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Give Your Brain a Boost: Holistic Approaches to Mental Health



We’ve already talked about how health and philosophy, though seemingly polar opposites, are very tightly linked. In fact, the holistic approach is one of the major schools of thought in philosophy which was founded (as much as anybody can found a philosophy, anyway) by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza believed that the mind and the body are intrinsically linked within the self. This is the guiding principle behind holistic healing.

Holistic Vs. Western Medicine

The same mistake is often made with holistic healing and western medicine (which is more based in Descartes’s philosophy). Many assume that holistic healing and western medicine are antagonistic when, really, they complement each other and using them in tandem is the best way to approach and treat issues with which you might be dealing. This is why, for people who want to pursue careers as healers, they also develop a background in western medicinal and diagnostic techniques. For example, is a catholic school that offers clinical programs like radiation therapy degrees, nursing degrees, etc. These programs do not detract from the school’s catholic faith based mission and many feel that the catholic philosophies espoused by the school actually help them become better technicians, nurses, biologists, and healers.

Holistic Vs. Hard Science in Mental Health

Perhaps the best illustration of how western medicine/hard science and the holistic approach work together in a complementary capacity is in treating patients’ mental health. Here are a few examples of exactly this.


It is important to eat healthfully for your physical health and for the physical health of your brain. For example, Omega-3 Fatty Acids (like what you find in salmon and other wild fish) are a key factor in the formation of the brain’s cell membranes. They have a direct impact on the permeability of the cell membrane at the point of synapse, which is where brain cells interact with each other and transfer information–aka, where the connections happen that make us think.

At the same time, proper nutrition also directly affects our emotions and cognitive ability. The aforementioned Omega 3’s make it easier for the brain to transmit hormones like serotonin and dopamine, which have direct impacts on our moods and cognitive abilities.

Mindfulness and Meditation

One of the most important tenets of a holistic approach to mental and physical health is the practice of mindfulness and meditation. The ability to calm one’s self and change one’s negative thinking patterns is an important part of maintaining a healthy emotional self.

Mindfulness and meditation also have a physical effect on the brain and on the body. Physically, mindfulness and meditation stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that governs your fight or flight reflex and can when you access it, your brain sends out the hormones needed to help the body begin rebuilding and repairing any damage that might have been done physically (like if you had been attacked). It is why you feel your muscles physically relax during meditation. It also slows down your breathing allowing you to take in more oxygen, which the body and the brain need to stay healthy.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is often one of holistic medicine’s first approaches to help alleviate the symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, etc. The idea is that massage works the body physically. It improves blood flow, which helps the brain’s cognitive processes improve. It also physically relaxes the muscles. Some believe that when the muscles of the body relax, the brain relaxes, which is why massage is such an important part of mental health treatment at holistic clinics.

There is hard western science that proves that in addition to the many physical benefits of massage, one of the primary reasons it is such a boon for people who suffer from mental health issues is that it provides them with a literal connection to another human. People who suffer from depression and anxiety tend to isolate themselves and the feeling of connection to another person, especially a connection that many feel is intimate in nature, did wonders for their mood and helped reduce feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, etc.

Remember: at its core, the holistic approach to treatment–whether that treatment is for a physical, mental, or emotional issue–is to treat the entire body instead of focusing only on specific symptoms. This means attending to a patient’s mental health as much as their physical health.

This is why a background in western medicine can be such a huge boost for people who practice holistic healing. When you’re trained in nursing, radiology, and medicine, you know how to look at the body analytically which can help you figure out how to put together a treatment plan to care for your patient’s entire self.