If a therapist isn’t ready to help a client explore aspects of themselves beyond the emotional, than the therapy they do isn’t holistic.
Does it matter?
A holistic therapist, like most of her psychotherapy peers, is predominantly focused on a person’s mental health. But, when appropriate, she is also open to helping her clients explore other aspects of themselves.
Many psychotherapists actually do have a holistic outlook, they just don’t call it holistic.
If your therapist helps you understand and address various aspects of mind, body, and soul, then you’ve got yourself a therapist who understands that there’s more to you than your mental health. And that’s a good thing.In addition to traditional mental health counseling which usually focuses on feelings, emotions, thoughts, relationships, behaviors, and so on, there are several specific areas a therapist with a holistic outlook might touch upon (assuming you are amenable). We’ve listed several areas that we think fall under the heading of holistic, but there are definitely more.
As you read the list, you might get the sense that you can do a lot of this on your own. We agree. You might consider thinking about one or more of the following topics with the support of your therapist or on your own.
Nutrition (Diet and Supplements): A therapist who has a holistic approach, might notice you tend to arrive at her office shaky at your lunchtime appointment. She might ask you if you skipped breakfast, how your blood sugar is, even recommend getting a check up. She might suggest certain books, web sites, or encourage you to see a nutritionist. She might suggest that you explore certain dietary changes that have been shown to help the types of emotional issues or mental illness you are dealing with, or help you with physical issues. She might encourage you to read about nutritional supplements. In most states, unless she’s a licensed nutritionist she cannot prescribe, however, in many states she is allowed to coach you in these areas.
Note: It’s important to note that most psychotherapists are not trained in nutrition or any of the other areas on this list. However, they are trained to be good observers and to seek solutions to painful problems. Don’t expect your therapist to have the answer to everything; do expect him or her to help you find and explore options even if it lies outside their area of expertise. They can help you by doing some research (assuming they have time), making suggestions about where to learn more, and so on.
Sleep and Rest: A holistic therapist might ask about your sleeping habits. He might suggest books, web sites, or other ideas that can help you with sleep issues. He might give you a link or two containing information or tips. Recently a client with bi-polar disorder went to a sleep clinic and by changing his sleeping patterns he dramatically reduced his symptoms. This provided real incentive for him to stick with his therapy and other treatments—he saw that he needed a multi-pronged approach.
Environment: Sometimes, allergies or even more subtle environmental issues, can wreak havoc on emotional and physical health. Toxic fumes (from plastics in the home, nearby factories, etc.), mold, pollen, inappropriate levels of light, heat, excessive noise, and so on can push us beyond our comfort levels. It’s not a question of being “overly sensitive;” environmental issues can be a real problem, and definitely something to discuss with your therapist. This post explains serious symptoms that can occur with toxic fumes, in this case in a child diagnosed with autism.
Fun and Leisure: Mental illness can be so overwhelming that it saps the joy out of life. Sometimes, people need to learn or relearn how to have “fun.” Helping you discover the things that bring you lasting joy, as well as lighter, fun outlets can be a very important part of therapy. It might be making art, listening to or making music, being around children, water skiing, hiking, singing, window shopping, writing poetry, reading poetry, and so on.
Your list will differ, obviously.
A lot of people get stuck in a leisure rut. They do what everyone else does or do the activities they have always done, even if it really doesn’t turn them on. Breaking out, doing something fun and different, can inspire you in unexpected ways.
Sometimes even therapy can take place in a “fun” setting. For example, while doing therapy with some adolescents who find it difficult to relax in an office, I (Richard) have done therapy on the basketball court. Playing a game, having some fun, can be relaxing and conducive to good therapy.
Exercise: This may overlap with fun and leisure. There is quite a bit of evidence which shows that exercise can help you with symptoms of depression and anxiety. You don’t necessarily need to sign up for a gym or classes or sports which require expensive equipment. There are plenty of low cost or free ways to exercise. The goal of exercise in the context of holistic therapy, is not to get buff; the goal is to feel good, stay healthy, and get your endorphins flowing. Exercise can bring balance to your life.
Other Modalities, Therapies, and Treatments: A therapist with a holistic approach might suggest you try some non-counseling treatments which address body, mind, and soul, such as physical therapy, massage therapy (many types), various meditation classes or audio guides, acupuncture, osteopathy, equine therapy, Feldenkrais, dance, art therapy, Alexander technique, and so on. If money is an issue, there are free or very low cost classes, CDs, and so on that can be effective even if you are not working with an practioner.
Religion and Spirituality: We believe that all therapy is pretty much spiritual in that it addresses and works in the arena of non-tangibles: emotion and feelings, the mind, thought, self-reflection, the subconscious, and so on. (We know a few psychologists that would argue otherwise). We also recognize that this area isn’t on everyone’s list.
Religion and religious spirituality (button-pushing topics for some) is for us, an integral part of life. It offers a map or blueprint for the spiritual self (soul).For example, prayerful meditation is a very important part of our tradition. We’ve blogged about it here, here and here in a group of posts called “Healing Your Thoughts.”
There is no denying that for each individual, including therapists, beliefs about spirituality and religion influence every aspect of life, including professional life. If your therapist has deeply held (or even not-so-deeply held) religious or spiritual beliefs of any stripe, these could influence who she is and her approach to therapy, even if she doesn’t overtly talk about it.
If her religion and spirituality is “pasted on” and doesn’t really touch who she is, that too could be reflected in her approach to therapy. The same applies to someone who dislikes religion and/or spirituality or doesn’t believe there’s anything more to us than flesh and electro-chemical processes. Whether your therapist practices a religion or is an atheist, this is a part of who they are, and will influence their approach to therapy, if not consciously than subconsciously.
However, most therapists, except those who are clergy-members, are not spiritual or religious guides and should generally not act as if they are. Still, a holistic therapist will most likely ask questions about this aspect of your life and gently encourage you to explore your spirituality.
A Word About 12-Steps: 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (especially in its original format) encourage each person to develop a relationship with God or the higher self. We believe this basic approach can often be effective and appropriate even for people without addiction. 12-Step programs have gone beyond the basic substance addiction and now exist for many behavioral issues. They offer excellent support for those in therapy, or for those who would like to address behavioral issues without therapy. We like a multi-level approach to substance and behavioral addictions, but there are many people who find that a 12-Step program alone is enough. They are easy to find: Google 12-Step Programs or look in a phone directory.
These types of programs can be part of a holistic approach to therapy.
You can start exploring the different aspects touched upon in 12-Step Programs by asking yourself a few questions (here a few suggestions): What is the meaning of my existence? Is there something other than this body and brain? How can I live a meaningful life and move towards the positive? What comforts me? What is true joy? Do I have a soul? How did my soul come into existence? Who is the Creator? Can I connect with the Creator? How? Can the religion I was raised in offer any answers? Who inspires me, spiritually? Why?
Be Your Own Holistic Therapist
You can choose any area, above (or something we’ve left out) and explore. Writing in a journal and even basic list-writing can help you build the structure to support your holistic approach. For example, if you feel you lack any meaningful leisure, start with a list of what makes you tick.
Can’t think of anything? Try remembering times in the past when you enjoyed yourself. What were you doing? Who were you with? How old were you? Are these types of moments within reach now? Ask a friend or family member to touch base with you on this; sometimes someone else’s memories and perceptions can provide valuable insight.
Obviously, we haven’t covered everything that could fall under the title “holistic.” You and your therapist will have other ideas.
Photo by Andreas Krappweiss, Stockexchange