Stress

Dr Jeni Worden looks at how to stay in good mental health during these difficult times

We live in stressful times. Concerns over how to pay the household bills and mortgage on a  reduced family income often lead to anxiety, stress and sleepless nights  which, if untreated, can lead to serious physical and mental health  problems.  Already one in five visits to the GP are for  symptoms related to stress, anxiety or depression and with the economic  future still uncertain it is feared that these figures will increase.

What is stress?

Stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as “an adverse  reaction to excessive pressures or other demands” and produces symptoms  such as a pounding heart or palpitations, dry mouth, headaches,  generalised muscle and joint pains, loss of appetite for food or sex,  tiredness and poor concentration. The hormones responsible for making us  feel so bad are released by the adrenal glands, of which we have two,  situated just above the kidneys (hence their alternative name of  suprarenal glands). Cortisol is responsible for causing raised blood  pressure, reduced effectiveness of our body’s immune system and the  release of fat and sugar into the blood stream. Adrenaline and  noradrenaline are the “flight or fight” hormones, causing our heart rate  and blood pressure to rise and making us sweat more. Already it can be  seen why rising stress levels makes us feel the way we do. If stress is  left unchecked, it can cause physical problems such as a stroke or a  heart attack due to hypertension (raised blood pressure) or mental  health issues such as anxiety or depression, frequently with  accompanying insomnia.

First line of defence

So what can be done to eliminate harmful levels of stress from our  lives? The good news is that there are a number of ways of combating  stress and making yourself feel better. Talking therapies are advised by  NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) for the symptoms of  mild anxiety or depression, but it can be difficult to access them on  the NHS due to long waiting lists or lack of facilities in some areas.
However, talking to a good friend or close relative is an alternative  approach and the phrase “a trouble shared is a trouble halved” is very  true. Self-help groups can also be a valuable source of support but  avoid those that become too introspective as it is meant to be a way out  of your problems, not to further delve into them. While the mental  health charities Mind and NoPanic offer valuable online advice.Apart from counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy and anger  management to which your GP may be able to refer you, relaxation  techniques such as listening to music, deep breathing or muscle  relaxation can help to relieve stress related symptoms. A healthy diet  will always help as sugary snacks, eaten in a rush, will just make your  body feel worse, and cause a “sugar dip” in both your energy and  concentration. Plenty of fluids – not alcohol or caffeine – are  recommended (at least 1.2 litres a day), and I can personally vouch for  the calming effects of exercise. My local council run gym does an  excellent programme called Healthy Horizons to which I, as a local GP,  can refer anybody with a health problem, including depression, stress  and anxiety, who wants to participate in an exercise regime with  appropriate supervision. Fees are reduced for such patients and most  people find it very beneficial as natural painkillers and mood hormones  called endorphins are released during exercise. Endorphins can help to  smooth out the chemical imbalance in the brain which causes depression  and related anxiety symptoms.Giving up smoking is another way to help relieve stress, although  some of my patients claim smoking cigarettes is the only way they can  combat stress and therefore a reason for not stopping!

The homeopathic approach 

Furthermore, there is a whole range of homeopathic medications that  can be used for a wide variety of symptoms in conjunction with all the  therapies mentioned above and without affecting the effectiveness of  conventional medicines.For stress related symptoms such as chest pain, indigestion and  heartburn/acid reflux, dizziness, diarrhoea, sweating, tension,  breathlessness and anxiety, feelings of restlessness and worries about  health, I find myself advising patients to try one of the most common  remedies, Arsenicum album (white arsenic). If taken in a toxic dose,  arsenic causes the symptoms mentioned above, which is why it is such a  good homeopathic remedy for this situation. It is especially useful if  the underlying personality is that of a tidy person who worries about  their own health and that of their family or loved ones. They feel worse  when alone and want people around them. There may be perfectionistic  traits or even an element of obsessive compulsive disorder. Patients  admit to wanting to feel in control and becoming very depressed if they  feel that is no longer possible, for whatever reason. Generally,  Arsenicum album suits someone who feels the cold and is chilly in  nature, hardly ever feeling too warm. Heat makes them feel better and  they often feel worse at midnight or in the early hours of the morning.One of my female patients came to see me some years ago as she wanted  to stop taking her conventional antidepressant medication but was  worried about her depression returning. She was a very tidy and precise  sort of lady and I felt she would do well with Arsenicum album, so I  prescribed a 30C tablet to be taken daily while she reduced her Prozac.  She remained well after stopping the antidepressant and has done so to  this day, using Arsenicum album very occasionally for a short while to  control any recurrent symptoms. Another patient had an outbreak of  severe eczema which had coincided with him losing his job. He was a  worrier by nature and Arsenicum album worked amazingly to restore his  skin and mental state to full health.If you are more of a “hot and bothered” type of person, being  impulsive rather than guarded (as described in the Arsenicum album  picture) but sharing the concern about health and having anticipatory  anxiety (worry about forthcoming events), then Argentum nitricum (silver  nitrate) may well be the answer to your stress levels. People who do  well with Argentum nitricum tend to be suggestible and sympathetic,  preferring company and becoming anxious when alone. They are  warm-blooded and are worse for heat, the opposite of the Arsenicum album  picture. They can suffer from palpitations and are plagued by digestive  problems, such as belching and wind. And they have a liking for sweets  and salty foods, in contrast to people possessing the Arsenicum album  characteristics who prefer sour and fatty foods.A personal anecdote may help to illustrate to effectiveness of the  Argentum nitricum remedy. I used to have a large black tom cat who spent  his life avoiding getting too hot, disliking the sun intensely. He was a  terrible traveller, getting panicky even when placed in the car, and  going on a journey was horrendous as he would frequently pass a motion.  Argentum nitricum stopped his anxiety and meant a calm journey home from  a trip to Wales without any unscheduled stops or mishaps!

Melancholy moods

Sometimes, I have to prescribe medication such as antidepressants or  sedatives to relieve the severity of my patients’ problems and  occasionally a consultant psychiatrist is needed for advice. But  homeopathy can also be used to treat this only too common form of mental  illness.When it comes to depression, one of the medications I find myself  prescribing most often is Natrum muriaticum (sea salt). Natrum  muriaticum is a very deep acting remedy, especially in the sphere of  mental health. Because deep grief and sorrow are typical of the feelings  Natrum muriaticum can help to relieve, and these are emotions that  every single one of us will have felt at some stage in our lives, it is  not surprising that it is used as regularly as it is. Typically, Natrum  muriaticum will help those people who are sensitive but who have learnt  to keep their feelings in check, a perfect paradigm of the very British  “stiff upper lip”. They tend to be stoical and to get on with things, to  “bottle things up” regardless of how unhappy they are feeling. They are  often good listeners and confidantes, without their friends realising  how much they themselves are hurting inside. Receiving a hug can help  them feel better, but they tend to be happier without physical contact  from people outside their immediate family. Being nice to them when they  are upset makes them feel worse or cry more and they hate breaking down  in front of you. Music may make them cry but often such patients  complain to me that they cannot cry, even though very sad or recently  bereaved.  They may suffer from migraines and have back pain which is  made better from hard pressure. I find that because of the psychological  nature of these problems I have to use a higher potency such as 200C or  1M; but I would always advise seeing a Faculty qualified homeopath  before using these doses as a whole range of emotions can be raised by  this remedy and may require further treatment with counselling.Whereas, Natrum muriaticum can be great to relieve the depression or  stress feelings due to an ever increasing level of responsibility, if  the responsibility starts to be overwhelming, then Calcarea carbonica  (oyster shell) is probably a better option for you. Calcarea carbonica  suits the sort of person who is methodical and determined but has to  achieve success through hard work rather than natural brilliance.  Obstinate may be another word used by relatives and friends to describe  them. These people have a strong sense of duty and are inclined to  become overworked by trying to keep up with an increasingly heavy  workload. It’s not uncommon for them to work themselves to exhaustion  and they may even have to give up their job all together as a result.  Anxieties exist about health and they feel that they will never recover.  They fear heights and think they are going mad. While cold, damp  weather makes them feel worse and they tend to feel physically weak when  they get stressed. Breathing problems such as asthma or bronchitis are  common. Excess perspiration is another feature, both of the head/neck  and feet. Calcarea carbonica in a 30C dose taken daily can help restore  balance into a sufferer’s life and to give perspective to their  problems.

Lack of sleep

My final section is on the treatment of insomnia. We all suffer from  sleeplessness at some time in our lives but for those with anxiety and  stress problems, lack of sleep exacerbates their worries and impairs  their ability to overcome their problems. As a GP, I try to encourage  sufferers to analyse what is causing their sleep problem to help me  prescribe the most suitable homeopathic medicine.  A remedy derived from  Coffea cruda (coffee bean) has often been advised for insomnia and is  worth trying. But if they cannot stop their mind from racing, then a low  dose Gelsenium (yellow jasmine) taken at night should help. The herbal  remedy Valerian is often recommended for sleep problems, and it can be  taken in a homeopathic dose as Valeriana. As with the Gelsnium I would  again advise a low dose of 6 or 12C strength at night. If you are waking  up at 3 or 4 am and cannot sleep due to thoughts of work or how to  manage the next day, then Nux vomica (strychnine) will be a good choice.  Nux vomica is often associated with the “A” type personality who is  prone to stress caused by overwork or overindulgence with caffeine or  alcohol. If you just cannot “let go” of the day then try Kali carbonicum  (carbonate of potassium) for this medicine can help when you are waking  between 2 and 4am or you wake only four hours after falling asleep with  muscle twitches or have problems talking in your sleep.There is always help available, no matter how bad you are feeling.  Please make an appointment to see your GP if you feel you are suffering  from anxiety or depression which is affecting your work or home life,  and talk about how you feel – I can assure you, it will help!

Further information
www.mind.org.uk
www.nopanic.org.uk