Anxiety: Alcohol, Pills, Plants?

By Donna Kamann

It’s spring, and the migratory birds are traveling through the Driftless Region, stopping to fill their bellies with enough goodness to continue their trip north. There are many perils to bird life, and each time they startle, they stop eating and fly to safety. To make it to their breeding grounds, birds strike a delicate balance between avoiding danger and getting enough nutrition.

Our nervous systems grapple with the same sort of balancing act. On one hand, our sympathetic nervous system is tasked with keeping us safe; it sets off a complicated mess of physical, chemical, and hormonal changes every time we sense danger. Blood, oxygen and nutrients are shunted to the brain, lungs, heart and muscles to help us flee or fight. When we no longer feel threatened, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over, supporting rest and restore mode, flooding our bodies with digestive enzymes and relaxing, feel-good hormones.

The trick is to keep these systems in balance, and that is no easy task for migratory birds or humans. Happily, birds don’t have to listen to the news. Unfortunately, we are constantly bombarded with things that trigger a normal, appropriate stress response. If we fail to strike a balance with stress and calm, it’s common to feel anxious. Constant or prolonged anxiety affects our quality of life, interfering with sleep, appetite, energy, concentration, mood, physical and sexual health. Without the generous supply of parasympathetic feel-good chemicals –  well, we don’t feel good. 

Managing anxiety can be tricky. Some folks find alcohol is soothing to the nervous system, but it can create its own set of problems, including physical and emotional dependence. While prescription drugs, including benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Ativan, and Clonazepam are effective at reducing anxiety, they are also habit forming. Antidepressant medications such as Zoloft, Celexa, and Effexor are also commonly prescribed to reduce anxiety. These medications can be helpful, but they have side effects and it can be difficult to get off of them.

Plants produce an array of chemicals that soothe the human nervous system. Herbs in the “adaptogen” category, such as Ginseng, Schisandra, Ashwagandha and Tulsi Basil reduce the sympathetic nervous response, and over time, these herbs help restore a healthy, balanced nervous system. There are also countless relaxing, nerve tonic herbs, such as Lemon Balm, Rose petals, Lavender, Linden flowers, and St. John’s Wort.

Lifestyle choices can also support our parasympathetic nervous system and the release of happy hormones. I vividly recall sitting in a circle of people in South Africa almost 20 years ago, watching children dance to the pounding of native drums and feeling the most profound joy. Making such experiences part of our everyday lives, along with delicious meals, time with loved ones, plenty of fresh air, moving our bodies and tending to our spiritual well-being all support our wonderful, resilient nervous system and reduce anxiety with no harmful side effects!

If you are struggling to find that delicate balance between stress and joy, or if anxiety is interfering with your quality of life, schedule an appointment to see me at Tincture of Thyme Healthcare.