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’.
 

Bach flowers and the Law of Attraction

The idea that our thoughts and feelings create our personal reality has been around for centuries, but has only recently become widely known. My own introduction to it came through the teachings of Abraham-Hicks, which have inspired thousands of people in recent years. But it is only since release of the The Secret movie in 2006 that the ‘Law of Attraction’ entered popular culture. A simple formula for manifesting anything you want – ‘Ask, believe, receive’ – swept the world.

Some of the excitement wore off when many people discovered that this formula did not seem to yield the desired results for them. Skeptics say that the Law of Attraction lacks a sound scientific basis and there is no formal evidence that it works. In contrast, most of those in the modern self-help and ‘New Age spirituality’ movements still claim that it is valid, but that there are many factors both conscious or unconscious which may block its success.

Here is a light-hearted look at some of the common blocks, and which of the Bach flower remedies might help in overcoming them. For illustration I will take the classic example of wanting a red car – although Dr Bach, who lived by the value of Simplicity, might not have approved of such a materialistic goal.

Lack of clarity about your desires: You doubt your own judgement about what sort of car would be best, and keep asking other people to validate your choice (Cerato). Or you keep changing your mind, unable to decide between a red car and a blue one (Scleranthus).

A negative mindset: You have little hope or expectation of getting the car you want (Gentian or Gorse). Much as you want the red car, you do not feel you deserve it (Pine). Or you doubt your ability to manifest such a fine vehicle, let alone drive it properly (Larch). For success with the Law of Attraction it is essential to be positive, and focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want.

Passivity: You would like a beautiful red car to appear by magic, but you tend towards day-dreaming rather than taking action (Clematis), or feel resigned to putting up with your old vehicle (Wild Rose). Besides putting your requests out to the universe, you need to play your own part on a practical level.

Over-control: You have rigid exact requirements about the car you want (Rock Water), are so determined to get it that you wear yourself and others out with your enthusiasm (Vervain), or cannot you wait – you must have the car NOW (Impatiens).

We cannot always control the timing of things, hence the maxim ‘let go of the outcome’. And sometimes, when our desires never manifest at all, this turns out to have been in our best interests; perhaps you would be better off with a bicycle, or by directing your intentions towards a more spiritual goal than getting a red car.

For detailed information about the remedies mentioned above please visit the Bach Centre website.

Forgiveness and the Bach flowers

Few states of mind are more toxic to body and soul than unforgiveness – which includes both resentments towards other people, and reproachfulness towards the self. All the major world religions advocate forgiveness. This does not mean condoning wrong actions, but involves moving on from the hurt they have caused, by cultivating love and compassion instead of holding on to anger and blame.

Chronic unforgiveness has been described as ‘a deadly spiritual poison’ and many alternative healers regard it as a major risk factor for physical disease, some going so far as to say that it lies at the root of most cases of cancer. I don’t know whether this is true and it would be a challenging topic for research, but there are certainly many personal stories of remarkable recovery both from cancer and other conditions after sincere forgiveness has taken place – see  this link for one man’s story. Forgiveness always benefits the one who forgives, and also the one who is forgiven, if it is possible and appropriate to tell them about it.

When I think about the occasions in my own life when forgiveness has been called for, I find that they seldom involved deliberate wrong-doing. More often there was a lack of consideration for others, a projection of personal problems onto the nearest target, even a misguided attempt to be helpful – a reminder that different people can perceive the same situation in very different ways, and always a potential ‘learning experience’.

Though we may acknowledge that forgiveness is highly desirable, many of us find it difficult. For some, the intention to forgive can best be supported through spiritual or religious counselling and practice; for others, through psychological techniques. Bach flower remedies such as Willow, Holly and Pine could be chosen to assist the process, depending on the details of each case.

Holly promotes forgiveness and love when there are negative feelings towards others.  Dr Edward Bach made this comment about people who need Holly: ‘Within themselves they may suffer much, often when there is no real cause for their unhappiness’.

Pine promotes forgiveness when there is criticism and guilt towards the self. Bach wrote in his booklet The Twelve Healers: ‘For those who blame themselves. Even when successful they think they could have done better, and are never content with their efforts or the results. They are hard-working and suffer much from the faults they attach to themselves. Sometimes if there is any mistake it is due to another, but they will claim responsibility even for that.’

 

Hope, healing and Bach flower remedies

Hope is ‘a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen’ (New Oxford Dictionary of English). Living through hard times is easier when there is hope for improvement. And, according to Law of Attraction teachers such as Abraham-Hicks, having positive expectations can actually help to create a better future.

Lack of hope – hopelessness – may be a long-standing attitude or personality trait. It may be a symptom of a clinical depression. Or it may seem a logical response to certain situations, for example a chronic or progressive illness.

Hopelessness is often linked to helplessness – passive submission to a miserable fate.

Whatever its origins, hopelessness is bad for health. Large prospective studies have identified chronic hopelessness as a risk factor for developing serious illness such as cancer and heart disease. Other studies have found that, in people already suffering from such medical conditions, a hopeless/helpless attitude predicts worse ‘quality of life’ and shorter survival time. This can be explained partly by direct mind-body relationships, and partly by poor self-care. Hopelessness is a frequent precursor of suicide.

One of the contributions of the palliative care movement has been to show that, even when hope of a cure seems unrealistic, there are always other things to hope for: better control of symptoms, rewarding relationships and activities, a peaceful death and perhaps belief in an afterlife.

Is there such a thing as ‘false hope’? Should someone who has been diagnosed with a progressive illness, but who seems unable to accept the fact, be discouraged from starting a long-term project? Should someone like me, with a 40-year history of migraine attacks, give up spending time and money on new treatments? No right or wrong answers here, but if it is true that our mental attitude helps to shape our personal future, we need to seek a balance between maintaining hope and accepting unpleasant realities.

A great many of the Bach flower remedies can help to promote hope. I will mention two of them here. Gorse is especially suitable for those with chronic ill-health who have come to feel that nothing will ever be better and there is no point in trying any longer. The remedy helps to lift their spirits and encourage them to consider new approaches which may lead to improvements in medical symptoms and in other aspects of life. Sweet Chestnut is indicated in more acute situations and helps those in deep despair to ‘see light at the end of the tunnel’.

Bach flower remedies: more than placebo?

When I started using Bach flower remedies about eight years ago, purely out of curiosity, I did not really expect them to work. I held the widespread, but misguided, belief that if the mode of action of a therapy cannot be explained by current scientific knowledge it cannot be more than a placebo. The ‘placebo effect’ is a good thing, because it stimulates the potential for self-healing, but for a treatment to be accepted as valid it has to do better than placebo.

I was so surprised when I observed how well my friends and relatives responded to the remedies that I went on to qualify as a practitioner. After treating my first 100 clients I carried out a simple audit. Follow-up information was available in 94 cases. Two clients had discontinued treatment due to ‘healing reactions‘. Three said there was no change in their presenting complaints. Three did not take the remedies, but said they had improved after expressing and reframing their problems during the interview. All the other 86 clients reported some improvement in their emotional and/or physical symptoms, and in 33 of them the response was judged (by me) to be very good or excellent. Clients in this group spontaneously said that they felt calmer, more balanced, lighter, more joyful, more peaceful or more in control, usually within the first week of treatment.

While this can no way claim to be a thorough objective evaluation, its results are impressive. Other descriptive reports have also shown positive effects. However, these carry little weight among orthodox healthcare professionals compared with randomised clinical trials, of the kind used to test new drug treatments. A recent review of seven studies which had used this method concluded that ‘the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos’.

Do these trials provide a fair test of the remedies? With respect to their authors – for I know from my previous career in academic medicine that carrying out a good research study is not easy – I think the answer is no. Many of them used a standard combination of flowers, usually the Rescue Remedy, instead of an individualised mixture chosen for each subject through discussion with a practitioner. Many of them were carried out on healthy populations, such as students preparing for exams, some of whom probably did not need any remedies and were unmotivated to take them. This is reflected in high drop-out rates, which detract from the validity of the results.

I am convinced from my own experience that wider use of Bach flower remedies could help a great many people, and reduce the over-prescription of pharmaceutical drugs, but they will not be accepted in conventional medical settings until there is more formal evidence that they work. Future research designs need to reflect the way the remedies are used in practice. The participants should have actually requested treatment for the condition under study: anxiety disorder or chronic pain, for example. Personalised remedy mixtures should be given, selected on the basis of the interview discussion which forms an important part of this therapy. Giving placebo alone would not be ethical, but the remedies could be compared with an established treatment such as medication or cognitive behaviour therapy. I would be pleased to hear from any colleagues who are interested to discuss setting up such a study.

Healing reactions with Bach flower remedies

A new client  recently called me to say she was feeling worse rather than better since taking her Bach flower remedies. This happens in my practice just a few times per year. The situation calls for sensitive consideration, but in most cases it is cause for optimism rather than concern.

Though most people notice a steady improvement within a week of starting treatment with Bach flowers, a minority complain of worsening of their original complaints, or the emergence of new symptoms. There may be psychological ones such as heightened anxiety, irritabilty or nightmares; physical ones such as skin ‘break-outs’ or looser bowels; or the worsening of a pre-existing medical problem, arthritis for example. Such symptoms suggest a so-called ‘healing reaction’, which shows that the remedy is resonating with the person. Most healing reactions only last a few days and are likely to be followed by a good response in the longer term.

Healing reactions are best explained in terms of cleansing out of suppressed feelings, a kind of detoxification process, for the remedies themselves have no side-effects and cannot introduce anything negative which is not already there. They may also represent a change in perception of the symptoms or a change of attitude towards them, as the flower remedies reveal hidden layers of emotion and personality (‘peeling the onion’). A similar effect can be found with other types of natural therapy too; in homeopathy it is called an ‘aggravation’.

It is always important to consider other diagnostic possibilities. If there are physical symptoms such as a gastric upset, maybe the mixture has become infected – this could happen if it was not prepared hygienically, has been kept longer than the recommended three weeks, not kept cool, or if the dropper has been touched onto the tongue. Or, the symptoms may be due to some other cause unconnected with the remedies, and need medical assessment.

Healing reactions can be seen with any of the 38 flowers, but several times in my own practice I have seen them resulting from mixtures which contain Agrimony. Dr Bach recommended this for ‘ .. people who love peace and are distressed by argument or quarrel … though generally they have troubles and are tormented and restless and worried in mind or in body, they hide their cares behind their humour and jesting … ‘ Such people often conceal their anxieties from themselves as well as others, sometimes with the aid of drink or drugs or comfort eating, but may be restless at night. The remedy enables more open acknowledgement of emotions, and this can be uncomfortable at first.

Some practitioners do not tell their clients about the possibility of a healing reaction to their clients, but I prefer to explain it, because if they develop a reaction without warning they may assume the remedy does not suit them and stop taking it. If a healing reaction does occur I encourage them to persevere with treatment but to reduce the dose for a while, and may suggest using the Rescue Remedy for a few days.

Bach flower remedies in cancer care

At the beginning of my first career as a medical doctor I worked for several years in a radiotherapy department, and later came to specialise in psycho-oncology. Now as a Bach flower practitioner, though I see clients with a whole variety of problems, I still have a special interest in the psychological aspects of cancer. The main role of the Bach flower remedies in cancer care is to ease emotional distress caused by the diagnosis, the symptoms and the treatment. They are not an alternative treatment for the cancer itself.

One client who came to see me recently has a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, and quite understandably has often felt despondent about her situation. After her first consultation with me she wrote: ‘My own path is one of deteriorating health and ongoing courses of chemo. I accept “where I am” but recently faced starting a new, stronger chemo regime and became rather melancholy. I decided that over and above medical treatment I needed to keep my own energies in balance in order to cope well and enjoy the present.’ I recommended a mixture of flower remedies including Gentian, which helps to restore faith for those who are feeling disheartened by setbacks in life.

My client’s report continues ‘Imagine my delight around five days after starting the remedies to realise that the melancholy feelings had completely lifted. By the first day of my new chemo regime I was able to hold my head high and present at the appointment in comfort and with confidence…I am convinced that the flowers have helped beyond measure’.

Many of the other remedies from the total of 38 may be indicated in cancer care settings, sometimes for relatives and staff as well as patients themselves. Examples would include Mimulus for courage in the face of understandable fears; Red Chestnut to calm anxiety on behalf of others; Star of Bethlehem to provide comfort at times of shock or sorrow.

Some clients want to go to deeper levels; a cancer diagnosis can be the impetus to change a longstanding psychological imbalance such as a chronically pessimistic outlook, or a tendency to suppress feelings and desires in order to please other people. The flowers can help in such cases too.

Although the question of whether having a positive mindset improves the medical prognosis for cancer is still debated, it will certainly improve general well-being and make it easier to cope.

Up to six flowers, selected for each individual according to how they feel at the present time, can be combined in the same mixture. The remedies themselves have no side effects, but they are made up with a small amount of brandy as preservative and although the alcohol concentration is miniscule there is a theoretical risk of interaction with some prescription drugs, so please check with your doctor if they are safe for you to use.

Further Reading: Barraclough, J (ed) 2007. Enhancing Cancer Care: Complementary Therapy and Support. Oxford University Press, Oxford.