By Jamison Monroe 06/23/16
By complementing clinical approaches with holistic therapies, one can be healed and truly transformed in recovery.
What happens in the body stays in the body. Intense emotions and traumatic experiences get locked in the nervous system, and often it’s only through body-based interventions that they can be fully released, freeing the mind as well. In order to create truly sustainable healing and long-term recovery, clinical approaches must be complemented by holistic therapies that have the potential to transform us at a subconscious, somatic level that goes far deeper than thought or reason.
Bessel A. van der Kolk, a clinical psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score, has done extensive research on how trauma affects the brain and body. In a study with women with complex trauma who were experiencing symptoms even after therapy, he had half the women attend a yoga class and the other half participate in a health education group. After 10 weeks, those who had participated in the yoga program experienced a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms compared to the control group; more than half of them no longer met the criteria for PTSD, compared to 21% of the control group.
“Body awareness is a necessary aspect of effective emotion regulation,” Kolk and his team concluded. “Learning to notice, tolerate, and manage somatic experience may substantially promote emotion regulation.”
Like trauma, “addiction has both psychological and physical characteristics, and so yoga as a mind-body practice is well suited as an intervention,” says prominent yoga researcher Sat Bir S. Khalsa. Mindful contemplative practices like yoga, breathing exercises and meditation calm the sympathetic nervous system (the primal “fight, flight or freeze” system, which catalyzes risk-taking behaviors) and buffer the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in making decisions and regulating emotions. A review study at Johns Hopkins found that meditation was equally effective in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression as antidepressants.
Michel Mennesson, MD, a psychiatrist with Newport Academy, practices meditation daily and finds it to be a powerful intervention for his clients. He says it shifts the focus from analyzing to observing, keeping the mind and body grounded in the present moment. “Doing concentration exercises like meditation decreases overthinking, which is what we see in both depression and anxiety,” Mennesson says.
But yoga and meditation are only two of the body-based modalities that can shift stuck patterns of thinking and remembering, along with the emotional reactions that accompany them. Martial arts, music, dance, expressive arts, outdoor adventure therapy, equine therapy—even gardening or cooking when done with mindful attention and presence—effect change by requiring participants’ physical engagement with their environment. Within a safe, therapeutic setting, old habits and behaviors come to light and are gradually resolved, and new, healthy pathways are formed. The body takes the lead, coming into harmony through focused action, and the mind follows.
Jamison Monroe, Jr., Founder and CEO of Newport Academy, is a prominent voice in the field of adolescent mental health and addiction treatment. He is an active participant in the movement to reduce social stigma around substance abuse and mental health challenges. Monroe is a writer, spokesperson, yoga teacher, and fierce advocate of holistic learning and compassionate care for struggling teens.