Holistic therapy for mental health: what it is, types, and benefits

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A paper cutout of a h lead with flowers and the sun where the brain would be to represent holistic therapy for mental health

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The typical image of mental health treatment is a traditional talk therapist who sits with you in their office and has a conversation with you about your experiences. But therapy doesn’t always look like this. In holistic therapy for mental health, you could be meditating with your therapist, learning to control your breathing, engaging in art activities, and more.

The holistic approach to mental health treatment sees each person as a whole individual and treats their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being equally. Mental health doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the body and mind are deeply connected. Holistic mental health therapists integrate alternative practices to help heal the body, mind, and spirit.

In this article, we provide a thorough guide to holistic therapy for mental health, including:

Just what is holistic mental health therapy?

Holistic mental health therapy, also called holistic psychotherapy, focuses on helping people heal their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being using an integrated approach. 

Traditionally, medicine treats these 3 aspects of health separately. For example, you might see a physician or fitness trainer to take care of your physical health, a therapist or psychiatrist for mental health, and a priest for spiritual health. But, in holistic mental health therapy, therapists address all three components. Holistic therapy providers understand that the body and mind are deeply intertwined and treat them as such.

Holistic therapy for mental health is usually combined with more traditional talk therapy methods, like cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, with nontraditional methods that address the body-mind connection.

The holistic approach to mental health has existed for thousands of years. For example, in the Ayurveda and Chinese medicine practices, providers have always addressed body, mind, and spirit as a whole. However, holistic mental health therapy is a relative newcomer to the field of Western medicine, which is why research to support holistic mental health is ongoing.

What types of holistic therapies are there?

There are different methods and techniques used in holistic therapy for mental health. The most common approaches used in holistic therapy for mental health are covered below.

Some of these holistic therapy types are backed by promising evidence that supports their effectiveness, while others have limited research to back them. 

These holistic mental health treatment methods are used alongside more traditional, evidence-based mental health treatments by licensed professionals — an approach recommended for people living with clinical mental health conditions. For less severe situations like stress reduction that don’t require mental health treatment, some of these approaches can effectively be used on their own.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of the best-known holistic mental health therapy methods in Western medicine. Mindfulness originated in Eastern spirituality. It’s the practice of intentionally maintaining awareness of each present moment.

Mindfulness can be helpful for people who live with mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety because it trains the brain to stop ruminating on the past and future and be present in the here and now.

Holistic mental health therapists may use mindfulness by teaching you the skill and instructing you to regularly practice it between sessions. Several evidence-based mental health approaches include mindfulness as a key component, including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). 

Of all of the types of holistic therapies, mindfulness is the most extensively studied, and the consensus within the medical community is that mindfulness is an effective intervention for reducing stress and stress-related health conditions. A meta-analysis of 200 mindfulness-based therapy studies found that mindfulness-based therapy is an effective intervention for various mental health concerns, especially stress, depression, and anxiety.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a holistic treatment technique that teaches you how to control certain bodily functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and brain-wave patterns. This technique helps you reduce stress and other physical and mental symptoms, like chronic pain, by relaxing your body.

Biofeedback practitioners use electronic machines, including portable and wearable devices, to measure the bodily functions they’re trying to assess. These devices track your body’s functions and let you know when you’re tense or stressed. For example, an FDA-approved biofeedback machine called RESPeRATE measures and helps users control breathing patterns.

The effectiveness of biofeedback has successfully been shown to reduce symptoms of many different mental and physical health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and migraine.

Somatic experiencing

Somatic experiencing is a holistic mental health treatment method created by Peter Levine, PhD, an expert in trauma and how it affects the body. Somatic experiencing helps trauma survivors reconnect with their bodies in a safe environment. Practitioners help survivors become more aware of their bodily sensations, connect them to emotions, and learn how to get their bodies out of fight-or-flight response mode.

We know from research on physical health conditions associated with posttraumatic (PTSD) stress disorder that traumatic memories have significant effects on the body and mind, and can sometimes become “trapped” in the body. This is why trauma often manifests physically — people who’ve gone through traumatic experiences are far more likely to be diagnosed with a wide range of illnesses, including asthma and chronic pain. 

A review of literature on somatic experiencing published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology supports that somatic experiencing helps reduce symptoms of PTSD and can also improve mood for people who haven’t experienced trauma.

Creative arts therapies

Holistic therapy techniques include using the creative arts to improve mental health, including art therapy, music therapy, and drama therapy. 

Creative arts therapy (also called expressive arts therapy) isn’t about being a talented artist. Rather, creative arts therapists use arts-related activities to help people process and express their thoughts and feelings. This type of expression can help some people, especially those with limited verbal communication skills, like children, express themselves more easily in different ways.

Although researchers are still learning more, a review published in Behavioral Sciences regarding stress management found that creative arts therapy techniques helped reduce stress levels in over 80% of cases.

Yoga

You’ve probably heard of yoga as a physical exercise routine; what you may not have known is that yoga also has research-backed benefits for the mind. There is also a holistic mental health treatment method called yoga therapy. Yoga therapy incorporates aspects of traditional yoga and talk therapy, and is only practiced by licensed mental health therapists. 

Traditional yoga originated in ancient India as a type of meditation practice. It involves a series of physical postures along with breathing techniques and meditation. The benefits of yoga for the body include increased strength and flexibility, and it’s now a popular practice in the Western world.

We still don’t have much research on yoga therapy specifically, but a study on the efficacy of Yoga as a  form of treatment for depression found that the practice of yoga itself helps reduce symptoms. And, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, it also helps reduce stress and improve sleep. 

Nature- and animal-assisted therapy

The power of nature, including animals and green spaces, for mental health is supported by evidence. In nature- and animal-assisted therapy, practitioners use this power to address mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. 

For example, a holistic therapist may work in equine-assisted therapy, using horses for healing. Or, in nature-assisted therapy, they may invite you to tend to a garden with them, feeling the soil with your hands.

A 2016 systematic review of animal-assisted intervention found that animal-assisted therapy (mostly with dogs) helped reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Another review of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy found that it’s helpful for people with dementia, autism, and schizophrenia. And a review of the evidence of nature exposure and health found spending time in nature, even outside of therapy, helps different mental and physical health conditions, including sleep and heart health.

Energy healing

Energy-healing practices, including Reiki, are holistic methods that use gentle touch to balance and restore energy. Its practitioners believe that by channeling healing energies into someone, that person can recover from mental and physical ailments. The term Reiki comes from the Japanese term for “Universal Life Energy.”

Reiki and other energy-healing practices are often dismissed as being pseudo-scientific practices, and research does support that its effectiveness is limited. However, one systematic review of randomized controlled trials of whether Reiki benefits mental health symptoms more than a placebo found that Reiki was more effective than a placebo for reducing stress and depression. Anecdotally, many people claim Reiki has helped them personally. 

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a Chinese medicine practice where fine needles are inserted into specific points in the body to relieve tension, pain, and other symptoms. 

This evidence map of research studies on acupuncture for mental health shows that a large number of studies have found that acupuncture may be effective for depression in some people. There is also some evidence supporting acupuncture for anxiety, but we need more research to be sure it works.

Breathwork and meditation

Breathing exercises and meditation practices are often used in holistic therapy for mental health. There is a wide range of meditation types and breathing techniques out there, and the exact process depends on what type of meditation you’re using.

Some common types of meditation and breathwork used in mental health treatment include:

  • Transcendental meditation (TM) — a type of meditation to relax your body and mind
  • Mindfulness or vipassana meditation — resting your awareness on the present moment
  • Guided imagery — imagining yourself in a safe and calm place to reduce stress
  • Diaphragmatic breathing — learning how to breathe deeply to calm the body’s stress response
  • Tai Chi — a movement-based meditative practice that originates from Chinese martial arts training
  • Loving-kindness or metta meditation — a focused meditation practice in which you intentionally send tender, caring feelings toward yourself and others

What are the benefits of holistic therapy for mental health?

Holistic mental health therapy has many benefits for people living with mental health challenges, like depression or anxiety. These include:

  • Effectively reducing stress
  • Decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Deepening self-awareness
  • Increasing the mind-body-spirit connection
  • Reconnecting with your body, especially after traumatic experiences
  • Improving self-esteem
  • Being treated as a whole person and not as a cluster of symptoms

However, it’s important to remember that not all holistic therapy methods are created equal, and some have more research-backed benefits than others.

Are there any side effects of holistic therapy?

Holistic therapy is generally safe with little to no side effects. Some specific holistic mental health treatment techniques may have associated risks and side effects. For example, acupuncture can sometimes cause pain and bruising where the needles enter the skin. Holistic mental health therapy providers use a wide variety of techniques; it’s important to talk to your provider directly about any potential side effects or concerns.

In addition, talk to your provider about all of your possible treatment options, and be honest about the mental health symptoms you’re experiencing. While holistic therapy is a great choice for many, there may be more effective treatment options for people who live with certain mental health conditions. Other people may require a combination of medication and therapy.

Many holistic therapy methods (including yoga, meditation, energy healing, and more) can be delivered on their own as well as in combination with other mental health treatment methods. For example, a certified yoga teacher can deliver yoga classes for the general public, but a licensed mental health provider may use yoga during therapy sessions to improve mental health.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, one of these holistic practices on its own, delivered by someone who isn’t a licensed mental health provider, can’t replace professional mental health treatment.

Holistic mental health therapy can only be delivered by a mental health professional and is most effective when part of a complete treatment plan.

Who should try a holistic approach to mental health?

Holistic therapy for mental health can be an excellent choice for anyone, especially when used as one component of a professional mental health treatment plan. 

People choose to try holistic therapy for mental health rather than more traditional treatment methods for many reasons. Most people who choose holistic therapy understand the importance of treating both body and mind. What kind of therapist you need is a personal choice, and you can review the pros and cons with the therapist you choose.

Some other signs that holistic mental health therapy might be a good fit for you are included below.

You live with depression, anxiety, or trauma

Most of the holistic therapy techniques listed above are effective at reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and the effects of trauma. If you live with one of these conditions, holistic therapy may be a good fit for you.

If you have another mental health condition, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), holistic therapy can still serve as a complementary technique. However, you will likely benefit more from other therapies and medications.

You live with a chronic health condition

Holistic therapy addresses both the body and the mind — we know that they’re deeply intertwined. If you live with a chronic physical health condition that’s impacted by stress, holistic therapy could be a great option for you. Examples include migraine, chronic pain, and high blood pressure.

Traditional treatment methods haven’t worked

Many people turn to holistic therapy when more traditional therapy methods alone haven’t worked for them. For example, maybe you’ve been on antidepressants for years and haven’t seen improvement — you may want to try incorporating holistic therapy methods. You don’t need to choose between them — many holistic therapists incorporate these methods with more traditional talk therapy.

You want to deepen self-awareness

You don’t have to suffer from any condition, mental or physical, to benefit from holistic therapy. Many people choose this type of therapy because they want to deepen self-awareness or improve self-esteem.

You find it difficult to talk about your thoughts and feelings

Many holistic therapy techniques let you release the stress and trauma that is “stuck” in your body, even if you have a difficult time describing how it feels in words. Not everyone processes experiences and emotions verbally. Many people choose holistic therapy because it gives them alternative avenues for exploring and expressing themselves.

Your mental health symptoms tend to manifest physically

Even if you don’t live with a co-occurring physical health condition, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have any physical symptoms at all. Many people find that their mental health problems manifest physically. For example, you might get a stomach ache every time you’re stressed or feel lethargic when depressed. If this sounds like you, holistic therapy may be a good choice.

How to find a holistic mental health therapist

You can look for a holistic mental health therapist just like you would find a traditional mental health professional, including:

Keep in mind that many therapists claim to take a “holistic approach” but may not actually practice holistic therapy methods. 

Look for specific certifications in addition to a valid mental health license. For example, if you’re looking for a holistic therapist who incorporates yoga, try to find one who is a registered yoga teacher (RYT) on top of having a license to practice therapy, such as an LCSW. (Learn more about what kind of therapist you need). Ask any potential therapist about the specific holistic methods they use in their practice.

What to expect from your therapist

The first session of holistic mental health therapy is much like traditional therapy. Your therapist will spend some time asking you questions about yourself, your current mental health symptoms, and your past experiences. The therapeutic bond is essential to any therapy process, so it’s critical for you and your holistic therapist to build trust and rapport.

What happens next depends on what techniques your holistic mental health therapist uses within their practice. But generally, you may notice a heavier focus on the mind-body connection than in traditional talk therapy experiences. For example, your therapist may guide you through meditation or breathing exercises or ask you where you feel certain emotions in your body.

As in any therapeutic relationship, expect professionalism and confidentiality from your holistic therapist. 

Discover holistic mental health therapy by finding a therapist on Klarity

If you’re ready to overcome mental health problems and heal your whole self, give holistic mental health therapy a try. Even if more traditional methods like medication have or haven’t worked for you, holistic therapy integrates alternative approaches that may be able to help.

On the Klarity Health platform, you can find affordable, independent holistic mental health therapists available to treat depression, anxiety, and more — no insurance needed. Get started and find a provider on Klarity today.

 If you’re having a mental health crisis or experiencing a psychiatric emergency, it is crucial to seek immediate help from a mental healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. You can also call your local emergency services, visit your nearest emergency room, or contact a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, by calling or texting 988 or dialing the Lifeline’s previous phone number, 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) in the U.S. 

The information provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as a guarantee of service, legal, or medical advice. The content here is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider or lawyer with any questions you may have regarding a medical or legal issue. Klarity does not assume liability for any reliance on the information provided on our blog.

Medically Reviewed By Dr. Geralyn Dexter

Dr. Geralyn Dexter received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Florida, a master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from Nova Southeastern University, and a doctorate in Psychology from Northcentral University. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with over a decade of clinical experience. Currently, Dr. Dexter is a mental health and substance use writer, psychology faculty at Southern New Hampshire University, and content reviewer for Verywell Health and ESA Doctors.

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