Several years ago, I asked a practitioner of acupuncture, trained in ancient Chinese traditional medicine, whether a medical symptom that I was experiencing could be linked to a period in which I was experiencing higher levels of chronic stress and intense emotions. He hesitated, and then gently, and simply stated…”for us, we cannot separate the two…emotion and the body are not separable”. That is what I had been thinking for quite some time, but as I listened to how clearly it was not just more than evident for him, but it was inconceivable for him to think of it otherwise.
While ancient traditions teach this interconnection, our modern Western and North American cultures have, on a social level, primarily seen the mind and body as separate – until recently. Slowly we are seeing this connection enter from what is considered ‘alternative medicine’ into ‘mainstream medicine’ – and we are also seeing psychotherapists embracing this connection from an ‘alternative therapy’ point of view, into a ‘mainstream practice’. The Psychotherapy Networker, a long standing forum for psychotherapists, recently launched a series on Integrative Mental Health – speaking not just to this increasing connection of mind-body, but also the mind-body-spirituality connection.
Currently, this connection remains to be debated in the world of scientific research and what is referred to in the field of psychotherapy as evidence based practices. While this research and debate continues, counsellors and psychotherapists cannot help but be observers of human life as well as helpful practitioners. Over the years of my own professional practice, I have been struck by the stories of clients that link the mind and body – such as the women who were sexually abused as children and share a common body complaint of chronic back problems or the number of clients with serious mental health challenges that develop serious physical medical problems after their initial experience of mental illness.
I have also seen the difference in individuals who have a spiritual belief – belief in something that is larger than their own individual lives, for which they have no control, but have faith in – and how they can access this as a strong resilience in the face of adversity. I once sat in on a presentation of a research study, based in a major psychiatric hospital, in which two different treatment groups for individuals struggling with mood disorders were compared. The members of the treatment groups were randomly assigned to a group – one group was a currently accepted treatment model for cognitive behavioural changes, the other group was a ‘spirituality group’, in which one’s spiritual beliefs (again, anything that the individual deeply connects meaning to) guided the individual in developing and strengthening their ability to face challenges and develop daily resiliency. What surprised us was that the outcomes for the spirituality group were as good as the outcomes for the clinically developed group model.
I believe that integrative mental health broadens our ability to conceptualize our lives and face our lives as whole persons, and while this connection and interweaving of our being is not a clear map, we can open ourselves to understanding this as we work towards changes in the quality of our lives – and that type of change sustains itself in the face of adversity.