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We all go through chapters of stress in our lives, and some types of stress such as eustress can be quite healthy or overall beneficial to one's self. But what if the stress persists so long or is acute enough that you physically can't ever calm down? What if you stop sleeping entirely because of it?
In a previous article, I shared the story of a highly stressful time in my life that was all encompassing in terms of mental, emotional, and even physical distress on some occasions. The lack of stability or any kind of certainty for an extended period of time wore me down to the point where cracks in my wellbeing started to show through. I didn't have a stable income, had misplaced my sense of identity, was unsure where my family and I would live, and had begun subconsciously rejecting my cultural surroundings in a similar way to a donor organ refusing to bond with its new recipient.
I thought that returning home to Canada would be the elixir to all of my stress related problems, but unfortunately it didn't stop. While I can't say my new situation in Vancouver, BC was any worse than what I had just left behind in East Asia, it presented a whole new set of challenges that I was forced to confront. I had lived in Vancouver for several years in my early twenties, and while not an easy life, I always felt energized by the pulse of the city. It felt like anything was possible there. Yet, the reality is that I'm not twenty anymore. I'm now in my mid-thirties with a beautiful young family, other mouths to feed besides my own, childcare to arrange, mortgage payments to finance, various health frustrations, and all of the other accoutrements that come with rapidly approaching middle aged adulthood.
All this to say that the hurried pace of the urban melting pot that once invigorated me was now a steady stream of tidal waves that wouldn't allow me to find my footing. I desperately wanted to recharge, but the option always eluded me. I was starting a new job that I was thrilled about with a great title in downtown Vancouver. On paper it ticked all of the boxes:
- A position that combined both creative and administrative work.
- A 12th floor office in a district of the city that I'd always dreamed about working in since I was 19 years old.
- The chance to work with a dynamic group of professionals that I both respected and admired.
- A perfect ocean view surrounded by skyscrapers.
Soon enough however, the feeling that it just wasn't the right fit started to haunt me. What started as excitement ultimately turned into a sense of compounding pressure as I was being tasked with competing work priorities from all sides. Looking back, under normal life circumstances I probably could've strapped in and brute forced my way to success within a few months, but I was already running on fumes at this point. As a family, we had numerous other stressors to deal with, including but not limited to trying to find childcare in a part of the city where there simply isn't any, and the four of us living in a tiny overpriced studio apartment that provided shelter from the elements, but nothing more.
After a few months of running on that hamster wheel, we had enough and made the hard but necessary life changes to calm the storm indefinitely. I left that job and found one that was easier for me to excel in, we moved back to the sleepy but always beautiful and restorative Vancouver Island, and my children found schools and childcare that they thrived in. Everything had finally fallen back into place after so long, but for some reason I couldn't fall asleep at night anymore. Either that or I'd be waking up and on high alert at 3:00am after dozing off only four hours before. Even though I could no longer pinpoint any source of overtaxation in my life, it was as if my mind didn't get the memo.
This isn't the first time that I've dealt with stress induced insomnia. Right after my son was born several years ago, there was a period of about a week or so where I just couldn't ever relax and fall asleep. This was in part due to him waking up every hour, and instead of resting in between that time, my mind was always bracing for the next call to action. What helped me back then is also what helped me now. My first choice for any kind of ailment are natural remedies, and with some desperate research I was able to find what I consider to be the ultimate combination for calming both body and mind.
The first, and my most prized remedy for these issues is an herb called Motherwort. The amazing thing about Motherwort is that it has the unique ability to both literally and figuratively turn the volume down significantly when the heart is racing and the pulse is pounding. Motherwort has long been known by herbalists as a heart tonic in that it helps reduce rapid or irregular heart rate caused by stress or anxiety. It has a sedative effect on the nervous system, reducing the tension and anxiety that can cause insomnia. I personally use it in the form of a tincture, but it can also be taken as a tea.
The second, and equally important herb that I use at the same time is Lemon Balm. Lemon Balm is also completely natural, and is notable for its effectiveness as a sleep aid, especially during times of mental stress. It calms frayed nerves and alleviates anxiety as a comforting sedative. Much like Motherwort, Lemon Balm relaxes, soothes, and supports the nervous system. This wonderful herb delivers its properties immediately. Again, I use this as a tincture, but can easily be found as a tea as well.
In terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine, both herbs are considered cooling in nature. This combination of natural herbs gently soothes the nervous system like nothing else I've experienced with other herbs. I usually notice a marked improvement in my physical and mental wellbeing within 20 to 30 minutes of taking them, usually right before bedtime. If the stress is quite serious, I will sometimes take them a few times throughout the day as well.
Additional Natural Remedies
Additionally, over the years I've found a few other helpful tricks to safely ease insomnia and anxiety:
- Adaptogens such as Holy Basil. I've tried a few different adaptogens such as Ashwaghanda and Rhodiola, but Holy Basil seems to make the biggest positive difference for me.
- Going low caffeine, or consuming none at all for a time. This can make a massive difference if you're caffeine sensitive like me, and shouldn't be overlooked. The easiest way to cut out caffeine without torturing yourself due to withdrawal symptoms is to switch to decaf coffee. I've tested this several times, and decaf coffee provides a microdose of caffeine which prevents those nasty headaches and inability to focus from kicking in. If you're a green or black tea drinker, white tea has low amounts of caffeine but still offers wonderful health benefits and a delicious flavour to match.
- Chamomile tea. Your grandmother was right. And yes, it's boring.
- Be careful of spirulina, as it can be a sleep disruptor for some people. I learned the hard way that spirulina can cause serious insomnia issues. I stopped sleeping for a full week before I realized spirulina was the culprit!
- Vastly reduce screen time, especially at night. Not only does the blue light that's emitted from screens disrupt the body's circadian rhythm, working on a computer late into the evening will keep your mind active for a few hours afterwards.
- Don't discuss big life issues at night. It can wait until the morning, trust me.
Lastly, if it is at all within your control to rid your life of a particular stressor, do it without delay. Even if the particular stressor is appealing in some ways (stress addiction). As you can see, I had to seriously clean house in order to get my life back to a healthy place, and it does take real work and sometimes soul searching to achieve. The remedies that I've mentioned can stop the stress from continuing, but you do need to deal with the root issue in order to be truly healed.