Hans Selye (1907-1982) came up with a model for stress called general adaptation syndrome. This features 3 stages of stress each of which requires a different herbal treatment protocol. It's common for people to mis use herbs in self treatment because of this. Let's have a little look at the different stages and herbs for each.
Stage 1. Alarm reaction.
This stage is the one we are most familiar. This stage is characterised by short bursts of stressful scenarios where the body has the typical flight or fight reaction. Adrenaline levels rise, the heart rate increases, breathing rate increases and focus improves. We evolved this reaction to help us avoid being eaten by things when we were hunter gatherers. Now we initiate it for a myriad of things whether it's work, relationships, money problems or emergencies.
This reaction is generally beneficial in the short term as it increases our ability to cope with a stressful scenario. The body should naturally shift into a rest and relaxation mode once it has passed. To help it do this you can use herbs called relaxants. Many herbs fit into this category and we will cover only a few here.
Chamomile is a herb worth knowing. People that find it doesn't work just haven't had a decent quality version of it. I'd recommend Neal's yard remedies, baldwins, and pukka for good teas. Chamomile is a very gentle relaxant suitable for almost anyone. It can help relieve anxiety and tummy upsets as well as helping you sleep at night.
Lemon balm has a lovely fresh lemon taste and as part of the mint family it grows rampantly once it's decided it likes where it is. You can have it as tea or add a few leaves to cold water in summer for a refreshing drink.
Skullcap is a great herb if you're finding your mind keeps going over a scenario. I use it in blends whenever someone can't sleep for thinking too much.
Stage 2. Adjustment
If stress continues the adjustment stage begins. During this stage the body adjusts the output from the adrenals in a attempt to maintain a higher level of productivity for longer. Essentially your body starts to pace itself as though it's in a race. During this stage you may cease to recognise just how stressed you are because you have adjusted to a constant level of it.
At this point it is important to use herbs caused adaptogens. This is a group of herbs researched after World War Two to essentially make super soldiers. These herbs were found to minimise the impact of long term stress on the body and increase longevity. Most of these herbs aren't native to the U.K.. Possibly because the research was done by the Russians. These herbs are great if you know you'll be going through something stressful for more than a week e.g. Exams, moving home, weddings, funerals etc. They are complemented nicely by the relaxants from stage 1.
Rhodiola rosea is a fairly well known herb because it helps minimise stress as well as improve symptoms of depression.
Liquorice root is a sweet adaptogen which helps to soothe the digestive system especially when prone to constipation. However it's not recommended in those with high blood pressure. I always take a stick of liquorice whenever I have an audition or interview to calm my nerves.
Ashwaghanda is an Indian plant coming from the Ayurvedic tradition. It is used to strengthen the adrenals as well as support the immune system. Great if you tend to come down with colds when stressed.
Stage 3. Exhaustion
At this stage the body has run out of its natural energy resources and immunity is extremely low. This is often referred to by herbalists as adrenal exhaustion. You may notice fatigue which you can't shake, anxiety, depression and recurring infections.
It's important at this stage to use herbs which help to build the energy reserves back up again. Herbs which do this are often called tonics.
Nettle is a general tonic high in vitamins a,b,c,d, and k as well as iron. It is excellent for balancing immunity as it has natural anti histamine which helps reduce allergic reactions like asthma and hay fever.
Oat straw is a nervous tonic. It helps to coat the nervous tissues and reduce their sensitivity. This makes it good for reducing anxiety and nervousness.
Hawthorn is a cardiovascular tonic. Excellent for balancing both high and low blood pressure by strengthening the entire system. It can help with anxiety, palpitations and sleep troubles alike.
It's important at this stage to use adaptogens from stage 2 but often the relaxants from stage 1 are not so useful. Relaxants for someone who is already exhausted can often create even more tiredness. This is the bodies natural way to repair itself so it makes sense. However, someone with fatigue is rarely looking to rest more. This stage is best treated under the supervision of an experienced herbalist.