What the Heck is Holistic Medicine

As a holistic mental health counselor I am often asked, “What the heck is it?” I usually respond with a stuttering random sequence of thoughts that happened to be rolling through my mind at the moment. And when I am finished with this nonsensical tossed salad of words, I look at the person hoping that they were able to make some coherent sense of my gibberish. For some reason, this question cannot be easily answered. So I set out to do a little research to see if someone could succinctly define holistic medicine.

My Internet searches only proved to further confuse the topic, so I went with the old tried and true common dictionary. After reviewing several dictionaries, I found that they too fell short of a complete definition. Many describe it as a medical approach that treats the whole person considering all aspects like mental, social, and physical. While this definition makes sense, it leaves us wondering, so what does holistic medicine look like and isn’t this what all doctors do? The simple answer to the latter question is yes and no.

In discussing this topic with numerous people that were both familiar and unfamiliar with it, I found that there were a couple of convoluting issues that stood in most people’s way. First, is the trendy overuse or misuse of the term and second, is the confusing nature of our cultural perspective. It has become increasingly popular to throw the word holistic around to suggest a treatment approach that is, natural, alternative, new, or unique to contemporary western medicine. While these approaches may have originated from a holistic philosophy, they are often provided without a truly holistic approach.

Our contemporary westernized culture loves to divide things into parts and see things as this or that. They are divided to such a degree, that we sometimes lose the bigger picture. Consider a scientist closely studying a plant. They’re going to place the plant in a lab and break it down into different parts: leaves, stems, roots, flowers, fruits, seeds, cells, molecules, atoms and so forth. They are going to closely examine each part to fully understand their functionality. Lots of information can be learned from this approach. However, what is missing is the infinite number of relationships between all the parts and how they interact and relate to each other.

It is true that our contemporary medical approach can get fixated on the parts that seem to be causing the patient’s problems. However, I think most health care providers would rightfully argue that they consider the other parts and treat the whole person too. So what is it about the relationships of the parts that make a holistic health care provider different?

Going back to the scientist studying the plant: the holistic scientist is going to acknowledge all the parts and how all the parts relate to the other parts. So the holistic scientist is not going to want to take the plant out of its environment and put it in a lab. Lets face it, no plant naturally and normally exists under lab conditions. Instead, the plant would be studied in its natural environment looking at the plant cells, relationships to other cells, relationships to other insects, other plants, relationships to temperature changes, interactions with different species of birds, relationships to soil qualities, what eats the plant, relationship to the rain, relationships to different species of animals, relationships with drought and flood, what eats the fruits of the plant, how a humming bird impacts the cells of the plant, how humans relate to the plant, how the seasons interact with the cells of the plant, when does the plant struggle to survive, when does it thrive, and the list could go on forever examining the infinite relationships and interconnections. The knowledge obtained from this type of research is different from conventional science. It is not that typical scientists do not look at these things, they can and do but this is not the foundation of their scientific point of view.

The holistic scientist is going to know and understand that there is an entire community related to the plant. If the plant is removed from the community, not only does the plant suffer but so does the community. If the plant is transplanted somewhere else, we are not planting a community but only the plant. This is something that conventional science and conventional health care doesn't bother to learn and emphasize in their approach.

What is missing from our dictionary definition is the element and emphasis on the interrelationships between the parts of the whole. The holistic health care provider is going to have an intimate knowledge about these relationships and be able to identify harmony or disharmony in these natural relationships. Because they know what the relationships between the parts should look like, they are better equipped to fix the problem naturally.

I am a mental health counselor with the same education as any other mental health counselor. The only difference is, I have additional holistic education. I have been specifically trained to understand the natural relationships of all the parts. So I treat not only the whole person but also the relationships of all the person’s parts. By having a deep understanding of the relationships and how they interact, I can help to maximize the natural healing responses of the mind and body without having to control, manipulate, or force through artificial means like drugs or behavioral manipulation.

The conventional approach to mental health counseling often offers a temporary fix with medications to numb us of our symptoms and behavioral/thought manipulation to help us function in our daily lives. This comes from an education that teaches counselors to fixate on the problem parts (symptoms), while the relationships are simply unknown. The holistic approach is going to search for the origins of the problem by identifying disharmony in the relationships and reestablish a natural harmony that would normally exist. As a result, the holistic approach focuses more on actual healing and sustained relief rather than a temporary fix.

The holistic philosophy is not new, as it is the same philosophy that our ancient human ancestors followed. However, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the scientific community finally started to take notice. Scientists that fully understand the holistic philosophy refer to it as The Living Systems Theory, a phrase coined by scientist James Grier Miller. Contrary to common belief, there is lots of research to support the holistic philosophy not only in the medical field but in other scientific fields as well.

Unfortunately, conventional medical practitioners often criticize holistic medicine for a number of reasons. From my experience, these criticisms usually come from a lack of complete understanding of holistic medicine. In reality, these two approaches could work together to provide an extremely safe, efficient, and effective form of health care with exceptional relief and healing.

By: Aaron Mitchell, MS, LMHCA

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