5 Senses Herbalism for Mental Health
People often ask me what are the best herbs to take for their mental health. I often reply that herbs will not do much for you if you don’t change your underlying lifestyle first. You can take the best herbs in the world and meditate half the day but if you are still downing half liters of Mountain Dew and chomping on cheetohs for breakfast, you won’t get better. In other words, you can’t just take a capsule or take a pill and think things will get better.
Mental illness, or what I like to call Spiritual dis-ease, is an underlying whole body, whole emotion, whole mind illness. Whether it takes the shape of depression, anxiety, panic attacks or post traumatic stress disorder, the illness is rooted in trauma. The trauma might be as simple as drinking gallons of coffee and eating dozens of donuts every day, or it may be deeply complex trauma such as heavy use of drugs, betrayal, loss of a loved one or physical or sexual abuse. At times there are genetic precursors to mental illness, but the illness is often triggered by trauma.
Eventually sustained trauma will lead to a collapse, a change in underlying functioning that can become ingrained and deeply set. Depression and anxiety can take over. The mind begins to feel foggy, grey. Small irritations can become triggers for excessive rage, grief and sorrow. This change in functioning can become syntonic, part of the underlying structure and architecture of the personality. It becomes difficult to change this groove in the record once its got started. I liken the setting in of deep depression, confusion, anxiety and mental illness as similar to a large dragon or snake wrapping itself around the body and mind, holding it tightly. The harder you struggle the worse it can become.
The initial trauma or set of traumas are then exacerbated by the trauma of feeling lousy much of the time. in essence, mental illness can feel like a serpent biting its tail, going round and round but never getting anywhere. So how to escape?
I said that herbs don’t matter much if you haven’t changed your lifestyle but they can play an enormously healing role once you’ve made some adjustments. The first step is to take a look at the food you eat everyday. I think of herbs as all plants and eating a lot of plant matter is key to transforming your illness into health. Whatever diet you do eat, whether its paleo, vegetarian, vegan, whole foods or the standard American diet (SAD), the body needs lots of vegetables to heal.
So, after you’ve started eating a healthy diet with lots of vegetables, what next? When I counsel people about taking herbs I try to remind people of what I call 5 senses herbalism. What does that mean? It means that herbalism is meant to be a full sensory experience. It does not mean going to GNC and buying a bottle of industrially produced non-organic herbal capsules standardized by some bureaucrats. It means getting your hands a little dirty.
When you take an herb, it’s best to be able to see, touch, taste, smell and yes…hear the herb. Because of this I prefer to make teas, decoctions, infusions, oils and salves of my herbs, eat them, take tinctures, essences and herbal baths. When you make a fresh infusion of herbs, you develop a relationship with the plant. If you have picked and harvested the plant in your garden or in the wild, all the better. When you gather an herb, you get to see it in all its full glory, basking in the sun or hiding in the shade, drinking in the air and the mood around it. When you prepare the herb as an infusion, you can run your hands through the fresh or dried herb and you can smell its aroma. Finally, when you drink the prepared infusion, you can taste the plant. And yes, I believe that when you are engaged in this act, and you listen very closely with your heart, you can hear the essence of the plant talk to you, guide and counsel you towards better health.
We haven’t even talked about which herbs to take but you have already grasped the most important part…that you have fully engaged your five senses to take in an herb. Already you’re body is adjusting and healing. It is taking in something whole that has grown under the stars and the sun. That act alone brings in more stillness and peace than any standardized and industrially manufactured plastic bottle herb pill could bring you.
So what next….which herb for your condition? Some of you are feeling confused, scared, angry, in pain, depressed, anxious. If you asked a Homeopath, or a flower essence practitioner, each would say that it depends on your temperament and the type of condition you have developed. Perhaps nasturtium for too much thinking leading to fatigue. Perhaps cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) for feeling hysterical and out of control. Other herbalists might prescribe a combination of Rose petals (Rosa) and St. John’s Wort (Hypericum) for depression or offer an adaptogen like astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) for deep exhaustion. A herbalist who studied Chinese Medicine would likely offer a combination of herbs based on your temperament and state of disease.
Though finding the exact appropriate herbs for a specific mental illness can be complex, there are some herbs that are mild and useful for almost everyone; kids included. Some of these herbs are Chamomile ((Matricaria chamomila), lemon balm(Melissa officinalis) and Oatstraw (Avena sativa). Try using the five senses approach to these herbs. Collect the herb yourself or buy it loose leaf. Dig your hands in the herbs. Smell them. Touch them. Listen to them. And then boil some water and pour a cup over a tablespoon of the herb. Take a few minutes and breathe in the aroma of the herbal tea. Then strain out the herb and take a few sips. Taste the full flavor and body of your tea. Allow the warm liquid to sink into your belly and take a moment to feel how the herb affects you.
You may need to come to an herbalist to get a full understanding of what specific herbs to take but you can start now with some simple gentle herbs. Get your hands dirty, allow yourself to develop a relationship with herbs that allows your whole being to heal. You will find that slowly, bit by bit, new pathways will develop. New roads will open up. You will find a way out of the darkness and herbs can help light the way.