Caring for the Whole Self:  Herbs and Psychotherapy

Emilie S. Thomas, MA LMFT

In the past few years of practicing at Valley Pastoral Counseling Center I have noticed an increase in clients who would like to explore natural ways of supporting their therapeutic treatment of depression, anxiety, or other issues, whether through taking herbs and supplements or changing the diet. In response to this observation, I have embarked on a rigorous certification program in herbalism that, once completed, can expand my scope of practice to include the ability to make informed suggestions concerning herbal and nutritional supplements, addressing concerns related to mood and overall well-being. I have been excited from the start to learn additional ways to relieve acute conditions in a way that empowers the client to put him or herself in charge of healing.

Little did I know, however, how much the theoretical base of herbal medicine has in common with that of psychodynamic psychotherapy, the focus of my therapy practice. While many forms of therapy focus on teaching coping skills and changing surface behaviors to relieve acute suffering, psychodynamic therapy delves deeper into the self to root out the cause of the troubling symptoms and to resolve them on the level at which they originated. The root may be quite different than the symptom and escape notice for many years; for instance, a client who struggles with self-esteem may not understand at first that the parent who adored him and praised him constantly has contributed to his issue by creating an unrealistic image of himself that he can never live up to, creating a deep sense of failure. Though it takes longer and often involves challenging work, the results of this in-depth therapy tend to be more permanent and manifest an overall stronger, more resilient self. Herbal medicine uses the same approach when treating the body’s suffering. Combinations of herbs are used not just to treat a symptom but also to find the true origin of the imbalance, which is often not in the direction a client suspects.  A common example is in working with mood issues due to hormone imbalances, which in herbal medicine involves not just the hormones but also the liver. This is because if the liver is not functioning optimally, it cannot metabolize the hormones synthesized in the body well and imbalance can easily result. Ultimately good herbal treatment also strengthens the body’s overall functioning and leaves it in a better shape than it was before the illness, just as psychodynamic therapy does for the emotional self.

Neither of these approaches ignores acute suffering. As a therapist, I take emergency measures to help relieve intense emotional pain with appropriate interventions when necessary in a crisis. These measures are part of a toolbox built from many different therapeutic orientations to handle each situation as it comes. I do not insist on talking about someone’s childhood when a client needs hospitalization, medicine, education, or a lot of support and comfort in his or her grief. Similarly, herbal medicine also has treatments for immediate illnesses with herbs that kill bacteria, viruses, boost immunity, and relieve pain. Yet in both views, once the crisis is averted, it is important to focus on the wellness of the client, not just the eradication of disease. After all, health- both mental and physical- is ideally measured in bountiful energy, refreshing sleep, contentment, strength of character, ability to love and know joy, and to find purpose and meaning in one’s life. Such values do not describe the goal of a simple absence of pathology. Shouldn’t it follow then, that our treatment be aimed in the same direction?

Please feel free to call me with any questions or to make an appointment at 540-932-1476.

May is Mental Health Month

by Melissa Hansen, M.S., LPC

This month we remember the many in our country and around the world who are suffering from mental illness. This month we remember those who treat the mentally ill with their compassion, kindness, and dedication. This month we remember that many of us, while not mentally ill, are not as mentally healthy as we would like to be. This month we remember that mental health is as important as physical health and is should be a priority.

If you would like more information about how mental health is being highlighted this month, check out the following sites:

National Council for Behavioral Health

This is my Brave

Mental Health America

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Mental Health Counseling Week 



Before Couple’s Counseling

By Melissa Hansen, M.A., LPC

Couples often enter counseling hurt, angry, and blaming one another for the problems in the relationship. There are occasional couples who enter couple’s counseling just looking to enhance and deepen their relationship and this work is certainly easier and can be immensely rewarding.

One thing to consider before beginning couple’s counseling is that many people find couple’s counseling more difficult than individual counseling. Just as any therapy can stir up all sorts of reactions and feelings, so unearthing pain, sadness and anger in a relationship also does. It is one thing to sit on a therapy couch and have someone attuned only to you and quite another thing to hear your spouse’s experience of you and to engage with their pain. Most of us become defensive, blaming, or resentful in response. Growing as an individual is difficult and doing so with another person and the powerful pull of established patterns and dynamics should not be underestimated. Therefore, sometimes it is best for couples to pursue individual therapy in order to be more aware of their own issues.

The past is how we land where we are, and relationship wounds can run very deep. Addressing them is essential to relational healing. Still, both partners must be willing to work through things, take ownership of their respective parts, and then forgive and release their partner, and this is more easily done with the help of a trained professional.

One of the first tasks in couple’s work is for the therapist to help both parties focus on their own contributions to the state of the relationship and establish safety.  Many people fear that if they begin to take responsibility this will abdicate their partner from taking responsibility. This is not the case. If one begins to recognize and take responsibility for one’s part, then one can also see what is not one’s responsibility. Establishing an environment of safety (initially in the therapy room and eventually elsewhere in the relationship) is essential to the healing, growth, and deepening of the intimate relationship.

Here are some ways to prepare for couple’s counseling:

  • If possible, go to individual therapy first and openly share that process with one another, taking responsibility for your own life, feelings, choices, and behaviors.
  • Remind yourself that your partner is not the only one at fault. While you may not be aware of the role you play in the relationship and dynamics, you have one. We are all human.
  • You cannot do two things at once. You cannot be trying to divorce or having an affair and also, truly, be trying to redeem your marriage. Simply stopping an affair or taking divorce off the table will not solve everything, but focusing entirely on the healing and health of your marriage is an essential first step. And don’t wait long. Many marriages that are struggling will be sabotaged by the continual betrayal and deception that go along with continuing to put energy toward the dissolution of it or an outside party.
  • Do intentional acts of love for your partner. Think of things that would be meaningful to them and then do those things. Set aside time to listen and connect.
  • Some couple’s therapists recommend reading to help the couple make progress outside the sessions. While there are many good ones, here is one I would recommend: Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson.
  • Make the call to a couple’s therapist even if you have not done any of the above steps!

How Can I Help You?

By Alan Melton, D. Min., LPC

When you come to therapy, the first thing the therapist usually asks is, “How can I help you?” Once you reply, the process has begun. You may not know what to say. You may not even know what help you need. It is the therapist’s job to help you sort it out. It may also be that what you think you came to therapy for ends up not being the real problem at all. There is something else causing you pain.

The next thing the therapist is going to want to know is how long your problem has been going on. When did your symptoms start? When did you start feeling anxious and/or depressed? What has happened in your life recently that is putting undue stress on you?  The answer to this question may be very clear. For instance, “My mother passed away a year ago and I find myself still grieving her death.” It could be that you are not sure when your problem began. There may be events from the past, from childhood and teenage years that are the root cause.  Therapists are trained to help you find out when and how your problem began and to explore that with you. Third, the therapist will want to get to know you. This entails doing a detailed history of your life. They will begin with your birth and walk through your life with you up until today. Such knowledge involves asking you about your early history, especially the first six years of life. Were there any tragedies? Any deaths in the family; any abuse, or did you move a lot? What was your relationship to your parents and siblings? All these events of early childhood play a role in who we are today though most of us have little idea how important these childhood years are.

After exploring your life story, the therapist will want to know about your spiritual, emotional, and physical history. He will ask about previous therapy you may have had, whether you have seen a psychiatrist, what medications you may have taken in the past and what medicines you currently take. These questions will help the therapist get to know you better to assist as the therapy goes forward.

You might be asking, “Then what happens?” The answer is that now your therapy actually begins. We call the first part of the process the Assessment Phase, where we get to know you and build a relationship. Once the real therapy begins, you simply come in and share whatever is on your mind, whatever is bothering you or giving you distress. The therapist will empathically listen to your story and help you process and work through your difficulty.

This part of therapy is when real change takes place. As you work through your problems and come to understand them, you get better!  When you learn where they came from, how they began, and how they manifest themselves in your life today, you begin to heal.

Surviving the Holidays – Free Seminar

How to Cope With Holiday Stress and Still Love Your Family

Presented by Caitlin Powell, M.A., Ed.S. and Matt Swartzenbtruber

  • Tips for Successful Communication
  • How to Maintain Boundaries
  • Ways to Cope With Stress
  • Research on Mood and Nutrition

When: Thursday, December 14, 2017 6-7:30pm

Where: Verona Community Center – 465 Lee Highway, Verona, VA

Refreshments provided.

Questions? Email

Planning on coming? Text “going” to 540-525-3252