Mental Health in the Era of Coronavirus: A Lesson in Everyday Stress-Reduction
These are dark times, but CBD tea (and honey) can help.
May is Mental Health Month, when NAMI's "You Are Not Alone" campaign seeks to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness, which impacts an estimated one in five people. Normalizing conversations around emotions and de-pathologizing views of the mentally ill are two ways that we can help to create a more tolerant society. The coronavirus pandemic has us all facing the strain of an unprecedented situational stressor, with our individual coping skills put to the test. The good news is that stress-reduction and pro-health practices can be worked into your lives seamlessly; it doesn't have to feel like a big effort, and every little bit counts. As you'll see, even brewing a cup of tea can be one of the everyday ways that you can integrate wellness into your lifestyle.
If you are prone to anxiety or depression, this is an especially important moment for more self-care. One of my best friends is an LCSW who is noticing a significant increase in depression among her patients, from both fear and the effects of quarantine. If you aren't feeling overwhelmed, tending to your baseline level of stress is still a valuable way to bolster your emotional resilience. After all, the negative effects of stress impact the body, too, because the brain does not actually distinguish between physical and emotional trauma. Chronic stress can cause inflammation, lowers immunity, impairs our ability to fight off infections, impacts our sleep, and cues the anxious spiral that detracts from a healthy balance. Mental hygiene impacts us all; and stress-reduction is not exclusively reserved for those with a psychiatric diagnosis. Case-in-point? Stress can make even the happiest, go-lucky people irritable and more difficult to be around.
It begins with a "runaway" stress response, AKA the physiological response to stressors known as "fight-or-flight" mode. Our bodies possess a natural mechanism for countering the stress response called the relaxation response. To access this healing state, activities that induce the deeply relaxed brain state of "active passivity" hold the key to quick re-habituation. The higher your stress levels, the more difficult it can be to adequately reach this state.
Research shows that this brain state yields both short- and long-term benefits for our health, moods, concentration, and more. Thanks to the brain's capacity for neuroplasticity (i.e., its continued formation of new neural pathways throughout the entire life course), you actually become more efficient at accessing it with practice. Over time and with regular practice, the benefits accumulate. I can vouch firsthand that when I practice yoga daily, like I did in California, or Transcendental Meditation (TM) like when I was in grad school, I am a much more evolved person; it slips me into a state of zen that trickles into my everyday existence. For me, vinyasa yoga is like a daily, hour-long dip into a pool of mindfulness that clears away lingering anxiety; without it, stress accumulates and I become more reactive and uptight.
The point I am trying to make is that just as holistic health seeks to fend off disease by empowering the body to function more efficiently, the same principle can be used to fortify your emotional health. This is a principle that we all can benefit from when it comes to our emotional well-being as there is no cap to the benefits it brings. Stress-reduction simply empowers the body to access its natural mechanism for mitigating the stress response, making you more capable, grounded, and present in the moment. You can still rely upon Western medicine and psychotherapy along with everyday stress-reduction, and I encourage you to, as you will experience drastically improved treatment outcomes if you also make regular stress-reduction a priority in your life.
To make it easy for you to justify (if you are locked into the mindset of needing to feel productive), I give myself permission to prioritize self-care because I know it makes me more productive (among other things) in the long-run. Virtually anything can qualify as self-care when it induces the relaxation response.
Yoga, meditation, energy healing, or even taking immunity-boosting supplements or practicing DIY beauty, can all play a role in your stress management; it comes down to your personal interests, access to resources, and preferences. To me, standing barefoot on the ground — a practice called earthing — is a legitimate healing modality; for others, myself not included, sitting by a lake with a fishing pole qualifies. Skeptics love to call this "pseudoscience," but research validates the clinical efficacy of complementary alternative medicine, or CAM. Reiki, a form of energy healing that originated in Japan, is covered by insurance in the UK!
There are many different avenues for learning to access a state of inner-calm and we are each entitled to our favorites. On some level, whatever brings you peace and is practiced with a healing intention (and does not harm others, hence why fishing is not my cup of tea) is worthy of your time. The clinical ideal might be attaining twenty minutes of "alert inactivity," but it's not a black-and-white issue; I believe in nourishing yourself with all the stress-reduction you can get. As weird as this sounds, I've seen many brain scans of this state and studied the longitudinal impacts of these practices on our brains, as well as the psychosocial effects and symptoms it has on psychiatric diagnoses. Trust me — regular relaxation is worth it.
As Rumi says, "There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again." Ultimately, it is by finding your personal entry points to your chill baseline that you can learn to help manage your emotional health and wellness. As you'll see below, prioritizing wellness and stress-reduction can be as simple as brewing a cup of tea.
CBD Tea, Herbs, and Stress-Reduction
Creating a tea ritual was one of the expert-recommended holistic tips featured in my article on coping with COVID-related stress on Nécessité. I normally love my coffee — here in France, I make it using a French Press — but have switched over to tea lately to reduce my caffeine intake for the sake of my anxiety. I have found that brewing tea is an ideal mindfulness practice — a grounding, experientially-focused technique that benefits the brain, while my Virgo-self revels in the herbal benefits.
The key is to practice with mindful intention, staying focused on the present moment and tuning-in to the physical senses — taste, smell, touch, sight, etc. — as much as possible. Sometimes I do it absentmindedly, or even listen to Audible while I cook, but to maximize your emotional benefits, make it a mindfulness practice.
As for the physical benefits of brewing tea, three herbalists weigh-in on the health benefits of tea below: Kristi Blustein, herbalist and founder of Khus Khus Herbals, Kendall Watkins, certified herbalist and co-founder of High Herstory, and Lori Barron, herbalist and co-founder of Priya Apotheca.
To highlight the pro-health potential of a mini-tea ritual for anxiety relief, I selected a CBD tea blend from the Paris-based "hemp-ery," Le Chanvrier Francais. The herbal mix and contains no caffeine, making it ideal for stress-reduction at any time of the day. It contains 50% verbena, 30% hemp, and 20% mint, and I added CBD-infused honey, Miel Olympe CBD Hibiscus and Zest d'Orange, to sweeten up each mug.
Many of you are already familiar with the anti-anxiety properties of CBD in tinctures, balms, and even skincare products for stressed out skin. Herbal remedies have long pointed to the medicinal effects found in nature — from Traditional Chinese Medicine to Ayurveda — which directly speak to the benefits that can be brewed and imparted into a steaming cup of tea, or an ingestible tincture.
As for the tea itself, Blustein explains that verbena is a nerve tonic, tonic sedative, and is both anti-bacterial and analgesic. "It is ideal for the nervous system because it has calming effects in cases of anxiety," she says, noting that it can help with troubled sleep, nervous tension, or periods of high stress. "When taken with warm water (i.e., brewed in tea form), it is great for reducing fevers and cooling the body temperature down."
I have also read that verbena is a great herb for digestive support, which is ideal right now since stress can put the stomach through the ringer.
"The name verbena derives from the celiac ferfaen," shares Watkins, who explains that fer means 'ward off' while faen means 'stone.' "It's easy to see how it has long been used in the treatment of kidney stones," she adds, noting that the druids also believed it warded off evil spirits and demons. Of its modern day benefits, Watkins points to a range of beneficial perks like soothing the stomach, helping with pain, reducing stress, relieving depressive symptoms, and aiding with sleep. "Verbena has long been used for upper respiratory infections due to its anti-microbial properties," she adds. Note, however, that it should not be used by pregnant women.
As for the Mint, Blustein reveals that peppermint is ideal for the digestive system and nervous agitation, as well as possessing anti-viral properties. "With a mild soothing effect on the nerves and digestion, peppermint helps relax the body and clear the senses. It is great for soothing colds and flus by easing symptoms and cooling down fevers," she concludes.
"Use mint if you have a headache or fever," Watkins corroborates, adding that it can help calm an upset stomach, relieve flatulence (ha), and help with menstrual cramps. "Mint even works as an anti-spasmodic; a lovely addition to tea and salad during that time of the month."
Hemp leaves — which make up 30% of the brew — offer up a bevy of benefits. Due to its high concentration of essential minerals and polyphenols, Blustein explains that hemp is an antioxidant powerhouse that is able to combat cell damage and improve overall metabolic activity. She also considers hemp to be a superfood for the body due to its high-density concentration of nutritional compounds with benefits that range from improving the blood, to improving our skin.
"Hemp and its positive effects with our endocannabinoid system means it can help with daily anxiety and stress while reducing inflammation and pain," adds Watkins. "I find this to have an energizing effect which gives a boost to my overall mood."
Although not vegan, adding a spoonful of honey to your tea sweetens and adds health benefits to boot. But there are many different types of honey to choose from, ranging from New Zealand's famous Manuka honey, to echinacea honey, as well as blends with floral infusions. Honey (and especially Manuka honey) also possesses lauded anti-bacterial and anti-viral effects. This particular honey from Le Chanvrier Francais, Miel Olympe CBD Hibiscus and Zest d'Orange, is infused with hibiscus (AKA Nature's Botox) and Orange Peel. Our experts reveal that its particular benefits are simply too good to pass up.
Blustein explains that hibiscus flowers are considered sacred in Ayurveda, a traditional healing modality from India, because they are associated with Ganesh, the remover of obstacles and great realizer of goals.
"Hibiscus flowers help purify the blood and the heart, physically and spiritually," she explains, adding that its cooling properties can aid skin suffering from inflammatory reactions. Used in face masks, it is known to possess anti-aging benefits — hence the nickname, “Nature’s Botox.“ Plus, it benefits the kidneys and reproductive systems experiencing high heat or inflammation, making it positively ideal for summertime beverages.
"Hibiscus is rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, flavonoids, citric acid, and helps maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels," Watkins adds in. She reveals that it has traditionally been used in North Africa and Europe to support upper respiratory health, in addition to helping with menstrual cramps. Both of these beneficial qualities remain particularly relevant today.
Orange peel also turns out to be a big winner. The bitter peel of the sweet citrus fruit turns out to be an anti-inflammatory and relaxant sedative that is great for calming the mind, quieting racing thoughts, and settling nervous tension. "Nutrient rich orange zest is so good for you, it's nearly a crime to throw it out," exclaims Watkins. "Adding it to honey is always a delicious choice." It also contains vitamin C and fiber, both of which are great for cardiovascular and digestive health, and an essential oil that orange peel contains, Limonene, that is known to be a powerful anti-inflammatory with posited anti-cancer effects. As Watkins points out, these disease-fighting polyphenols are at higher concentrations in the peel than even the fruit itself.
Blustein explains that you might also notice skin benefits from the peel due to its antiseptic properties. There is some evidence to suggest that orange peel can help with broken capillaries, as well. She reminds us that the fragrance from orange peel is generally uplifting and helps with raising spirits during times of stress and anxiety — and let's face it, we can all use a little aromatherapy from time to time.
Crafting Your Ritual
Choosing your flavor of tea is a delicious game of trial and error, but it can be fun — at least, if you're a health nerd — to discover the health benefits of the teas you select along the way (so long as you are not allergic). If you suffer from allergies, just be sure to avoid any ingredients you might be allergic to. If you are struggling with nervous stress or anxiety, be sure to choose one without caffeine, like Chamomile. Chamomile tea is an incredibly common bedtime tea, known for it's calming effects.
"Chamomile is considered to be one of the most ancient and versatile medicinal herbs known to mankind," she says. Containing an ample dose of terpenoids and flavonoids, the anti-inflammatory healer works wonders on our nervous systems — and our skin. "Just as Chamomile calms our nervous systems, she has the same effect on our skin," Barron explains. Barron notes that if you suffer from dark spots, dark circles, inflammation, or irritation, chamomile could be an excellent skincare pick for you.
I have never been much of a tea person until now. Green tea contains the most caffeine, so I save it exclusively for the morning, and I love using the ground up leaves in a face mask made with Manuka honey. My current obsession is an organic, anti-inflammatory, stomach-settling blend of Ginger and Curcuma with a dollop of anti-bacterial, anti-viral Manuka Honey. Each sip has anti-inflammatory benefits — something that I must personally tend to constantly as a sufferer of chronic inflammation, but that can benefit all of our immune systems.
What can begin as a simple cup of tea has the potential to soothe our minds, bodies, and souls, particularly when practiced with mindfulness. Understanding the importance of prioritizing stress-reduction, and its close link to my wellness, has been personally transformative in my adult lifestyle. We can all mindlessly brew a cup of tea; however, practiced with intention, there truly is a wealth of potent healing that awaits in every cup — especially when it contains CBD.
Mental illness is in many ways the ultimate humbler; it afflicts people from all walks of life. While mental health resources and treatments are more accessible to some, the fact remains that even a billionaire is capable of suffering and will feel helpless in its wake. It is a truly human condition.
Remembering this, the simple act of brewing a cup of tea in the name of self-care serves as an important reminder of the struggles faced by those who cannot cope; those for whom everyday stressors are disproportionately damaging, or triggering. It makes me feel grateful that relief is accessible to me, and more importantly, that it is merely a matter of degree that separates the high-functioning from the low.
De-stigmatizing mental illness and making mental health more accessible to all is a cause that is always important, but it has become particularly relevant as the world deals with Covid-19. Overworked health professionals, triggering stories in the media, and pent-up, fearful citizens have a novel set of stressors to contend with. Mental healthcare providers are also on the frontlines, serving as the primary form of emotional support to everyone struggling with the circumstances. Keep them in your thoughts as well, as their burdens — both personal and professional — have increased along with our own.