Herbal Tricks for Easing Anxiety

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Anxiety Busting-Tea Recipe

1. Calm-Down Tea

It’s like a bear at the door: dark, shaggy, primordial–a monster with claws and hot breath. Anxiety attacks can be fierce enough to make you want to run for the hills or grab a club to fight off the beast. Less intense ­anxiety–sweating over things such as giving a lecture, taking a driving test, or paying taxes on time–can still diminish your health and happiness.

The sweat is physical as well as metaphoric. People with anxiety may experience symptoms such as a racing heart, chest tightness, rapid breathing, stomach discomfort, restlessness, lightheadedness, problems sleeping, and tingling hands and feet.

For some people, the bear is a constant companion. According to one 1998 psychiatry text, one in four people has a diagnosable anxiety ­disorder.

Inside the anxiety response

The same physiological response to anxiety that can trouble modern humans saved their ancestors’ skins. Back then, the fear that early humans felt while confronting food on the hoof–or something that wanted to eat them–would trigger the release of hormones such as adrenaline. These hormones intensified focus and pumped up muscles, allowing Homo sapiens to fight or flee more successfully.

But this hormonal response didn’t become extinct with the saber-toothed tiger. Today, you can experience the same hormonal deluge in response to computer woes, traffic jams, or family disharmony. Sometimes the threats are vague (will my job be eliminated?) or entirely internal (am I being the husband/wife/father/ mother I wanted to be?). Nonetheless, even these vague, internalized worries can have subtle physical effects that build up over time.

What’s an anxious person to do? Take “vitamin V”–or Valium? Doctors sometimes prescribe tranquilizers or antidepressants for anxiety, and such drugs can ease anxiety symptoms. Most of these drugs have side effects, however, and some are potentially addictive. Once discontinued, their benefits vanish. Fortunately, simple lifestyle changes and drugless therapies can help you smooth occasional frayed nerves.

Botanical anxiety-tamers

Anxiety is one of the conditions for which herbs are superb healers, with a variety acting both safely and effectively to calm many types of anxiety. Calmativeshave a gently sedating effect. Among such herbs are kava, valerian, California poppy, hops, passionflower, lemon balm, lavender, and linden flower. Other herbs act as tonics to the nervous system, both strengthening and relaxing it. Examples include chamomile, oats, skullcap, St. John’s wort, reishi, catnip, and hawthorn.

If you’re taking a prescription medication for anxiety and are considering using herbs, consult your doctor first. In some cases, herbs may not be an appropriate substitute for benzodiazepines (tranquilizers such as Valium). Additionally, discontinuing such drugs can be difficult and should be closely monitored. For more information, see the box below.

Herbs are superb healers for anxiety; a wide range of them act safely and effectively, giving you a variety from which to choose. 

Kava (Piper methysticum) is the best-researched herb for relieving anxiety. As Hyla Cass, M.D., coauthor of Kava: Nature’s Answer to Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia (Prima, 1998) explains, kava promotes relaxation without affecting mental sharpness. It also relaxes muscles, decreases pain, and produces a heightened sense of tranquility and sociability, without clouded judgment, mental fog, or morning hangover.

A half-dozen trials have compared kava to both placebo treatment and conven­tional drugs such as oxazepam (Serax); they have found that the herb effectively ­reduces anxiety with­out impairing mem­ory or worsening ­de­pression. A study of women going through meno­pause showed that kava ­reduced associated ­anxiety and depression. Cass also finds it useful for quell­­­­ing premenstrual nervous tension.

Most commercial standardized kava ­extracts contain 30 percent kavalactones. In other words, one 250 mg capsule contains 75 mg of kavalactones. Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D., author of Healing Anxiety with Herbs (Harper Collins, 1998), has his patients start with 70 to 85 mg of kavalactones, taken in the evening. If anxiety persists, they add a second capsule in the morning, and if that doesn’t do it, he has them add a third capsule midday. To counter insomnia, you might try 70 to 210 mg of kavalactones an hour before bed.

Caution: Don’t take kava, however, if you are pregnant or nursing or if you have Parkinson’s disease. And don’t mix it with alcohol or sedative drugs.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) soothes emotional stress, gently sedates, relaxes tight muscles, and relieves pain. Studies have shown it to be a safe, effective treatment for insomnia and for relieving stresses such as performance anxiety. Bloomfield and other practitioners also use valerian to help people withdraw from benzodiaze­pines; this process should always be supervised by a qualified professional.

If you can stand the taste of valerian, you can drink 1 cup of a strong tea as needed. To make it, simmer two teaspoons dried, cut root in two cups of water for 20 minutes, then strain. Or you can take 300 to 400 mg of valerian (standardized to contain 0.5 to 0.8 percent valeric acid) in capsules once or twice a day. If you prefer tinctures, try 2 to 3 droppersful two or three times a day.

Some people find that valerian root peps them up instead of sedating them. If that’s your experience, try a different calmative herb.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a favorite for relieving mild anxiety. It also has some pain-relieving and antispasmodic actions. To take California poppy in a tea, steep 1 teaspoon of the dried plant in 1 cup of boiling water for fifteen minutes, then strain. If you’re feeling anxious, Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., author of Stress and Natural Healing (Botanica Press, 1997), recommends drinking 2 to 3 cups a day or taking up to 2 droppersful of tincture two to three times a day. But don’t take California poppy if you’re pregnant or already taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor antidepressants.

Hops (Humulus lupulus), an ingredient used in brewing beer, soothes nervous tension and greases the sleep wheels. Germany’s Commission E approves the herb for restlessness, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Hobbs notes that its tonic effects on the digestive tract make it useful when nerves unsettle the stomach.

To make hops tea, steep 1 heaping teaspoon of the strobiles or cones (a part of the plant that looks like flowers but is technically fruiting bodies), the fresher the better, in a cup of hot water for ten minutes. Strain and drink two to three times a day. Because of the tea’s bitter taste, you may want to blend hops with peppermint, spearmint, or lemon balm. If you prefer a tincture form, take 30 to 40 drops in water, two to three times a day.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) helps ease anxiety and insomnia that are caused by worry. The herb acts as a gentle sedative, antispasmodic, and pain reliever. Germany’s Commission E approves passionflower’s use for nervous restlessness. To take passionflower as a tea, steep 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the dried herb in 1 cup of boiled water for ten minutes. Strain and drink 2 to 3 cups a day. If you prefer a tincture, take 30 to 40 drops three to four times daily. Passionflower works well combined with valerian and hops, so if you’d rather buy an herbal formula, this is a trio to look for.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a pretty and fragrant mint family member, gently sedates, eases headaches, relaxes intestinal cramps, and has antiviral properties. Germany’s Commission E endorses its use in nervous sleeping disorders. To make a tea from lemon balm, steep 1 teaspoon of the dried leaf in 1 cup of just-boiled water for ten minutes and drink 2 to 3 cups a day. If you prefer a tincture, take 60 drops in water three to four times a day.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has a lovely scent that calms and relaxes most people. It also eases headaches and relaxes tight muscles. To make tea, steep 1 teaspoon of dried flowers per cup of hot water for five to ten minutes. Strain and drink 2 to 3 cups a day. Essential oil of lavender is widely available and easy to use–just don’t take it internally. Instead, add 3 drops to an aromatherapy diffuser, 10 to 15 drops to a warm bath, or 10 to 15 drops to an ounce of high-quality oil (almond oil works well) for use as massage oil.

Linden (Tilia ¥ europea) has a long history of use as a mild sedative, antispasmodic, and pain reliever. Hobbs recommends it for tension headaches and nervous tension. To take linden in tea, steep 1 teaspoon of the dried flowers per cup of hot water and drink two to three cups a day. If you prefer the tincture form, take 1 teaspoon in water three to four times a day.

Herbs for the chronically anxious

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) has an age-old reputation for calming nerves. Safe for people of all ages, it’s also anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic.

“One of the best things for anxiety,” Hobbs says, “is to drink two cups of chamo­mile tea.” It also helps settle the stomach.

To make chamomile tea, steep 1 teaspoon of dried flowers in a cup of hot water for ten minutes. Strain and drink 2 to 3 cups during the day. If you prefer a tincture, take 30 drops in water three times a day.

Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) tones the immune and nervous systems. “Reishi has a wonderful calming effect,” Hobbs says. “It calms the spirit and higher-level emotions.” For best results, you need to take reishi for three to nine months. Hobbs recommends 500 mg in capsules, one to four times a day.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) has value as both a nerve tonic and a sedative, says David Hoffmann, author of An Herbal Guide to Stress Relief (Inner Traditions, 1991). Taken by day, it relieves anxiety and nervous tension. Taken before bedtime, it induces sleep. Hobbs notes that skullcap is also useful for premenstrual tension. To make skullcap tea, steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried herb per cup of just-boiled water for ten minutes. Strain and drink 3 to 4 cups a day. If you prefer a tincture, take 30 drops in water three times a day.

Oats have a tonic effect on the overall nervous system and help support nerves under stress. 

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) gently soothes the nervous system, eases tension headaches, and promotes sleep. It also relaxes menstrual and intestinal cramps. To make catnip tea, steep 1 teaspoon of dried leaves per cup of hot water for five to ten minutes. Strain and drink 2 to 3 cups a day. If you prefer a tincture, take 30 to 40 drops in water two to three times a day. But don’t take catnip if you’re pregnant.

Oats (Avena sativa) have a general tonic effect on the nervous system and help support nerves under stress. Kendra Whittaker, founder of Spirit Mountain Botanicals in Bayfield, Colorado, says that years ago, when she was dealing with her own anxiety and panic attacks, she found that frequent doses of oats tincture calmed her down. She recommends 10 to 20 drops of tincture up to five times a day as needed.

Hoffmann adds that eating whole oat groats as oatmeal is another way to nourish your nervous system. Instant and rolled oat flakes, he says, “lack the plant’s original integrity,” and aren’t as helpful.

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), long known as a heart tonic, is also useful for treating anxiety. When chest tightness marks anxiety or when anxiety and heart palpitations accompany menopause, haw­thorn is a good herb to try.

You can take hawthorn berries in jam or drink 1 to 3 cups of tea a day. To make the tea, simmer a tablespoon of dried berries in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes. If you prefer a tincture, take 10 to 30 drops, diluted in a little water, three times a day. But don’t combine hawthorn with drugs for lowering blood pressure or digoxin medications (such as digitalis) without medical supervision; hawthorn enhances the effects of these drugs.

1. Blend the tinctures together. Store in a dark, capped bottle. Take 1 teaspoon as needed.

To calm the nerves,center the mind

Meditation relaxes body, mind, and spirit, sending anxiety away–or at least refreshing your mind so that you can cope with worries more calmly.

A variety of techniques can induce a meditative state: the silent repetition of a mantra, the silent recital of a prayer, focusing on a candle, or focusing on your breathing. But research confirms the effectiveness of two particular types: transcendental meditation(TM) and mindfulness.

According to Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D., the benefits of TM include reductions in blood pressure, pain, insomnia, and anxiety. This form of meditation, derived from Hindu traditions, is a simple way to relax body and mind. For fifteen to twenty minutes in the morning and late afternoon, you sit in a comfortable position with eyes closed and silently ­repeat a mantra (a meaningless, simple sound). As thoughts come, you acknowledge them, then gently return to the mantra. Most beginners start out with a brief series of classes.

Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist meditation practice that entails being fully awake and aware. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., in Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1995), describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” His studies as the founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worchester show that this technique can reduce stress and anxiety.

Pamela Erdmann, M.Ed., a senior instructor at Kabat-Zinn’s clinic, takes patients with various conditions, including anxiety, through an eight-week course. She helps them to picture stress and anxiety as a cycle, a circle that connects thoughts, emotions, and sensations. According to Erdmann, what determines our emotional state is not the presence or absence of a source of stress but how we choose to respond to a stressor. Anxious people usually have a knee-jerk reaction, rather than a thoughtful response, she says.

“To overcome anxiety, you have to intervene in that circle,” Erdmann explains. “Anxiety often begins as thought, but you can also feel it in your body.” She suggests that you start by paying attention to those bodily sensations.

Maybe your first sign of anxiety is butterflies in your stomach. Ask yourself what your thoughts and emotions are. Tell yourself that those thoughts and emotions are just that–and let them go.

“Now,” Erdmann says, “be in the stillest do-nothing place. Simply breathing and paying attention to your breath makes you slow down. Each in-breath is a new moment, each out-breath is a complete letting go.”

By Linda B. White

Linda B. White, M.D. is the coauthor of Kids, Herbs, & Health (Interweave Press, 1999) and The Herbal Drugstore (Rodale, 2000). She tackles occasional bouts of anxiety with relaxation techniques and herbs.

The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-­addressed, stamped envelope to “Anxiety,” Herbs for Health, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, ­CO 80537-5655, or e-mail us at HerbsforHealth@ HCPress.com.

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