Holistic psychology treats the total person focusing on the relationships among the mind, body, and spirit. The holistic approach is not new. In fact, over 2,500 years ago Hippocrates used the term to describe health and health care. Hippocrates emphasized the importance of looking at all aspects of a person, understanding that various factors all contribute to a person’s health. Holistic therapy educates the individual and draws from cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, breath work, personal growth, relaxation, imagery, and nutrition. Holistic therapy works to enhance a person’s well-being. When the overall health of the person improves, issues like depression, anxiety, stress, pain, and weight all improve.
My holistic therapy approach focuses on getting more MEANINGS into your life:
Mindfulness and Meditation
Engagement and Emotions
Activity and Action
Nature and No
Self-talk and Sleep
With nearly all of my clients, no matter what the presenting issues, I begin with a holistic approach. I created the acronym MEANINGS as a guide to remember the important components of truly caring for yourself on the path to optimal mental and physical health. I view these activities and practices as a foundational menu from which to choose. Pick the ones that resonate most (which could be because they feel really easy or because they feel so challenging that you know it would totally rock your life in the best way). After you’ve chosen one or more to try, view it as an experiment. Try the new practice or behavior for at least a week (if not 30 days, ideally), and if it isn’t resonating with you, put it back on the shelf and try something else. Self-care needs are forever changing as our lives change.
Mindfulness and meditation – Mindfulness in its most basic form is paying attention to what you are doing. It sounds pretty simple, but our culture emphasizes “do more” rather than enjoy what you are doing. Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as focusing on the way the water feels on your hands when you are washing the dinner dishes or as purposeful as taking a mindful walk in which you pay attention to your surroundings and the sound of your feet hitting the floor. Meditation feels more purposeful. There are LOTS of different ways to meditate. The best way to meditate is the way that works best for you, so don’t be afraid to try on a few types to see what fits. The method that has worked best for me is to roll out of bed, brush my teeth, find a quiet space before my husband and son are awake, and set my phone timer for five minutes. I just focus on my breathing and allow any thoughts that come in to float away as I take my attention back to my breath. Mindfulness and meditating switch on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which means the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is switched off. The more you practice these methods, the easier it will be for your body to stay in a parasympathetic state and to switch into one during the daily stresses of life. Staying in parasympathetic state has a host of health benefits to include better immune function, better ability to think, and even better physical performance.
Engagement and Emotions – Engagement could mean a number of things. Getting involved in something that you love (a hobby, a class, a community group) and/or making time to spend with friends fuels you. It focuses your mind on joy which makes it easier to think positive thoughts. Engagement also means spending time with people who are supportive and positive thinkers. This may mean finding some new friends, which is not always an easy task. Surrounding yourself with positive messages can be a powerful way to engage, especially if the people in your life aren't the most supportive. One of my favorite ways to to this is through books and podcasts. Engage with books like "You are a Badass" by Jen Sincero (and listen to it on audio if you can because she reads it and is HILARIOUS). Engage with podcasts like Sean Croxton's Quote of the Day podcast. True to its name, this podcast provides a short clip 5-10 minutes of a motivational-type speaker. These are just plain awesome. And the more you feed your mind new information, the easier it is to create a new groove to shift your thinking in a more positive direction. As this new groove of positive input gets deeper and more entrenched, the old, more negative groove will weaken, leading to healthier thoughts and actions.
Emotions are a huge part of our lives, but we can just change them on command. If we could, we’d all be happy and less stressed. When you change the way that you think and act, your emotions will follow. Emotions shouldn’t be ignored. They are messengers. If you need help with identifying and feeling your emotions, try writing. Once you start putting pen to paper, you may be surprised at what comes out.
Activity and Action – Move your body. It’s just that simple. You can get all fancy and track your steps (which I enjoy doing), join a gym, take a class, or you can just walk and move around. Don’t sit all of the time. Have you ever noticed days when you just sat in your office all day and you felt more drained than after a day of being active? Move in whatever way you like, just move. The action piece is similar, and is built on a psychological principle called behavioral activation. Often times we think that we can’t start doing something until we feel better or until we think differently; however, what we fail to realize is that we often need to DO something differently before we are going to feel better. Business coach and entrepreneur Marie Forleo says it best: “Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.” Do something. Change you patterns. Then you will feel and think differently.
Nature and No – This is a simple one, too. Go outside. Walk barefoot when you can. Let the sun hit your body. Research shows that spending time in nature is good for our immune system and creates an ion exchange that both calms us and provides us with more energy. Even a simple 10 minute walk at lunch can be useful. If you can’t make it to the forest each day (because some of us do love the cities!!), find a park with grass or just look at the trees and notice how you feel.
No – I stuck this one in to remind us to say no to activities and people who drain us. If an activity doesn’t align with your values, then ask yourself if you need to be spending your precious time doing it. There is an idea that we must “do it all,” but that idea is for people who want to age prematurely and develop chronic diseases. That idea is not for those of us who want to be healthy. We teach people how we want to be treated, and if we say Yes to everything, they will keep asking and continuing to treat us like a doormat, because our behaviors (even if we are swearing on the inside) have told them that that is acceptable. Saying no is like exercising a muscle that has been asleep for a while. You have to strengthen it, and although you don’t need to provide a detailed dissertation on why you don’t want to do something, if you feel you must say something beyond, “Thank you for asking, but no thank you,” you could try, “I’m trying something new in my life, and right now baking 300 double fudge peanut butter brownies in the shape of turkeys by tomorrow morning (or whatever the request) doesn’t work for me, but maybe next time.” When you say No, you allow time for more things on this list that you might find are very important to you.
Intuition - Our body knows what we need if we are only willing to listen to it. Meditation, saying no, and practicing gratitude all help us to get in touch with our inner voice. Spend time asking yourself what you truly want and listen to it. Be aware of the signs your body and mind give you when you do something that is not in synchronization with what your intuition is telling you.
Nutrition – Nutrition is foundational. You can’t out-exercise, out-sleep, or out-meditate a poor diet. Every bite of food you take is information for your cells. The closer you can get to a whole foods diet, the better you will feel. After you are eating a whole foods diet, you can make adjustments to better support your body’s needs, but a whole foods diet is at least an 80% solution.
Gratitude – Research has now shown that people who practice gratitude are happier and healthier than those who are negative. Focusing on gratitude by writing three things for which you are grateful each day shifts your mindset and makes it easier for you to see all the good that is around you. We practice this at the dinner table, and it has become something I look forward to each day.
Self-talk and Sleep – I was trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and although that is definitely not the only tool in my toolbox, it is one that I use with my clients (and myself) all of the time. We have more than 60,000 thoughts a day (that’s a lot!), and most of them are below our conscious awareness, but our body and mind are aware of them. Those thoughts serve as the program to run the way we approach the world. They are our operating system that fuels our behavior and our emotions. Self-talk reinforces our beliefs, and if our beliefs are negative, then the rest of our life will be, too. The first step to changing our beliefs and self-talk is to become aware of them. Negative thoughts and beliefs can be classified as cognitive distortions (e.g., mind reading, disqualifying the positive, black-or-white thinking, etc.). If you pay attention to your thoughts, you might be shocked by how many distorted thoughts you have. I always tell my clients that that is a good thing because we know that we can change those! Changing them takes practice, but it gets easier as you do it more and more often.
Sleep - Sleep and nutrition run a tight race for the most foundational self-care principle. We don’t need to check the photo finish…let’s just do both and call it a day! It’s easy to skimp on sleep in an effort to “Get more done” but that backfires pretty quickly. The body needs good quality sleep to reset. Sleep is not a luxury; it is a necessity. As few as three nights of sleeping less than six hours can cause significant detriments to cognition similar to as if a person was intoxicated. Prioritize sleep. Use the principle of No to make it possible to get sleep. Too little sleep disrupts your circadian rhythm which affects cortisol and your hormones. Sleep hygiene is pretty basic and it works. Stop looking at screens at least an hour before bed. Lower the lights in the evening. Do something relaxing before bed…read, take a bath or shower, pet your dog…you get the picture.
Prioritizing these self-care principles will magnify your life. You’ll feel more vibrant, more connected, and healthier. Just choose one to start, and if that feels like too much or you encounter barriers that you don’t know how to remove, seek out the help of a therapist or coach. Investing in yourself is truly the best investment you can make!
Note: If you are wondering about the picture of a succulent...to me it is the epitome of holistic...nature, centering, calming, strength, love :)