Natural Remedies for Stress & AnxietyDr. Miranda Wiley, ND
October 27, 2017
Stress has become a four-letter word for many in our society, and certainly, the presence of prolonged and excessive stress is having a terrible impact on health and happiness in the Western world. But we need to understand that stress is inevitable and can often be reframed from the negative nuisance that it is often seen to be into a positive challenge. Stress is not something to avoid per se – remember that what we resist persists. Rather, we need to focus on our personal and collective response to stress so that it becomes a source of growth and inspiration rather than a tidal wave that keeps knocking us down. And let’s face it – life would be quiet boring without any stress in it!
Stress is quite simply any change imposed upon the body that requires a reaction from the body in order to maintain homeostasis (stability and consistency). A change in temperature, a change in blood sugar, and exercise are some of the more common, and helpful, stresses that affect our body on a regular basis. Stress can be positive such as planning a wedding or a surprise party, or it can be negative such as any physical, mental, or emotional trauma, including grief.
When stress grows stronger to the point where it overpowers our bodies and minds, we feel frail and vulnerable, less in control of our own destiny, and are more likely to experience anxiety. Anxiety can heighten the experience of stress by making day-to-day activities feel like an enormous endurance test. Slight setbacks (i.e. missing a bus or spilling a drink) can push us over the edge into racing pulse, sweaty palms, frazzled thinking, and other physiologically normal responses to life-threatening situations.
The tallest trees are subject to the strongest winds, and that constant stress as they grow, and the tiny damages within that they continually repair as they reach higher and higher, is part of how they develop the strength to withstand the gusts and gales. Likewise, we need to focus on supporting our own strength and resilience on physical, mental, and emotional planes so that when stress affects us – as it absolutely will! – we are able to bend rather than break, to deepen our roots, and to grow more powerful from the experience.
Herbs for stress
The most effective class of herbs to help us respond to stress in a positive way is the adaptogens. These are herbs that literally support our ability to adapt. They work in various ways to strengthen the mind, balance the nerves, and tonify the adrenal glands.
Stimulating adaptogens can help us to tap into hidden reservoirs of energy, allowing us to engage in life and move through the stressful situation with gusto. They are generally more appropriate for states of fatigue and/or depression than for insomnia and/or anxiety, and are best dosed earlier in the day. The ginsengs (American Panax quinquefolius, and Asian Panax ginseng) schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) are all stimulating adaptogens to varying degrees.
Conversely, calming adaptogens and nervines help us to avoid demonstrating the truth in the adage that “haste makes waste” by cooling our jets so that we are better equipped to think and act both calmly and rationally. Cooling adaptogens are far less common than stimulating ones. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is the main one, and is beneficial those who are “tired but wired” – so burnt out that sleep becomes elusive instead of restorative, while skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is an excellent herb to calm and strengthen the nervous system.
And then there are the neutral adaptogens licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), and Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, previously known as Siberian ginseng). Each has their own profile and personality and may be advantageous at different points along the journey back to balance.
The adaptogenic herbs are powerful, but not so powerful that they can overcome bad habits surrounding diet, exercise, happiness, and sleep! Include herbs for added support while working on regulating lifestyle, and developing powerful habits.
Blood sugar highs and lows are yet one more stress on the body, so balanced blood sugar is key. Focus on whole foods as much as possible, but if you’re in the midst of extreme stress or exhausted from prolonged stress then find your cheats – a bag of frozen mixed vegetables pureed into soup with herbs and spices, or a power-packed smoothie with water, berries (low blood sugar impact – skip the tropical fruit if you can), clean protein, healthy fat, and some greens.
Exercise Movement & Activity
Some people release their stress through high-intensity exercise such as kickboxing, running, or whatever they love that works up a sweat. For others, such an outlet would land them in bed for a week trying to recover! Gardening, yoga, or a slow walk with an old dog may be best for some people some (or all) of the time.
While happiness isn’t as popular a study topic as depression there is research into a) the benefits of happiness on our mental and physical health and b) proven methods on how to cultivate happiness in our lives. A gratitude journal in which you write down three things from that day for which you are grateful, when done for 21 days in a row retrains your brain to scan the world for positive elements, which in turn reduces the experience of stress. It’s fun and takes very little time in your evening routine.
Sometimes elusive when feeling stress more acutely, sleep is (ideally) the third of our day in which we process the waking hours and repair damage. Good sleep, hygiene, nervine herbs, acupuncture, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), and other interventions may be necessary at times, so if sleep is your weak point then make it a higher priority to get on top of that so that you can get on top of stress.
Excessive, debilitating stress and anxiety are such common afflictions in our society that we often think of them as “normal”. Anxiety is a symptom of something deeper, often stemming from stress imbalances, and it is possible to shift your life until anxiety is something you refer to in the past tense. When stress is viewed as a negative it has negative effects on body and mind, but if stress can be reframed as “challenge” then it can actually have a positive effect on our physiology. For many people, thinking back on our lives, the most meaningful events are often associated with a surge in stress…that we overcame, hopefully, to thrive as someone stronger from the experience.
1. Winston, D. and S. Maimes. Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Healing Arts Press, 2007.
2. Achor, S. The Happiness Advantage. Crown Business, 2010.
3. Shawn Achor (TED talk): The Happy Secret To Better Work
4. thetappingsolution.com (EFT information)