Anxiety is nothing new. Doubtless our cave-dwelling ancestors were afraid of things, too. But the ways we’re talking about it feels new.
Twenty or 30 years ago, maybe we’d confess to being “shy” or having “stage fright.” But it was always situational, and always justified by external circumstances. Today young people will walk right up, look me in the eye, and say “I have a social anxiety disorder.” High-powered career people will say they could use some help for the next week, or month. We talk about medical anxiety, first date anxiety, performance anxiety, late lonely nights anxiety. Etc.
And then on top of that are “these trying times” ….
So, let’s talk about anxiety. To keep it simple, I’m not going to talk about panic attacks. I’m not going to talk about high blood pressure. I’m not going to talk about PMS. I’m also not going to go into a lot of detail. I’m just going to talk share some ideas of what I recommend in these situations.
As always, if you’ve something going on that feels big or serious, or even dangerous, talk it over with a professional in a clinical setting. I’m not saying herbs can’t work for things that are big or serious, or even dangerous, I’m just saying you’ll want more hands-on help than words on a piece of paper.
Before we get to the herbs, let me briefly address what we euphemistically call “lifestyle.” Which is to say, all the things you can do that are not taking pills and drinking teas. Take a walk in the woods. Doesn’t matter if it’s winter! Or swim, ideally someplace quiet. Let your brain decompress. Develop a mindfulness practice. Go to church or temple. Reconnect with old friends. Share your worries with them. Or even play a stupid game on your phone. Do what works.
Direct anxiolytics are substances that address and reduce anxiety, directly. So, they’re not “deep” remedies. They don’t heal. They work when you take them and stop when you don’t. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want.
I could write a whole dissertation on the nuanced difference between this anxiolytic vs. that anxiolytic. I won’t. They all have more in common than their differences. I will touch on some, but please understand, you don’t need to match yourself precisely to your perfect remedy. All of these work. And all of them work as needed. That can mean once in a blue moon, or every night, or three times a day.
Kava was the #1 anxiolytic in health food stores 20 years ago. This South Pacific plant, related to peppers and eggplants, has been consistently effective across multiple clinical trials. You can take capsules or liquids; the liquids taste unpleasant and can make your tongue tingly for a minute or two. That didn’t stop me from using kava. It was my go-to, to recommend and for my own public speaking, for years. Traditionally, vast doses were used, ceremonially and occasionally. In modern times, a standard dose is 70 mg of kavalactones, 3 times a day. It is possible to take more.
Theanine is another popular one. Originally isolated from green tea, this compound is good for anxiety in general. It also directly antagonizes the caffeine jitters, without interfering with caffeine-induced wakefulness. Theanine’s popularity is enhanced by strong research in adults, college students, and children. (One study with college students focused on test anxiety). It also doesn’t taste bad, and some companies make gummies. A standard dose is 100-200 mg, 1 to 3 times a day.
CBD is far and away the best-selling anxiety remedy on our shelves right now and has been the last few years. It comes from the same plant family as marijuana, so that has created some confusion – among doctors, legislators, and the general public. To be clear, CBD is not marijuana. It does not get you “high.” What makes CBD so attractive to me (other than it works!) (and side benefits like pain reduction), is how difficult it is to overshoot the mark with dosing. For example, if 20 mg, or 40 mg, is what it would take to get you to a calm healthy baseline, doubling or quadrupling that dose shouldn’t do anything extra. So, it’s easy to test drive different dosing regimens. Having said that, for most people 10-30 mg per dose is a good place to start. To put that in perspective, clinical trials have been published upwards of 300 mg.
Skullcap, Motherwort, Passionflower are three additional anxiolytic herbs. You can use any of them for any kind of anxiety. HOWEVER – motherwort is especially indicated where stress makes the heart fluttery, including hyperthyroid stress. Skullcap is specifically indicated where stress manifests in tense neck and shoulders. And we reach for passionflower in people with generally hot and robust constitutions — aging athletes (especially male), tantruming toddlers, etc.
I also want to touch on the amino acid derivative and neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino butyric acid). GABA shines where the mind is chattering – the hamster is running in the wheel, so to speak – and you want to shut it off. A standard dose is 500-750 mg. Try to keep it under 3,000 mg a day, as higher doses will rarely cause some (reversible) neuropathy.
Finally, I want to call out two specific formulas. One is called Deep Relaxer, from the Wish Garden company. Deep Relaxer is a combination of herbs that feels “heavy” to me. I don’t like taking it because I don’t like that feeling. However, I do recommend it to people who need something “heavy,” especially around bedtime. The other formula is actually a beverage called Zenify. It contains robust doses of both theanine and GABA, and it’s fizzy and nice.
Adaptogens (Ginseng-Class Herbs)
Adaptogens are herbs which increase our resilience to stressors. In other words, whatever is putting strain on you – mental, emotional, physical – will hit you less hard if you’re using adaptogens. The body will still respond to stressors, but it won’t burn itself out overresponding. You can expect to see benefits not just in terms of obvious stress and energy, but also immunity and vitality, and the ability to stay focused. You generally take adaptogens for a while – days or weeks – before you feel a shift. Ginseng is the classic adaptogen, but here I want to talk about two other herbs instead, that are especially useful in chronic stress and anxiety.
Ashwagandha used to be called “Indian Ginseng” (before it became illegal to call anything “ginseng” that isn’t ginseng). It the most calming and relaxing of all the adaptogens. Like other adaptogens, it will still strengthen you over time (by preventing the impacts of stress), but where it really shines is in those individuals who respond to stress with a certain degree of nervous excitability and agitation. So… does your blood pressure rise when you’re stressed? Does daytime stress lead to night-time sleeplessness? Do you generally accelerate quickly, but put on the breaks? Ashwagandha may be the herb for you.
Rhodiola used to be called “Arctic Ginseng” (before it became illegal to call anything “ginseng” that isn’t ginseng). It’s the preeminent white-collar adaptogen. Some of the most impressive research has focused on maintaining energy and cognitive sharpness following sleep deprivation and long periods of intense focus.
Bridging the Gap Between Depression and Anxiety
Some of us think of depression and anxiety as clearly defined, and entirely different. Others see them as nearly synonymous. The truth probably lies somewhere between – and is probably different for every individual.
Silk Tree Bark is an absolutely fantastic herbal mood-lifter – one of those wonderful herbs that has almost no meaningful research behind them, and yet it flat-our works. It’s called He Huan in Chinese – “the Tree of Happiness.” In Chinese medicine, Silk Tree smooths out disturbances in the shen — loosely translated as “mind” or “spirit.” In Western terms, Silk Tree improves mood, reduces agitation and irritability, and can help ground people who are “all over the place.”
I tend to recommend in formulas. In particular, a liquid called Grief Relief from the Herbalist and Alchemist company, and another called Albizia-9 from the Seven Forests Company.