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.