The Forager's Path - School of Botanical Studies

Fresh Perspectives on Stress and the Nervous System

Stress and its effect on the nervous system was the topic of the day in a recent herb class. One of the areas we focused on was the hidden sources of stress in our daily lives; stressful experiences that have been normalized in our modern routine. Included below are some notes from the class.

Sources of Stress
Our view of time as a culture is one of the primary sources of stress. Cultures that are not tied to a clock or daily calendar are much more relaxed. Clock and calendar time are human inventions and not always helpful. Organic time includes daytime, harvest time, winter time, story time and other natural rhythms of life. These are much less stressful and less exact. More stress is created when a clock culture interacts with a non-clock culture.

Excess Choices
Having choices in life is not inherently bad; it can even lead to an increase in the quality of life. Of course, having no choice at all in one’s life is hurtful. However, research has shown that an excessive amount of needing to decide creates stress because of the possibility of not making the best choice. Consider cell phone plans, zip lock bags, toilet paper, toothpaste, bagels, coffee, ice cream flavors, breakfast cereal, tablets & pads…

High Speed Movement

Most of human existence occurred at the speed of walking, with an occasional jog or run. Eventually, life moved at the speed of horses, Only in the last 150+ years has speed increased with trains, autos and airplanes.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, excess movement overstimulates our nervous system and increases Vata. Moving at high speeds makes it worse. Being ungrounded in an airplane especially increases Vata. This is one reason people often feel out of sorts and surprisingly fatigued after a flight that involved nothing more than sitting in a seat for a few hours.

Sleep Deficit

Stress can lead to Sleep Deficit which becomes its own source of stress, creating a vicious cycle. Deficient sleep leads to elevated cortisol and blood sugar levels which cascade into a wide range of serious health issues.

Having enough quality sleep is a foundation for health. No amount of coffee, herbal supplements or energy drinks can compensate for long term lack of sleep. Most research points to somewhere in the 7.5 to 9 hour range. Consistently getting less than 7 hours of sleep is a definite stress on long term energy and health.

Living daily life disconnected from nature is a huge source of stress in our modern lives. Most of human history has been spent surrounded by fresh air, sunlight and interacting with the local flora and fauna. Very recently, by the human timeline, we have begun spending more time in urban environments and inside buildings. Research on our brains shows that non-natural settings are perceived as more stressful. Being exposed to, or spending time in a natural environment has been shown to reduce stress hormones and heart rate and improve the immune system and mood. Many people make the mistake of thinking that time in nature is a nice diversion from the real world. Actually, it IS the real world and an essential  experience for both mental and physical health.

While multitasking may be required at times, it should be avoided when possible. It is a leading cause of stress. Dr. Alan Logan states. “We’re swimming in a sea of fast-moving information. It takes a tremendous toll on the brain, having to go through your day having to filter out distractions. The idea of ‘multitasking’ is nonsense. It’s not supported by the fMRI studies. Multitasking creates  stress.”

The Buddhist approach of being Mindful is the opposite of multi-tasking. This viewpoint links multi-tasking to ADD, meaning “Attention Dispersal Disorder”. Our attention is so spread out on a variety of tasks that we are not truly paying attention (being mindful) of anything.

Lifestyle Strategies for Stress Reduction

Herbs alone are not meant to make all stress disappear. Plant therapy is a useful addition to a larger plan in working towards wellness. With any health goal, use as many tools as are available to achieve success.

  • Connect with Nature and Spirituality in whatever way is relevant to you.
  • Encourage Community, Social Life, Physical Contact. The American emphasis on individual rights and freedom means that we are more susceptible to loneliness and isolation than other cultures.
  • When possible, dis-connect from structured time, the digital world, motorized travel and the human-built environment.
  • Exercise – a simple walking routine can include several of the above concepts
  • Sleep – both quality and quantity need to be addressed

While there are certainly many other sources of stress in our daily lives, these are areas that often get overlooked.


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