Updated: Jan 15, 2020
*Note before beginning: I'm about to describe an instance of my own anxiety in detail. If you're prone to hearing someone's worst fears and adopting them as your own, you may choose to skip the next two paragraphs.
A few months ago I took a solo road trip across a few Western states. I'd been having a rough winter, and I was making a pilgrimage to sacred girl friends.
I left my 58-year-old husband and toddler son alone in our home on a remote ridge. As I drove through the sandstone towers of Utah, the worst-case scenario was playing in my head. My husband is going to have a heart attack, collapse, and leave my son defenseless and traumatized. The image of my son's frantic wailing, going on for hours and hours, wouldn't leave my mind's eye. There's only one house on our road past our own, one family that drives by occasionally, who might or might not notice if anything was wrong. I texted Eric, "Howzit going?" No response. 20 minutes later I called, no answer. I forced myself to wait 10 minutes between each subsequent call, and somewhere after call number 11 he called me back. By that time I was pretty distressed and contemplating turning around and driving the three hours back home. I cried and told him about my fears. He said he understood and that he would keep his phone close, which of course he didn't do.
Anxiety Results From An Unhealthy Relationship With Fear
Kristen Ulmer, who wrote the book The Art Of Fear, says that when we experience anxiety, it's the symptom of an unhealthy reltionship to fear itself. I've personally experienced two kinds of anxiety, the one described above, when your mind cooks up a horrible scenario that sinks its claws into your psyche. The other takes place solely in your body. You can be going about your day, not particularly worried about anything, and notice that your heart is racing, or your gut is churning, or you're hyperventilating, for seemingly no reason. Culturally we're taught that fear = weakness, and that when we experience it we should squash it, overcome it, rationalize our way out of it, do breathing exercises, just escape the condition however we can. Ignoring and denying fear this way pushes it down and stores it in our bodies. It's a coping mechanism that might help us get through a scary moment, but when we practice it regularly, it eventually rises from the depths to cause physical problems and/or anxiety.
I love Ulmer's suggestion that we think of fear as a person in our lives. She describes four different types of relationships we could have with it. One is to ignore it, and act truly rude and disrespectful by paying it no attention while it stands right next to us. Another is to say hello, I see you, but I'm leaving you behind as soon as I start doing this thing I'm afraid to do. A healthier relationship would involve saying hello fear, my old friend, thank you for being here. Let's hold hands and get through this together. This involves allowing yourself to feel the sensation of fear in your body, without resisting it. The fourth, most skillful type of relationship, arises when we court fear like a lover. Fear only shows up when we're out of our comfort zone, and those moments are rife with potential for exhilaration. We don't achieve a particular kind of transcendent state, a sublime aliveness, without the presence of fear. We can learn to dance with it.
What To Do When You Feel Fear
I've been practicing staying in my body when fear shows up. Here's a step-by-step process for doing that.
1. I ask myself what am I feeling and where am I feeling it? Personally, I often experience an intensity emanating from the middle of my back, almost like I can feel my adrenal glands dumping stress hormones.
2. I ask myself is there an immediate threat to my safety? Step 3 depends on the answer.
3a. If the answer is no, I let myself feel the sensation and ask if it's telling me something. If I feel the urge to get up and run, I do that. If I need a quiet moment, I try to make one. Most of the time, just focusing on and breathing into the sensation causes it to dissolve on its own.
3b. If I'm perceiving a real threat, like a room full of people waiting for me to get up and talk to them, I tell myself that fear is normal and healthy. Then I sit with the heightened state of energy that fear is producing in my body. I invite it along with me and let it help me get through the experience.
3c. If I'm perceiving a real threat that I don't HAVE to deal with, like I'm about to jump off a cliff into the ocean, I ask myself am I in the mood to deal with this much fear today? If the experience feels totally worth it, proceed to 3b. If you don't have the energy to take on all that fear today, don't!
I've been making an effort to sit with ALL of my feelings like this. We have a cultural aversion to feeling anything uncomfortable. We seek to end it as quickly as possible. This leads to our various addictions to social media, drugs and alcohol, video games, and pharmaceuticals. Even herbs can be used to disrupt an uncomfortable state, so I suggest using the above strategy before reaching for help from the plants.
That said, there are some of us for whom being embodied is not the most helpful strategy. People with PTSD, especially if they've suffered a physical trauma, may find that focusing on physical sensations makes matters worse. Know yourself, and if this is you, know that that's ok. We're not all ready to be embodied all the time. We create coping mechanisms to escape our bodies for a reason, and healing is slow and winding. By all means, call on the plants for support.
Herbs for Anxiety
The herb(s) you choose may vary depending on the sensations you're experiencing. Since I'm talking about acute anxiety, I recommend taking these herbs in quick and convenient tincture form (as opposed to brewing a tea). The herbalist Janet Kent was the first to point out to me that some people may not benefit from being embodied, and I learned some of the following insights from her. Unless otherwise noted, these herbs are safe to use for someone who doesn't want a strong grounding, bringing-you-into-your-body sensation.
If your heart is racing, fluttering or palpitating, I love Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), and Rose (Rosa spp.). Motherwort has an affinity for the cardiovascular system, it helps calm heart palpitations, and it's an immediately relaxing nervine. Both Hawthorn and Rose are also very powerful heart medicine, and can help us feel held and supported in an emotionally tumultuous time.
If your stomach is churning, tight, or you're experiencing general digestive upset, consider Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.), Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), or other members of the mint family like Lavender (Lavandula spp.) or Peppermint (Mentha piperita). I spoke about Evening Primrose for a stress-induced upset stomach here. Chamomile and Catnip are both strongly calming and encourage effective digestion. Lavender, while famous for it's relaxing effects, also stimulates the liver, which is responsible for processing stress hormones.
If you're experiencing tightness in the chest, hyperventilation or other respiratory complaints, try Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), Wild Cherry flowers (Prunus virginiana), or Peach leaf (Prunus persica). Hawthorn and Motherwort are particularly indicated for tightness of the chest. Wild Cherry flowers and Peach leaf both have an affinity for the lungs, helping us breathe easier. Peach leaf and Hawthorn are particularly useful in cases of recent grief or trauma.
If you're suffering from muscular tightness, Milky Oats (Avena sativa), and Pedicularis (Pedicularis spp.) can help us relax that tension. Milky Oats is a soothing, nutritive tonic to the nervous system. Pedicularis is strongly muscle-relaxing, and perhaps not appropriate for those who don't want to be brought down into their body. Both of these herbs are great for someone who forms a muscular armor.
For cyclical thinking or a racing mind, Passionflower (Passiflora spp.). For someone who chronically worries and is also very busy, type A, Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata).
Herbs that can be taken daily in the long-term to help reduce overall instances of anxiety include Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), and Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia). Reishi is very strongly grounding and not appropriate for someone who wants to avoid being embodied. Skullcap is also very useful for acute anxiety. It stimulates liver function, so check with an herbalist and use caution in combination with pharmaceuticals.
My personal favorite all-around formula for anxiety, both in the acute moment and for longer-term preventative use, is Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia), Milky Oats (Avena sativa), and Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca).
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This information does not constitute medical advice. It's not intended to diagnose or prescribe. Always thoroughly research an herb before taking it, and any decisions you make regarding your own health are always your own.