Anxiety is no fun. While it plays a critical role in the fight or flight mechanism, inspiring us to take action we we, or our loved ones, are threatened, repeated episodes of stress can lead to the development of chronic anxiety. When our brain pathways for stress become like super highways, insignificant events can trigger the anxiety response, leaving us with unwanted symptoms such as panic, worry, insomnia, eating-disorders, irritability and even anger. “Nervines” are a class of botanicals which help the nervous system recover from chronic stress. These plants are soothing and when used as daily tonics can assist in the re-balancing of the stress response, and so leave us calm and focused. As opposed to the numerous pharmaceuticals which treat anxiety-related disorders (for example Prozac, Zoloft, Valium and Xanax) nervines have little or no side-effects and are extremely safe for daily consumption. Of course, allergic responses to any medication, plant-based or not, should always be a concern. It’s always safest to consult a qualified health practitioner, knowledgable about plant medicines, before introducing new remedies.
One of the first plants I turn to for anxiety is lavender.
Called the “gentle grandmother” by one of my teachers, I conjure up an image of a wise elder-mother patting my hand, pouring a cup of lavender blossom tea and offering her year’s of experience perspective on my worries. Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, uplifts the spirits and can help break cyclical worries and depression. It is particularly useful for insomnia, helping one fall asleep more easily and then sleep more deeply through the night. If you suffer from tension headaches and nervous exhaustion, think of this herb. While it makes delicious tea, the essential oil offers the same benefit with the ease of topical use. Just a dab of lavender creme on the wrist or temples can work quickly through the olfactory nerve to calm and relax us. Daily use can build resilience to stress and stop the cycle of anxiety.
California poppy, Eschscholzia californica,the state flower of California is another effective anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing plant).
Traditionally used in Native American medicine, it is now known that the root of California poppy activates our GABA receptors, and so assist in quieting the mind. This plant is useful for insomnia due to it’s mild sedative action and would pair nicely with lavender. Because it is an antispasmodic California poppy can help with vasoconstrictive headaches that are often associated with stress. Avoid this herb if pregnant or taking barbiturates.
Passion flower leaves and vine, Passiflora incarnata, are nourishing and replenishing to “frayed” nerves.
Like lavender, this plant is appropriate for someone plagued by restless or circular thoughts. It is a key herb for insomnia that comes with peri-menopause. As a mild relaxant, it brings peace to the heart and calms the spirit. It also has mild pain-relieving and anti-spasmodic properties which makes it a useful choice for tension headaches, grinding teeth, muscle spasms and aches and pains, especially if brought on by stress. Do not use with MAO inhibitors and use with caution if you have low blood pressure.