Bach flowers: medicine or magic

After taking a few years out from my Bach flower remedy practice due to illness in the family I am now available to see clients again, so it seems timely to revisit the topic on this blog.

The remedies are intended to restore emotional balance. Common presenting problems include anxiety, grief, relationship difficulties, lack of direction in life, and the hardships of physical disease. I am continually impressed with how well the system works: 80 of my first 100 clients reported an improvement, and this figure is in line with the experience of other practitioners. But it is not always easy to reconcile my background in orthodox medicine with my interest in holistic therapies like the Bach flowers. I have to acknowledge there is no accepted scientific explanation for their mode of action, and that when tested in the artificial context of clinical trials they usually perform no better than placebo.

Leaving aside the question of whether the remedies have direct effects, a consultation with a Bach practitioner can be therapeutic because it empowers the client – as the jargon goes – “to take responsibility for their own healing”.  The interview does not follow a set structure, and it is up to the client to decide what they want to talk about and how much detail to reveal. The practitioner listens, and asks questions for clarification, but does not probe for extra information or offer unsolicited advice. The selection of remedies is a cooperative process, with the practitioner making suggestions but the client helping to choose what flowers they need, and sometimes seeing their problems in a new light as a result. The combination of up to six flowers is tailored to the unique individual’s state of mind rather than a symptom or diagnosis.

This is very different from the assessment process used in orthodox medicine and psychiatry. Traditionally, in the orthodox system, the doctor is in charge while the patient takes a passive role. The consultation follows a standard format, with a series of questions followed by examination and investigations, aimed towards establishing a diagnosis. The drugs, surgery or radiation prescribed will usually have evidence-based benefit for the disease concerned, but inevitably carry some risk of side effects. The orthodox approach often works very well, especially for acute conditions and those that are clearly defined, and is sometimes life-saving (as was clearly brought home to me in 2015 when my husband required heart surgery, described in my short memoir Across a Sea of Troubles).

The orthodox approach with its armamentarium of marvellous medical and surgical technology, and the holistic approach which draws on the universal principles of healing and self-help, are truly complementary to each other and can be used together – I think of them as representing the “yin” and “yang” of healthcare. Unfortunately there is considerable antipathy and misunderstanding between practitioners of the two schools and the concept of integrative medicine, which combines the best of both, has not been widely accepted.

While Bach flowers can be used on their own for minor mental or physical imbalances, they are not sufficient as a sole treatment for anything more serious. I often advise clients to seek a medical assessment if they have not done so already because physical diseases, for example over- or under-activity of the thyroid gland which is common especially in women, can present with psychological symptoms.

Clients are attracted to therapies like the Bach flowers because they are natural and safe, treat them as a “whole person” rather than just a case of a particular disease, and provide them with a sense of choice and control.  More information about Bach flowers can be found on this page.

Wellbeing for Writers

I’m pleased to announce that my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers is now available from Amazon Kindle, Smashwords and other online sites.

Born out of my long experience as a part-time author alongside former careers in psychological medicine, life coaching and Bach flower therapy, this is a guide about how to maximise the satisfactions and minimise the frustrations which often arise while writing, publishing and marketing a book. Topics include structuring the process, finding inspiration, maintaining physical and mental health, coping with criticism, aligning personal values with writing, and more.

While mainly focused on the psychology of authorship, it also includes plenty of tips about the basic practicalities.

Most of the content is available for free on this blog … but for a nominal cost you can read it combined in one volume, rearranged in a logical order, and revised and updated throughout.

Please have a look on Amazon or Smashwords, and forward this to any of the aspiring authors among your circle of contacts.



Coping with the loss of a cat

For animal lovers, grief over the loss of a much loved pet can be just as severe as that which follows a bereavement in their human families. I know this not only from my personal experience, but from what I have heard from friends and clients who are mourning the death of feline or canine companions. It is also backed up by published research. However, the death of a companion animal is not always recognised as the major trauma which it is often perceived to be. What can bereaved pet owners themselves, and those around them, do to ease the pain? This post outlines some things which I have found helpful since Felix died.

The support of family, friends and veterinary staff: I have been greatly comforted by all those who have sent a sympathetic email or card, brought flowers for his grave, or offered healing therapies. I expect there are some who cannot quite understand the depth of my sadness, but everyone has been kind, and noone has trivialised my loss with comments like “it was only a cat” or “you can always get another”.

A funeral ceremony and a marked grave: It felt right to hold a small ceremony for him, and to bury his body in a secluded part of the garden which I can visit every day – although, as one perceptive friend said “You’ll never be able to move house now.”

Expressing feelings through talking and writing: Many bereaved pet owners benefit from talking with an understanding person, whether in a formal counselling setting or in everyday life, and I have a number of friends with whom I have been able to talk about Felix. For me, writing is the best medium for self-expression. I initially created this blog just as a private site where I could store photographs of Felix, but writing about a few cat-related topics has proved quite therapeutic, and drawn a few messages of support from strangers round the world.

Happy memories: I remember many happy times with Felix. There were also some worrying ones, because he suffered several episodes of serious illness during his life, but I can honestly say that I always looked after him in the best way I could.

Other cats: I am glad there are other feline presences on our property. Our female cat, Daisy, seems quite pleased that Felix is no longer around and Homer, a male cat who officially belongs to me but decided to move next door, has been making more return visits here. It would be impossible to “replace” Felix and I have no wish to try, though maybe I will fall in love with another black-and-white kitten at the SPCA one day.

Bach flower remedies: I took Star of Bethlehem, which is the main remedy to be considered for shock or grief. Other remedies could be suitable in certain cases, for example Pine for owners who feel a sense of guilt or self-blame, or Sweet Chestnut for those in deep despair. Remedies from the Bach series can also be useful for treating emotional distress in animals themselves.

The passage of time: Life goes on, and though I will never forget Felix and always miss him, it is getting easier as the weeks go by.

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.

Pendulum divination

Until recently I had would have agreed with the conventional scientific view that seeking answers to personal questions by asking a pendulum was a ridiculous idea. Now I am not so sure.

A couple of years ago I visited a colour therapy clinic. The assessment did not include any questions about my presenting symptoms and medical history, but was carried out with a pendulum and a set of multicoloured threads. It came up with some remarkably accurate statements about my past and present health.

The treatment involved having wires, coming from a machine in the next room, attached to my body via bands around my neck and wrists. Sitting on a comfortable chair for several hours, with nothing to do except read a book or look through the window at the pleasant view, was relaxing if a little dull.  During a quiet afternoon when I was the only client present, the therapist offered to show me how to use a pendulum. I was skeptical, but agreed out of politeness and to pass the time.

He gave me a key on a string and told me to hold it with one hand above the palm of the other, and to ask ‘Please show me a YES’. To my surprise it started to sway from side to side and then, when I asked ‘Please show me a NO’, it swayed in a direction at right angles to the first. The pattern of movement varies between individuals and is sometimes circular, for example clockwise for YES and anticlockwise for NO. The next step was to confirm the system by asking questions to which I already knew the answer, for example ‘Is my name Jennifer?’ and ‘Is my name Margaret?’. It gave correct results.

I was intrigued, and soon afterwards I bought a small crystal pendulum to experiment further. It almost always gives me an answer to ‘Yes or No’ questions ranging from the trivial (‘Is it safe to eat that curry?’) to the serious (‘Is it a good idea to move house this year?’). Many critics would say that its answers merely validate decisions I have already made, but I am not sure this is so; some of them have surprised me and they have never turned out to be ‘wrong’ as far as I can tell.

Googling ‘pendulum divination’ or ‘pendulum dowsing’ yields many articles and videos from intuitive and psychic perspectives, for example this one from Helen Demetriou which emphasises respect for the spiritual context. There is very little objective research about whether pendulums work, and if so whether the mechanism is physiological or supernatural. Theories range from subtle changes in muscle tension resulting from subconscious thoughts and feelings, to the influence of angels or spirit guides. This is a field of study in which the attitude of the investigators could easily bias the results, and most writings on the subject come either from committed believers or from cynics determined to debunk the whole thing.

I am sometimes asked whether I use a pendulum in my Bach flower practice to help choose the most suitable remedies for my clients. The answer is no, because this would go against the Bach Foundation’s code of practice, one reason being that such an aid could bypass the process of interview and self-inquiry which is an important part of the system developed by Dr Bach.

And what about the colour therapy? Again, there has been limited formal research. I met some other clients at the clinic who had been diagnosed with major physical diseases and said they had benefited a great deal, but whether it had much effect on my own various minor ailments is difficult to say.

Pendulum divination, colour therapy and Bach flower remedies are just three of the energy-based modalities which are well established in alternative circles, but are largely ignored or dismissed in orthodox ones.

Coping with rejections, criticisms and bad reviews

Unless they are either outstandingly good or remarkably thick-skinned, most writers will find themselves disappointed by rejection or hurt by adverse criticism from time to time. The challenge is to learn from these experiences without being overwhelmed by their emotional impact.

It can be helpful to realise that negative responses are seldom just about you or your book. Rejection from traditional publishers does not always reflect badly on the quality of your work, because firms only have the capacity to take on a limited number of new books each year and will tend to select the ones considered most likely to be a commercial success. So they have to reject the majority of submissions they receive, including ones which are well written as well as those which are not. Occasionally they get it wrong – Gone with the Wind, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Catch 22 and Moby Dick are examples of books which were rejected many times before becoming classic best-sellers, perhaps because they did not fit into a standard genre or were ‘before their time’. Now that self-publishing has become so much easier, cheaper and more acceptable than in the past, many writers are going straight for this option rather than risk the rejections and delays which are so often encountered on the traditional route.

Similarly, negative criticisms and reviews should not necessarily be taken too much to heart. Some critics base their judgements largely on their own personal taste, so the same book will be praised by one but reviled by another. Some do not take the trouble to phrase their comments in a sympathetic and constructive way, and perhaps a few of them gain sadistic pleasure from condemning a book they dislike. If you have faith in your own judgement you do not have to accept an outside verdict which does not ring true, especially if finding personal satisfaction through writing is more important to you than rapid publication and high sales.

On the other hand there is usually something worthwhile to be learned from rejections, criticisms and bad reviews, however unfair and unkind they first seem. If you can swallow your pride, and try to take a detached look at your work from the reader’s point of view, you may realise that your critics had some valid points. If you are feeling so upset that you cannot move forward, perhaps consider a course of Bach flower remedies; there’s a forthcoming post on my other blog about how these can help with ‘life event stress’.

I remember from years ago how dispiriting it was to have my first novel repeatedly rejected, and feeling devastated when one assessor described its heroine as ‘not a very nice girl’. Nowadays I am more philosophical; after all, you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. And, if a book gets thoroughly slated following its publication, some people may actually buy it to see just how awful it is. Any review, whether favourable or not, will make your book more likely to be noticed than those many others which are not reviewed at all.

Persons not diseases

People choose to explore natural therapies for many different reasons. One of the main ones given by the clients I see in my work as a Bach flower practitioner is the wish to be valued as a ‘whole person’ whose psychology and life circumstances are unique. Even if their orthodox medical treatment has been successful on a physical level, they often feel that they have been have labelled as ‘just another case’ of the condition in question, being managed according to a set protocol, and that staff lacked either the time or the interest to look beyond their diseased part.

It would be a great mistake to reject the ‘disease-centred’ model which prevails in modern medicine, for this has yielded huge advances in knowledge about the causes, prevention and treatment of specific disorders. And it is good to see mainstream healthcare considering lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise and stress management, which may reduce the need for drugs and surgery. But this is not enough for people who want to explore the personal context of their illness in more depth, which is why they may turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and the ‘holistic healing’ approach.

One of the basic principles of this approach is the focus on persons rather than diseases. The Bach flower system, as originally formulated, exemplifies this – Dr Edward Bach advocated ignoring the medical diagnosis when selecting remedies, and focusing purely on the sufferer’s current state of mind. Involving the patient, or client, as a partner in this process is empowering and therapeutic in itself.

But, as CAM becomes more widely accepted and integrated with orthodox medicine, there is a risk of the person-centred approach being replaced by the ‘one size fits all’ method of giving the same mixture to everyone with a particular condition. This may reflect a wish to appear more ‘scientific’, or be done to save the time and trouble of making an individual assessment of each case. A couple of examples, again involving the Bach flower system, will illustrate the trend.

In a UK chemist’s shop I saw an ‘Emotional Eating Kit’ made up of three remedies: Crab Apple (for body image problems), Cherry Plum (for loss of emotional control) and Chestnut Bud (for those who continually repeat the same mistakes). One or more of these remedies might certainly be appropriate for someone with an eating disorder, but so might several others: Vine (for over-control), Rock Water (for perfectionism and self-denial) and Pine (for self-blame) come to mind, but any of the 38 flowers could be indicated for different individuals.

A search for Bach flower remedies in the medical literature shows that a number of academic researchers have tried to evaluate the system by prescribing a standard mixture of remedies for the condition under study. That they mostly find no advantage over placebo is hardly surprising, because they have not respected an essential feature of this therapy, namely individualized treatment in which clients themselves have choice and control.

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.

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 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.