HERBS FOR ANXIETY AND STRESS
Also useful herbal first aid for panic attacks and other trauma type responses
This article will explain some ways to deal with acute or chronic anxiety and stress in a safe and immediate way with herbal medicine. Often, when we are in an anxious or otherwise distressed state of mind, we can forget the resources we have available to us to calm our activated nervous system. I work with herbs, nutrition and other simple but effective tools, but this article will just focus on a few of the herbs.
First, just making a cup or pot of tea- any tea- is in itself a calming, rhythmic, activity that can begin to help calm an activated, anxious nervous system. Sitting down and drinking a cup of tea is similarly calming, especially if done with awareness, preferably away from the constant (over)stimulation of our personal devices (phones, ipads, computers etc).
We have access to an abundance of plant-based resources to support our nervous system. Herbalists use two main types of plants for anxiety- one is called “nervines”, which nourish and relax the nervous system, and the other are “adaptogens” which help build a deeper, overall resilience to stress and anxiety, as well as strengthen our immune system.
The humble cup of herbal tea is an often undervalued way to soothe the nervous system.
For a medicinal effect, make a stronger tea, what we call a herbal infusion. You might use 2 tsp, or up to a 1Tbs of herbs to 1.5 cups of boiled water for a mug of tea. With fresh herbs, you tend to use more than with dry herbs- experiment for yourself.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a classic nervine that soothes an agitated, upset or irritable nervous system, with the added benefit of calming an upset digestive system. Chamomile can be used for PMS related anxiety, for babies and children, or for erratic moods swings. You can make a strong infusion by steeping a chamomile teabag (or two) for 10 minutes or or longer. Drink 3 cups a day. Add honey if desired.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is another nervine that makes a tasty tea. It’s slightly lemony scent is uplifting and can improve mood, but it is also beneficial for relaxing an uptight nervous system, calming irritability and healing anxiety. Yes, it can be combined with chamomile. You can grow this plant easily in many climates and I grow it here in Perth- it is part of the mint family- and I prefer to use the fresh plant to make tea because it is more lemony, but dried is also fine. Again, make a stronger infusion and drink several cups a day.
Tulsi or Holy Basil (Krishna type: Ocimum tenuiflorum. Rama type: Ocimum sanctum. Vana: Ocimum gratissimum) is an adaptogenic herb from the Ayurvedic medical system, and it has a long history of use for many conditions, such as colds and flus, but also for stress and anxiety. These are more connected than you might realise, because adaptogens help us “adapt” and respond to life, physiologically, which is why they have such a broad range of benefits. Growing a Tulsi plant is considered to be both spiritual and practical in India, hence one of it names, “Sacred Basil.” I usually have one or two Tulsi plants growing and they do grow well here in Perth- again, they are from the mint family. Although tulsi is a great plant to have around, and bees love it, the tea bags have become popular and are widely available. Again steep the tea for at least 10 minutes to get a more medicinal benefit, or use two bags.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is an under-utilised nervine that has a strong grounding and calming effect which helps nervous exhaustion, trembling, panic attacks and a sense of being “out of the body”. Good for Type A personalities. It promotes wisdom, clear memory and awareness, and so is a wonderful herb to remember for many anxiety states. You can make the strong tea/infusion with fresh or dried herbs, and adding honey gives a sweet but earthy flavour. You can also burn white sage, a different type of sage than the one we make tea from, for a grounding and calming effect.
“Sage – More than a nervine, this is a tonic for rebuilding the nervous system where there has been deep and long-lasting trauma. It helps to restore the integrity of the feeling senses. Specifically useful where there’s shaking and tremors, anxiety with overwhelming fear, and profound burnout.” Kiva Rose, Herbalist
Nettles (Urtica dioica) is another herb that has immense benefit for the nervous system, although not specifically considered a nervine. It is wonderful for nourishing the adrenals, and for worn out, pale, sad or depressed individuals. Susun Weed the American herbalist promotes nettle infusions for relieving anxiety, and building focused energy. I have nettle infusions regularly. To make, add to a litre of boiled water to a cup full of dried nettles. I find a French coffee press to be an ideal way to make my nettle infusions. Let it sit for 4 hours or overnight, and drink over the next day. It has a pleasant “green” flavour.
Oatstraw (Avena sativa) is another nervine herb, which can be prepared the same way as nettles, for long term nourishing of the nervous system. I alternate oatstraw and nettle infusions regularly. Milky oat tops can also be made into tinctures and are a good medicine for anxiety, and for rebuilding an exhausted nervous system.
Herbal Tinctures & Medicines
Motherwort (Leonorus cardica) is a nervine herb with a huge reputation for calming anxiety quite quickly. It is not a herb which will make you sleepy- it somehow calms down the racing, anxious heart, and can be taken daily or as needed, such as during an anxiety attack. It can even lower blood pressure that is stress related. The tea is too bitter so this herb is used as a tincture.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis/ hastata-blue vervain) is another useful tincture to have on hand, especially for those who are highly strung with tight neck and shoulders. It is for when there are intense feelings, a build up of tension, or a sense of being or going crazy. Great for PMS or menopausal anxiety. Only small doses are needed, but it is better as a tincture. It can go well with Motherwort.
Rose (Rosa sp.) has been loved for thousands of years and should not be overlooked as a medicine for strengthening the heart, bringing calm, softening and opening. It can be beneficial for those who have experienced shock and trauma. I use fresh rose petals steeped in honey, (steep for 3 weeks, then use the honey and eat the petals), added to herbal tea blends; as a fresh plant tincture which I use instead of rescue remedy for shock; and as an essential oil (sparingly!). If you are a rose lover, find some ways to bring more of her into your life. Even looking at or smelling a fresh rose is soothing for the nervous system. Here is an in depth monograph on rose as a medicine.
There are 3 herbs I use often for people with longer term stress, anxiety or adrenal burnout. They are all adaptogens, or what might also be called tonic herbs. They are all best taken over a period of time to strengthen the nervous system, the adrenals, the body’s resilience to handle stress. They build inner strength. They are generally not so effective short term, but are used longer term.
These are reishi mushroom, ashwaghanda and Siberian ginseng.
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is known as the herb of immortality in the Chinese medicine system, and has been studied extensively. In terms of mental health, it is known to help to calm the “heart spirit” and bring emotional balance. It is gentle, can be taken long term, and is particularly good for anxiety, depression, shock, trauma, and just feeling disturbed and unhappy. It restores a sense of peace and calm, is uplifting, and is considered a medicine for nourishing the spirit. It needs both water and alcohol extraction to be of most benefit and I make a product which has both of these. It is one of my favourite herbs, and it also benefits the immune system, like most adaptogens.
Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera) is another favourite and many people are discovering this widely researched Indian Ginseng, as it is sometimes known. It builds deep inner strength and resilience and is helpful for people who feel burned out, frazzled, move very fast, and are prone to insomnia and anxiety. I add this herb to my morning chai blend.
Siberan Ginseng ( Eleutheroccocus senticosus) is known as a Chi tonic in Chinese medicine, and it is a far more gentle adaptogen than the hot, strong Korean ginseng. It is added to many different formulas for improving stamina and vitality, and is for those who need deep level nourishment and support, as well as having a beneficial effective on anxiety.
Then there are the strong sedatives, the herbs that are best use short term for anxiety or insomnia, that have a strong fairly fast effect.
Kava-kava (Piper methysticum)is a powerful anti-anxiety herb that is useful when there is deep muscular tension and can be used as an alternative to anti-anxiety medications for some people. It has its place, and can be beneficial for panic attacks as it is fast acting, and also for insomnia. It can be slightly euphoric, and it is cooling in nature.
Valerian is warming sedative herb, for when you are frazzled and anxious and is also an effective alternative to anti-anxiety medications for some people. It is commonly used for insomnia, especially when there is pain or cramps, but dependency can develop, so it is best not used continually.
There are many, many more herbs useful for anxious and stressful mental states than I have space to mention here. These are some of my favourites. As well as herbs, essential oils and flower essences also have much to offer. And these are just the gifts from the plant kingdom. Please be sure to get the support you need, and I highly recommend finding someone trained in Somatic Experiencing therapy to work with for anxiety and trauma.
The recipe Relaxing Ashwaghanda Rose Chai goes with this article.