Holistic Psychotherapy Defined

A chalkboard diagram of overlapping circles that say: body, mind, and spirit.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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • marlon

    marlon

    March 11th, 2010 at 7:29 AM

    although each of the medical fields tries to find the malfunctioning part and tries to fix it, we should not forget that this fixing is done so that the body can return to normalcy as a whole.so the whole aspect of treatment and cure is to make sure the entire body works in tandem and is fine as a whole with no part of it malfunctioning.

  • Suellen

    Suellen

    August 8th, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    I worked with adolescents for five years in the substance abuse treatment field and often had to reason by analogy. One good analogy for them that supports the efficacy of holistic psychotherapy is that of automobiles and their care. One wouldn’t replace a faulty starter and expect the vehicle to take off and run perfectly if it still had a flat tire and soda in the gas tank instead of gasoline. A human, of course, is much more complex than an automobile but is subject to continuing to underperform if only one “part” is tended to and the rest left malfunctioning. Thus, medication is not a cure-all for depression or anxiety but it can be an effective component of treatment including therapy, exercise and other positive lifestyle changes, a supportive circle of friends and the formation and pursuit of meaningful goals.

  • Kate H

    Kate H

    October 24th, 2016 at 9:52 AM

    I didn’t know that holistic psychotherapy is defined as an approach to caring for the psyche that focuses on the many aspects that make up a whole person. I bet by focusing on the whole person, you get a better outcome in therapy than if you just focused on one thing. My sister suffers from depression and I wonder if this would be a good option to help her cope with it.

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