Self-Care for Anxiety & Stress

How well do you take care of yourself?

Built-in Busyness

This article is a follow-up to the article, “The Anxiety of Busyness.”

I was so well-trained and addicted to constant busyness that I accepted it as normal. My long hours of sitting without breaks, my lack of regular exercise and stretching, my high level of daily stress due to a profession I was no longer happy in, and the many years carrying the mental load and physical responsibilities of caregiving and household management had taken their toll on my body and mind. Even my attempts at recreation incorporated some level of production: a walk had to be so many miles, a hike had to gain elevation, and my downtime had to be productive in some way. As I approached age 50, I felt like a withered plant, barely hanging on to life. My body was telling me I needed a change.

Assess Your Current Self-Care

How well do you take care of yourself? I hesitate to add one more thing to your to-do list but sometimes we simply need to take time to think about what we are doing and how we are living. Keeping a journal for one week, detailing how you spend your time, is the best place to start with self-care. This first strategy is the same one used in permaculture when planning a project: first, observe and then analyze. Tracking and writing down every hour or so what you are doing only takes a few minutes each time. Analyzing your record of time is next and it can reveal much and open the doors for changes. The first thing to look for is the amount of time spent caring for yourself.

If you are experiencing chronic anxiety as a result of busyness, then self-care has become a low priority. Chronic anxiety can affect every organ of your body, resulting in life-altering diseases like hypertension, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, and insomnia. The research is solid on the positive benefits of nutrient-dense diets, daily exercise and movement, deep sleep, stress reduction and management, and daily exposure to nature. Change your mindset and to-do list by prioritizing daily exercise, healthy cooking, and time outdoors. Don’t cheat yourself out of these important activities by allowing only minimal amounts of time; self-care is critical to our health and our ability to do the “world-changing” work of our lives.

Self-care can mean different things to individuals. For me, there are two strategies that form the basis of my self-care: exercise and time in nature. For many years, I told myself I didn’t have time for either one. I then began to add exercise and outdoor time to my to-do list and daily planner only to feel guilty for not following through with either activity – which added more negative emotions! 

The most life-changing commitment I made was to commit to time outdoors each day. I moved my daily walk from the gym treadmill to the neighborhood surrounding my workplace (including the oldest graveyard in the city) and the suburban streets and parks near my home. I set up a lounge chair in my vegetable garden and took breaks to rest my back and restore my appreciation for the natural world.

Take a walk on the wild side
Take a walk on the wild side!

Taking a walk on your lunch break or after work can have an immediate difference on your stress levels. Spending time outdoors every day can have a profound effect on your overall health by reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes as well as reducing stress and high blood pressure. Any kind of movement or exercise, whether it’s inside or outside, increases the production of endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters; offers quiet time to our brains helping to reduce our stress; and improves our overall mood and confidence. Research is finally catching up and reporting that going outside has many benefits.

A recent study concluded that 120 minutes per week spent in natural environments decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, and improves psychological well-being. Not only do I feel more energized and happier after a walk outside, but I often use this time to think about problems or concerns. That graveyard I was walking in during my lunch hour? Turns out that reading old gravestones of people who died at young ages generated some new thinking about how I wanted to spend the precious days of my life. After a year of lunch-hour walks there, I left my stressful job and moved to a small town in a rural area and created a completely different lifestyle. 

Graveyards are reminders about living fully
Graveyards are good reminders about living fully (Wikimedia Commons)

The Three Rs of Self-Care


When the feeling of overwhelm becomes too much and you feel the stress in your body on a daily basis, it is time to reassess your priorities. Reassess, reduce, and eliminate activities that are not helping you with your goals, interests, and obligations or that are serving as a distraction from things you are putting off is an important first step in helping with taking back control and reducing stress levels.

The best advice I found for this article!  Tim Hufner @unsplash
The best advice I found for this article! Tim Hufner @unsplash

Consider your reasons for being “crazy busy”: Do you have a subconscious belief that you are not enough without constantly producing? Do you have to “earn” the space you take up on the planet by being productive? Do you believe that you must control all aspects of your life? Do you have standards of perfection?


After many years of busyness, I realized that I seldom take an entire day off. A day in which I do only what I want, not what I should do. I now try to structure my time so that I am able to take an entire day off from work, household chores, and emails several days a month. I say try because this has proven to be my biggest challenge and I have to fight the urge to not spend an hour working, checking email, or what I call “catching up” on these days. To be honest, I often have to leave the house for an all-day hike to truly honor my intention of a day off from my to-do list.

A nearby escape with a view
A nearby escape with a view

I prefer structure and routine in my day-to-day life and I now prioritize activities that serve my self-care. This includes daily walks and yoga practice, reading, rest breaks of doing nothing (so hard!), and knitting a row or two on my latest project. I have very distinctive energy levels and because I am self-employed, I schedule my work around my highest levels.


Several years ago, I wrote an article about the advantages of drinking herbal tea versus coffee. Of course, I included the medicinal and nutritive benefits but I also noted that coffee is associated with productivity. Our workplaces often keep coffee brewing throughout the workday, so we can grab a cup and return to our desks to continue working. Historically, tea breaks were offered to British factory workers as a way to rest and restore for another six hours of productivity.  

Taking a break several times a day with a cup of herbal tea is a highly effective way to slow down and pay attention to what your body is telling you (not your critical mind that is telling you that you are too busy to do this). Invest in a daily herbal tea ritual and reap the benefits of both relaxation and herbal teas.

A cup of tea by Mary Cassat
A Cup of Tea by Mary Cassat (Wikimedia Commons)

The act of a tea break sends an immediate message to your brain that you are taking a break. You may have to work a bit harder to get the same message to co-workers and family members.

The Best Herbs for Anxiety and Stress

Herbs can help with relaxation, provide nervous system support, and improve sleep. But they are not a cure for the anxiety of busyness; like so many other health concerns, lifestyle factors are key to eliminating chronic stress.

Relaxing Nervines

Nervine herbs are plants that work with the nervous system. They can nourish, regulate, soothe, strengthen and restore nerve cells. They are classified by their effect: relaxing, stimulating, and tonic. Herbs that are relaxing nervines can vary in their effect: some can help with tension, the feeling of overwhelm, and irritation, and are ideal for a mid-day herbal tea break but they can also be taken as a tincture or by capsule. Some nervines, especially in tincture form, are well-suited for acute scenarios like panic attacks or trauma-induced anxiety. Others are better used to promote sleep because of their sedative effects and should be taken as a tincture to avoid nighttime visits to the bathroom from drinking several cups of tea before bedtime.

  • Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla): Well-known for both soothing upset tummies and as a nighttime tea, chamomile is the perfect herb for after lunch, after a tough meeting, or conversation. It helps to release nervous tension. It’s also great for a sit-down tea break after work and before dinner.
Chamomile flowers
Chamomile flowers
  • Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): Well-suited for acute anxiety situations like panic attacks but it also serves as a nerve tonic toning and soothing our nervous system that may be fried due to chronic stress. Slightly bitter, it is ideal in a tea blend with other nervine herbs and as a tincture for acute situations.
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): Hands down, the most delicious relaxing herb and perfect for adding a bit of flavor to herbal tea blends while also contributing to the relaxation of nervous tension. Once referred to as the “gladdening” herb, lemon balm’s gentle manner has been used to relieve stress and anxiety, reduce restlessness and improve sleep for many centuries. Similar to chamomile, this member of the mint family can also serve as a digestive aid.
Lemon balm leaves
Lemon Balm leaves
  • Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): Looking at the beautiful and exotic-looking flowers of passionflower could be enough to distract your attention from mild anxiety but as a tea or tincture it can tone down an excited nervous system and help with anxiety and insomnia. Research indicates that it can help calm and soothe anxiety associated with an anticipated stressful event like a dental procedure. It’s believed that compounds in passionflower bind to the same areas of the brain affected by a calming neurotransmitter called GABA.
Passionflower (Wikimedia commons)

Crazy Busy Tea Blend

What you’ll need…

  • 1 part chamomile
  • 1 part lemon balm 
  • 1/4 part licorice
  1. Combine the herbs and use 1 tablespoon for an 8-ounce cup. 
  2. Add just-boiled water and steep for 10 minutes. If steeped longer, the herbs can become bitter.

Adaptogens for Self-Care

Though used for thousands of years in the Ayurvedic herbal system, adaptogens are relatively new to western herbalism. Adaptogens support our body’s ability to adapt to stress. They help the body resist chronic stress, have a normalizing or balancing effect on our physiology, and improve energy while reducing hyperactivity in our body’s systems caused by stress. These herbs need to be taken consistently over a period of time to support our overall health and physiological wellness. The effects are long-term and subtle rather than immediate. Adaptogenic herbs vary in their energetics and should be matched to an individual’s energetics. Most adaptogenic herbs tend to be stimulating. They can be taken as capsules, tinctures, teas, or added to food. 

  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Ashwagandha is calming and can be used to gently rebuild the nervous system and help with stress-induced insomnia. Generally, this herb is taken in larger doses so incorporating it into food is the ideal way to use it.
Ashwagandha root (purchase cut or powdered)
Ashwagandha root
(purchase cut or powdered)
Wikimedia Commons
  • Reishi: This adaptogenic mushroom is an all-star ally for overall wellness including supporting our nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems. I like to add it to my winter chai blend. 
Reishi mushroom
Reishi mushroom
Wikimedia Commons
  • Holy basil: An adaptogen that also offers antioxidant, neuroprotective, and stress-relieving properties. Holy basil is especially useful for helping with anxiety and depression that are associated with trauma.
  • Licorice: A sweet herb, I add small amounts of licorice to many of my tea blends because of its taste. But it’s also effective as an adaptogen, a soothing herb for digestive woes, and offers antibacterial and antiviral benefits.

Ashwagandha Tonic Recipe

In India, ashwagandha is traditionally served this way:

  • 2 tablespoons powdered ashwagandha
  • 2 cups milk 
  • 1 tablespoon raw sugar or molasses
  • Pinch of cardamom or cinnamon for taste
  1. Simmer the powder and milk over low heat for 15 minutes. 
  2. Add the sweetener and spice, if using. 
  3. Stir until well mixed. Remove from heat and drink.