I’ve been thinking a lot about healing this year. My journey into nutrition and integrative medicine started with a desire to heal my body from disease (diabetes). Naturally, as I explored the applications of nutrition and integrative medicine to mental health, I’ve thought a lot about what healing from mental health disorders really means.
In school, counseling and psychology students learn about the all of the different categories of mental health disorders, how common they are, what might contribute to their development, what populations they’re most likely to affect, how long they last, and finally, how to treat them. Diagnostics in mental health is a special kind of skill, because it is entirely based upon observation and self-report. There are no objective, scientific tests to determine if a person meets the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, for example. We ask questions, watch the client’s behavior, listen to what he says and doesn’t say, and draw conclusions. Checklists and criterion have been developed over the years to help us differentiate one disorder from another and diagnose correctly, and with proper instruction, practice and supervision, it’s possible to become very skilled at determining what’s really going on with your client, even if he doesn’t have the words to truly describe his experience. Once an accurate diagnosis has been made, the clinician creates a treatment plan, based on what research has shown to be effective for each disorder. This part is fun, because each client is a little bit different, with a unique background, worldview and skill set that each play a part in his treatment. Likewise, each counselor is different, coming from her own theoretical base, with her own experiences and skills to help the client navigate towards healing.
Ultimately, that is what each party wants in the counseling relationship – healing. The client wants relief from emotional pain, to be of sound mind and body again, to be healthy. And the counselor wants to help him get there using all of the tools in her toolbox. When therapy is successful, the symptoms of the mental health disorder that brought the client in for help are greatly diminished, managed by new lifestyle practices, skills and education, if not gone completely. When a client goes for an extended amount of time without meeting the criteria for a mental health disorder, we note that he is in either partial remission or full remission. The job is done.
Have you ever heard an oncologist deliver news of being cancer-free to someone? Many doctors will say to the patient, “You’re officially in remission.” What follows is crying and joy and celebration, because the patient has been healed from the disease. He no longer requires chemotherapy or radiation treatment. There is nothing else to be done; he’s healed. When I went for a check-up 6 months after my initial diabetes diagnosis, my blood work was great. My doctor looked at me and said, “You’re so healthy I don’t know what to do with you.” A few months later, I made a comment to my husband about having diabetes, and he laughed, saying, “You don’t have diabetes.” And he’s right. My body shows no evidence of diabetes anymore, and God-willing, it never will again.
When I’m working with a client, I don’t tell him we’re working towards a “remission” of symptoms. I tell him we’re working towards healing. I use positive, hope-focused language, because I want my clients to be hopeful for the future. If they are hopeful that healing is possible, they will be motivated to work for it.
If a client doesn’t believe he can ever be rid of the mental health disorder, his work will only progress so far. He will be more likely to settle for “good enough” unless he believes he can truly heal. If he chooses to believe that whatever mental health disorder he’s working on is permanent, that negative belief will fuel negative self-talk, which will actually change the way the brain functions. A negative mindset inhibits a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which affects the growth and survival of neurons, control of neurotransmitters, learning and memory, gut health and even metabolism. When this chemical is decreased or impaired, many of our body systems are impacted!
In our society, it’s common for us to operate with a negativity bias. This essentially means that we tend to believe negative information more easily; it sticks in our minds and informs our behaviors and health. It takes work to overcome the negativity bias, but it is possible! When we learn to think positively, to practice hope-focused thinking and change the way we talk to ourselves, our brains literally change, forming new pathways that then inform the body. God designed our bodies with many feedback loops; systems inform each other and work collaboratively to keep us running. I’ve talked about how, for example, our gut health is crucial to the development of healthy neurotransmitters, which then inform our brain on things like anxiety, fear and happiness. What we put in to our body matters to our mental health, and what thoughts we carry in our minds influence our brain to shift and change accordingly, either helping or harming us. Learning how to overcome the negativity bias is just as important to our mental health as fueling our bodies (and brains) with the proper nutrition.
That diagnosis of diabetes has changed my life. I live differently now, and those changes are what keep me healthy. Because I believe in healing and live a hope-filled life, I am not going to continue calling myself diabetic, because really, I’m not. Similarly, when a client reaches the end of therapy and no longer meets the criteria for that particular mental health diagnosis, he can walk away with victory! He is healed. Perspective matters to our physical and mental health. I’ve said it before and I’ll scream it from the rooftops – your diagnosis does not define you!
This is getting a little long, so I’ll just leave you with this question: do you believe you can be healed?