Just what does holistic psychotherapy mean?
Let’s begin with psychotherapy. The word is derived from two Greek words: psyche which refers to the soul or the spirit and therapeia which means to care for or to cure. So, quite literally, psychotherapy is an endeavor that involves caring for the soul with the ultimate aim of alleviating suffering. Of course, within this definition, many different theoretical and applied approaches to psychotherapy have been developed, such as psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral therapy, humanistic, etc. In the end, all of these approaches can be said to have the same goal involving relief from pain of the psyche, with psyche, in more modern terms, referring to the workings of the mind.
Holistic relates to the word holism, which in Greek is holos, meaning the total or entirety. A fundamental aspect of this definition is that the whole of a system is greater than the sum of its parts. Applying this to a person’s health, a holistic perspective posits that symptoms or dysfunction can only be comprehended by examining all aspects of the person (physiologically; psychologically; spiritually; socio-culturally; environmentally; etc.) and by appreciating ways in which these aspects work in a synergistic fashion. This is in contrast to a more reductionist perspective of health which focuses on understanding problems by looking for the malfunctioning part(s) that are producing the symptom.
When we bring these two words together, holistic psychotherapy can be defined as an approach to caring for the psyche that focuses on the many aspects that make up a whole of a person. Doesn’t seem so radical, does it? From this definition, a psychotherapist with just about any kind of approach toward care could be operating holistically. What’s more, I find that this is increasingly true for most psychotherapists, regardless of theoretical orientation.
So, then why does it seem that the term holistic psychotherapy has such an avant garde connotation? I would suggest that there are at least two primary reasons. First, reductionism (the opposite of holism) provides the basis for the natural sciences, and the natural sciences continue to hold significant sway over truth making in our culture. In other words, making sense of the ways things work in our culture, particularly in medicine, continues to be the domain of the natural sciences, and holistic or systemic perspectives remain peripheral in that domain. And second, holistic psychotherapy, for better or for worse (outside of the natural sciences), has become firmly aligned with alternative or complementary health care. The combination of these two factors has resulted in holistic health care, in general, becoming the place where alternatives to more reductionist approaches to health care reside.
I believe that I have arrived at a point where many people, health care practitioners and laypeople alike, wind up with regard to holistic health care. The basic idea of approaching health holistically just makes good sense. Most everyone can relate to a basic experience such as knowing that being in certain environments produces different degrees of stress and that the impact of that stress has an impact both psychologically and physiologically. From that point though, where do you go? Many become uncomfortable and/or confused with the options in the world of holistic health care, including holistic psychotherapy, and finding guidance in this regard can be challenging.
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Schneider. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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