Nursing is one of the most stressful occupations in our country. Of course, it is also one of the most rewarding, but that meaningful perk does not come without a toll. Nurses were feeling the effects of stress, burnout, and even PTSD before the onset of the COVID crisis. Now the stress has expanded exponentially. Everywhere we are seeing social media posts about self-care, meditation, and stress reduction.
Holistic nurses have been promoting stress-reducing modalities for decades now. The act of calming the nervous system and mindfully releasing tension has never been more relevant. As a holistic nurse practitioner, integrative health coach, and student of Western herbalism, I would like to share my approach to self-care that brings in herbal allies that enrich the experience and further reduce the effects of stress in the body.
Before enacting a relaxation practice, it is important to start a practice of simple observation. This requires paying attention to where stress resides in your body and how it affects its functioning. You may have a good idea of how the stress response wreaks havoc in your body, but it will not hurt to pay closer attention. Stress can affect any body system. You may notice that you get migraines or GI upset when you are stressed, but what was going on in your body before the onset of these waving red flags? Perhaps you were experiencing building tension in your jaw or shoulders that you experienced as soreness or tingling in your neck. Maybe you were mildly constipated for a few days or your appetite subtly changed before the onset of your GI distress. Many people experience stress symptoms in midlife that they never noticed in their earlier years, like unexplained rashes, ringing in the ears, numbness in fingers and toes, or even blurry vision. Some of us are so good at ignoring the alarm signals our bodies send under stress that we cannot understand why bizarre symptoms suddenly appear when a body system starts to go haywire. This is where simple, undistracted observation of your body is your best tool.
You can drop in and observe what is happening in your body at any time, but it is best practiced and perfected within a meditative structure. A simple body scan meditation is very effective in bringing your awareness out of your mental jogging into your physical being. There are many lovely guided versions of this technique available for free on the internet. Or you can simply lay down in a quiet space, maybe listen to calming music or soothing sounds, and practice breathing into your body, one section at a time. Start by becoming aware of your toes as you breathe slowly in and out of your nose. Let your belly rise and fall. Give each part of your body as many breaths as it takes to give it the attention it needs. From your toes, move up your legs to your pelvis, your belly, you back, your chest, your arms, shoulders, neck, then your face and finally your scalp. Reserve judgement, just observe. As you practice you will notice that simply bringing attention to various parts of your body releases tension and instills relaxation as you go. Then, over time, you will notice where stress is hiding and how it feels. It can feel tight, tense, tingly, hot, cold, itchy, or numb. You are the only one who knows how it feels in your body.
Once you have become comfortable with a form of body scanning that works for you, I suggest devising a way that you would like to signal to your body that it is ok to let go of that bundle of stress, wherever it is residing. This can be done by putting your hands on that spot and speaking to it lovingly, as if to a child, as is taught by Tara Brach. You can use visualization, imagining the stress and tension as a dark cloud of smoke leaving your body. You can enhance your breathing techniques by breathing in warmth and calmness and breathing out tension and pain. Be creative and true to yourself.
Now I’d like to talk about how I use herbs in the process. There are many creative ways to do this as well. One of my favorite ways is using strong herbal tea. I like to use dried herbs in a tea infuser, I pour the boiling water over and let it steep for about 15 minutes. This is part of my self-care ritual, so I don’t check my texts and multitask while the tea is steeping. I sit with my cup and use my senses, feeling the warmth in my hands, smelling the earthy aroma of the herb as it infuses its vibrancy into the water. I may use this time to do some reflective reading or writing or listen to meditative music. After the tea is cool enough to drink, I sip it slowly, with my eyes closed. I let the smell and taste flood my senses and feel the warmth flooding my belly. With every sip, I envision the calming, healing effects the tea is bringing to the areas of my body that need it most. I ready myself for sleep or meditation or a bath. This tea is meant to mark the beginning of my time to wind down and let go. By this time I can feel that my heart rate has slowed, my breathing is cleansing and even, and my mind, while always chattering, is not so quick to pull me into stressful stories.
There are so many ways herbs can enhance self-care ritual. Herbal baths are divine. Throw a handful of calming dried herbs into an old sock with some Epsom salts, tie it up and put it in your bath. Set the stage to your liking: candles, lights out, music, or silence. Calming aromatic herbs can be sewn into an eye pillow to use during your restful meditations. Herbal salves can be mindfully rubbed into tired and stressed muscles. Herbal tea bags placed on areas of inflammation. Aromatics engage the senses and keep you in the present. Calming herbs release your ever-vigilant nervous system. Visualize the herbs growing in a dewy forest, soaking up the glowing sunlight and nourishment from the earth. Feel the wisdom of the earth perfusing your body physically and energetically. Herbs cannot get rid of your stress or solve your problems, no more than deep breathing or antidepressants can. But they can ease your load, help you take a break, and give you a way to keep going. Enjoy.
If you enjoyed this blog, you'll want to check my CE course too.