Holistic therapy simplified

I like holistic therapies . . . they're based on the idea that we can reach beyond our limitations, that we can expand our lives and be bigger than we are today.

Holistic therapies strive for balance

    • emotional
    • mental
    • physical
    • social
    • spiritual

Holistic methods recognize interconnectedness of all working elements (i.e. I'm less prone to stress-related illnesses as I work through emotional issues).

Holistic methods complement each other (e.g. my homeopathy works well with my psychotherapy).

This is in contrast to Western medicine which targets separate body areas and often promotes the use of pharmaceuticals as a first resort.

Acupuncture - massage - naturopathy - reiki are holistic therapies that you're already familiar with. However, I doubt you've ever thought of counseling as holistic.

There's a reason for this.

Holistic Counseling?

Although virtually any type of counseling could be applied holistically, certain forms of counseling are better suited than others. They are classified as holistic because they address the person "as a whole", in all her aspects.

They're also characterized by the use of right-brain-based strategies especially those that emphasize the interpersonal, therapeutic relationship aspect of the work. Examples include mind-body psychotherapy, body psychotherapy and mindfulness psychotherapies.

The medical model and counseling

Some counseling methods follow the medical model. These therapies are good for narrowly-targeted symptom reduction. They are usually short-term without emphasizing the relational aspect of the work - although most therapies require establishing a good connection with the client.

Therapists following the medical model are not likely to suggest holistic alternatives to medication (eg. Chinese medicine, naturopathy); they're often more inclined to present themselves as the "expert" and less as a partner in a collaborative process (since the latter usually takes time to establish).

You'll find information on this site that helps both groups, but my emphasis is on holistic treatment models and techniques.

Which statement describes you best?

  • You don't know much about holistic therapy and aren't sure if it's right for you? (See directly below)
  • Maybe you find the whole notion of holistic therapy unscientific?
  • Maybe you trust the therapeutic process but don't know how to find a good therapist? (Choosing a Therapist)
  • Or maybe you've been to counseling before but didn't find it helpful? 

Is holistic therapy right for you?

You may be just beginning to think about counseling and wondering if it is the right choice for you. If so, you'll find the first four articles in Therapy 101 helpful; these articles cover the basic questions most people ask and will give you a sense of what counseling is all about. (Learn about counseling here.)

Is holistic therapy scientific?

I'm still surprised how many people think counseling amounts to nothing more than providing emotional support. I know it's hard to imagine how sitting with someone for 50 minutes can literally change your brain, but this is what the research shows!

Does your friend or partner need counseling?

In my opinion the right therapist makes the difference between mediocre results and personal change that lasts. But doing a little homework up front will greatly increase the odds of finding the right therapist.

Admittedly, choosing the right therapist is not an easy task. There's a bit of an art to it. To get you started I have outlined the most important factor in choosing the right therapist. To find it go to Choosing a Therapist,

Defining holistic

Most folks define "holistic" approaches (also referred to as complementary or alternative) as those that address the underlying causes of a health problem rather than the symptoms alone. For example, for years I treated my "symptoms" when I got a headache. I took an aspirin. I was treating the symptom not the cause of my headache.

But why, I might ask, did I get headaches?

If I chose to treat the underlying cause I might look at the tension pattern in my muscles, where the tightness shows up in my body and how different sources of stress might impact the onset of a headache. Or, I might investigate the possiblility that my body has too many toxins and pursue a course of detoxing to see if that might help solve the problem.

Thankfully, after some in-depth work, I found the answer (but that's another story). And, through this process of self-discovery, what I learned is that while it takes perseverence to root out the source of a problem, in the end, you get side benefits you hadn't anticipated.

That's the power of a holistic approach.

Holistic vs Medical Approaches

Here's another common example that compares how a holistic approach might differ from a medical model in solving the problem of allergies.

I discover that I have an allergy to dust mites. So I get rid of the dust mites. But why do I have an allergy to dust mites? A medical approach points a finger at my genetic heritage and that usually ends my health care for that problem.

However, I really want to get rid of my allergy, so I ask my physician for a recommendation. She tells me I can opt for shots every week and that over a period of one to two years, I will develop an immunity to dust mites.

And indeed that's what happens. Progressively, the shots reduce my allergic response. In the end, I no longer have a reaction to dust mites.

A holistic practitioner takes a wider view. She suggests we build up my immunity and, after a very detailed history-taking, she recommends a homeopathic remedy. In the end after several remedies - it does take some sleuthing - and over a period of two years, I no longer have a reaction to dust mites.

However, because my whole system is working better, I notice that I am sleeping better, I feel calmer, I'm less irritable and I can now eat wheat which I couldn't digest well before.

Define holistic approaches with improvements to your whole system

Holistic or holism1 refers to the fact that a system is more than a sum of its parts. In other words, the system as a whole determines how the parts behave.

i.e. 1 + 1 = 3

So, in the spirit of holism, define holistic health care approaches as those that address the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual2 dimensions which make up the total system of the individual. As such, the individual is best treated as a whole.

A disturbance at one level affects all levels.

The holistic approach is being supported by the growing mountain of research on the mind body connection for numerous health problems. For instance, a lack of social support is correlated with heart disease.3 Indeed, a lack of social support is actually tied with smoking as a risk factor.

Effect a change at one level, and you affect the whole:

"I worked through emotional roadblocks in my therapy; my activation came down; my asthma subsided; my thoughts became clearer and decisions easier; and, I became more aware of my spiritual core."

Contrast this with:

e.g. "I received an inhaler from my doctor for my asthma. I felt more secure in the knowledge that I could always rely on it."

The Medical Model

There's no doubt about it, advances in medical science and the eradication of deadly diseases have afforded us the lifestyle we enjoy today (e.g. without cholera, polio etc.). We depend on medical science for immediate relief.4

e.g. "I got an infection from harmful bacteria, and I received an antibiotic."

e.g. "I broke my arm, it was reset and I got a plaster cast."

The medical model is based on the following principles:

  1. Disease is the result of an underlying physical process. For example, the identification of a flu virus prompts many people to get flu shots each year. Methods for diagnosis include the testing and analysis of the blood, urine, stool and secretions (e.g. mucosal, pleural, synovial etc.).
  2. Health problems are treated using medications and surgical interventions. Less attention is paid to the differences in how they might originate (other than saying it was a virus, for instance). If one person is prone to allergies and another to asthma, it is attributed solely to differences in genetic coding, which of course play a role. (A holistic approach might conceptualize how one's experiences influence the way the gene is expressed.)
  3. Problems that are psychophysiological are treated in the same way as an infection, so the focus of treatment is on reducing the symptoms. In fact, reducing the symptoms is believed to "cure" the problem while ignoring what caused them to begin with.

e.g. "I developed digestive problems and my physician referred me to a surgeon. The surgeon indicated that if my current condition continued to deteriorate that I will need my gall bladder taken out. He suggested we "wait and see" and asked that I return in three months."

But a holistic approach to health care is proactive and starts longs before severe symptoms are evident:

e.g. "I noticed that I was burping long after I ate. I checked with my physician and she felt it might be a problem with my gall bladder. I went to my tradtional Chinese doctor and received acupucture and herbs."

On the other hand, the medical model is often the best solution for acute problems. If I start to have a heart attack for example, I want the medics standing by.

While there are no hard and fast rules, solutions to psychophysiological problems5 are often best approached holistically.

So, a medical model (allopathic) approach looks like this:

e.g. "I got some medication to treat my Irritable Bowel Syndrome."

e.g. "I received an anxiolytic for my anxiety."

This contrasts with a holistic approach which might recommend:

Chinese herbs, yoga and body psychotherapy.

Examples that Define Holistic Health Care:

  • Acupuncture
  • Reflexology
  • Naturopathic Medicine
  • QiGong
  • Reiki
  • Body Psychotherapy (and other therapies that include right brain processes)

How would the medical model work with holistic health care?

So for example, Jack is suffering from symptoms related to hypertension. He might visit his doctor who diagnoses the problem and prescribes medication. Jack begins taking the medication but he also proactively seeks the advice of a qualified homeopath.

Based on his symptom presentation the homeopath recommends a remedy. At the same time, he starts body psychotherapy to root out emotional reasons for the lack of intimacy in his life.

In time, he is able to dispense with his medication as he no longer suffers from hypertension.

A word of caution

Never attempt to mix alternative methods with western medicine on your own. Combining some herbal remedies with pharmaceuticals can create disastrous results.

Always seek the help of a qualified health care professional who understands what is contraindicated.

How do you tell whether to use an allopathic or holistic approach for resolving health problems?

I don't think there is any clearly defined answer to this question. I recommend finding the best physician and holistic practitioner you can find.

Many alternative methods are mainstreamed today (e.g. acupuncture, taking supplements) I think we will continue to see an integration of these methods in the future.

What's important is to recognize the strengths of each and to explore how they can be used in tandem.

My Personal Musings

What about the spiritual connection?

Absolutely, it's important and it certainly has been for my life. I could never do what I do today without spiritual help and guidance. What I've noticed is that as I become healthier in my body (e.g. more grounded), access to my spiritual side is more readily available.

I hope to have more information on the site about this topic in future.

Acupuncture has been literally helping people with health related problems for centuries. And while acupuncture is a recent addition to our health care practices in the West, it has shown to be an excellent non-drug resource especially where western medicine has not been successful.

Related Topics


1Holism was first coined 1926 by Jan Christiaan Smuts, a South African military leader, statesman and author of Holism and Evolution, who was also a naturalist and a philosopher. The actual practice of holism dates back to the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC): "The whole is more than the sum of its parts."

2This is reflected by what is inside of us and although often related, is not meant in the religious sense.

3See Falk et al. below.

4This isn't to say holistic remedies cannot provide immediate relief. I depend on my homeopathic tincture for fast relief from sneezing attacks. It's just that a holistic approach generally is not considered a "quick fix". This is how I personally define holistic.

5This often includes problems associated with immune functioning. Psychoneuroimmunology or the study of the brain and immune functioning is an interdisciplinary study that includes immunology, neurology, endocrinology, psychiatry, neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, neurobiology, neuroanatomy.


Falk A, Hanson BS, Isacsson S-O, Ostergren P-O. 1992. Job strain and mortality in elderly men: Social network, support, and influence as buffers. Am J Public Health 82:1136-39.

WordPress Video Lightbox