Psychotherapy, Growth and Healing: Expanding Frontiers

by | Sep 18, 2023 | Articles

I’m happy to start a new blog series on issues related to psychotherapy, growth and healing as I launch my updated website. I continue my practice of psychotherapy and specialized treatment for eating-related issues. What’s new is my recent certification as a breathwork facilitator and the opening of my business as a breathwork provider—you can read more by clicking the related website links.

Updating a website, reorganizing certain aspects of my practice as a therapist, has had me thinking a lot about therapy itself: how it helps and guides, transforms suffering, improves lives. I’ve also been thinking a lot about where some of what I’ll call “expanding frontiers” have shown us where therapy can fall short, as well….and how certain aspects of therapy have been evolving in response.

Recent years have seen a huge expansion of awareness, for example, in the importance of the body in healing psychic wounds, especially trauma. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score spent years on the New York Times bestseller list. Gabor Mate’s The Myth of Normal hit the list soon after its publication last year. Daniel Bergner, in “Want to Fix Your Mind? Let Your Body Talk”, reports on the “surge of demand” for Somatic Experiencing Therapy (SEI). Over 3,000 therapists have taken the official SEI training, and many others have learned from and adopted some of its methods.

Researchers and trauma clinicians confirm that attending to the body—where and how it holds tension and emotional memory, how to shift that, how to feel safe—holds more promise for relief and healing than cognitive or talk-only approaches. At the same time, most somatically-trained therapists, research suggests, usually do integrate other approaches into their work at the same time. Likewise, clients uninterested in somatic approaches often benefit from therapists’ attunement to what may be held in the body whether directly addressed or not.

I also think of psychedelic therapies as expanding therapeutic frontiers, and how we think about what’s important to growth and healing. The number of research programs–university-based, private, government funded—grows exponentially. And looking at the bestseller list again, we find Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence also persisting for months. We hear about people micro-dosing, we receive email invitations to psychedelic journeys in South America and conferences in the U.S.

Psychedelic research–studying depression, addiction, PTSD, acceptance of terminal illness, and more—suggests that rapid and often lasting transformation occurs with the quieting of the self-preoccupied, busy, everyday mind (the “Default Mode Network”–DMN), or perhaps what we call the ego. With this, an awareness of the interconnectedness of all can emerge. Direct awareness of subconscious thoughts and memories also can more easily occur. These phenomena can bring profound insight and perspective shift.

I think both of these frontiers, or areas of greatly expanded cultural awareness, do affect how many practice psychotherapy. They affect what people now tend to look for in therapy as well. Relief from, transformation of trauma, requires some degree of attendance to the body. And seeing the much bigger picture, the knowing something larger than ourselves, brings us to a calmer, less isolated, and yet more nuanced understanding of ourselves and our relationships. People typically experience this as spiritual, whether they are religious or not. This in itself correlates with better mental and physical health.

I have worked in recent years to incorporate more somatic awareness into my practice. I’ve also been fascinated by the ongoing unfolding of psychedelic practice and research. I’ve not sought to enter that field myself, though I have become more intrigued by non-drug psychedelic experiences and have been actively expanding my knowledge and skill base here. I believe that some of these kinds of experiences, in fact, can overlap both the somatic and the “transpersonal” in extremely helpful ways.

Therapists who have incorporated mindfulness or related practices into their work already have a certain respect for the power of loosening the busy mind’s hold. Other practices have been known to also do this, sometimes facilitating physical catharsis, or a unified transcendent awareness, or a more direct route to the subconscious—exactly the kinds of experiences we now see benefit so many on their route to growth and healing. The quieting of the DMN, for example, can occur through channels such as: certain breathing exercises, certain types of meditation, sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, ecstatic dancing, drumming or other rhythmic/repetitive ritual practices. Note that some of these practices, indeed, involve both “body and soul”. (Obviously, some of these routes suit a psychotherapy practice, and others do not.)

Looking at modes that do suit a psychologically-focused practice, psychologist Richard Shaub emphasizes such “transpersonal” experiences in his clinical work and in several books. He cites especially the writings of Roberto Assagioli, the neurologist and psychiatrist who wrote in the 1940s and 50s about “transpersonal/psychedelic” experiences as healing possibilities for his patients. He developed the field of psychosynthesis, believing in the role of “innate higher consciousness” in this work. Much more recently, studying scientifically the idea of innate higher consciousness, Andrew Newberg and coauthors published Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Imaging and neurological studies, they’ve come to believe, suggest that the potential for non-drug-mediated spiritual states may indeed reside in our human biology.

New frontiers open new possibilities. What therapists most traditionally offer remains necessary and desirable: help in understanding how we become who we are, learning to shift unhelpful thoughts, reinforcing new modes of behavior, learning to communicate and better care for ourselves and relationships, and more. There will be times and situations, though, where we may find that newer knowledge and pathways—or, maybe more accurately, rediscovered ones—open doorways that have felt stuck or even tightly locked in the past. I think all these ways of pursuing growth and healing can coexist and complement each other, according to various needs and situations…..offering more potential for all of us.