Stress can be defined as an event or a perceived situation which causes anxiety. It is an evolutionary response to danger in which adrenaline is released in preparation for ‘fight or flight’. Different situations cause different people stress and this can also manifest itself in different ways. One person may experience palpiations, trembling hands and a dry mouth before giving a presentation, while another may experience diarrhoea and nightmares in the lead up to exams. Neither situation is a life-threatening event but the body may respond as though it is. Continual stress is much more common with people putting more pressure on themselves and each other to constantly do better. Some people thrive in this kind of environment whereas others can become overwhelmed. Long term stress can lead to anxiety which can occur in response to normal daily activities.
Stress can affect the body in many ways. The direct effect on the nervous system can cause anxiety, irritability, depression and sleeping problems. Herbs can be used to reduce these symptoms by supporting and relaxing the nervous system. Oats act as a nourishing nerve tonic and can be taken medicinally or as food. St John’s Wort is a well known antidepressant (check it is safe to take with other medications), Skullcap soothes an over-active mind and Passionflower promotes natural sleeping patterns.
Stress can have a knock on effect to other parts of the body. The digestion can become upset with nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, heart burn and difficulty swallowing. Chamomile is a gentle, relaxing nervine with an affinity for soothing the gut. Other herbs for this area include Meadowsweet and Lemon balm. Muscular tension can be relieved with Cramp bark and Valerian. Hops are particularly useful for intestinal spasms but avoid if you have depression.
Going for a regular massage helps quiet the sympathetic nervous system associated with adrenaline responses and encourages the parasympathic nervous system involved in relaxation and proper digestion. Breathing execises, yoga and pilates can all be useful for letting go of stress held in the muscles. Stress affecting the heart with palpitations, skipped heartbeats and pain in the chest would benefit from teas of Hawthorn and Lime flowers. Chest pain should be checked by your GP or Herbalist to rule out anything more serious.
As much as is possible do what you can to relieve stress. Take a walk through the park, have regular breaks, read a novel, have baths with essential oils, or visit a friend. Gentle exercise should be part of treatment as it helps diffuse excess adrenaline. Eat a wholesome diet of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and pulses. Limit sugar, processed foods and cut out alcohol and all stimulants such as caffeine and cigarettes. Overall, be kind to yourself, listen to your body and learn to recognise your limitations.