Healing from soul exhaustion and emotional depletion

Greenery surrounds the house, climbing up the fences. To get in you walk up the driveway under a canopy of oak and plum branches. Flowers peek shyly from pots or the rock walls that hold up the terraces climbing our steep hill. There are greenhouses for the vegetables, a large, semi-wild herb garden and a cluster of quacking ducks wandering around.

I test out as an introvert on those personality questionnaires and this is the world I have made for myself. It took years to build and in the winter it can be pretty rugged. But in the summer there is a balance of solitude and connection. I have friends and connections all over the world. I spend much of the day conversing long distance amid both physical and intellectual work.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Sometimes the conversation is with a friend thousands of miles away, sometimes with a forum on a particular topic and sometimes it is a one-sided conversation in which I argue with authors I am listening to through an audio book while I weed the zucchini bed. 

And this past year there has been a troubling repetition in many of those conversations. Friends, family, acquaintances and even a lot of authors talk about a deep exhaustion weighing them down. Some call it depression or burnout and some have diagnoses, but others just feel utterly depleted. Not everyone thinks it's worse than before, and some of us only struggle with it some of the time, but the spread of this malaise is worrying. 

Has the purpose and passion gone out of your world? Do you struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Is your sleep troubled and full of stressful, anxious dreams? Do you find it easier to sleep in the day time and almost impossible to get through the day without a nap? Do you just feel half asleep, disconnected or out of sync most of the time? 

If so, you're not alone. I feel it too, sometimes for weeks at a stretch.

Sometimes these symptoms can herald clinical depression and if they interfere with your daily life, it is helpful to seek out the advice of medical professionals. But often these symptoms come from a kind of deep depletion or "soul exhaustion." This may or may not be accompanied by depression. It can occur following professional or emotional burnout, significant loss and grief, major life changes or periods of intense work and activity. 

Soul exhaustion is worrying even when only one person describes it. When it is spread through whole communities the need for a change is urgent.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Ignoring soul exhaustion can lead to severe medical complications, including depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety, cancer and a host of systemic disorders. Depletion must be treated as a real expression of need and because it is so widespread in my circle these days, I have decided to address it here.

Most of my home medicine writing is about herbs and there are some herbs that can help at specific points in dealing with soul exhaustion, but much of what we need when we are depleted doesn't come from either traditional or alternative medicine. It comes from changes in our environment and routine.

First, here are a list of symptoms. A severely depleted individual may experience:

  • A desire to sleep much longer than normal,
  • Disrupted, overly light and restless or leaden and motionless sleep at night,
  • Frequent need to sleep during the day,
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning or after daytime sleep,
  • Difficulty motivating one's self to carry out basic daily functions (getting up, daily routine, work, household),
  • A sensation of body heaviness,
  • Even small movements may feel like hard work,
  • Heightened sensitivity and anxiety, being on edge,
  • Great difficulty in dealing with even minor changes in daily routine or small crises,
  • A sensation of being out of step with time, a dreamlike sensation even when awake, a feeling that everything is in slow motion,
  • Strange physical symptoms without medical explanation, such as deep aching throughout the body, tension headaches, stomach troubles, dizziness and/or ringing ears,
  • Muscle weakness and great difficulty exercising,
  • Intensified emotions and strong changes in emotion, sudden tears upon hearing a story which may not seem at first glance to be particularly sad, unbearable anger and feelings of helplessness over injustices,
  • Feelings of deep loneliness, even when surrounded by people,
  • Loss of customary hopefulness and optimism, feeling jaded and hopeless about life or one's purpose,
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, causes or passionate work, or where interest may remain energy does not follow,
  • Chronic anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Individuals who are normally forgiving and warm can become bitter, angry or jealous and have difficulty explaining exactly why or the reasons are much bigger than any momentary disagreement.
Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It will be different in different individuals but there is a pattern to these symptoms. And moreover, a person struggling with soul exhaustion will often know there is something wrong and those around them will know it, but when asked we cannot give clear or concise descriptions of our symptoms. Yet the sense of deep change and trouble remains. 

There are a number of possible underlying causes for soul exhaustion. However, not every person who experiences these types of events will be dangerously depleted. There many factors and depending on the severity of the causes and symptoms, medical help may be needed. 

Soul exhaustion may result from:

  • Family or other significant breakups,
  • The loss of someone close,
  • The loss of a home, job or business,
  • Illness or disability in the individual or family members,
  • Life changes that drastically disrupt daily routine and goals
  • Being trapped long-term in a toxic, abusive or ostracizing home, work or social environment,
  • Unresolved past trauma, either physical or emotional,
  • An inability to say no to the constant demands of others without regard to the individual's needs,
  • Pushing one's self too hard in work or in physically and emotionally demanding circumstances until the point of burnout or collapse,
  • An unhealthy diet, substance abuse and/or electronics or other addictions,
  • Exposure to toxic substances, heavy metals or environmentally polluted areas,
  • Overwhelming past regrets or events in the past that make it difficult to focus on the present,
  • Being unable to break free from repetitive, purposeless or draining work,
  • Experiences of discrimination, hate speech or attacks based on characteristics over which the individual has no control (often but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic or social class),
  • Physical, economic, geographical and social barriers to fulfilling one's potential and achieving meaningful self expression,
  • Worries and anxieties about future security, the safety of loved ones, debts or other looming problems,
  • And pressures from social injustices, extreme econimic inequality and ecological devastation.

It is unlikely that one of these causes alone will result in an individual becoming deeply exhausted and depleted, unless that one factor is extreme. However, a combination of these factors can be devastating.

This is particularly significant because many medical lists often leave off the broader social and environmental contributors. I placed them in the latter part of the list, not because they are less important but because they are more complex. In any event, this isn't a list for someone else to use, so much as it is for individuals to look at their own factors.

One theory about the increase in deep exhaustion holds that it is a biological response to our bodies' ability to sense ecological danger. Particularly with the rapidly increasing effects of climate change and extreme whether that have caused economic disruption and large human migrations in some areas of the world, our bodies are reacting to our sense of biological interconnection, which is sounding alarms that cause anxiety and--after lengthy periods in which we can't escape or make a meaningful impact to solve the crisis--soul exhaustion.

That leaves me with the crucial and urgent question of what an individual can do about this deep depletion, given the often on-going underling causes. 

Here are some things that can alleviate the exhaustion and give the individual a chance to rectify at least some of the underlying causes.

Garden gate path sunshine trees lush green - my pic.jpg
  • Prioritize time for restful and replenishing activities (sometimes called "self care"). We can not take care of those who depend on us, if we are too depleted ourselves. Replenishment isn't selfish or idle. Quite the opposite. Expecting others to pay attention to what we need, figure it out and make sure we get the needed replenishment is far more self-absorbed than taking the time to do it ourselves. Often replenishment comes from adequate sleep, reading or time spent in nature, but it can also come from engaging in one's personal interests without pressure or pursuing spiritual studies.
  • Rest as much as necessary. Sometimes--especially when rest has been neglected--this means a great deal of sleep and rest. Illness, disability, extreme types of work, previous trauma and other factors may make greater than average rest necessary over the long-term. This is not a shameful circumstance but rather a fact that cannot be denied without unacceptable costs.
  • Turn off technology and spend time doing fulfilling things that use other senses and body movements, such as reading or absorbing stories in other ways, baking, crafting, creating art, listening to music, experiencing nature, singing or playing music, exercising, immersing ourselves in water and being around people who sooth us and bring out our laughter; 
  • Take time for spiritual practices and growth. This can mean participating in a specific tradition, doing yoga or other movement-based spiritual practices, lighting candles and creating an uplifting atmosphere, meditation, drumming or chanting, going into nature for extended periods, observing the sun, moon and stars or learning about specific things like the healing uses of stones or scents and reading systems such as the Tarot or i-Ching for inner understanding.
  • Consume fresh fruits and vegetables which have not been chemically treated. We must adapt our diets to include as much unprocessed or lightly processed foods and as much locally produced fresh foods as possible. Pay particular attention to avoiding highly processed foods that don't contain a lot of nutrients, even though they may be widely regarded as "healthy" such as packaged bread or white rice. It is important to include some foods that simply bring a moment of satisfaction and joy to the individual. Eating healthy should not mean boring food. Find favorite healthy foods and pick a few favorite not-so-healthy foods as well.
  • Drink teas made with detoxifying herbs; Because people who experience deep exhaustion have often been exposed to toxic chemicals or heavy metals and because anxiety and other emotional distress actually produces toxins in the body, it is important to consider detox. Dandelion root, nettle, red clover and burdock teas are helpful and should be drunk daily for two to three weeks and then stopped for several weeks. If you have a tendency toward anemia, a blood test for anemia may be in order. In this case, caution is also advised with nettle tea, which can flush iron from the blood as it cleans other, harmful heavy metals out of the body. 
  • Take herbal teas, tinctures and extracts of herbs for energy and mood regulation. If you feel a slump of low energy in the morning or the middle of the afternoon and have a tendency to go for coffee or cola in order to power on through the work, try to schedule rest, while drinking green tea and eating lightly sweetened chocolate instead. These also contain stimulants and taste delicious but they act in a more sustainable way in the body. Rhodiola supplements can also help to stimulate the brain once a lot of rest has been had.
  • If negative thinking accompanies a lot of the low energy and keeps rest from being fully absorbed, some anti-depressant herbs such as lavender, lemon balm and St. John's Wart can be helpful. For these purposes I often use tincture because it is best to take them for several days (up to two weeks) in a row but tea will also work nicely if you can make sure you will be able to take it every day. Observe carefully because moods are a matter of delicate body chemistry. Not everyone will find the same herbs useful. St. John's Wart relieves depression for me, but a friend of mine experiences insomnia instead. Be aware of any allergies you may have, take notes on what you are trying, pay attention to any adverse reactions and consult with medical professionals.
  • When negative thoughts and critical "self-talk" intrude, we shouldn't either deepen it or push it away automatically. Feel the emotions associated with this self criticism and any assumptions of the judgments of others. Acknowledge those feelings and hold the part of yourself that is criticized gently. Spend the time necessary to understand the negative thoughts without falling into them.
  • Consider negative words you say about yourself, such as "I'm so fat!" or "What an idiot!" Even if you mean them ironically or as a kind of joke among friends, consider changes to the words that will help to relieve negativity. "That's my attempt at prepper storage" can replace "fat" comments. Or "obviously I have too much on my mind" can replace recriminations over forgotten items or errands. Those are just examples which don't deny reality or outlaw humor, but they are less blaming and judgmental. 
  • Set aside a few moments, perhaps as part of spiritual practice or at some other time when the daily routine is not too hectic, to focus on breathing exercises, smile-muscle exercises and/or meditation on loving yourself and absorbing the love around you. This may also be a time for a practice of gratitude. One year I listed at least one truly good thing that happened during the week at the end of every week in my calendar. Then I read them at the end of the year. It seemed like a bit of a hockey exercise but it turned out to be really astonishing. I know good things happen, of course, along with the hard stuff, but reading it all together was more of an experience than you might think.
  • Read jokes, tell jokes and find ways to increase laughter. Laughing really matters and in times of hardship and strife, it may be at a deficit. You may have to actually seek out jokes and plan silly things in the beginning, if you have been really depleted by difficult circumstances, but bringing back laughter is as important as anything else on this list. 
  • Practice grounding and balancing our energy. Many of the people who are so depleted today are depleted precisely because we are high-energy, active and passionate people. This energy is a great gift, but it can also come with its own challenges. Whether you currently have abundant energy or feel depleted, exhaustion can be helped and prevented by grounding. Grounding can be as simple as spending time in nature. Gardening and other sustenance-producing activities that get your hands into the earth are particularly helpful. But it can also be done even when nature is temporarily unavailable. You can stand or sit during your daily quiet time or spiritual practice, take a few deep breaths and visualize tree roots going down from your feet and/or tailbone into the earth. It may mean visualizing the tree roots twining down through a few floors of a building, through some foundations and concrete, but get them there in visualization. Continue a few more deep breaths and focus on absorbing the steady, sustainable energy of the earth.
  • Find useful things to do to improve the environment and community around ourselves, when energy permits. This last is crucial and yet it can't be done very effectively at the deepest points of exhaustion. Research and specify things you personally can do to improve the ecological and social environments. These may be very small things or large things. Use your particular abilities, talents and blessings. If you have money, that may help a great deal. If you don't, there are other ways. While you may have physical difficulties, many people who are doing the work of environmental and social justice need help with non-physical tasks. The opposite is also true. You may not know precisely what to do, but many organizations can use a pair of strong and quick hands. Doing this kind of work, either as part of your "real job" or during your off hours not only helps to elevate the conditions that exhaust you, it also plays a vital role in preventing exhaustion and rebuilding strength after you have rested. 

It is important to remember through all this that the time it takes to recover from soul exhaustion varies widely and depends on the same factors that cause depletion in the first place. Every person's circumstances are different and healing doesn't always abide by human schedules. Judging ourselves or others for a slow recovery will only slow that recovery further because such judgments contribute to depletion. In the end, resilience is fostered most by a combination of solidarity and intuition.

Be well and nurture joy. I welcome your comments and especially any typos found in my blogs. this week I am particularly exhausted as well, so you may just find some. 

Herbs to help you breeze through cold season: Home Medicine Cycle 28

In many places winter is already coming on. The weather is wet, cold and grayish. The season brings plenty of physical problems - from driving conditions to cutting wood - and then there is the chaos around family holidays. The last thing you need is a cold. 

It may not be the worst illness to have, but unlike a lot of illnesses you usually don't get to stay home in bed and watch reruns when you have a cold. You just feel worse, have less energy and have to deal with a runny nose, headaches, a sore throat and some coughing, while doing all the other things you normally do.  That make colds highly unpleasant and the lack of rest makes them hang on for weeks sometimes. 

One of the first things to do in cold season is to make sure you're getting enough rest and fresh air. Both will help to prevent and cure colds. Rest is the most important component of any strategy to boost your immune system and fresh outside air doesn't carry viruses as well as the air in buildings full of people. If the weather is actually freezing, your risk of catching a cold can go way down if you bundle up warmly and spend at least an hour outside each day. Viruses don't do well with frost. 

That said many of us live in climates where several months out of the year are more dank, cold and rainy than frosty and viruses love this weather. Beyond that, if you work or study in a crowded environment, your immune system would have to be spectacular to avoid the latest cold virus going around. So the chances are that most of us will get a cold at some point. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

If you use pharmaceuticals to beat back the symptoms you will often prolong the cold and while your nose may not run, you will still have less energy. That will often cause you to drink more caffeinated drinks and that will disturb your sleep. And less sleep will mean more colds.

Beyond that, synthetic medicines often suppress the immune system over the long term and have other systemic side effects that aren't listed officially because they are caused by the overall intake of pharmaceuticals rather than by one specific drug. Colds are one area in which you can use herbs very effectively and thus reduce the need for harmful pharmaceuticals. 

Here are the basic steps to using herbs to deal with colds:

Prevention

The primary preventative herb today is still Echinacea. It stimulates white blood cells, which make up the best-understood part of the immune system. It also includes virus-fighting substances and boosts the ability of immune cells to engulf and destroy invaders. 

There is controversy in medical circles about Echinacea largely because there have been some studies conducted using commercially available pellets of freeze-dried Echinacea juice, which showed that the pellets were not very effective in preventing colds. There are studies showing the effectiveness of Echinacea in other forms, however. I took those freeze-dried pellets for a few years because I was traveling and I hoped to get some herbal medicine even when I couldn't grow my own or brew concoctions. And I have to say that I didn't notice any dramatic effect by taking the expensive Echinacea pills. Combine that with the problem that many commercially available Echinacea "supplements" contain only a tiny percentage of actual Echinacea (and sometimes none at all) when they are subjected to lab tests and you could become very skeptical about this herb.

However, none of these facts have any real bearing on the herb itself. Poor use of an herb doesn't make the herb itself ineffective. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

The best way to use Echinacea is to grow your own or find a local supplier of fresh or freshly dried herbs. Then use dried Echinacea flowers (stored in an air-tight, non-metallic container) as a cold prevention tea for children and adults. It has a very pleasant, almost spicy taste reminiscent of the smell of bee hives.

For adults, Echinacea tincture is also excellent. It's best taken as needed the moment you notice a tingling of a cold in your throat or nose. I personally prefer Echinacea flower tincture and have found it most effective in cold prevention. If I can take a large spoonful of Echinacea flower tincture within an hour or two of the first signs of a cold or when other people around me have colds, I almost never end up with a real cold and if I don't take it my immunity to colds is not very good.  Here is a basic recipe for tincture.

I have read that many herbalists prefer Echinacea root tincture. However, in order to make a tincture with enough potency they must use several batches of Echinacea root for each batch of alcohol. This means soaking finely chopped roots in alcohol, then straining the alcohol after a few weeks and pouring it over another bunch of roots for several more weeks and repeating the process at least three times. The process is complicated but the results may be even better than Echinacea flower tincture. 

Echinacea works best if taken at specific times when immune support is needed. The immune system may become too accustomed to that support if it' s taken constantly. I use Echinacea flower tea when flu and cold season is in full swing on a regular basis and take Echinacea tincture as needed within hours when I can feel something coming on.

Treatment 

Even herbs don't provide an actual cure for colds. Once you have a cold, rest is the closest thing to a cure and often rest is hard to come by. Most herbs for colds treat specific symptoms and you can choose the best ones based on the symptoms you have. Treating symptoms is far from useless when it comes to curing a cold because many cold systems will interrupt your sleep and sleep is key.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

One general anti-viral herb to take after a cold has set in is St. John's wart. St. John's wart helps to fight a wide range of viruses and it gives the body energy needed in fighting an infection.

There is a myth that one should stop taking Echinacea once a cold has set in. I have found that this is bad advice. First of all your immune system doesn't just prevent infections, it also fights ongoing infections. So, the need for the immune support of Echinacea doesn't end simply because the cold temporarily got the upper hand. I have also experienced long-term colds and coughs that hung on tenaciously and would only recede when i took Echinacea tincture each day and for several days AFTER the symptoms disappeared. I stopped several times once the symptoms had disappeared and the infection returned, until I had the discipline to continue taking Echinacea tincture daily until about a week after the symptoms had cleared up. This has happened to me enough times that I consider it to be a pattern.

Herbs high in vitamin C are also good for general treatment. Rose hip tea and even more so buck thorn syrup  contain vitamin C (as does homemade sauerkraut).

Treating congestion

Now we get into the nitty gritty of treating specific symptoms.

One of the best herbs for treating the congestion that comes with a common cold is elder, particularly the flowers. My family uses dried elder flowers for tea (which is quite pleasant). And the adults use elder flower tincture as a powerful decongestant. If you do have to continue working when you have a cold, elder flower tincture is essential. It will clear out congestion as effectively as many pharmaceutical cold medicines but without the negative health effects associated with those. 

If you don't pick all the elder flowers off of your local elder bushes in June, you can also make a syrup from the elder berries themselves. This contains many of the properties of the flowers plus vitamins that are helpful for recovering from colds.

Another way to deal with stubborn congestion is to put a drop of thyme or eucalyptus essential oil and a few table spoons of salt into a bowl of hot water and breathe in the steam from it. You can put a towel over your head to catch the steam and clear out built up congestion that keeps the infection inside and interferes with rest.

Treating sore throats 

Lemon balm leaves and linden flowers are both excellent for treating sore throats. Lemon balm has been recently found to specifically fight the bacteria that cause strep throat. This is essential when you have a cold because while a cold is minor by itself it will often weaken the body and allow a bacterial infection to set in. I drink lemon balm even if I don't have a sore throat with a cold in order to prevent strep. Making lemon balm syrup (with this recipe) is one excellent way to combat sore throats.

Raw honey is also good for a sore throat. Gargling with salt water or a bit of propolis tincture diluted in water are also useful methods. You can even chew a piece of propolis if you don't have propolis tincture although it will temporarily stain your teeth bright yellow. 

Treating coughs

I covered the treatment of coughs in another post which you can find here. In brief, the best herbs I have found for coughs are thyme, mullein, marshmallow, longwort and plantain. 

I love hearing about your experiences with herbs. Let's have some discussion on what really works in the comments section below.

Store some sunshine for next winter: Home Medicine Cycle 15

In the heart of winter, the sun doesn't rise here until 8:00 and it goes down promptly at 4:00 in the afternoon. Add to that the thick, smothering cloud cover that blankets the land eight months out of the year, and seasonal mood disorder isn't just a theory in this land. It's a fact of life.

Oh, to be able to bottle a bit of the precious summer sun that is so intense just now!

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

Wait a minute. You can do just that or the next best thing. There is a plant that does a very good job of capturing and preserving the essence of the sun.

That's St. John's Wart. As if to cue herbalists to start watching for sunbursts in the grass, the Christian calendar made June 24 the feast of St. John. And that's about right. By mid-July St. John's Wart is in full bloom--little five-petaled bursts waving back to the sun. 

St. John's Wart has many uses but it's signature use--the thing it does that few other plants do is lift spirits in the dead of winter, just as if it preserved the rays of the summer sun. Whether as a tea or a tincture, St. John's Wart in small doses is the herb for low-energy depression, fatigue and sagging passion.

A cup of tea or a few drops of tincture can be taken daily in the cold season to energize you and preclude depression that is chemically or biologically based. It can even help with depression caused by problematic circumstances. However, a strict schedule has to be kept where the herb is used for three weeks and then there is a rest of one week before using it for another three weeks. It's an herb with intense compounds that can be harmful if overdone. 

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

St. John's Wart is also one of the best antiviral herbs. The tincture (look here for the recipe) can also be used to fight viral infections that antibiotics can't touch. If using St. John's Wart for depression or to increase energy, you want to take about a spoonful per day (with the three weeks on, one week off schedule). For an anti-viral dose, take three teaspoons per day for no longer than a week and stay out of intense sunlight. (High doses of St. John's Wart will tend to make you more susceptible to sunburn. In winter, this may help to increase the benefit of what little sunlight you get but you should still be careful.) 

St. John's Wart is also used as a salve for burns, particularly sunburns, and for wound disinfection. I shy away from using St. John's Wart for sunburns, even though I am sure it is effective in its own right. The fact that one has a sunburn means that one is likely to go out in the sun again soon and St. John's Wart salve on the skin will also make you more sensitive to the sun. But I do put infused St. John's Wart oil in my salve for immediate first-aid use on wounds. (See here for an infused oil and salve recipe.)

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

St. John's Wart is relatively easy to identify. It grows in sturdy plants in meadows and grassland where there is full sun. It has clusters of yellow flowers and the lower part of the flower head is a distinctive mix of brown and purple. But when you're beginning there is a  foolproof test for identifying St. John's Wart. If the plant looks like St. John's Wart and you take a blossom between your fingers and squeeze it, the yellow flower will bleed a deep crimson liquid that will stain your fingers.

Historically herbalists noted that the tincture and the tea of St. John's Wart isn't yellow like the flower but rather a deep beautiful red, and they associated the energizing and cleansing effects of the herb with being useful to blood disorders. I haven't seen a lot of modern evidence between St. John's Wart and blood issues but the color that comes out of the yellow flowers is very startling. 

Enough musing. It's the height of herb season! Now get to gathering.

Before you go, share your herbalist experiences and ask questions below using the comments icon or share this article with your friends. 

Please note that I'm not a doctor and this is not a prescription for treatment of a specific medical problem for a particular person.

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