Within the delicate balance of human physiology, there is a fine line between feeling grateful and feeling burnt out. There have been so many times in my clinical practice when I hear a similar story: Someone living with an extremely high demand job and home life, very little self-care, infrequent time off or no vacations, inability to be away from technology and emails even for a single day, caring for elderly parents, financial strain, family disharmony, (needless) drama at work, guilt for not exercising enough, the loss of a loved one with no time to grieve….often followed up with a shrug of the shoulders and something like, “Well, at least I’m not in Syria”.
I’ll smile and nod and say, “Yes, we are so very fortunate to be where we are right now”. We have so much access to what’s happening everywhere else in the world that we can easily put our own lives into perspective and know that it could always be worse. Instinctually, feeling grateful for what we have and where are from day to day is an extremely healthy emotion. Feeling grateful for the small things in life that bring a smile to our face, feeling grateful that we have a roof over our heads, live family members and food to eat every day does put into perspective how lucky some of us are. However, we don’t always have to overload ourselves with unmanageable stress and difficult situations just because we know other people elsewhere are handling more than their fair share.
We don’t have to set the bar of stress that high for ourselves.
Managing daily life stress can be such a challenging balancing act, and I often like to give people the exercise of differentiating between “essential stress” and “needless stress”. Write down every single thing in life that causes even the most remote feelings of stress, nothing is too big or small to include in the list. Once it’s all down on paper, go through every one and ask yourself, “How essential is this in my life?” And, “If I could let that go, how would I feel?” For example, essential stress are things like managing and raising your kids. Paying your mortgage. Showing up for work.
Examples of needless stress may be things like creating stories in your head about events that haven’t actually happened.
Getting upset about traffic every day on the way to work. Saying yes to every task that comes your way (not setting boundaries). Some stressors in our life are so constant we don’t even realize we can easily do without just by changing behavior. It’s just habit to have them around. Hence why so many of us are wound up so tight by stress, we have woefully low resistance to anything new or unexpected that comes our way, and our health suffers for it.
As an herbalist, stress and anxiety are two of my favorite things to work with herbally because herbal medicines are so incredibly good at both calming down the central nervous system (where we hold most of our acute stress) and building up our resilience so that we can respond to and manage stress in a more therapeutic way over time.
Herbs are not just something we take when stress is present.
Tonic herbal formulas can be taken daily to develop a healthy response to stress so that we never feel like we’re at a breaking point even when those essential stressors may pile up. This is where I love to use nervines and adaptogens and together to create the perfect physiologic balance of calming + building.
Nervines are herbs that target the nervous systems (both the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system in our gut). They help to ease spasms in the gut, soothe muscle tension and relax the cerebral space. Generally, they help to take the edge off and modulate our fight or flight response to not be so heightened all the time. Alternately, herbal adaptogens are supportive of our of body’s adrenal and cortisol response, as well as supportive to our cardiovascular system, immune system and digestive system. Adaptogens are the strengthening and building herbs that, over time, allow us to build up more reserves and not collapse when some new stressful situation comes along. When we take nervines and adaptogens daily, we’re creating more flexibility and resilience to manage those essential stressors.
It is important to remember though that herbs should not be used to compensate for pushing ourselves past a healthy limit. They are allies in our daily life, not replacements for time off, appropriate sleep and self-care.
A perfect example of a tonic herbal stress formula is the Simmer Down Tonic for daily nervous system support. It’s a balanced formula of calming nervines (skullcap and milky oat) with building adaptogens (ashwagandha and holy basil). When taken daily, this tonic formula allows the body to build up resilience against stress. Think of these as daily tonics. As allies in our everyday lives. I also encourage people to take their herbs with a sense of gratitude throughout the day, like thanking these herbal friends for supporting you when you need it most. If you feel like your daily intake of stress is unmanageably high, try the “essential/needless stress” exercise and see if you can’t eliminate even just one cause of stress in your week or month. Couple that with the addition of the Simmer Down Tonic and see what changes you notice. Even the smallest changes can have a big effect over time!
Lindsay Kluge, M.Sc, CNS, LDN is a clinical herbalist & licensed dietitian nutritionist currently living and practicing in Richmond, Virginia. Her love of generational herbal medicine infuses deeply into her work as an herbalist and teacher, and her blog,Ginger Tonic Botanicals, is where she shares herbal stories, recipes and holistic living insights to connect people and plants more intimately.