Coping with physical illness; the role of Bach flower remedies

Bach flower remedies can help to relieve the emotional distress that often accompanies physical illness. They are intended as a complementary therapy to be used alongside medical, surgical and psychiatric treatments rather than instead of them.

The remedies are designed to promote a positive state of mind. This is highly relevant for patients in medical settings, up to one-third of whom will be experiencing significant anxiety, depression or other psychological problems. Negative mood states not only cause mental suffering but can worsen physical decline, due to the combination of poor self care with disordered physiology including a weakened immune system. Lightening and calming of mood, whether with Bach flowers or other therapies, may therefore improve physical as well as mental health.

Psychological problems can usually be understood as a response to the multiple stresses of having a physical illness: Bodily symptoms such as pain, nausea and breathlessness.  Having to wait for medical appointments, test results or starting treatment. The direct effects of the illness or its treatment on brain function. Receiving bad news about diagnosis or prognosis. Being unable to carry out former activities, or to provide for self and family. Practical difficulties with money, housing or transport. Changes in appearance. The prospect of deteriorating health. Existential questions about the cause of the illness, or what happens after death. Relatives and carers can be just as badly affected as patients themselves, though their plight is not always appreciated. Though some distress may be inevitable, it can often be minimised by apparently simple aspects of good clinical practice: clear communication, kindness, respect and practical support.

The burdens associated with physical illness are very real, and it is perhaps surprising that not all patients become seriously anxious or depressed, and that those who do can recover even if the physical illness continues to progress. Some even find the experience brings positive changes in their attitudes and lifestyle: Closer relationships. Less concern for material things and trivialities, and a sense of what is really important. Feeling able to follow their own path in life regardless of others’ opinions. Appreciation of the present day. Spiritual awareness. The Bach flowers can help to promote such benefits.

The remedies, being free of side effects or interactions, can be used alongside psychotherapies or prescribed drugs. The only possible caution is that brandy is used as a preservative during their preparation. This can be a contraindication for those who wish to avoid alcohol completely, although after the fluid has been diluted into a treatment bottle the concentration of brandy is minimal and most unlikely to have any biological effect.

Here are some examples, from the list of 38 remedies, of those flowers often relevant in cases of physical illness.

Mimulus (illustrated) for named fears, even if these seem justified.

Star of Bethlehem for shock, loss and grief.

Gentian for disappointment after a setback.

Gorse for feelings of hopelessness.

Olive for mental and physical exhaustion.

Crab Apple for feelings of uncleanliness or impaired body image.

White Chestnut for worrying thoughts.

Red chestnut for anxiety about other people, even when this is understandable.

Holly, Honeysuckle and/or Willow for those who harbour resentments about the past; there is evidence that chronic anger and hatred are risk factors for disease, whereas the practice of forgiveness has benefits for both physical and mental health.

Rescue remedy (Crisis formula) for any acute emotional distress.

Simplicity is the key to using Bach flowers. There is no need to get bogged down in the complexity of mind-body relationships, and unanswerable questions such as “Which came first – the anxiety or the heart attack?” or “Is the loss of energy due to cancer or to depression?” Remedies should be chosen according to the person’s current emotional state. There are no specific remedies for particular physical symptoms or diseases.

More detail on this topic can be found in my free ebook Bach Flowers for Mind-Body Healing. Bach flowers also play a small part in my Three Novellas, available from various online stores including Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords.com.

mimulus

 

The placebo element in Bach flower therapy

A review of seven published studies (Ernst 2010) states that “the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos”. The validity of these results could be questioned, because clinical trial design inevitably distorts the way the Bach system is used, for example by giving all subjects a standard mixture instead of letting them take part in selecting their own combination of remedies. But in any case, considering that the remedies do help a majority of the clients seen in real life practice, does it really matter if they are “just placebo”?

Maybe it is time to replace the term “placebo” because of its negative connotations. At worst, it conjures up an image of dishonest charlatans charging fat fees for giving sugar pills to neurotic women with imaginary ills. But research has shown that a placebo element is involved in every intervention, including orthodox medical and surgical treatments as well as complementary and alternative therapies, and for “real” diseases as well as functional symptoms. By stimulating the body’s own self-healing capacity, with no risk of side effects, the placebo effect can be a powerful force for good.

Bach flower treatment could mobilise the placebo effect in several ways:

  • Through deciding to explore a new therapy that is natural, gentle and pleasant to use, clients experience positive expectations and a sense of choice and control.
  • Talking in a relaxed setting with a practitioner who is empathic and non-judgmental is therapeutic.
  • Analysing specific negative emotions and attitudes according to the Bach system offers a new way of understanding problems.
  • Taking the remedies four times daily provides a reminder of the positive feelings they are designed to instill.

Image: White Chestnut, a remedy for worrying thoughts.

whiteche

 

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.