What Is Holistic Therapy, Who Needs It?
Holistic has become something of a buzzword over time, but its definition is rather simple. Holistic medicine simply refers to the treatment of the whole person.1 Holistic treatment takes into account all aspects of a person’s health – physical, mental, social, etc.2
What Is Holistic Therapy?
Holistic therapy abides by these same principles. A holistic approach to therapy delves into the complex nature of conditions such as addiction, depression, and anxiety, using a variety of approaches that focus on both the mind and body.3
Holistic treatment is a response to what some people see as a more reactionary approach to health – the tendency to treat symptoms only, instead of finding and treating the root cause or addressing a confluence of multiple contributing factors. Many people who have felt like traditional medicine has failed them have turned to holistic medicine in hopes that their practitioners will understand the complex nature of their illness, dig deeper into the source(s) of the issue, and focus their treatment on the whole person, not just the obvious symptoms.4
For example, someone with chronic pain might come to a holistic therapist to explore possible psychological sources of their suffering. Stress and anxiety can contribute to chronic pain, and if an emotional issue or past trauma is the source of that stress, dealing with it could alleviate chronic pain to a certain extent.5 It’s important to remember that holistic therapy doesn’t necessarily leave out Western medicine; it can mean the inclusion of complementary techniques. While medication may indeed be part of a person’s treatment, a holistic approach may include other treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy to address unresolved issues and triggers, relaxation techniques, massage, and more.5
The acceptance of holistic treatment has been growing. As part of this, complementary and alternative treatments (CAM) are being utilized on an increasing basis. In 2007, 38.3% of adults and 11.8% of children accessed some form of complementary or alternative medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.6 CAM encompasses many different types of therapies and treatments designed to treat more than outward physical symptoms. Complementary treatments refer to approaches used alongside conventional approaches, while alternative treatments refer to those used instead of conventional forms.6
How Holistic Therapy Works
To start, the therapist will get to know the client. In order for therapy to be effective, there must be a sense of trust between client and therapist. Understanding the client’s concerns and goals and truly listening will help the therapist to understand the client’s worldview and what they are looking to get out of therapy. This connection between client and therapist is called the “therapeutic alliance.”7
Once more is known, the therapist can then determine the best course of treatment. Holistic therapy may include any or all of these approaches, and more, individually or blended:3,8
- Gestalt therapy
- Art therapy
- Breath therapy
- Mindfulness awareness/meditation
- Guided imagery
The therapist is also likely to recommend any number of other holistic approaches, such as yoga, acupuncture, journaling, and more, depending on the needs and desires of the client.
Psychosynthes is a form of holistic therapy grounded in the idea that all living beings naturally strive to become the fullest realization of themselves, and the best way to grow is to consciously cooperate with this natural tendency. Human beings are uniquely capable of understanding and facilitating this process through therapy, self-reflection, meditation, and any number of other methods one might prefer.9
The term psychosynthesis was coined by Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli in 1911. It was created as an attempt to fill gaps that many early mental health experts felt Sigmund Freud had left in his theories on the human psyche. Assagioli felt that Freud had left out the “higher” aspects of humanity in his works and that his theories weren’t inclusive enough for the open and complex human nature. Psychosynthesis was therefore created as a concept that included many different aspects of human growth and remained open to any others that might be discovered.9
Naturally, psychosynthesis draws from both Western and Eastern theories on health. Eastern psychology has tended to focus more on the spiritual side of health, while its Western counterpart focuses more on personality and neurobiology. The point of psychosynthesis is to combine these and all theories to ensure that clients experience total healing and are able to realize their full potential and express the “Self” in the purest, most natural way possible. The Self refers to a person’s essence – who they truly are under all the baggage, expectations, and defenses that every individual tends build up. With “compassionate attention,” clients are guided through talk therapy to rediscover the Self that is often hidden behind the many identities they may have formed for themselves.10
Acceptance and Criticisms of Holistic Therapy
The term holistic has historically been burdened with some negative connotations as, for some, it conjures an association it with controversial treatment types such as homeopathy. However, widely accepted and accredited treatments, such as chiropractic and massage therapy, are forms of holistic medicine. Today, approximately half of all U.S. medical schools include discussion of CAM in their course offerings or clerkships.11 Acceptance has generally increased among the medical community in recent years, including the psychology community, as more studies come along that demonstrate the benefits of a holistic approach.
Most of the criticisms against holistic therapy and CAM focus on specific treatments that may lack evidence of effectiveness. Critics worry that individuals will seek out techniques that are not evidence-based over conventional methods that are scientifically supported.1
There are a number of CAM treatments that have been criticized for faring no better than the placebo effect in experiments. These include:12
- Homeopathy: The use of tiny, diluted amounts of substances that are thought to activate the body’s natural defenses, curing health problems without the side effects of common medications.
- Reflexology: The theory that there are pressure points on the body, particularly the hands and feet, that can create physical changes in the rest of the body.
- Magnetic therapy: The use of magnets, often placed in bracelets, headbands, or shoe inserts, to improve blood flow, based on the fact that the human body contains iron.
- Reiki: A spiritual practice originating in Japan that involves placing hands on or just above the client’s body to transmit healing energy.
Some other alternative treatments, even those to have demonstrated a positive treatment effect compared with placebo, are not well understood in a purely scientific sense, resulting in suspicion and sometimes outright dismissal. For example, in a 2012 study on acupuncture, pain scores for participants were nearly halved after receiving this treatment compared to those who did not receive the therapy or those who received “sham” acupuncture (deliberately ineffective acupuncture).
Many medical and mental health professionals recognize the potential benefits of numerous complementary and alternative treatments.There are also many millions of people who can speak to the effectiveness of holistic treatment approaches. Only you will be able to determine whether a holistic treatment program is a good choice for you.
- Tabish S. A. (2008). Complementary and Alternative Healthcare: Is it Evidence-based?. International journal of health sciences, 2(1), V–IX.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2018). Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?
- University of Minnesota. (n.d.). What Holistic Therapies and Practices Help with Anxiety and Depression?
- Victoria State Government. (n.d.). Complementary therapies.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2016). Chronic Pain.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2017). The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States.
- Meyers, Laurie. (2014). Connecting with Clients. Counseling Today.
- Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Holistic Psychotherapy.
- Lombard C. A. (2017). Psychosynthesis: A Foundational Bridge Between Psychology and Spirituality. Pastoral psychology, 66(4), 461–485.
- The Institute of Psychosynthesis. (n.d.). What is Psychosynthesis?
- Cowen, V. S., & Cyr, V. (2015). Complementary and alternative medicine in US medical schools. Advances in medical education and practice, 6, 113–117.
- Live Science. (2009). Alternative Therapies Debunked or Denounced in 2009.
- Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, et al. (2012). Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med, 172(19), 1444–1453.