Treating Stress the Natural Way

rested woman

Back in March, I was trying to organise a wedding for 110 guests from the other side of the world and slim down to look great in my bridal dress, as well as doing my day job. I was one stressed-out bunny!

At the time I wrote about the steps I was taking to manage stress and why. When we are busy, looking after our mind and body can get sidelined – right at the point where it’s more crucial than ever. I believe that the stress we put on our body is a metaphor for the stress we put on the planet. For me it’s a practical mirror as well – I’m far more likely to look for the easy, not-so-green solution when I’m stressed.

As well as using my common sense and listening to what my body needed, I went to a workshop on understanding stress at Neal’s Yard Remedies in London to try to learn more about it. In this post, I’ll share with you the highlights of what I learned – and how effective it was when I put it into practice.

At the workshop we were told that 90% of illnesses today are caused by stress, from headaches and backaches to insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. Stress is cumulative an one major stressful event is enough to tip you over the edge. If you reach 300 on the Holmes-Rahe scale, it leads to ill health, and divorce is worth 73 points just on its own. So it’s important to manage stress well in your daily life – if your underlying stress levels are low, then you are physically, emotionally and mentally equipped to deal with the ups and downs of life.

Understanding stress is a personal journey – your stress triggers and how it manifests itself in your body will be different to mine. We were advised to keep a diary to track our stress levels, rating it from number 10 as maximum stress and number one as the least stressed. The diary should record what we’ve eaten, how we were feeling emotionally and physically, whether we had slept much the night before and what had been going on during the day, while women should also note their menstrual cycle. We were told to keep the diary for two to three weeks to give it enough time for patterns to emerge.

As I thought, a healthy diet is extremely important. However, dietary changes should be gentle and aimed at nurturing rather than punishing the body. Interestingly, we were told never to do a detox in the cold months – if we want to detox, then it should be in spring and for a maximum of three or four days. Otherwise, we were told the odd glass of wine was fine when managing stress – and even helpful because it can help with relaxation. Treats, such as wine, chocolate, or a treatment such as massage and acupuncture, are highly effective in alleviating stress. Yay!

I learned that Vitamin B – found in brown rice, eggs, some red meat, bran, sesame seeds and brewer’s yeast – is crucial in the fight against stress. Vitamin C – found in citrus, kiwi, strawberries and other fruit and vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage – is also important. As well as the dietary sources, both Vitamin B and C can be taken as a supplement. If the digestive system is not working properly, then fibre is especially useful, while warm water with a slice of lemon can help get things moving again.

Exercise is great because it burns up adrenaline and cortisol and produces endorphins to help you deal with stress. Again, it’s important not to overdo it, especially if you are not already physically fit, instead aiming to do a little every day, including cardiovascular exercise such as walking or jogging but also activities such as yoga and pilates, with a focus on breath. Meditation can also be useful in calming the mind and promoting overall well being.

I rarely have problems getting a good night’s sleep, but for some people stress manifests itself as insomnia, which can obviously compound the problem very quickly. The workshop advocated “sleep hygiene” – trying to leave the bedroom uncluttered, without televisions or computers that emit energy. I love to read before I go to sleep but if you have trouble sleeping, it’s apparently a good idea to restrict this to the living room to trick the brain into thinking that bed means sleep. We were told never to take work to bed and to keep a notepad next to the bed so we can jot down things that worry us to get it out of our head. Drops of lavender essential oil on your pillow or in an oil burner before you go to bed can also help you sleep.

We talked about complementary remedies for stress relief – herbal tinctures and teas, flower remedies, essential oils and homeopathy. This part of the workshop was a useful eye-opener into the range of treatment available, although it comes down to personal judgement what is useful for you. For example, I am sceptical about homeopathy since the scientific evidence consensus does not support it and I’ve never personally had success with the treatment, but I love the herbs, aromatherapy and flower remedies. Also, we were advised that anyone who is taking conventional medication needs to approach complementary medicine with care, since some herbs can interfere with some drugs. If in doubt, it’s best to check with a qualified herbalist first.

Since that didn’t apply to me, I decided to try a selection of treatment. I bought a herbal supplement called rhodiola rosea that is meant to be good for stress relief and emotional support. I also took home a herbal tea blend of chamomile, passiflora (passion flower), lemon balm and rose, which I drank two or three times a day. I felt immediately soothed when I drank the tea but apparently the effects also build up over time.

I found the flower remedies especially useful – I’m sure scientists would tell me it was a placebo effect, but I really felt like I could feel them working immediately. Bach flower remedies or Australian bush flower remedies both work int the same way – the flower essences are infused in an alcohol solution and you take drops directly under the tongue, or dilute it into a glass of water. Some have a strong immediate effect, while others are slower and cumulative, but we were told not to take them for longer than 12 weeks if they weren’t working.

I took the Focus blend – larch, elm, white chestnut, hornbeam, gentian and clematis – to help me concentrate on specific tasks during the day. I’m usually a big procrastinator but it really helped my productivity. Then when I needed to relax, I tried Unwind – vervain, impatiens, agrimony, rock water, walnut, aspen and white chestnut – which helped me let go of tension knots. I was so impressed with the results that I made sure I had some Rescue Remedy (also known as S.O.S. blend) on hand for my wedding day in case I had an attack of nerves.

I also tried the dual approach with aromatherapy – buying basil essential oil to help me concentrate during working hours and lavender to help me unwind at night. It’s best to invest in an oil burner but you can also get effective results by dropping oil in a bowl of boiling water or on tissue paper to sit on top of the radiator.

At the end of the workshop I bought a copy of the booklet Understanding Stress: Natural Solutions that Really Work by Susan Curtis for £2.50. It’s also on sale through Amazon Canada. It gives a clear, concise summary of stress, looking at why it happens, what the symptoms are and how to overcome it through supporting your body, emotional balance and spiritual health.

Through the workshop and my follow-up reading and experimentation I discovered a lot about complementary medicine and what works for me. I’m interested in continuing this journey further. I am grateful that I live in a world with modern medicine and that I personally have access to that. However, the health system is more about treating illness and I’m interested in going beyond that to promoting wellness.

Managing the symptoms of stress is important if you want to prevent it damaging your body, mental wellbeing and relationships. However, equally important is exploring the underlying causes. I believe chronic stress and environmental damage are both symptoms of our modern lifestyle. If we can get that back in balance, our health and the planet will both benefit.

Image: Vincent Boiteau