by Jordan Douglas, HHC
Trauma, be it little ‘t’ traumas or big ‘T’ Traumas, impact each and every one us. We’re currently faced with two pandemics – the COVID outbreak and hundreds of years of systemic racism – that are dredging up old traumas as well as creating new ones. On local, regional and national levels, grief, loss, anger, fear, frustration and heartache are common emotions coming to the surface.
Herbal medicine has a tremendous amount of offer us in these areas. Using herbs to support layers of my own trauma healing was one of the main reasons I fell in love with herbal medicine and with the plants that have the capacity to nourish us so deeply. There are plants that can help us feel safe or establish boundaries, ones that nourish and restore the adrenals, ones that help to bring us back into our bodies. There are herbs that help us to let go, ones that tone and relax our nervous system and ones that promote sleep so that we can heal and integrate more deeply.
It is important to note that herbs are not a substitute for mental health care, but rather an additional tool to support that journey. Trauma work is not to be done alone, but rather with the guidance of qualified, culturally competent mental health practitioner. Stress and mental health support, taking care of yourself on the basic human level, and even the use of botanical medicine, have been scooped up by the wellness industry and framed in a way that tends to keep them inaccessible for the majority, tools of privilege rather than tools for the people. This is further exacerbated by a long history of systemic racism in our healthcare system. This is
unacceptable, and needs to change. Plant medicine is the people’s medicine. And as Michelle Pellizzon of Holisiticsm says, “none of us is well until we are all well.”
So, where to start? The plants are a great place to begin; I’ve included several favorites below, but the list of plant allies that can support us in this area is incredibly comprehensive. One more I’ll throw in, which I’ve written about before and likely raved about in person if we’ve ever chatted on the topic, is holy basil. Also known as tulsi, holy basil is perhaps my favorite herbal ally for supporting grief and loss, particularly when that energy is stuck in the heart. Organic India makes a great tea line up of tulsi blends that is affordable and widely available.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): Passinflower has a very long, rich history of use supporting healthy sleep and is native to the southeastern US. Passionflower has a notable sedative action, meaning that it helps to relax any manifestation of tension in the body – be it physical (hunched shoulders, a tight back), mental (a racing mind, feelings of overwhelm) or emotional (tension or stress in the heart space). Most enjoy passionflower in the evenings to wind down or before bed, however some are able to tolerate it during the day as well. Experiment with your own body to see how you connect with the plant. The tea is quite pleasant, and the tincture is also a great option.
- Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). Skullcap is native to North America and pairs very well with passionflower. A potent nervine and trophorestorative, skullcap restores and nourishes the nervous system. Skullcap also supports healthy sleep cycles. It also relaxes the musculoskeletal system, reducing spasm and tension. Skullcap is a great herb for the person who is feeling on edge and is carrying significant tension (mental, physical or emotional) in the body. Skullcap is a bit bitter, so the tincture is typically the way to go; I prefer an extract of the fresh plant.
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Eleuthero is an adaptogen, helping to promote resilience and normalize physiological function while supporting a healthy stress response. It helps to reduce the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response, which occurs in moment of trauma/Trauma and often repeats when traumatic triggers (a smell, a tone of voice, a look, a place, a feeling, etc.) come up. It calms and centers the mind, balancing and integrating the mind-body connection. Eleuthero strengthens our body, mind and spirit. I like eleuthero best as a powder, added into smoothies, raw protein balls or mixed into homemade chocolate.
- Lavender (Lavendula spp.). Lavender is a bit underrated in my book, due to it’s ubiquitous presence. It’s healing properties are deep and powerful. Lavender is rich in terpenes, such as linalool and linalyl, which have a profound relaxant effect on the nervous system via the olfactory-limbic connection. Lavender makes for a delicious tea or herbal syrup, though it’s most popular use is the essential oil. Inhaling lavender essential oil lowers blood pressure and the heart rate, promotes a sense of calm, relaxes tension and stabilizes the mood. It can also help ease tension to promote deep sleep. A roll on of diluted essential oil or a small sachet of dried lavender flowers is an easy, discrete form of plant medicine to keep on hand and breathe in whenever you feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed.
- Wood betony (Stachys betonica): Wood betony has a particular affinity for reducing manifestations of tension in the head – such as tension headaches, neck aches, nightmares, insomnia and repetitive, unwanted thoughts. Herbalist Matthew Wood uses this herb for when you’ve been abducted by aliens, by which he means you’ve endured experiences that drag you out of your body (like trauma or anxiety). Wood betony brings us back in our bodies, to the present where we have choice and the ability to take action. Wood betony also strengthens our energetic gut-brain connection and promotes relaxation. I like to use wood betony as a tincture.
For those looking for support beyond plants, there are many fantastic books on the topic of healing trauma. A few of my favorites are The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine and When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté.
If you’re looking to support others, especially BIPOC, through accessible wellness and mental health care, I would recommend the following resources, which I personally support:
- Dive In Well was founded by Maryam Ajayi to support a more inclusive wellness industry. Donate to her crowdfunding campaign here and learn more about Dive in Well here.
- The Check-In by Naaya Wellness is an initiative that supports BIPOC high schoolers in staying well, via yoga, meditation and therapy, during COVID. Learn more about Naaya Wellness here and donate here.
- The Loveland Foundation, founded by Rachel Cargle, provides high quality mental health support to BIPOC women and girls. Donate to the Loveland Therapy Fund here.