A time to heal
From health care worker burnout to trauma-informed practices in education, mental health is receiving more attention recently, but awareness of mental health care modalities generally stops with the stereotypical image of the clinical psychologist.
We spoke with five local health care providers who practice forms of Eastern medicine to learn how their work can help solve America’s mental health crisis.
Michael Adamse, Ph.D., is a nationally known clinical psychologist in practice for more than 40 years who has recently published a book, “Make America Sane Again,” about the anxiety, depression, and stress that many Americans are experiencing. His main pieces of advice are: reduce your exposure to the 24-hour news cycle, and recognize that every story has more than one side; forgive those who have wronged you; don’t let the short-term use of online gaming for stress relief become an addiction that generates its own stress; seek and offer social support.
“Any act of kindness, tolerance and understanding has profound effects,” Adamse says, reflecting his belief that each individual who finds the way to a healthy, balanced life improves the health of the nation.
Choose daily routines mindfully
Prabha Sinha is the director of the Pratyush Sinha Foundation, which provides trauma-informed mindfulness practices for children in elementary, middle and high school. Sinha and her team of practitioners teach students and educators practices and strategies for coping with life’s challenges, including building habits like “pause and reflect.” She explains that “the human experience is full of suffering” and notes that “every child is an at-risk child,” because sources of trauma and provocations of anxiety surround us in our modern American lives.
Sinha believes in building a skillset through education, rather than only being reactive to situations in which the effects of trauma manifest themselves. She notes that stress can come being haunted by past events or worrying about the future, and gives the example of handling this stress by “paus[ing], tak[ing] a few deep breaths, put[ting] a hand over your heart to feel your heart beating […] bringing you into the present moment.”
“Health is not the absence of disease,” Sinha says. “Health is well-being, and it’s not just physical: It’s mental, physical and spiritual well-being.” “Dinacharya” is the Sanskrit word for a daily routine of habits – including physical and mental hygiene – that are in harmony with the rhythms of nature. Sinha has been working with students at Freedom HS and Liberty HS on developing habits to “clean” their minds for three and five years, respectively.
“These tools can be learned,” she says, noting that “You don’t need a toolbox with 100 tools in it. Practice the ones you connect with.”
Improve the flow of energy
Hilary Smith is a practitioner of qigong; she is also a third-degree black belt, certified fitness trainer, certified massage therapist, and registered nurse. She has been studying tai chi since 1989, and teaching it since 1994.
“Qigong” comes from the word for “energy” (qi/chi/ki) and the word for “work” (gong/qung/kung); qigong is anything that manipulates the energy of the body. Tai chi is a martial form of qigong, although as Smith explains, “Most of the time you’re not fighting others; you’re fighting your own demons and insecurities. It’s a tool to make you a better person.”
Eastern medicine sees qi as an “invisible force that permeates us,” and as Smith explains, “for a Western mind, it’s hard to wrap around that concept, because you can’t see it, and we’re very literal.” However, she points out that “You can’t see electricity or wind, but you don’t deny the power of electricity or wind.”
Chinese medicine teaches that, “in order for us to be healthy, resistant to disease, and heal quickly, we have to have a lot of qi, it has to be flowing through us without obstruction, and we have to rid ourselves of stale or stagnant qi.”
Tai chi is one practice that helps to improve the flow of this energy. Many people are drawn to tai chi because they recognize that they need to improve their physical balance; however, the practice is about balance in the larger sense, including mind, body and spirit. Chinese medicine “doesn’t deny the impact of our emotions on our bodies,” Smith explains.
Creating balance in mind, body and spirit through tai chi means that a person is better able to deal with the inevitable shocks of life, Smith says. Getting down to the mechanics, she explains that as “you involve yourself in mind-body practices, you […] reset the baseline level of your nervous system. If you’re always really hyper, really anxious, and you have something happen – an insult of some kind – that might [put you] over the top. If your base level [of anxiety] is much lower, you can have that same insult occur, but it doesn’t throw you over the top. It doesn’t create the same chaos in your system.”
In addition to physical discipline and taking time away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, tai chi provides benefits by creating community.
“The energy of the group is greater than the sum of the parts,” Smith notes, “and we are primal beings, social beings, so being part of the community, even if it’s just one to two hours a week, gives people a place to belong.” She notes that, “when you see documentaries [depicting tai chi], you see people practicing out in parks. They may be practicing their own stuff, but they’re picking up the energy of others.”
Heather Shoup is a licensed acupuncturist who owns Balanced Acupuncture in Bethlehem. She has a background in psychology and Eastern religion, and earned an MS in acupuncture from Tri-State College of Acupuncture in Manhattan, a Doctorate of Acupuncture from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and a certificate in oncology acupuncture from Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.
Acupuncture, as Shoup explains, is another modality that manipulates qi.
“What we’re doing is helping the body balance itself by unblocking those blockages [of qi],” she says. “The needles act kind of like a conduit in an electrical circuit, pushing and pulling that energy through the body.”
People seek acupuncture treatment, or are referred by doctors, for a variety of indications.
“Whether you’re coming in for pain or mental health issues or stress,” Shoup explains, “it’s all about where the blockages are, and what we need to do to free them up, so your body’s functioning at an optimal level.”
And decades of research at Western universities have proven the mental and physical health benefits of acupuncture. A 2002 study at UCLA led by Holly Middlekauff, MD, demonstrated the ability of the therapy to reduce muscle sympathetic nerve activity – which activity is associated with poor prognosis – during mental stress in patients with heart failure. In 2013, a Swedish team led by Tina Arvidsdottir showed that acupuncture has a large, clinically significant effect on anxiety and depression over a four- to eight-week period.
Seek trauma-informed practices as needed
ChildLight Education Company, co-owned by Sally Delisle and Megan Morris, is another group providing wellness education from an Eastern perspective. Both Delisle and Morris are experienced yoga instructors and continuing education providers. Delisle is also a certified reflexologist and a reiki master.
All practitioners at ChildLight are trained in trauma-informed teaching and practices; the training manifests itself through instructors’ choice of language, among other factors. For example, instead of telling everyone in the studio to close their eyes, the instructor will say something like, “Go ahead and lower your gaze, or close your eyes,” providing choices for people who are not comfortable closing their eyes. Practitioners recognize that individuals make choices about mat placement deliberately, and respect that someone may have elected to set up his mat so that he has a view of the door.
Delisle describes how individuals coming from different backgrounds and emotional states are brought together at the start of a class through a practice called “centering.” The class starts “by taking a nice deep breath in together, a long exhale out together, and listening to a chime ring, and then taking a few side bends together and a twist together, reaching up to the ceiling, planting their feet on the ground, and then you start.”
The shared inhale and exhale benefit individuals and the group.
“We make it a point to cue ‘inhale and exhale,’ or ‘breathe in and breathe out,’” Delisle explains. “We hope that by repeatedly cuing that, it will be carried into a person’s day, and [that pause] will be in their heads before they speak, before they act.”
Morris notes, “It’s very inspiring to be in a room with people moving and breathing in the same rhythm. It doesn’t have to be blood family that is that community supporting mental health.”
Take care of yourself to enable care for others
Smith recognizes that many people find it difficult to commit to balance-seeking practices in their lives. “Either [they feel] that they’re not worth it, or [that the practice] isn’t worthy of their time.”
She points out that taking care of oneself is a vital starting point.
“The better a place we’re in, the easier it is to perform those acts of kindness, to be generous with our spirit, with others,” she says. “Even the smallest kindness can be huge, way more than anyone ever realizes.”