by Janet Kent
A few days ago I had to spend a while in a big box store. I do this from time to time without much hassle but this time, no such luck. Something about the bright, bright fluorescent lights and the crowded aisles of holiday shoppers put me in a strange but familiar state. First my vision had some spots, little blobs moving around. I noticed, but was determined to finish procuring what I needed. Then my perspective changed to look more like I was looking through a camera with petroleum jelly on the lens; objects in my line of sight became soft and blurry. Alright, I thought, I guess this is a migraine coming on. It was dusk, I was an hour from home and I began to panic a little. Did I have what I needed to recover in the medicine bag in the truck? By the time I made it through checkout, my view looked like an impressionist painting, if an impressionist had the wherewithal to paint a too brightly lit, commodity packed, forced festive early 21st century retail space, which having seen it, I can advise against.
I made my way to the truck and grabbed the first bag I saw. No stress- reducing, panic quelling, stop-the-migraine-before-it-really-starts medicine in sight. Unfortunately, these items in my first aid kit are often the first to go, either for my own use, or as I give them away to those in need. As my vision darkened and I contemplated how many friends I would have to call to find someone to get me out of this parking lot, I saw a second medicine bag. This one had what I needed, a formula for panic attacks that also stops some migraines, and a bottle of Lavender essential oil. I got in the truck and took a few dropperfuls of the tincture bottle labeled Calm Down Fast. I dabbed some Lavender essential oil under my nose, on my temples and on my collar. I waited a few minutes. Well, it was probably less time than that, as I was still freaking out and worrying that I had gotten to the medicine too late. I took a few more dropperfuls. I sat there, dosing myself with both remedies for about20 minutes. Slowly, my vision cleared up, my heart rate slowed down and I felt a growing sense that things were going to be alright.
This episode reminded me that with all the writing I have done lately about herbs and mental health, I have primarily focused on herbs for building resilience – herbs for the long haul. I have spent relatively little time talking about how to work with herbs for emotional emergencies, for acute symptoms that require immediate relief. To correct this imbalance, here are some of my go-to herbs for getting through moments of crisis.
If I were to carry only one herb in my emotional first aid kit, both for myself and for others, it would be Lavender, Lavandula officinalis. Lavender is a calming,aromatic herb from the mint family. The aroma is the part of Lavender’s medicine you need in cases of overwhelm and angst. You can procure affordable Lavender essential oil at most health food stores. When in crisis, simply rub some of the oil on your temples, under your nose or on your collarbone. You can also hold the bottle under your nose and breathe deeply for a few minutes. One bottle will last a long time. If you prefer whole plant medicine, carry dried Lavender flowers in a reusable tea bag or fabric pouch. When under stress, pull out your sachet and inhale deeply. Sit still, close your eyes and count your breaths. See how they slow down. Feel your muscles relax. You feel calm and out of danger.
Along with Lavender, I carry a formula for panic attacks and overwhelm I call Calm Down Fast. I have given variations of this formula to many clients and friends with good results. The base of the formula is a combination of Hawthorn and a bitter mint, usually, either Motherwort, Betony or Skullcap, with Kava and Anemone to support those herbs.
I put Hawthorn, Crataegus sp. in every version of this formula. Hawthorn is specific for overwhelm and over-stimulation. It is gently calming while also helping provide a sense of protection. We have a greater capacity for letting in only that which we want to let in and filtering out the rest under its influence. Hawthorn works as a gatekeeper and boundary-strengthener.
To Hawthorn, I add a bitter mint. The bitter mints are calming nervines that support our parasympathetic response. When we are entering full fight or flight mode in instances when that type of response is not needed, these herbs provide calming, relaxing support. I use Betony, Stachys officinalis, if there is trauma response and/or dissociation associated with the state of panic. Motherwort, Leonorus cardiaca,goes in if there are heart palpitations or if the person feels an overall lack of support when they are activated. Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora, is a powerful sedative that relieves anxiety and reduces overwhelm.
To these herbs, I add Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia or A. occidnetalis, in a low dose to add a strong grounding influence to the formula. Anemone brings us down from panicky states. It slows and strengthens the heartbeat, while dispelling agitation. Anemone also heads off migraines if you take it early enough, in the aura phase before the migraine takes over. You could take Anemone alone, but higher doses cause nausea and headaches. In my experience, if Anemone is not in formula with other herbs, the afflicted person has a difficult time taking a little and giving it time to take effect. Instead, we keep pounding dropperful after dropperful to ease our sense of urgency. That practice will end the panic or migraine, but it often leads to a different kind of bad feeling. Adding low doses of Anemone to other higher dose herbs allows us to take a few dropperfuls while we are freaking out, even up to a tablespoon, without feeling sick or experiencing other side effects.
To all these herbs, I like to add Kava kava, Piper methysticum.Kava instills a sense of well-being, provides an “everything is going to be alright” perception that compliments the actions of the other herbs. For some, Kava alone works to come down from states of emergency. A few folks I know feel agitated when they take Kava, so try it when you are not freaking out first before you make it part of your emotional first aid kit.
Proportions for Calm Down Fast in tincture form:
- Hawthorn– 4 parts
- One of the following: Skullcap, Betony or Mother wort – 3 parts
- Kava –2 – 3 parts
- Anemone– 1 part
- Take1-2 dropperfuls as needed.
If you have access to an apothecary, feel free to use this formula to bring ease in times of overwhelm and panic. And remember , your medicine can’t help you if you do not have it with you. As always, be prepared and bring your tools with you.
If you would like more information on working with herbs for mental health, I have two zines that go into more depth on this topic. Ease Your Mind: Herbs for Mental Health,a collaboration with illustrator Lauren Scanlon, and Under Pressure: Herbs for Resilience, a collaboration with Roger Peet. Write me at medicinecountyherbs@gmail to order a copy.