Herbs for Fear, Anxiety: Engage Plant Power to Soothe the Nerves

linden tree, standing at base, looking up

We live in interesting times. The current climate circulating around the viral pandemic, COVID-19, can naturally stimulate a basic survival reaction in us. Stress, as a response to our circumstances and the environment, is common and essential to all living beings. As human beings, equipped with a brain that processes incoming data (stimuli), we are susceptible to a constant flow of all manner of thoughts and feelings that affect our nervous system. Over a sustained period, whether conscious or unconscious, the resulting ‘fight or flight response’, which involves energy and is also known as anxiety and fear is something we are left to manage.

Gaining a perspective on anxiety and fear, and counteracting the negative effects by adopting a more realistic view of ourselves and the world; specifically, one that is in sync with nature, is no small feat. Indeed, as a psychotherapist, this has been my work and commitment for the last 20 years. It is my hope that we may feel stronger, less vulnerable and fearful, and can ultimately build a more healthy response to the environment by connecting deeply with our innate and trustworthy core.

As an herbalist, I bow deeply and acknowledge the many plant allies that surround us and that so freely offer us help and support. I recognize that there exists a wide variety of materia medica. Many wonderful plant monographs have become available to us from an enthusiastic and booming, world-wide community of herbalists and practitioners. My approach to herbalism is holistic in nature, appreciating that each determinant plays a role in our overall health. This means taking into account the unique experiences and circumstances of each individual, relationships with others, including plants, and a fundamental connection within the ecological web of life.

Recently I am reminded of why I love being a community herbalist. First and foremost, my work with the herbs consists of specific and practical acts that engage my energy. Remember that the ‘fight and flight response’ of the nervous system is energy in motion. During the month of March I have been looking over my seeds (some saved from last summer), filling pots with soil, and beginning to sow those seeds. I have been peeking outdoors under the cover of leaf mulch to see the hopeful shoots of the coming season: herbs to adore and harvest. I have put my fingers into the soil and inhaled the earthy fragrance. All of these acts engage the parasympathetic nervous system, counteract fear & anxiety, and move a body into restoration, recovery, immunity and growth.

Is there something you would like to invite to grow near you?

Herbal Approaches to Riding the Wave

Here are a few of my favorite herbal approaches to feel calmer, stronger and adept at ‘riding the wave of life.’

I’ve begun with the easiest and least expensive of herbal therapies ($0) and progressed into slightly more labor-intensive preparations. All are within the scope of home herbalism, a therapeutic process in and of itself. Knowing that you can grow, harvest and make herbal preparations yourself, or obtain them from your community herbalist can be so reassuring and can stave away feelings of helplessness that feed into anxiety and fear.

Tree Helpers

My personal experience, as far back as I can remember, has been to turn to the trees for help. Now, this could be from having spent a good amount of time in and around trees as a young person. By the time I was a teenager and to this day, even being able to look outside at a tree during a long dark night has been very soothing. There are many oak trees around me that, to me, convey strength and fortitude. It’s not so much that I’m constantly physically hugging them (there’s nothing wrong that), but in my mind, I can imagine embracing the strong oak and feel my heart entrain to that being. This creates a system-wide recovery within my body and mind.
What trees are you engaged with?

Can you walk on the bare earth, sit against a tree, or just touch a tree today?

Get Steamed

Here in the Northeast, throughout the cold months, we’ve been collecting pine needles and enjoying good pinene steams by placing the needles in a bowl and covering them with boiling water. We then hover our faces over the bowl (not too close) with a towel over our heads for no more than 10 minutes at a time. Of course, any dried (or fresh) herb can be used for steams, such as rosemary, thyme, lavender, etc., and flowers are especially beautiful in the steam bowl.

This practice, as with meditation, lowers the heart rate and cortisol levels in the body and boosts restorative hormone levels and immune functioning.

Another easy avenue is a walk in a pine forest aka forest bathing. The positive effects are felt immediately as you exhale fully and inhale deeply.

It’s Always a Good Time for Tea

During a growing season, one can collect and dry plants for use all year long. Even now, in April, thinking about what plants will soon be coming up in my region (Northeastern US) is a restorative activity. Imagining these plants in my mind’s eye and with all my senses, engages my parasympathetic nervous system, providing a reset or reprieve to any current newscasts or worries.

The following is a gentle, nourishing tea for courage and resilience. This blend combines food-like, adaptogenic, and tonic herbs. The oatstraw is a tonic for the nervous system as is tulsi which is also protective and restorative to all tissues. Rose, Hawthorn, and Linden are all full of heart lovin’ goodness. Sometimes I add in rosehips as well, just for good cheer. This blend can steep for 5 minutes and up to 5 hours.

Heart Ease Tea Recipe

Blend equal parts of the following dried herbs:

  • Oatstraw (Avena sativa)
  • Rose Petals (Rosa spp)
  • Hawthorn leaf, flower, berry (Crataegus spp)
  • Linden Blossom (Tilia spp)
  • Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)

In The Moment Tea Recipe

I hold a weekly meditation practice in my community, and herbal tea is offered as part of that meditation. The tea blend I serve includes oatstraw, chamomile, and St. John’s Wort to soothe and settle the body, and lavender and rosemary to center the mind. This particular blend helps us to be present, awake and aware during our practice. This tea can steep for 5 minutes up to one hour. The flavor changes over time and and I enjoy the flavor progression. For meditation, we steep this blend in a clear glass pot over a tealight candle flame for the first segment of the practice (about 40 minutes) then the tea is mindfully poured and served and we sit and sip the tea enjoying the bloom of the present moment and the interaction with the herbs. There is no other place, there is no other time. This is it.

  • Oatstraw (Avena sativa) – 4 parts
  • Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – 3 parts
  • St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – 2 parts
  • Lavender (Lavandula spp) – 1 part
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) 1- part

Mists of Summer Herbal Spray

The summer solstice is a favorite time of year for many because the days are long, the sun is high, and so many plants are coming into bloom. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a green treasure to know. I collect the white flowering yarrow tops to make a tincture (50% alcohol extract) which is absolutely essential to my apothecary. It can be used for oral hygiene, deodorant, insect repellent and wound care. I keep a spray bottle of yarrow handy at all times and never travel without it!

The yarrow tincture has been a favorite with many in my community who also know its value. It so happens that a friend asked me to make her a blend of lavender with the yarrow to use as a personal spray mist. So, in the last couple of years, I have made an extract of fresh lavender flowers combined with the yarrow flowers using 40% alcohol. The blend of yarrow and lavender combines well with aloe vera and so was born a new deodorant and toner. Lately, this herbal spray has enjoyed a following of folks who enjoy it as a type of mist shield for the body and spirit as they move through their day in the world.

Yarrow and Lavender Personal Spray

  • Fresh flowering tops of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Fresh Lavender flowers (Lavandula spp.)
  1. Place equal parts (or whatever ratio you desire) of the herbs into a mason jar until it is two-thirds to three-quarters full. Cover the herbs with any generic 80 proof vodka.
  2. Secure the jar with a lid and let macerate in a safe location away from sunlight and temperature extremes for 2 months or more.
  3. Strain the extract, and pour it into an amber glass spray mist bottle(s) for daily use.
  4. To enhance this blend, add one-eighth part aloe vera and shake to incorporate.

Hug in a Bottle

Sometimes we just need a hug. Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is here to embrace us and offer comfort. Motherwort is in the mint (Lamiaceae) family and can be found growing wild. I will gather up the flowering tops on or around the summer solstice to make a tincture (alcohol extract).

Motherwort has been my husband John’s close plant ally over the last few years. He is a restaurateur who has been navigating business and lifestyle changes which, at times, has left him overcome with feelings of fear and anxiety. In addition to the work he does on his mental health, motherwort tincture has become his steady go-to. It can be taken as needed, whether by the dropper-full or just a couple drops at a time.

John first used motherwort to calm his anxiety around boarding a small commuter plane a few years ago. We were flying to a small island on vacation. His fear was visible, he was shaky, white-knuckled, and his face was ashen as we were walking out onto the tarmac to board the flight. I fished through my travel bag, pulled out the motherwort tincture that I had packed for myself (just in case I had trouble sleeping on our trip), and gave him a few drops. He was skeptical that anything could possibly calm him – so sure was he that we were going to die on that flight.

Within moments of taking the drops, he relaxed, smiled and thanked me – just amazed that those few drops of an herb could give him courage (Leonurus cardiaca means ‘lion heart’). He and motherwort have been tight ever since that day. He is reassured to see it growing in the yard each year, knowing she is there, even throughout the winter. Motherwort is one of those mints that maintain some green growth close to the ground even when the temperature drops.

TIP: I also put Motherwort Tincture in tiny amber glass spray bottles that can easily be carried in a pocket to get small doses (just a quick couple of sprays) quickly and discreetly.

Motherwort Extract Recipe

  1. Collect the fresh flowering tops of Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), this will include leaves and flowers.
  2. Cut them well with scissors to increase the surface area for maximum extraction.
  3. Fill a mason jar with the herb two-thirds to three-quarters full.
  4. Poor 100 proof vodka over the herb, filling the jar.
  5. Secure the jar with the lid tightly and let it sit in a dark cupboard for 2 months or more.
  6. Strain out the herbs and place the liquid into amber glass dropper bottles for easy dispensing. I also recommend putting some in a tiny, pocket-sized, spray mist bottle for easy on-the-go use.

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