Herbalism in Times of Turmoil

I’ve recently returned to my roots (pun intended) in folk herbalism to supplement the work I’m doing with my therapist. It wasn’t an intentional thing — in our current round of EMDR, we’ve uncovered some deeply buried trauma, and bringing that trauma to the surface has shaken the foundations of how I see myself and the world around me. I feel very raw and vulnerable. I feel disoriented and fragile.

I find myself drawn to plant medicine as I navigate this trauma with the help of my therapist. I think a part of me longs for the sympathetic magic of plants — by taking them into my body, maybe I, too, can become firmly rooted, supported by the earth and nourished by the sun. Maybe I can relearn the magics of stillness and connection. Maybe I can reintegrate into the earth’s cycles of death and rebirth.

Some of the plants I’m partnering with in this work are old friends. Others are new allies, recommended by professional herbalists for the type of trauma I’m processing. All of them are supportive in different ways, and all of them have important lessons.

Obviously, I am working with herbs as a compliment to the work I’m doing with a professional mental health counselor, not as a replacement for medical/psychological care. I recommend you do the same, especially if dealing with complex trauma. Even if money is tight, you may be able to get free or low-cost counseling through local social services, nonprofits, university hospitals, etc.

How I Work with Herbs

As an animist, I see working with herbs both as physical medicine and as a working relationship with the spirit of the plant. I don’t like to say that I “use” herbs, because that implies that they are just tools. When I say I “work with” an herb, what I mean is that I am partnering with that plant as a living, thinking being that has kindly chosen to support my healing process. I try to honor that relationship in every part of my herbalist craft.

One way I do this is by verbally thanking the plants that I consume as medicine. If I’m drinking a cup of linden tea, I’ll say something like, “Thank you, linden, for aiding in my healing today.”

I try to use herbal preparations that allow for a sensory experience to help me connect with the plant spirit(s). I don’t like taking capsules full of powdered herbs, because that doesn’t allow me to see, touch, smell, or taste the plant. I like teas because they allow for a much more intimate connection with the plant’s spirit, and I use tinctures when I feel like I need more concentrated medicinal compounds.

I’m a witch who loves plants, but when I’m working with herbs internally, I do not choose them based on their magical or spiritual correspondences. When choosing herbs, I look for quality scientific studies that prove their medicinal benefits, but honestly a lot of plant medicine hasn’t been sufficiently studied yet. Because of this, I also look at the way plants are viewed in traditional healing modalities like Western herbalism, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, etc.

While I don’t pick them based on their magical properties, I do think studying how these plants are used in magical practices can add an extra layer to my work with them. This helps me to have a more nuanced, deep, and complex relationship with the plant’s spirit.

And of course, I always research contraindications and drug interactions before using an herb. For example, I don’t recommend Saint John’s Wort to anyone taking any kind of pharmaceutical medication because it really messes with the way your body processes your meds. It’s also important to research how herbs might interact with other herbs and supplements you’re already taking — that’s also a type of drug interaction!

I also try to remember that when we’re moving through grief or processing trauma, this changes the way herbs (and drugs, for that matter) affect our bodies. I highly recommend the book The Trauma-Informed Herbalist by Elizabeth Guthrie to learn more about this.

My Herbal Allies

These are the herbs I’m taking focusing my practice on right now:

Ashwagandha and Tulsi are two plant friends that I love pairing together. They’re both adaptogens, meaning they can help manage the body’s stress response, and come to Western herbalism by way of Ayurveda. I’ve been working with both of these plants for years, and although they do have different uses, I think they work really well together.

Ashwagandha is really helpful as a pick-me-up for the endocrine system (the system that produces hormones) and nervous system. I find that it has a very grounding effect and is especially helpful for when I feel overwhelmed or burned out. It’s a great ally for building resilience when you feel like there’s just way too much going on and have no idea how you’re going to handle it all. It has a very bitter taste, so I usually add it to coffee or another very bitter beverage.

Tulsi, also called Holy Basil, is a lot more gentle and laid-back than ashwagandha, at least in my experience. It’s one of my go-to herbs when I need emotional support. According to herbalists Katja Swift and Ryn Midura, “Tulsi has traditionally been the herb of choice for ‘stuck emotions,’ whether that’s depression or PTSD or just a case of the grumpies.” It has a delicious taste somewhere between basil and mint, and I love preparing it as a hot tea. This is one of my favorite herbs right now.

In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is classified as a Rasayana, which means it rejuvenates the body and can promote long life. It is also a Bhalya, meaning it promotes strength, and a Vajikara, which means it promotes healthy sexuality. Tulsi is one of the most valued herbs in Ayurveda and is even called the most sacred plant on earth in the Vedic Puranas. It increases sattva (light, clarity), uplifts the spirit, promotes joy and harmony, and increases prana (vital energy; similar to the concept of chi in China). They’re sometimes used together because they’re believed to support each other and enhance each other’s effects.

I add ashwagandha and tulsi tinctures to my morning coffee and to other hot beverages throughout the day. I also really like tulsi as a tea, and tulsi tea is one of my go-to tools for replenishing my energy after a long day of tarot readings. That being said, I’m considering changing the way I consume these herbs to be more in line with traditional Ayurvedic practices, but I need to do more research first.

Cannabis is, honestly, one of my personal miracle workers, which is a little bit ironic because I also think it’s waaaaay overhyped in the wellness industry right now. Cannabis is not a cure-all, and it is not recommended for everyone. There are several different types of cannabis, and each type has its own medicinal uses. For example, the cannabis I use in my personal practice is hemp, which is legally defined as cannabis with little to no THC, meaning it does not produce a high. Marijuana, the type of cannabis with THC, is powerful medicine for some people, but because of how my body and brain work, I personally don’t use it. While marijuana use may be illegal depending on where you live, hemp is legal in most places.

I started working with cannabis several years ago to help manage anxiety and insomnia, but nowadays I mostly work with it to help with inflammation and chronic pain.

I find that my body really holds on to trauma in the form of tension, inflammation, and chronic pain. When my trauma response is triggered, I usually feel it as tension or pain, especially in my hips, pelvis, and lower back. I find cannabis really helpful for that stored trauma. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it helps me feel into it and navigate through it. I also find cannabis is really good at relaxing my body and helping me let go of that stored up trauma, almost like unclenching a fist.

Cannabis was historically used throughout the ancient world for divination and religious ritual. It’s associated with connection to the spirit world, and may have been used in magical practices like the Norse practice of seidr. Scott Cunningham says hemp is associated with love spells and with Midsummer.

My favorite way to work with cannabis is with a cannibidiol (CBD) isolates. Since I live in a place where THC is illegal and have some health conditions that don’t play well with THC, I like CBD isolates because I’m able to make sure I’m getting a THC-free product. I add CBD to my coffee along with tulsi and ashwagandha, and I feel like it helps me process the caffeine better. I also notice rapid relief for joint and nerve pain, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts after drinking this brew.

Meadowsweet is a new plant friend for me. I actually first came across meadowsweet when I was researching handfasting herbs — it’s a traditional inclusion in British handfasting and wedding ceremonies, and was historically used as a “strewing herb,” which means it was sprinkled on the ground. It’s also a traditional flavor in mead, and in fact the name “meadowsweet” comes from its traditional use in mead-making. (I actually have a batch of meadowsweet mead fermenting right now!)

In herbalism, meadowsweet is prized because it contains salicylates, which can be used to make salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin. This makes it great for pain, especially pain caused by inflammation. It’s also great for your digestive system, which makes it a powerful ally if, like me, you suffer from the dreaded “anxiety tummy.”

Meadowsweet is a very summer-y plant for me, and its energy reminds me of summer sunshine. It’s a plant that reminds me to find joy in the little things in life, and has a very hopeful vibe. This is a plant I associate with both Midsummer and Lughnasa. It’s a great friend for when you just need a little sweetness in your life.

On a more physical level, I combine meadowsweet with cannabis, ashwagandha, and tulsi to manage chronic pain rooted in trauma. And, of course, for keeping the anxiety tummy at bay.

In European magic traditions, meadowsweet is associated with love, peace, and joy. Interestingly, Scott Cunningham also talks about the use of meadowsweet for protection from thieves.

I add meadowsweet tincture to my morning coffee along with ashwagandha, tulsi, and CBD. I also really enjoy it as a hot tea, and I think the flavor blends really well with tulsi.

Linden is another new friend for me, but I am obsessed. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with an herb that feels this gentle, supportive, and nourishing to the soul. Katja Swift and Ryn Midura of the Holistic Herbalism Podcast call linden “a hug in a mug,” and I think that’s a perfect description of how it feels.

In Western herbalism, linden is most often used for heart conditions and to restore the cardiovascular system. However, it also works as a nervine, which means it has a calming effect on the nervous system. It can provide gentle relief for anxiety, tension, and even everyday stress. In Herbal Medicine for Beginners, Swift and Midura even recommend linden to “mitigate the side effects of drying, stimulating medications like Adderall and Ritalin.” It is also recommended for nerve pain and damaged nerves.

Linden is wonderful medicine for the heart, both the physical heart and the emotional heart. I really do feel an improvement in my mood when I work with linden. It’s soothing and uplifting at the same time.

Magically, linden is strongly associated with protection. It’s also associated with love, good luck, and preventing insomnia. Scott Cunningham mentions carrying linden to prevent intoxication.

My favorite way to work with linden is by drinking it as a tea. It tastes similar to chamomile, but a little less fruity. I drink several cups throughout the day, especially when I feel like I need to unwind or calm down.

Rose is one of my favorite flowers. Maybe that makes me basic, but I really do love this plant. The scent of rose has been one of my favorite scents since I was very small — I remember going to Catholic mass with my mom and praying with my own rose-scented rosary!

We usually think of rose as a decorative flower or an ingredient in perfume, but it also has culinary and medicinal uses. It’s used topically to treat skin issues by promoting the growth of new skin cells and to treat rashes and eczema. It can also help soothe gut problems. Rose is also relaxing and anti-inflammatory.

In magic rose is associated with love and romance (duh), divination, healing, fast luck, protection, and connection to the divine. Cunningham recommends it for calming “personal stress and household upheavals” and says the flowers attract fairies. This might be because I was raised Catholic, but rose feels like a very sacred plant to me. In Catholicism it’s associated with the Virgin Mary and with some other saints like St. Therese of Lisieux, but I personally use rose more in ancestor work (especially when working with queer ancestors) and for attracting friendly spirits in general.

Right now, my favorite way to work with rose is in aromatherapy. The smell of fresh roses is so uplifting, and it makes me feel like I’m surrounded by gentle, loving protection. I’m sure there are probably health benefits to working with the pure essential oil, but real rose essential oil is VERY expensive, so I use a mild rose-scented perfume instead. (I’m very sensitive to scents and often get headaches from artificial fragrances, but right now I’m wearing Pacifica Beauty’s Persian Rose perfume and I haven’t had any issues with it.)


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