by Hyla Cass, M.D.
Many of us have felt varying degrees of emotional upset since the events of September 11th. On top of this, there is seasonal holiday stress, and for some people, a tendency toward depression this time of year (seasonal affective disorder). You may find yourself feeling spacey, having difficulty concentrating, crying more easily, being irritable, having trouble sleeping, worrying a lot about bad things happening to you and your loved ones, and just feeling more vulnerable than usual. These are all normal reactions to trauma, modern day aspects of the age-old 'stress response'. Also called the ‘fight or flight’ response, it stimulates humans and many other species to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ when confronted with danger.
While this evolved as a key to our survival, being in a constant state of stress is unhealthy. Not only does it interfere with our productivity and efficiency, but it can negatively affect everything from our blood pressure to our digestion, cholesterol levels, and even our immune function (i.e. our ability to fight infection). It has serious emotional effects as well: it keeps us from enjoying ourselves, strains our relationships, and above all, just makes us feels bad!
Long-term or chronic emotional stress can also turn into 'post traumatic stress disorder' (PTSD). You may be familiar with 'shell-shocked' veterans who, years after their wartime experiences, may become panicked at the sound of a car backfiring, a reminder of the guns of war. They may be irritable and moody for no apparent reason, and often experience difficulties in many areas of their lives – suffering marital and job problems, or addictions to drugs and alcohol. They appear to have never got over their original responses to wartime trauma.
This is not unlike what we are seeing and experiencing after the events of 9/11. There has been a great increase in the incidence of PTSD, even in those who did not lose someone directly. People have not only been traumatized by the tragedy of the actual events, but many watched the scenes of destruction and death over and over on television, imprinting the horror in their minds. For many, too, it evoked memories of past traumas. And the frightening events didn’t end that day. We now live with an ever-present fear for our safety—fed by threats of bioterrorism and other unpredictable attacks. On top of that, many are threatened with job loss, and economic reverses. No wonder we're troubled!
While caution and vigilance may be sensible in the face of these new realities, there are ways to recognize and deal effectively with your emotions, so they no longer damage your health and well-being. Before rushing to take antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescriptions, with their side effects including possible addiction, try one of the many safe, effective natural remedies such as St. John’s Wort or Kava. Techniques such as meditation can also be extremely effective. Here are some helpful tips to stress-proofing yourself:
1. St. John’s Wort can relieve depression and even resolve sleep problems. Also, with the winter season approaching, those prone to SAD (seasonal affective disorder) can become depressed, even without the weight of current events. St John’s Wort or bright light therapy – or both in combination, have proven successful natural remedies. (Details in St John’s Wort: Nature’s Blues Buster).
2. Kava, a root used for centuries in the South Seas, has its own magic, helping to control anxiety while promoting muscle relaxation. In lower doses, you can actually concentrate better, while higher doses are great for sleep. Many herbal formulas will combine kava with valerian, passion flower, hops or lemon balm, for relaxation and sleep. In Kava: Nature's Answer to Stress Anxiety and Insomnia, we describe the stress response and PTSD in detail, and show you how to use natural products such as kava to deal with the symptoms.
3. Be careful not to indulge in such addictions as alcohol, drugs, or overeating. Beyond their effects on blood sugar and mood, drugs and alcohol also have toxic effects on the brain, liver, and other systems of the body. Don’t substitute food for drugs: excessive sugar and simple carbs will only make matters worse, playing havoc with your blood sugar levels, upsetting your mood, and draining your energy.
4. Eat healthy, regular meals to avoid rapid fluctuations in your blood sugar levels. Stress uses up many of the nutrients that we need to be fully functional emotionally and physically. These nutrients should be included in the diet and even taken as supplements. You can cover all bases by taking a high potency multi-vitamin and mineral combination, that includes Vitamin B complex, vitamin C magnesium, potassium, zinc, chromium, and manganese. Essential fatty acids in the form of fish, fish oil, and flax oil are also important buffers against stress.
5. Deep relaxed breathing is an excellent anxiety and stress reducer, and overall tension reliever. Try it. You won’t be able to both breathe deeply and feel anxious or tense at the same time! Regular meditation practice takes this a step further. Try 10 minutes twice a day. There are many excellent books and courses – or simply sit quietly and focus on your breath. Your mind and body will naturally settle into a quiet, restorative state.
6. Make sure to get enough sleep, since sleep deprivation alone can make all these responses much worse. If you can’t sleep, take kava or valerian combined with deep breathing. You can add some specific muscle relaxation exercises as well: in sequence, clench each muscle of your body for 10 seconds as you inhale, then release as you exhale to the count of 15. Again, avoid using prescription sleeping medications. They can be addictive, and lead to rebound insomnia when you try to quit.
7. Monitor your moods and feelings. If you’re feeling down or worried, spend time with your friends and family rather than being alone. Take care of yourself.
8. And take care of each other. Be supportive toward your friends and family. Keep a careful eye on their moods and feelings, too. This is a time to be understanding, helpful and communicative. In fact, helping others is a great remedy for anxiety and depression. Don’t forget hugs — natural, safe, free, and mutually beneficial!
9. Children are particularly vulnerable both emotionally and physically, and require special attention to reassure them that they are safe and loved. They also require healthy food -- no junk! A good multivitamin will help restore nutrients lost by stress—or simply not present in their diet. A wonderful organization called Vitamin Relief USA/Children First is supplying thousands of underprivileged children daily with a basic multivitamin (www.vitaminrelief.org). If you are looking for a cause to support, I can’t think of a better one!
10. There are a variety of specific brief and simple techniques that effectively deal with PTSD and anxiety, some that you can do on your own, such as Gary Craig's EFT (www.emofree.com). A powerful tool, it combines positive imagery and specific pressure points on the body to reverse negative thoughts and feelings.
11. It is often helpful to see a therapist or counselor to assist you in dealing with your emotions. A common problem is that your mind gets "stuck" on recent traumatic events and you can’t adequately process the feelings, especially if you have had prior trauma (and who hasn't?). An outstanding technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) uses rapid eye movements (or tapping on alternate sides of the body, such as on alternate knees) to help the two sides of your brain synchronize. This allows negative feelings of fear, pain, and anger to move through, and be released. EMDR helps to put you back in your emotional driver's seat (www.EMDR.org)!
12. You can use positive thinking to reprogram your mind. Add some visualization – picturing and sensing how you would like life to be, and of peace in the world. Research has shown this to be a very powerful way to create change in yourself and the world around you.
13. Prayer can provide healing not only for you, but for those you pray for, as well. Dr. Larry Dossey has done some fascinating research in this area. (see his book, Prayer Is Good Medicine)
You can combine prayer, meditation, and breathing techniques. This, plus a healthy combination of good nutrition, exercise, adequate sleep, and emotional clearing, will provide an excellent buffer against stress, while restoring mind, body and spirit.
Useful Books - In association with Amazon
St. John's Wort: Nature's Blues Buster