This week we said farewell to one of our generation’s most difficult years. But the times are still challenging, and we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s going to be a while before things go back to some semblance of normal, whatever this “new normal” holds for us.
Our nervous system works well on consistency, and as social creatures we need contact and interaction with others. This past year has seen both of these become much more challenging. No wonder it’s hard to adjust to all these changes and so many feel anxious, depressed, or “out of whack.”
The good news is that there are things we can do nourish and balance our nervous system to make our life easier. Not to take the place of what we don’t have, but to help us adjust to the way things are now.
Ayurveda talks about how Vata – the air and ether elements that are inside us – can be negatively affected by change that is too much or too fast for us to adjust to. And when Vata is thrown off, that can affect our sleep, our digestion, and our nervous system, possibly causing anxiety or depression. But the same things that help nourish Vata will also help us through these strange times.
These suggestions include creating consistent schedules, eating warm cooked food, getting enough rest and sleep, and taking herbs that are nourishing and restorative to the nervous system and the mind.
Living a Balanced Life
Creating a consistent schedule may seem challenging, unimportant, or even boring. But when so much outside of us is changing, creating this kind of consistency helps our body and mind relax more because we can anticipate what’s coming. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try going to bed at the same time every night. Your body will start expecting it and you’ll get tired as that time approaches.
If you’re having digestive issues then eating at the same time allows your digestive system to know when to expect to work. As it gets to dinner time your enzymes and digestive juices will start ramping up. And then eating your food warm and well cooked will nourish your digestive Qi, especially in these winter months.
If you’re feeling anxious or depressed or both, creating consistent schedules takes some of the work off of your brain. And the body and mind can relax more.
One more thing that’s helpful – physical activity. It’s easy when feeling depressed, anxious or not yourself to just want to curl up into the couch, and that’s perfectly fine! But make sure at least once a day to get up and get outside. Go for a brisk walk or even a run, and notice the trees and the sky – try to notice at least one new thing everytime you go out. And if you can’t get outside, do some yoga, calisthenics, or even gentle stretching. The important thing is that our body needs movement to be healthy, and moving our body also helps move any stuck feelings we might have.
And of course herbs can also help. The best herbs to take are nourishing nervines and adaptogens that help create mental balance. Some of the best are Reishi mushroom, Holy Basil (Tulsi), Ashwagandha, St. John’s Wort, milky Oat seed, and Skullcap. That’s a lot to cover, so I’ll just say a little about each one.
Reishi is a mushroom that we learned about from Asia but there are several species native to the Americas that could also be useful, including the abundant Hemlock Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae). Though in the U.S. it is primarily used as an immune-modulator, it is mostly used in Chinese medicine as an herb to nourish the Spirit. By providing more nourishment to our mind, it can help calm and balance our nervous system.
Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, or Ocimum sanctum) is an uplifting herb that is both an adaptogen and a nervous system tonic. It calms while uplifting, helping to create a sense of peace and safety. This is one of the herbs that I was taking a lot of this past summer when things were getting rough, either as an elixir, a tea, or just by picking some from my garden and smelling it during the day.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a nourishing adaptogen that helps when we feel wired and tired, meaning when we feel so exhausted that we end up getting ramped up. Think of it for that “punch drunk” energy of overwrought tiredness, but it can really be used most anytime. It is an interesting herb in that it is a Qi / energy tonic like Ginseng but it is also calming. This is a great one to buy as powder and use in smoothies or adaptogen treats.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) got a reputation some 20 years ago as “the depression herb” but it does so much more than that. Part of why it works for depression is because it helps nourish and balance the nervous system. It also helps bring in the sunshine and can be used for the winter blues. Because it blooms on St. John’s day (the equivalent of Summer Solstice) and has those deliciously yellow flowers, it can bring some of that summer energy into the darkest time of the year.
The “milky” Oat seed we use in herbalism is the same plant we get oatmeal from (Avena sativa), but it is the unripe seed that we use. It is one of the best nourishing tonics for the whole nervous system, calming the nervous system by feeding it. Great for when we’re feeling overwhelmed and fried.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is another great herb that I sometimes combine with milky Oat seed because both are nourishing, but skullcap is more immediately calming. It can be helpful on its own for anxiety, especially with “twitchiness” like a jumpy muscle or an eye twitch. It can also help with insomnia when the mind just won’t stop.
This is a brief introduction to each herb but look them up and see if one or more of them fits the bill. And remember, you are deserving of self care and we are going to make it through this.
Blessings on our New Year.