How therapy and other forms of holistic health can support those with mental and chronic illnesses
In the holistic health community, some feel that the western medical system does more harm than good and we should stay away, never take drugs, and seek alternative therapies for any ailment. On the other side of the spectrum are the champions of medicinal systems and think that holistic or complementary therapies are a lot of ‘woo woo’ or ‘soft science’ that has no real effect.
I believe that polarising views aren’t helpful, and we should use all the tools at our disposal to improve our health.
Since I was first diagnosed, I’ve seen a shift in many doctors to seeing the benefits of complementary therapies like yoga, meditation, and talk therapy. But there is still a stigma associated with seeking out therapy or recovering from an illness not using medication. Some people believe that if your illness doesn’t require medication that means it wasn’t “real” which can rub salt in the wounds of a loved one trying to recover from a very serious illness. It makes us feel unseen.
I wish that we didn’t have these polarities because I think there is a lot to be gained from using treatments and therapies in conjunction with each other. In fact, even chronic illnesses that have medication available, for example, depression and anxiety or Cancer and HIV/AIDS can benefit from using a combination of treatment methods.
We know that depression is treated faster and stays away for longer if patients both take medication and participate in counselling. Patients that choose to participate in complementary therapies like talking with a counsellor or participating in a mindfulness program while also working with medications their doctors give them often have better recovery rates than those who only take the medical treatment.
What I’ve learned from Ayurveda and yoga is that illness is more than just it’s physical manifestation. The medical world is beginning to see this too. In fact, many things doctors thought they knew about pain was wrong. We used to have a simplistic understanding of pain - that it was signals the body sends to the brain as the result of a direct physical stimulus. Yet, further research on pain is proving that this is not always in true. In many cases, there is no physical damage present, but the patient can still be experiencing intense pain.
Pain is not as straightforward as we once imagined. The way your body experiences pain depends on your expectations, experiences, and emotions at the time.
Further, we’re also learning that mind-body treatments can actually change the brain. This means that going to see a therapist and, say, participating in cognitive-behavioural therapy, or practising meditation regularly, can actually change the structure of your brain. This can help in illnesses like depression, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue. In the yogic community, we’ve always known that the mind and body are linked, but it’s hopeful to see the medical community starting to see this as well and adjust treatment plans accordingly.
The placebo effect
When I first learned about the placebo effect in my behavioural psychology class, it had a negative connotation. It was almost seen as a joke meaning that some patients could be “tricked” into getting better. However, I now see it very differently. Just because we can spot a chemical imbalance in our brain, it doesn’t mean we need chemicals to treat it.
If we can sometimes achieve a medicinal effect without medication, why are we putting these drugs into our bodies? If we can achieve the same effects a drug can through talking to a licensed therapist or committing to a meditation practice, why are more doctors not prescribing these things?
I think the answer to that question is much too complicated to answer in this blog post, but, if you’re like I was and are going from doctor to doctor and medication to medication without seeing a lasting difference, perhaps it’s time to invest in complementary therapies for your health. Besides, going to speak with a therapist or joining a yoga class is much more enjoyable than getting poked and prodded at in a doctor’s office!
What kinds of complementary therapy to try:
These four types of therapy have been helpful for me, and are also backed by scientific case studies.
Counselling - Talking to a professional about what you’re struggling with can be very helpful in identifying negative thought patterns that may be making your recovery harder. Finding a therapist that you get along well with can take some time, and I do understand that in many countries therapy isn’t affordable, but I do recommend trying at least a few sessions with a therapist if it’s available to you. Seeking an online counsellor is also a good option if it’s unaffordable or unavailable where you live.
Meditation - A lot of promising research is coming out about the benefits of meditation, and this is probably the main reason why many in the medical community are starting to open up to the idea of complementary medicine. Search for a meditation group near you, or try my courses which are a combination of yoga and meditation.
Yoga - I had a teacher tell me that yoga is just a moving meditation. We know that exercise is beneficial for health and we know that meditation is beneficial for health, so combining them together only makes sense. Yoga has been found to be more effective than walking, and it’s suitable for all levels of ability. Try an online course here, find your local studio, or get in touch about private classes. (Also, follow my Instagram to see where I’m headed next and if we can do a class in person together!).
Massage - Massage relieves both stress and muscle tension. A massage therapist can often work with you to see if there are any muscular or postural issues that could be contributing to your pain and fatigue. Make sure you search for an RMT as they have a much better understanding of the systems of the body than an unlicensed masseur.
If you grew up in the west, you’re used to popping a pill for any kind of illness. However, to reach our full health potential we need to look outside just the physical to our emotional health and how that can contribute to illness just as much as a physical ailment. Both the physical and emotional/psychological need to be healthy to achieve full recovery.
Have you tried combining traditional and complementary treatments? What experiences did you have?