On the Journey to Wellness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Medicine

How does mental illness impact physical health? How do physical weaknesses impact mental health? The fundamental problem is one of undesired thought.  For example, an anxious mind has thoughts that are fearful and a depressed mind has thoughts that are classically self deprecating, existential, and filled with guilt. In both cases these thoughts lead to poor emotional wellness and decreased physical health. As a result, the very quality of the life experience erodes.

This problem can and should be addressed on multiple dimensions to yield the most rapid and sustained relief of what the physician sees as symptoms and the patient experiences as the suffering.

More than 3,000 years ago Sage Pathanjali compiled the healing wisdom known at that time into the Yoga Sutras. This treatise painted a vision for complete mind-body wellness resulting in psychological freedom and optimal health.  Sage Pathanjali explained a person would have to attain mastery in 8 sequenced, yet interlinked, domains to achieve this state:

  • Yama and Niyama: values and restraint of lifestyle
  • Pranayama: mastery of control of the breath
  • Asana: conditioning of the body so it may become suitable for meditation (modern Western society associates yoga with asana as it is practiced in a studio setting)
  • Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyana: control of the senses, concentration, and silent meditation
  • Samadhi: culmination of super-conscious state

The ancient healing wisdom tells us that if one is able to excel at these practices, psychological freedom from suffering is the reward. We can see that in everyday modern life those with excellent physical health and superior lifestyles rarely suffer from mental illness. Therefore, these dimensions of health are inseparable.

The school of Yoga also has an integrated medical system known as Ayurveda to treat disease when it occurrs.  In Ayurveda, disease is viewed as an imbalance from wellness and it provides a framework to identify what constitutional, lifestyle and environmental variables need to be restored in order to regain harmony and wellness. Oftentimes, however, individuals struggling with mental illness might not be ready or able to break old habits and adopt new practices that become a foundation for success.

As a trained psychiatrist, I understand the Western approach which first seeks to understand the neurological and chemical basis for mental suffering in its myriad of presentations.  The fundamental tool utilized with this approach is psychopharmacology - the treatment with mind altering/healing medications - combined with psychotherapy, also known as talk therapies.

The careful manipulation of certain neurotransmitters in the brain is a subtle art and a good psychopharmacologist understands that proper evaluation and diagnosis must be completed first. The use of these medications can lead to changes at the level of thought - psychology - and these changes need to align with the overall treatment plan.

The use of medication for treatment is sometimes sufficient to restore baseline functioning. However, for other patients psychopharmacology combined with psychotherapy allows them to move toward the fulfilling personal growth and development critical for sustained success. Talk therapy enables the examination, understanding, and acceptance of thoughts and habits which currently block healing. With acceptance, the patient and physician can then formulate the skills needed to effectively manage troubling thoughts.

Talk therapy works best after any medical cause of suffering is identified and treated.

The complementary healing arts, then, address the problem from a different dimension. Expanding the focus to mind, body, and spirit enables both patient and physician to consider the impact each system (the patterns of thought, the rhythm of daily life, the connections beyond self) have on a person’s whole existence.

Synthesizing these vast amounts of traditional wisdom with evidence-based modern medicine has culminated in integrative mental health. IMH is the combined use of psychiatry and alternative, complementary healing arts.  With psychiatry at its core, IMH provides the best chance to attain wellness for both the body and the mind.