attack risk.
That's because one of the issues that seems to create panic attacks in people is thinking about their panic attacks, and unfortunately that's something that self-hypnosis does without necessarily giving you any tools to stop it.
Every time you utilize self-hypnosis you run the risk of increasing the amount of thought and dedicated time that you spend monitoring your physical symptoms. This is something that you need to avoid when it comes to treating panic attacks. Ideally, you need to learn how coping tips for when these thoughts and feelings occur without focusing on the attacks all day.
Since self-hypnosis uses words and sounds about panic and relaxation, that will cause more associations with anxiety, and that can mean that your panic attacks actually increase - either in frequency or severity - the longer you use these types of products.
This is not a guarantee, and won't happen for everyone. Bu it is a risk that needs to be strongly considered. The placebo effect is still possible, and performing a relaxing activity can be beneficial for everyone, but the risk that your panic attacks will get worse is very real, and unfortunately, they do not come with any improved coping tools to ensure that the panic attacks don't get out of hand.
This is something you need to strongly consider, and why using self-hypnosis and related techniques is probably best avoided.
Making Smart Decisions With Your Anxiety Treatments - Avoid the Scams
It's crucial that you learn how to avoid anxiety scams if you want your anxiety to be truly treated. The issue is not the placebo effect. The issue is not that they're harmful - although some of them can be harmful, and possibly even dangerous.
No, the issue is that these treatments can set you back when it comes to treating your anxiety in the long term. Any time you dedicate days upon days - weeks upon weeks - to a treatment that won't be effective eventually, you're promoting your anxiety, and giving it a chance to thrive.
So while it's natural to want to avoid medications, and there are many people that want to try to cure their anxiety without therapy, not every treatment is created equal, and you need to make sure that you're not just falling for marketing tactics that create a treatment out of thin air using the power of their own words.
Any anxiety treatment you try needs to display all of the following:
- Coping - It needs to discuss how to learn to cope with anxiety. Whether it involves tricks to get used to your symptoms and prevent your anxiety from getting out of control or genuinely effective ways to cope with anxiety, these anxiety treatments are nothing if they do not provide some information on how to cope with what you may experience now and in the future.
- Makes Sense - Your anxiety treatment needs to make logical sense. Ask yourself "why" it will work. What evidence is there that it works beyond people saying "it's worked for a long time"? Cognitive behavioral therapy makes sense, because it challenges thought patterns. Medications, while dangerous and ill-advised, make sense because they alter neurotransmitter levels. Exercise makes sense because it releases neurotransmitters and burns away stress hormones. If your anxiety treatment doesn't make logical sense, it's probably a scam.
- Long Term Usefulness - Also, any anxiety treatment you try needs to show some type of long term value, not just short term value. One of the reasons that experts advise against medications is because you can't use them forever and if you haven't learned any anxiety reduction tools that help you in the long term the benefits are unlikely to last. It's the same thing with an anxiety treatment. Is it something you can do every day? Is it something you need to do every day? Make sure that the treatment is useful in the long term, otherwise it may be a scam that's banking on short term recovery.
These are the issues you need to keep in mind. There are very likely to be many alternative anxiety treatments that do work, or work for some people and not others. But there are also going to be a lot of scams - people trying to take advantage of your desperation in order to make a quick buck.
Don't support them by falling for it. Make sure that you're always looking to make a smart decision with regards to your anxiety and that you're focused not on what the marketing says, but on what research and logic say about your treatment choices.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 06, 2018.