Herbs for Anxiety

Anxiety often gets a bad rap.  While lingering anxiety can be hazardous to your mental health, a healthy dose of being under fire is in fact necessary to propel us to do things that we wouldn’t do under any other circumstances.   When called for, an elevated level of “alert mode” protects us from physical threats, accidents or calamities by allowing us to fight or flee without a moment’s hesitation.  But we no longer live in jungles or open prairies where this hard-wired neural response is most useful.  Yes, stressors of modern life have evolved in leaps and bounds, but they are hardly life-threatening in the blink of an eye.  The extremely difficult boss may ax you with a pink slip anytime, but it does not necessarily mean your immediate demise.

But if you can’t shake off the thought of the ax falling, your sympathetic nervous system may need tweaking.  The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for keeping you on guard against possible aggressors.  To bring your defenses down, the parasympathetic nervous system has to kick in.  It is that part of your nervous system that allows you to put the brakes on your high-octane momentum.  Without those breaks, you’ll be a runaway train.

You don’t have to give in to the monopoly of pharmaceutical drugs to stop you from chewing the rest of your fingers.  Deep breathing exercises allow the body to switch from shallow, rapid breaths (induced by adrenaline) that take away oxygen from the evolved part of your brain (hence your judgment is clouded).  To further induce relaxation, a cup of soothing drink goes a long way to banish anxiety.

Herbs that are classified as nervines (plant-based remedies) contain chemicals that are known to kick off the nervous system’s brake fluid and cooling mechanism.  Some nervines do the opposite, so steer clear of them when you don’t need another jolt to your nerves.  Some of the more popular nervines that soothe and relax, can be powdered, and steeped in a cup are the following:

  • German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla).  Anxiety stimulates increased production of hydrochloric acid responsible for digestion.  This nervine drives away butterflies in the stomach. It is also a mild sedative that relaxes the nervous system as well as induce sleep.  This is safe to use for fidgety youngsters.  Cross-allergic reaction may arise if user is already allergic to ragweed, asters and chrysanthemums;
  • Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis).  This is another nervine relaxant that produces similar effects as the German chamomile.  This is especially effective to calm palpitations that are often attendant to panic attacks.  Care must be exercised when using this herb because of its mild anti-thyroid property.  Hypothyroid patients should not use this herb;
  • Oatstraw/Oats (Avena sativa).  Oats are nervine tonics.  Persistent panic attacks result to frayed nerves.  When adrenaline sloshes around constantly, the heart is going to become overworked, as well as the rest of the nervous system.  Oats and oatstraw contain alkaloids that restore the heart and repair nerve damage due to prolonged jitters.  This plant-based remedy provides both short- and long-term restorative effects to the nervous system.  Similar results can also be extracted from skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia), damiana (Turnera diffusa), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).  Rosemary is more effective in promoting cranial blood circulation;
  • Lavender (Lavandula officinalis).  This herb is good for the heart.  Lavender is known to abate migraine attacks;
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).  This herb is a nervine tranquilizer.  The plant rhizomes contain valerianic acid, alkaloids and iridoids that counteract the effects of anxiety while promoting mental clarity.  Even as it promotes relaxation, valerian extracts do not have the usual side effects of over-the-counter tranquilizers (like drowsiness or depression).  This herb is ideal for overcoming tough situations by sheer mental prowess;
  • Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a strong nervine relaxant ideal for severe anxiety, nighttime wakefulness, muscle tension, general restlessness, hysteria and overexcitement.  Use of this herb may require consultation with a medical herbalist because of its potent depressant properties.

Doctors may hesitate to discuss with patients the medicinal benefits of herbs, because it conflicts with their interests.  To be safe, consult with a trusted medical herbalist before brewing any of the concoctions.