Components of Healing

 

Since wellness is dynamic and fluid, rather than a fixed state, it is susceptible to a range of influences. It follows that there are a range of methods on which we can draw in the quest for well-being and ways to sustain it. While there are many paths to healing, and many ‘ways and means’ by which healing can be activated, the following are what I take to be core components of the healing process.

 

(i) AWARENESS

Awareness is a capacity and state we often take for granted.  But it is subject to erosion. While our need to heal may be obvious to us, there are also reasons why it may not be. Partly because daily life is fast-paced and often desensitising, awareness is a skill that needs to be learned and practised. The ease with which we can slip into states of anxiety and uncertainty in our society also underlines the vital importance of awareness before erosion of perception ‘sets in’.

By bringing awareness to our mental and physical experience, we encourage re-integration of aspects of functioning which are often disconnected in the society in which we live. This fosters the coherence which is widely recognised as the hallmark of emotional health (Siegel, 2012; Servan-Schreiber, 2004) Yet while awareness is a prerequisite of healing, it is not necessarily enough. Awareness can also be double-edged. In becoming aware, we can access feelings we don’t know how to deal with (and which can threaten to overwhelm us). For this reason, professional help may also be advisable.

 

(ii) SUPPORT

Acknowledging the need for support is crucial. This, too, might seem obvious. But admitting the need for support can be hard for all of us. ‘Self-sufficiency’ is highly prized in our individualistic culture. Fear of ‘not coping’ is widely shared, and is often accompanied by belief that we should be able to manage our problems ‘by ourselves’. But the notion that we can heal in isolation from others is a myth. Given that much healing requires a renewed ability to trust and connect, it is also a particularly damaging myth.

There are many reasons why we all need the support of others. This is not only during periods of difficulty, but all the time. Picture, for example, someone who does not appreciate the support of other people, who values autonomy over relationship, and who regards need as a sign of weakness. This  is unlikely to be a person we would consider attractive, or even healthy.

Connectedness to others is an indicator of well-being. Attempts to ‘go it alone’ are not necessarily signs of health, but rather of impaired capacity to relate. There is no shame in seeking and accessing support. Trying to ‘go it alone’ is not a healthy option for anyone.

 

(iii) SLEEP, EXERCISE AND NUTRITION

While ‘basic and boring’ to some, sleep, exercise and nutrition are building blocks of well-being. If we take them for granted we are likely already enjoying their benefits. Many forms of distress are made worse by deficits in these areas. While not necessarily ‘solving’ the issues with which we may be struggling, good sleep, exercise and nutrition can considerably enhance the process of healing.

 

(iv) PHYSICAL TOUCH*

The links between physical touch and emotional well-being are well documented. Since emotions are experienced in the body, physical touch can also elicit repressed feeling. ‘Therapeutic touch’ can be highly effective in fostering coherence between different levels of functioning (see Freeman & Lawlis, 2001:  493-504). And while there are skilled professional practitioners in this broad area, the benefits of touch and simple massage are not dependent on consulting them.

On a daily basis, the ‘grounding’ and healing power of touch can be experienced in many and varied ways. From holding a loved one to stroking a cat, we can boost emotional and physical well-being on an ongoing basis. Simple wordless touch can bypass the abstractions and ‘head stuff’ in which we risk being trapped. To cite the cliché, physical touch can be ‘worth a thousand words’ because it literally transcends words. For example, in relation to depression – the experience of which is ‘beyond words’, and in which ‘sensory shutdown’ often occurs – physical touch can have significant healing potential.

[*References are to appropriate touch; the potential of physical touch to be abusive and traumatising as well as healing and integrating needs to be underlined]

 

(v) VISUALISATION

Visualisation is likewise a component of healing, and a frequently underestimated one. What is often called ‘creative visualisation’ is a staple of basic counselling and allied health approaches. And as with the technique of simple massage, it need not require professional assistance. Visualisation is enhancement of a latent capacity we may be practising already (but which, in the kind of culture we occupy, is also likely to need strengthening).

Neuroscientific findings suggest that imagination and action are more closely related than we think.  Experiments show that imagining and actually performing an act are more connected than is commonly understood, ‘despite the fact that we tend to think of imagination and action as completely different and subject to different rules’ (Doidge, 2007: 208). Because it actively engages and focuses our attention, visualisation – the activity of visualising – is not a passive process. And it can be powerfully supportive of emotional well-being.

 

(vi) EVERYDAY RITUAL

At one level, we thrive on the possibility of change modern life endlessly holds out. But change can also be challenging and disorienting. Novelty, however appealing, is also demanding of us as well. The sheer acceleration of everyday life entails varying degrees of fragmentation and discontinuity. Though we may not see ourselves as ‘conservative’, we can find ourselves yearning for emotional reference points where there are few to be found.

The word ‘ritual’ often connotes religious ceremonies. But rituals can be quite secular. They can also be many and varied, and readily incorporated into everyday life. ‘Everyday rituals’ are potentially the most conducive to emotional well-being, in that we don’t have to wait for ‘special occasions’ to enact them. Looking forward to some sort of ritualistic practice in the future can certainly be beneficial. But meanwhile, the strains of everyday life continue. We urgently need to ‘re-integrate’ on an ongoing basis, in small ways as well as big. And if not now, when?

As well as noting that rituals can be both simple and secular, it is important to recognise that there is scientific evidence to support the many health benefits ritual can promote. In a range of respects (from increased growth hormones and lowered cholesterol to reduced sympathetic nervous activity) research studies have found rituals to be energising and healing (Freeman & Lawlis, 2001: 487).

 

(vii) LAUGHTER AS MEDICINE

We feel it and now we know it – there is a correlation between laughter and well-being. Studies in this area, including a controlled trial, show a decrease in the ‘negative’ stress hormones (as distinct from the ‘positive’ stress known as ‘eustress’; Freeman & Lawlis, 2001:22-23). Laughter also involves neuroendocrine responses which are conducive to healthy immune functioning. Laughter is both protective and healing; it decreases susceptibility to depression and helps us heal from it.

A sense of humour is not incompatible with concern and compassion in the face of what distresses us. If unable to laugh, how can we survive the onslaughts and pain life also entails? Laughter is replenishing, integrative and healing. It is re-energising in ways our often besieged psyches deeply need. It doesn’t mean we’re not serious people. It means that, sometimes against considerable odds, we retain a sense of humour which can stand us in good stead.

 

(viii) ATTENTION TO THE ‘WHOLE ENVIRONMENT’

A view of people as relational, rather than separate and autonomous, entails attentiveness to the whole context of our lives. This involves multiple dimensions which affect us both directly and indirectly. Healing cannot be compartmentalised. Taking this ‘wider perspective’ also underlines that many sources of distress are collective, and significantly shaped by the ways in which society is organised.

Consider, for example, the view that ‘personal’ problems and many forms of distress

‘…can no longer be adequately understood as psychological
drives that manifest themselves in subjective states
of anguish. We find these drives embodied in the very
economic, military and political structures that influence
the lives of the majority of people on earth. Harnessed
to industrial technologies, the impact of these drives
affects the quality of the environment; the availability
of natural resources and employment; the kinds of
political, social and financial institutions that govern
people’s lives’
(Batchelor, 1997: 112).

Similarly, another writer highlights the estrangement which is maintained ‘by the very structures of our civilized existence – by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by electric lights that eclipse not only the stars but the night itself; by air ‘conditioners’ that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all’ (Abram, 1997:28).

As cut off as we are from some of the brute realities of many parts of the globe, the estrangement widely experienced within western societies is itself deeply unhealthy (and in part explains the high rates of depression). While potentially overwhelming in terms of ‘what we are up against’ in trying to heal, recognising this wider dimension powerfully underlines that we are not alone. It also highlights the limits of self-blame for sources of distress which transcend the realm of the personal.

Attentiveness to one’s ‘whole environment’ can start in small ways. It is not realistic to expect that everything which disturbs us can be altered in ways we might like. But neither is it healthy to minimise the extent to which we may be distressed. It is normal to want to live as fulfilling a life as possible. Depending on the nature and level of our concerns, we may require professional assistance (see below). But arranging, insofar as we can, an environment which is conducive to healing is an important first step. It is also a way of ensuring that maximum healing potential is optimised.

 

(ix) OUR DEFINITION OF HAPPINESS

‘Life is a continuous process of rehabilitation’ (Milton Erickson)

In attempting to heal, focus on what we want to heal from is understandable. But what of the state, condition and situation towards which we want to move?  Often this is not clarified in any detail, other than in the broad sense of the desire for pain and problems to diminish. An unrealistic sense of what ‘happiness’ comprises can actually impede, rather than facilitate, the process of healing.

Regarding happiness as a finite state is problematic (as the contemporary movement of ‘positive psychology’ underlines; Burns, 2003). An attitude more conducive to well-being is one which detaches the notion of happiness from attaining a particular goal or ‘end’. ‘Happiness’ thus becomes a process of ongoing engagement, rather than a finite goal which is dependent on achievement of a particular ‘end point’.

Rather than being enslaved to ends and outcomes (which in our society is so easy to do!) we can consider how our very understanding of ‘happiness’ may contribute to its elusiveness. Emphasis shifts to ability to experience and participate, rather than to abstract and defer. Positive psychology approaches sometimes say little about the broader social context (aspects of which may erode attitudes and life-ways conducive to health) on which experiences of well-being also depend. See Living under Liberalism: The Politics of Depression in Western Democracies.

But examining our understanding of happiness – and substituting active, ongoing engagement for pursuit of outcomes – is highly facilitative of healing.

 

(x) PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE?

While support can come in many forms, and there are a range of measures which can assist healing, there are times when professional assistance is warranted. Even in instances where supports are strong, and healthy practices are being pursued, many experiences of distress may require forms of assistance that professionals are trained to provide. As already underlined, needing the support of others – which may include ‘professional others’ – is not a weakness. Rather, it is a logical corollary of ourselves as relational beings.

 

Abram, David The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Random House, 1997).
Burns, George W. ‘Creating Happiness: New Approaches in Positive Psychology’, Psychotherapy in Australia (Vol.9, No.4, 2003), pp.60-1.
Batchelor, Stephen Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (London: Bloomsbury, 1997).
Doidge, Norman The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Melbourne: Scribe, 2008).
Freeman, Lyn W. & Lawlis, G. Frank, Mosby’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Research-Based Approach (St. Louis, Missouri: Harcourt, 2001).
Short, Dan, Erickson Betty Alice & Roxanna Erickson Klein, Hope and Resiliency (CT: Crown House: 2009).
Servan-Schreiber, David Healing Without Freud or Prozac (London: Rodale, 2004).
Victoroff, Jeff Saving Your Brain (Sydney: Bantam, 2002).