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  • Stephanie Phillips

The Happiness Myth and herbal alternatives to anti-depressants

Happiness is marketed everywhere and promised by every brand and self-help book. But effervescent, perpetual happiness is not what a well-lived life looks like. Happiness is not the goal. Peace is. Growth. Acceptance. Contentment.

Herbal medicine doesn’t seek to eliminate our feelings or turn negative ones into positive ones but to help us incorporate all of our feelings so that we may experience wholeness, health, holiness.

Stop avoiding silence

The first step to mental health is noticing how we are feeling in both our bodies and hearts. This requires stillness and silence. Even in small doses. However, we make sure there is no silence in our life. We drown out the whisperings of our heart with social media, terrible TV, great TV, music, alcohol, drugs or food. Solange beautifully describes our pain-avoiding tactics in her song Cranes in the Sky. We try to drink it away, run it away, dance it away, sext it away. In reality, we need silence just as we need oxygen, just as plants need light. Silence lets our emotional snow globe settle and its message reveal itself to us. If we try to numb our hearts for too long, our confused feelings show up as non-descript, all encompassing anxiety or depression.

Feel your feelings and call them by their true names

One of the biggest differences between American culture and Mediterranean culture is how people deal with emotion. Americans are taught that portraying happiness is polite, necessary, the mark of a successful life. To display anything short of a huge pearly white grin and maximum enthusiasm is a sign of weakness. This has led to an over-medicated culture that has unrealistic expectations of what happiness actually is. A culture that would rather feel nothing than feel sad or anxious.

Mediterraneans on the other hand would rather die than feel nothing. Even pain is a reminder to them that they are alive, that they have loved and lost or that they have deviated from their true purpose.

Life schools us through contrast. We know happiness only because we know suffering. We know loyalty because we know betrayal. We know satisfaction because we know disappointment. Life is sometimes hard. But that is how we grow. No rain, no rainbow. Or as the Buddha would say: no mud, no lotus. If nothing else, suffering teaches us empathy. It shouldn’t feel isolating, it should feel connective. There is nothing more common to the human experience than grief, fear, heartache and melancholy.

I can’t speak to the emotional pressures experienced by more stoic cultures, but I can say that if you are French, Spanish or Italian you are totally allowed to feel pain and anger. These cultures indulge in their feelings, in their tears, because they know they will pass and they might even unlock their inner poets. Arabs refer to tears as the pearls of the soul. In Ayurveda, tears are seen as one of the key ways we shed toxins.

This is not to say that we should offload our emotions onto others. Anger is definitely not a constructive emotion or one that should dictate our choice of words. But what if we stopped trying to rid ourselves of our emotions and instead, paid attention to what these feelings are here to teach us? What lies behind them?

Anxiety and Depression can be our teachers

At this point, I want to focus on anxiety and depression as they are endemic and somewhat more mysterious to us than reactive emotions like heartbreak or grief that have a cause we can point to. My radical point is that these feelings are not just showing up to ruin our lives. They may be here to invite us to heal deep familial or ancestral wounds. They may be here to show us that it is time to make some much needed changes.

Susun Weed, an East Coast herbalist, poetically invites us to honour depression:

“Look here” Grandmother Growth motions to you as she spreads her story blanket at your feet. See how depression is deeply woven with anger and grief. When our frustration would endanger us, depression comes to protect us. When there is no way to deal effectively with situations that enrage us, depression comes to help us quiet our violent impulses.

Depression is not an easy companion for our journey but she knows much about life. In her bundle she carries the anger you have frozen and kept nourished with your pain. She carries your wholeness. Will you let her teach you?”

The herbal alternative to anti-depressant drugs

Mental health is complex, involving both our minds as well as multiple bio-chemical systems in the body. I am not here to judge someone’s personal treatment choice. But, I would like to present a case for herbal alternatives to drugs so that people can make a more informed decision.

In peer reviews, most anti-depressants have a 55–60% success rate (just above placebo). This number may be artificially inflated however, as reports are not published if they do not reinforce the efficacy drugs. The most proven treatment for depression/anxiety is a combination of talk therapy, herbal medicine, exercise and diet adjustments.

Nature is full of herbs that can help us process our emotions and not get stuck wallowing or ruminating without growth or healing. It is full of specific remedies tailored to hold us as we voyage through some of the more painful human experiences or transitions.

We have herbs that dispel melancholy like Lemon Balm and St John’s Wort. Herbs that slow down our over-active minds like Skullcap and herbs that ease our nervous system like Damiana and Passion flower. Herbs for heartbreak like Hawthorne and Roses. Herbs to help with post-natal depression like Motherwort. We also have an abundance of flower essences that help with the more subtle disturbances of the heart and soul, that can help you tap into your inner child, your inner wisdom or your connection with the Divine, whatever you consider that to be.

If you are looking for an alternative and personalised approach to dealing with emotional upheaval, please get in touch:


This content is for information purposes only and is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical or herbal consultation with a qualified professional.

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