Herbal Support for Mental Health: Introduction & Lavender
The study of herbs dates back thousands of years, spans across every culture, and today is a realm of study that often leaves people confused and hesitant to explore. At their most basic level herbs are the plants traditionally found in the most extreme or stressful environments – they have adapted to survive drought, excessive wet seasons, extreme heat or cold, changeable soil conditions, animal munching, and human encroachment. Like humans, they feel the stress in their environments, but unlike humans they have learned to adapt in order to not only tolerate this stress, but actually THRIVE in it.
Herbal remedies can support the human mind and body because we are drawing on the assistance of a living thing that has a positive innate stress-response. When seeking mental health aid there are many different types of herbs that can offer us the comfort and support that we crave in times of stress. The transition into Spring can often leave us groggy; shedding the sluggishness of Winter and re-adjusting to longer days and shorter nights can throw us out of our regular work and sleep routines. This year in particular we are facing more stress than ever due to Covid; many of us are feeling that stress in the forms of anxiety, depression, an inability to feel motivated, or the need to release pent up energy. As we move into the Spring season and begin to find ourselves outside again we are presented with a beautiful opportunity to find additional help in nature. The group of herbs labeled Nervines can offer some of the best support to the human mind and body during this time.
On the physical level, Nervines work to calm and support our nervous system. If we are stuck in “on” mode all the time and living out of our sympathetic nervous system we may feel this as physical tension or tightness in the body, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, and many more somatic symptoms. Similarly, if our thoughts have become stuck in negative, anxious, or depressed patterns we often feel trapped in worry or heavy emotions about the past or future, unable to calm ourselves enough to focus on the present. Many clients often mention feeling unable to “bridge the gap” between the mind and body; either they can utilize coping skills to help break negative thought patterns, but still feel physically on edge, or they can relax their physical body, but still get caught up in “the loop” of the mind.
Lavender is one of the most famous Nervine herbs that can help break this cycle and bridge the mind-body gap. In addition to being a Nervine, Lavender is also categorized as Aromatic, meaning that it is both relaxing and stimulating (in this specific case it is a “cooling stimulant”). While it may sound counterintuitive this duality is actually what makes Lavender one of the best herbal remedies to help strengthen the mind-body connection. By stimulating neurotransmitters in the brain Lavender assists in sending signals to your body’s nervous system that it can relax (i.e. “cool down”) and come back into a focus on how it is taking up space in the present. For those who suffer from feelings of disconnection to their body, or who are trying to build a better understanding of their physical self, Lavender aromatherapy can be a safe and effective way to begin working on building back that connection to the tangible.
When we become stuck in an anxious thought loop, overwhelmed by feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and just unable to let go into relaxation or sleep, Lavender can be a go-to assistant to help find relief from a restless mind. Once the body feels soothed it can be easier to provide space to sit with difficult emotions or thoughts; the stimulating effects of Lavender are said to help “open and cleanse” that which is stagnant. For those who ruminate, feel mired down by emotion, or as if they cannot let go of certain thought patterns this stimulation can help bring those feelings to the surface so that when the cooling and relaxant properties set in there is a greater likelihood of being able to calm and relax the mind into a state of peace.
In a therapeutic setting or home environment how can Lavender be safely incorporated? The beauty of herbal medicine is that the “medicine” can come in all forms and to a level you are comfortable with and find soothing. While there are many products on the market now due to the self-care industry, something as simple as a small Lavender plant or dried Lavender sprigs can be a beautiful support for your overall wellbeing. The key is the ability to smell the herb.
Here are some small, but powerful, ways to incorporate Lavender into your life:
- Oil, candle, or aromatherapy diffuser turned on for 15 – 30 minutes a day (always a nice meditation assistant)
- Hot Lavender tea (often paired with Chamomile as it too has relaxing properties)
- Balm or Salve – many varieties of Lavender balms can now be found in grocery or drug stores. Most are marketed to assist with sleep, but can be used at any time of day depending on your need.
- Sachet, pillow, or body wrap – either bought or homemade using dried Lavender, having the scent either next to you or under your pillow can help assist with physical and mental relaxation before bed.
- Gardening – if you have a green thumb (or a sunny windowsill) plant some Lavender and spend time tending to it with care!
For clients that want to see how effective an herbal remedy is, or who are working on building the mind-body connection, I often recommend starting with small, routine, ways to incorporate the herb into daily life. Keep a journal or log your reactions to the plant:
Physically: What sensations come or go in your body? What specific locations do you notice these sensations in? Are these feelings new? Are there any physical sensations that I no longer notice, but previously did (i.e. tension or tightness)?
Mentally: What thoughts either come in or recede when you smell this scent? What memories show up? Am I able to focus on what is happening in this present moment? Do I feel better able to identify what I need in this moment?
Emotionally: What feelings do you notice? Are these new? Is it easier to let some emotions subside or easier to call others to mind? Do I feel able to verbalize these feelings out loud easily?