Herbs For a Healthy Balance

Easing Those Jangled Nerves, Naturally

When Marissa was ten years old, she stood at the seashore one beautiful summer day, swung her arms up into the air and twirled on her toes with the sheer joy living. Life seemed like one delicious bubble! There wasn't a problem in the world. That was fifteen years ago.

Today Marissa is twenty five years old. She has a college degree and a promising job. She has accumulated the academic credits that permit her to add a B.S. and an M.B.A. after her name. She has also accumulated a series of letters in her life that have nothing to do with her education. Letters like I.B.S. which stand for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. T.M.D. which means Temporomandibular Joint Disorder. Occasionally P.M.S., the ubiquitous Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. Like millions of other reasonably healthy, functioning adults, she suffers from stress-caused or stress-aggravated symptoms that sap her energy, her immunity, her sense of humor, her love life, and her joy of living.

When do the normal challenges of life deteriorate into the high degree of chronic stress that destroys emotional and physical health? Why are so many basically healthy people struggling with symptoms like migraine headaches, blurred vision, neuralgia, teeth-grinding, bad backs, panic disorders, chronic allergies, repeated upper respiratory or gastro-intestinal infections, unexplainable joint pains, breathing problems, depression, low energy, loss of libido, palpitations or insomnia? Many health care professionals lay the blame on excessive, internalized stress. Although any disorder requires a thorough medical examination to eliminate potentially serious underlying causes there are a variety of natural steps to help reduce or even eliminate many of these symptoms when they are caused basically by the high-level stress of everyday living. Frequently the entire problem is resolved when a person refocuses attention on the solution rather than on the problem.

What is the Nervous System?

The nervous system is that part of you that interacts with the world around you. It interprets incoming messages, reacts, responds. It creates the mystical connection between the person you are and the environment you live in. It processes information and responds to perfume and music. It provides the euphoria of falling in love and the rage of jealousy. In chemical terms, it tenses when a challenge arrives, so that you can deal with it, and it relaxes when the challenge is over. It is designed to respond to both the challenge and the ease of living. As renowned Master Herbalist David Hoffman, member of Britain's prestigious National Institute of Medical Herbalists, says, in, The Herbal Handbook, "In no other system of the body is the connection between the physical and the psychological aspects of our humanity as apparent as in the nervous system."

The problems surface, however, when the challenges are so continuous, that ease and relaxation never seem to get a fair chance and the nervous system quite literally becomes jangled. This is likely to occur when the challenges in your business or social life are interpreted by you and your nervous system as life-and-death situations. When you become convinced that if you cannot do the job or maintain the relationship to the highest degree of perfection, then your value as a human being disappears and your life force is in serious and real danger. The problems surface, in other words, when you function out of the conviction that life's normal challenges are actually continual, death-defying high-wire acts. And there is no net. In almost every day-to-day situation, that is not the case! However, once these disorders have appeared, what are the natural options for dealing with them, after you and your medical practitioner have eliminated serious disease as a cause?

Breathing and Meditation

Your first and easiest line of defense against this degree of nervous tension is usually the simplest. Breathe! Don't shake your head in disbelief because it seems too simple. It is a fact that a full portion of oxygen actually feeds and relaxes every cell and therefore every organ in your body and assures them that they are safe. A full exhale, in return, releases the toxic carbon dioxide that builds up in your bloodstream, along with other toxic vapors and a powerful dose of toxic stress. Yogis refer to breathing as the breath of life, or prana, and the reason is obvious. When you are breathing completely, you are, indeed, in touch with the life force that resides inside you and all around you. When you are under stress, however, you are likely to tighten the muscles in your chest cavity, put pressure on all your passage ways, and take short, shallow, ineffective breaths. Therefore, a good first line of defense against stress is to exhale very slowly, allowing all your tension to exit with the air. Give three short ha-ha-ha exhales at the end, and then let the inhale happen, as deeply and thoroughly as you can, without forcing it. Repeat the procedure two more times, relax your shoulders, and smile. You have just completed one dose of relaxation therapy and you are ready to consider meditation!

Meditation is simply the act of taking a little time out of your day to direct your focus inward, away from the on-going stress and confusion of the external world to a place of inner peace and health that is always waiting for you. To start, find a comfortable position in a safe, relaxing place. Do three sets of deep breathing, and allow your tension to exit your body. Then close your eyes and begin your inward focus. There are a number of things you can focus on. Sound is an easy one. Try repeating a sound or mantra with every exhale, such as the well-known, universally-used "Om." Or select a word or words that have significance to you such as "peace and love", or a nonsense phonetic that pleases you, or a sequence of numbers.

Instead of repeating a mantra, you might prefer to affix your eyes on a lovely flower or piece of pottery or the dancing flame of a lit candle, studying it until you have it securely in your mind's eye. Then close your eyes and see or sense it in your visual memory for as long as you can.

Or tune your ears to every sound you can hear, and let them enter your body and gently energize you, blocking out all the nagging messages that usually fill your head. Once you have decided which mediation is most effective for you, stay with it. Don't worry about whether you are meditating correctly. Just sitting in meditation is correct meditation. You do not need to stress yourself by trying to meditate perfectly. That is just what you are trying to avoid. If thoughts wander in to your meditation, and they will, tell them, gently, "No trespassing, now. I'm meditating. I'll tend to you later." Although it is advisable to give yourself twenty minutes of meditation at least once a day, take whatever time you can. Even a five minute mini-vacation helps to relieve tension and stabilize your nerves and your immunity system. Generalized information on healthy breathing and meditation is available in, Mind Body Medicine, edited by Daniel Goleman, Ph. D., and Joel Gurin.

Self-talk

One of the primary reasons that your challenges turn into negative stress is very likely that the voices in your head are not feeding you healthy messages. It took John, a young up-and-coming executive, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars for therapy to discover that the messages he was feeding himself were fueling his stress problem. The problem was that these negative messages were being processed in his subconscious mind so quickly, that he wasn't even aware of them. But his body certainly was. And so was his behavior. The words to his tape were, "If you make a mistake, you're dead. You're life is over! If you don't give 120% all the time to every project, you will never succeed, you will have no friends, you will be fired, you will be unlovable and valueless." This was his tape, and he believed it! With a tape like that, ease and relaxation just didn't have a chance! John's nervous system was on the battle field at all times. The result of all that tension was a host of stress symptoms, recurring throat infections, and a chronic sense of sadness and impotence. John realized that his internal tape, which he had learned from various sources along his life's path, was the true culprit. If anything was going to kill him, it was that. So, he remade the tape! Six times a day, after doing his breathing exercise, he would say to himself, "I am always a valuable and lovable person because that is my birthright. My value as a human being does not lie in my accomplishments. Making a mistake is part of living and growing. People who are important in my life love and respect me for who I am, even when I make mistakes or say 'no'!"

Slowly but surely, John's entire nervous system began to believe and respond to his new tape. His cells calmed down. His vital systems rejuvenated themselves. His emotions regained their equilibrium. Health and happiness became a natural part of his life again. He learned the power of prioritizing his efforts. He learned how to say the words, "I wish I could help you, but I can't this time." He placed his job in proper perspective, and he learned how to focus fully on one project at a time and give himself total relaxation periods. Interestingly enough, the promotions still arrived on schedule and his colleagues told him that they didn't know what he had done, but he was just a much nicer person to be around.

If you are interested in learning more about the powers of positive self-talk, read Shad Helmstetter's, The Self-Talk Solution, and select a positive message that is custom-tailored to your needs.

Herbs and Aromas

There are a number of herbs and herb scents that relax the nervous system. These herbs may quiet or nourish the nervous system, eliminate spasms, reduce pain, or promote sleep. They are not addictive and are considered safe for virtually everyone, barring individual allergies. Be aware though, before considering taking herbs, that women who are pregnant or people who suffer from diseases like diabetes or hypertension should check with their health care practitioners before using herb or aroma therapy.

Several herbs that have proven over the years to be highly effective for reducing stress and helping overcome insomnia are Chamomile, Passion Flower, Catnip, Lemon Balm and Oat Seed. These can be purchased in tea bag form in health food stores or supermarkets. Although many people find these beverage teas effective in reducing their stress symptoms, the dose that herbalists usually suggest for medicinal purposes is stronger than that which most commercial teabags contain. Traditionally, for curative purposes, one ounce of dried herbs is steeped in 1 pint of boiled water for at least five minutes, and the frequently-recommended procedure, for most people, is to drink a half cup of this tea, two or three times during the day. Chamomile, Lemon Balm, and Oat Seed are also effective when added to a warm bath, to be absorbed through the skin, before going to sleep. If you are interested in brewing your own tea, which often proves to be a therapeutic process in its own right, herbs are available in bulk at some health food stores or through mail-order catalogs such as the ones provided by Moonrise Herbs in Arcata, California or Mountain Rose Herbs in Redway, California. For more information on using or brewing stress-reducing teas, Lesley Tierra's wonderfully easy-to-understand The Herbs of Life, Master Herbalist Debra Nuzzi's Pocket Herbal Reference Guide and the famed Penelope Ody's Home Herbal are all highly informative. For stress problems pertaining particularly to women, look for Herbal Healing for Women by lifetime herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar, founder of the California School of Herbal Studies, who currently conducts Sage Mountain herb seminars and activities from East Barre, Vermont.

Valerian and Scullcap, two herbs which have helped some women reduce symptoms of P.M.S. and menstrual cramping, are so helpful in combating insomnia without being addictive, that herbalists have been known to suggest keeping a tincture of one or the other, or a combination of both, on the night table alongside a glass of water, to be taken in the middle of the night, if necessary. A few drops added to the water, according to the instructions on the bottle, often reduce anxiety and induce a deep, restful, healthy sleep. A tincture, available in health food stores, is a solution usually created by extracting the medicinal essence of an herb into an alcohol base. If you want to avoid ingesting the alcohol, you can evaporate it by adding the drops to boiled water, or look for tinctures made with vinegar or glycerin or one in which the alcohol has been dissipated after the tincture was completed. Many herbs are also available in capsule or tablet form.

St John's Wort is an herb that seems to have been designed by nature specifically to eliminate the nerve pain often associated with stress. One young woman was being treated by her doctor for a severe, resistant case of T.M.D., a tooth-grinding condition commonly exacerbated by stress, that creates a seemingly endless variety of pain and misery. Despite a specially-designed mouthpiece and prescription pain-killers, she couldn't seem to find relief, until she read an article about applying St. John's Wort topically. She told me that she had never used an herb before in her life, but out of desperation she went to the local health food store, bought a bottle of St. John's Wort tincture, added ten drops to a little olive oil, and massaged it into the painful areas of her cheek, jaw, and brow. "The degree of relief was amazing," she told me. "I could actually feel the pain and inflammation breaking up and the muscles relaxing." She told her friend about St. John's Wort when she developed a neuralgia problem, and the same easily-made salve had the same happy results.

Be aware that tinctures and essential oils are not the same thing. Essential oils are many times more potent and should not be taken internally. However, many people find relief from stress with the aromas of herbal essential oils because of the relaxing effect they have on the nervous system when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Herbal essential oils such as Lavender, Patchouli, Honeysuckle, and Sandalwood are known for their relaxing capacity. Lavender and Rosemary rubbed onto the temples often successfully relieve headaches, sometimes even migraines. Because Lavender has so many restorative properties, as a matter of fact, David Hoffman in The Herbal Handbook suggests, "If you get only one oil, let it be Lavender!"

Regarding headaches, there is a wonderful herb called Feverfew, which can be purchased in capsule or tincture form, and which effectively tones the blood vessels involved in migraines, those incapacitating headaches caused by a variety of things such as food allergies, lighting conditions, change of seasons, and, of course, stress! A number of migraine sufferers have discovered that an ongoing regimen of Feverfew capsules can actually eliminate these torturous headaches altogether. Although Feverfew is less successful in erasing a migraine once it has started, some sufferers claim that they have been able to stop a migraine in its tracks by taking a Feverfew capsule at the first sign of the pain or visual disturbances associated with migraines. Be aware, though, that eating the leaf, although some people find a leaf a day has controlled their migraines very successfully, irritates some people's mouths.

The essential oils of grapefruit, green apple, tangerine, and peppermint are known to revive flagging spirits and relieve temporary depression. A few drops of these scents, added to a little gentle oil such as olive oil, sesame oil, or grape seed oil, can be rubbed onto the skin, added to bath water, or used for massage. Precaution should be taken, however, in using essential oils, if you are pregnant, as some of them might induce contractions.

Attend to Yourself

Finally, make sure you are practicing normal good health habits. Drink pure water. Lots of it. Get fresh air every day, deliberately noticing and enjoying the sunshine, the clouds, the birds, the snow, the rain. Get enough sleep and a reasonable dose of exercise. Cut down on alcohol and caffeine. Laugh when you're happy, cry when you're sad, and when you're angry, say so, even if just to your journal, so that your emotions find a way out of your system. Locking up emotional energy creates physical tension. Surround yourself, as much as possible, with happy, supportive people. Wear colors that relax you. Allow yourself to imagine a happy scene, at least once a day. Eat healthy foods, supplemented by vitamins and minerals, if they are needed, making sure you are getting enough calcium, magnesium, and B vitamins, which help in stabilizing overworked nerves. Go for a massage or gently rub sesame oil, in small gentle circles, all over your skin before showering. Sing. Or if you absolutely can't sing, hum. Recognize the good things that happen to you. Acknowledge them and express your appreciation, no matter how small or insignificant they seem, no matter how big your problems are. Educate yourself as to the latest holistic information on stress-reduction by reading New Choice in Natural Healing edited by Bill Gottlieb, or treat yourself to the very popular, Spontaneous Healing by Andrew Weill, M.D.

In other words, be your own best friend and caretaker. Stress-related conditions are not a way of life, but once they establish themselves, they are stubborn. Maintain your sense of humor and your equilibrium. Marissa and John, if you are reading this article, I'm talking to you! And all the Marissas and Johns out there. You are not going crazy, as some stress-sufferers fear. You are not doomed to a life of anxiety attacks and oddball symptoms. You are, in fact, about to regain control of your emotional equilibrium. By the time you finish reading this, as a matter of fact, you are already well on you way to recovery. Good luck to you. Let us know which stress-reducing strategies worked for you!

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