Update on introducing Bach flowers to medical doctors

My last post on this blog was about preparing a short talk on the Bach flower remedies for a group of doctors and medical scientists. Several readers asked me to report back, so here is a brief update following the event.

My talk seemed to be well received by the  audience, which represented a wide range of specialties: neurosurgery, rheumatology, oncology, paediatrics, general practice and others. Most of those present had never heard of the remedies before. There were plenty of questions, for example: are the same plants used for similar purposes in herbalism and pharmacology? how exactly did Dr Bach select his flowers? would just looking at the flowers have an effect? At least one person thought that the mode of action must be chemical, but another was familiar with the concept of vibrational healing, pointing out that plants have an energy field as demonstrated by Kirlian photography.

It was encouraging to receive so many positive and open-minded responses, and I was left wishing that there were more opportunities for orthodox clinicians and natural therapists to learn about each others’ work.

Introducing the Bach flowers to medical doctors

Later this week I’ll be giving a short talk about the Bach flower remedies to a group of senior doctors with connections to my old medical school in Oxford, UK. Many of them will probably never have heard of the remedies – even though Mount Vernon, the home of the Bach Foundation, is only a few miles away from Oxford city. Even fewer will have had personal experience of using them, or know how much they can help with the management of health problems whether mental or physical.     

I hope and expect that there will be a friendly informal atmosphere at this meeting, and that most people in the audience will be interested in the brief case histories and flower photos I plan to present. However, some orthodox clinicians are sceptical about the value of ‘natural therapies’ in general, and a few are quite hostile towards them, so I need to be prepared to answer criticisms such as the following:

Bach flowers are no more effective than placebo: several randomised controlled trials published in medical journals have reached this conclusion. The placebo effect, in which the beliefs and expectations of both patients and their clinicians work to bring about a self-healing response, is indeed a powerful force for good and if the Bach remedies can mobilise it effectively, so much the better. There is certainly a placebo element in this therapy, as in any other.

It is, however, difficult to believe that the excellent results achieved with the remedies are due to placebo alone – over 80% of clients treated by Bach practitioners respond well, and they include babies and animals. And the occurrence of ‘healing reactions’, in which a minority of clients experience an aggravation of symptoms before they get better, seems unlikely to be a placebo (or nocebo) effect.

The published trials have several limitations, for example they have usually given the same remedies to all participants although it is a key principle of this therapy that an individualised mixture should be chosen for each case.

The challenges of evaluating natural therapies and the ‘holistic approach’ are considered in more detail in my recent book Persons not Diseases (by the way the e-version on Smashwords is on promotion at just $1.50 USD this week, 2-8 March – here’s the link).

Their supposed mode of action is not scientifically credible: talk of ‘vibrational’ and ‘energy’ medicine does not go down well in orthodox circles, where mechanical and chemical approaches hold sway. It must be admitted that the mode of action of Bach flower remedies, like that of homeopathics, is not well understood. However, it is arrogant to assume that a therapy must be ineffective because current knowledge cannot explain why it should work. The phrase ‘the exact mechanism of action is unknown’ quite often appears in the product descriptions of widely-used pharmaceutic drugs!

The remedies give ‘false hope’ of cure, and patients may use them instead of effective medical treatments: It is true to say that Dr Edward Bach envisaged a world in which most diseases could be cured if patients themselves simply learned to recognise the emotional imbalance underlying them, and used the flower remedies to restore harmony to mind and spirit. Although subsequent advances in mind-body medicine would support Bach’s ideas, current claims for the remedies are more modest. They are not a panacea and, as made clear in training courses for Bach Foundation practitioners, they are intended for ‘complementary’ rather than ‘alternative’ use. They do not treat specific medical conditions, but are selected according to the personality and emotional state of each patient, with the aim of improving quality of life. They can safely be used alongside conventional treatments.

If any other points of interest arise from the meeting, I’ll write a follow-up post next week.

Bach flowers in fiction

In 1934 Edward Bach wrote a short piece called The Story of the Travellers about a group of sixteen people who have lost their way on a woodland walk. Each one of them responds differently to their predicament depending on their personality type, for example Oak is determined to struggle on to the end despite his exhaustion, Rock Rose gets into a panic, whereas Chicory is more concerned about the welfare of his companions than anything else.

Stories provide an excellent way of learning about the different flower remedies, and I remember that many of the exercises on my practitioner training course were based on characters from films and novels, or real-life personal accounts in magazines.

I have heard of three novels which feature the Bach flowers: The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro by Alison Fell, Valis by Philip K Dick, and one by Mary Tabor which is currently out of print but may soon be posted on the Bach Centre website. And I’ve just published a novella in the ‘romantic suspense’ genre, Carmen’s Roses, in which the remedies play a minor role. If anyone knows of other relevant books I would be interested to hear about them.

Balance, Bach flowers, and holistic healing

Dictionaries define the word ‘balance’ in terms of equilibrium, calmness, and equal distribution – concepts which are key to happiness and healing.

It is often said that the Bach flower remedies work by restoring balance to the personality and emotions. In other words, they help to convert an unduly negative state of mind into its more positive counterpart. The first two remedies discovered by Dr Bach provide clear illustrations of this: Mimulus to promote courage instead of fear, and the aptly-named Impatiens to promote patience for those with an impatient nature. Some more detailed examples:

 Beech: people in the negative Beech state can be critical, intolerant, judgemental and arrogant. The remedy helps them to realise their positive potential of feeling a sense of compassion and unity with others.

Centaury: those in the negative Centaury state find it hard to say ‘no’, and are so anxious to please that they continually let themselves be imposed upon, to their own detriment. In the positive state, though still willing to be of service, they can also fulfil their own needs and follow their own path.

Gorse: the negative state is one of hopelessness and despair, such as is often felt by those who suffer from a chronic illness from which they see no prospect of recovery. The positive potential is a sense of faith and hope, the willingness to try new treatments and the ability to find some positive aspects in the experience of adversity.

Balance is a key concept in relation to holistic healing for medical conditions. Besides emotional balance, this includes balance with regard to lifestyle, and to decisions about the management of illness. However, some people approach it in a quite unbalanced way. For example they may refuse a highly effective orthodox treatment because of their idealogical commitment to ‘natural’ therapies. I gave a few other examples in my book Persons not Diseases. To quote:

‘Some enthusiasts lose their sense of balance by going to extremes which do more harm than good, for example following strict diets which lead to emaciation, nutritional deficiencies or eating disorders; taking excellent care of their physical bodies, but continuing to live with the stress caused by an unhappy marriage or work situation; meditating for many hours each day but not taking any exercise or brushing their teeth properly; spending their life savings on some new ‘miracle therapy’ which has not been properly tested; or becoming so obsessed with health-related issues that they neglect other domains of life relating to work and leisure, home and garden, finances, relationships with family and friends, and spirituality.’

The Bach remedy Vervain can be helpful in curbing the over-enthusiasm of people like this, who are often highly strung, fanatical over-achievers determined to convert others to their own fixed principles and ideas. In the positive Vervain state, while still idealistic and energetic, they are more flexible and relaxed, and can appreciate Dr Bach’s statement that ‘It is by being rather than doing that great things are accomplished’.  

Bach flowers for eating disorders

On recent visits to the UK I have noticed an ‘Emotional Eating Kit’ for sale in chemists and health stores. This product, made by Nelsons, contains three Bach flower remedies: Chestnut Bud, Crab Apple and Cherry Plum, to be taken either separately or in combination. It is clear from the testimonials that some users have found the kit helpful. But there will be others who have not been helped, either because they needed different remedies from those included in the kit, or because their eating disorder was too serious to be managed safely by the Bach flowers alone.

The term ’emotional eating’ refers to the tendency to turn to food when feeling unhappy, bored or stressed, but the kit would undoubtedly attract interest from people with other food-related problems. These range from the obsession with diet which often develops after a stringent weight-loss program or in excessively health-conscious people, to the potentially life-threatening conditions of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Self-help with the Bach flower remedies can play a useful part in the management of all these disorders, but the more severe variants need professional care as well.

The Nelsons website gives the following descriptions of the three remedies in the kit: ‘When you find yourself repeating the same dieting mistakes, Chestnut Bud helps you gain knowledge from your experience’; ‘When you feel unclean or dislike something about yourself, Crab Apple helps you accept yourself and your imperfections; ‘When you fear you might lose control of your diet, Cherry Plum can help you to think and act rationally’. While one or more of these flowers might certainly be appropriate for a person with emotional eating problems, another might do better with a different selection from the total series of 38  remedies. To give a few examples: Agrimony for those who hide their troubles behind a smiling face but seek comfort in drinking, smoking or eating to excess; Gentian or Gorse for those who feel discouraged or even hopeless about their prospects of recovery; Mimulus for those with specific fears around food; Rock water for those who have unrealistically high personal standards and aim for rigid self-control; White chestnut for those who are troubled by unwanted thoughts about food or weight.

A cornerstone of Dr Bach’s philosophy can be summed up in the phrase ‘treat the person, not the disease’. This maxim is such an important feature of the holistic healing approach that I chose the title Persons not Diseases for my latest book. Different people who present with similar symptoms or behaviours may require quite different combinations of remedies. So there is no standard formula in the Bach system for treating pain, or insomnia, or eating problems; the selection of flowers depends purely on the current emotional state of the individual concerned.

Bach flowers for life event stress

Distress about an ‘adverse life event’ is among the most common reasons that people seek help from the Bach flowers. Besides major events such as the loss of a job, a divorce, and the death of a loved person or pet, many other kinds of traumas, disappointments, irritations or deprivations can happen in life.

During my former career as a research psychiatrist I carried out a study about life events in relation to health. This involved following up a sample of women over several years through a series of detailed home interviews. Adverse events were reported much more often than pleasant ones, and the number of events varied greatly between different people. One event often set off a cascade of others and there were usually accompanying long-term difficulties, such as financial problems or unhappy relationships.

This is not the place to discuss that particular study but I would like to mention some personal observations I took from it. These points are not often emphasised in the academic literature, but they may be helpful to people dealing with life event stress themselves.

1. The impact of an event varies a good deal depending on individual personality and circumstances. The same experience, for example being made redundant, might be variously perceived as a loss, a punishment, an insult, a challenge, the hand of fate, or a blessing in disguise. It could give rise to different emotions such as sadness, guilt, resentment, anger, resignation or relief. There is always potential for ‘reframing’ personal attitudes and emotions around an event.

2. Although adverse events usually lead to emotional distress, and sometimes act as the trigger for a mental or physical illness, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ and often there are compensations in the longer term. The person who was made redundant might, for example, benefit from a much-need rest before going on to improve his or her skills and presentation and eventually finding a better job.

3. We are responsible for much of what happens in our lives. Although some events such as bereavements and natural disasters do happen independently, they are the minority. Most events do not arise ‘out of the blue’; personal choices and behaviours have usually played some part in the chain of causation. Some also believe in metaphysical aspects, for example that our thoughts and emotions determine our life event experience through the Law of Attraction, or that the Universe presents us with the experiences required to advance our spiritual development.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some suggestions for Bach flowers which can assist coping with stressful life events and difficulties. The statements in quotes are taken from The Encyclopedia of Bach Flower Therapy by Mechthild Scheffer. As always, the choice of remedy or remedies depends on the current emotional state of the individual. Please visit the Bach Centre website for more details.

Chestnut bud ‘from superficiality to experience’: if the same type of adverse event keeps ocuring in your life, this may indicate a failure to learn from past actions.

Gentian ‘from doubt to trust’: if you feel negative and discouraged following a setback, delay or disappointment.

Gorse ‘from giving up to going forth’: if you feel completely hopeless, and can hardly see any point in trying to overcome long-standing difficulties.

Holly ‘from hard-heartedness to generosity’if you feel consumed by hostile feelings such as anger, jealousy or suspicion towards other person(s) whom you hold to blame for what went wrong.

Star of Bethlehem ‘from shock to reorientation’: for shock and grief, for example after an accident or bereavement, even if it happened some time ago.

Sweet chestnut ‘through darkness to light’: if you feel unbearable anguish and have reached the end of your endurance. 

Willow ‘from resenting fate to taking personal responsibility’: when the predominant feelings are those of self-pity and being a victim, Willow can encourage a greater sense of empowerment.

Adverse life events are always upsetting but there is often something to be learned from them. For example, having an accident – especially more than one – might indicate the need to be more patient, to curtail an overload of commitments, to maintain better safety standards for your home or car, to pay more attention to the present moment, or to avoid going too long without food. Or, experiencing a series of relationship breakups might indicate some kind of imbalance in your own psychology.  There are Bach flower remedies to cover some of these issues too, but details would be beyond the scope of this post.

Bach flowers for mind-body healing

I’ve just published a short ebook called Bach Flowers for Mind-Body Healing and you can download a free copy from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/176232.

The cover image shows the Gorse flower, used to promote hope and faith in cases of chronic illness.

Here’s the blurb:

‘The Bach flowers are safe natural remedies designed to balance the emotions. Although they do not treat medical conditions directly, they can help to control mental symptoms such as anxiety and physical ones such as pain, and to modify personality traits such as pessimism or impatience which may be contributing to ill-health. This is a short practical guide to using the remedies for mind-body healing on a self-help basis, alongside professional treatment and care’.