What does “healing” mean in Psychotherapy?

Humanistic schools of psychotherapy in particular understand the process of healing through the integration of the psyche and body. My belief is that when these two parts of a person are working in sync, the individual can experience a deep and profound change. The body-mind connection is a vital part of the healing process because it allows us to work from our felt experience; that is, we begin from where we (emotionally) are in the moment. When we have the courage to unearth those emotions and feelings, we are able to move them through our body in the form of emotion and become fully integrated again. Essentially, the body becomes an instrument for emotional release and healing.

While it is not obvious in our therapeutic conversation, this integration is the focus of my work. Within the therapeutic encounter, there is an underlying therapeutic process.

Subtle is the therapeutic process not?

When we go for therapy, we may experience change from the beginning, or no big change for weeks or months. We may talk about the same things in circles before something happens: an insight, an understanding, a gush of emotions, a relief from tension.  When and how we get to this point in the therapy is usually not foreseeable. The process can be described as to be like titration. We make small steps. There is no explosion, but natural, holistic change. But then, something clicks.

Case Studies of healing process in psychotherapy

Case 1, Mary: I recount a case study of a journalist named Mary (not her real name), who came to therapy because of stress due to conflict with her colleagues. Her goal of therapy was to reduce the stress and panic feelings when she is at work. She feared that she may become too emotionally unstable to go to work because of this. For months, Mary talked about her work environment, the colleagues and tried to understand the incidents that triggered in her deep emotions. She also talked about her work, which she calls “her passion”; to remind women of their rights through feminist writings and stories. More weeks went by, and I began to wonder myself if her process was heading anywhere. I stuck to the process of her work, which with time, saw Mary more comfortable with expressing more difficult emotions, especially feelings of vulnerability. Baby steps. One day, she revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by a group of college mates and that she had kept this incident a secret for 20 years. She was able, after 14 months of therapy, to talk about it in session.  Along with this revelation came a flood of feelings: resentment, shame, guilt, vulnerability, frustration, anger, grief, and also thankfulness. At one point, she was even angry at me for having initiated her emotional unravelling. For a couple of weeks, she said that she could not work. She then emerged from this. Mary transformed. She had been afraid of coming to terms with a painful past. In so doing, she re-lived her inner feelings of resentment, frustration and anger towards others and herself in her workplace and even in her writings. While these feelings helped her to write powerful articles, it also caused her to build walls between herself and the society in which she is in contact with. The conflicts left her stressed out and panicky at work. She was helpless against the emotional turmoil. Working through her traumatic experience, she unleashed the source of these painful feelings.  Through this process, Mary was awarded choice. She could tap on these feelings as motivation to write and guide others. She is, however, not bounded to these feelings anymore. She finds inner-calm — which she said “had always been there”, but she did not realize it– in her social context. With time, she was able to build more allies.  Panic feelings were soon of the past. Mary’s healing came about in little steps.

Case 2, Sunil: Sunil (not his real name), was a foreign student from India. He has chronic pain and problems with his digestive system, which doctors have diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He knows that his physical symptoms are related to “stress”(actually compulsive intrusive thoughts and actions) and sleeplessness. Sunil grew up experiencing family violence. With therapy, Sunil learned to notice his emotions and how past memories of childhood affects him today. He learned to observe the triggers in his everyday environment. He learned how to notice and accept his triggered self. Sunil learned to engage the support of his loved ones by explaining to them what was going on in him, and what he needed. With time and help from others, Sunil’s episodes reduced in duration and intensity. Sunil learned in therapy to be conscious of changes in his body when he got triggered. He was guided to find out what his body needed to calm down from its hyper-aroused state. Sunil’s healing process involved dealing with somatic reactions to triggers, and working through past hurts. Within months, Sunil’s digestive system stabilized. He also slept better. Sunil’s healing process was a holistic one.

So what is healing to me in the psychotherapeutic sense?

Mary and Sunil’s healing was a journey towards self-awareness and growth. The time, energy (and, not to forget, money)  spent in therapy rewarded them with freedom from unconsciously re-living traumatic pasts.

Healing in psychotherapy takes place when the patient is able to grow and transform through insight and experiencing (and sharing) feelings.

Psychotherapeutic healing provides the individual with choice. The patient’s awareness of self provides the patient with a broader bandwidth of emotions and behaviours from which to respond to life, rather than reacting out of old, harmful patterns. Therefore, therapeutic healing results in a change in the person’s ability to better engage with and experience the world around them.

This concept of healing is unlike that of conventional thought of “healing diseases”, which strives to remove the disease. In psychotherapy, mental and emotional issues are not to be judged as bad and removed; but understood. Depression, anxiety, PTSD and personality disorders aren’t “diseases to be cured”. These are opportunities for personal growth.