What does “healing” mean in Psychotherapy?

My work in psychotherapy is about healing through the integration of psyche and body. It is in my foreground every minute I work with a patient. Oftentimes it is not obvious that in our therapeutic conversation, there is an underlying therapeutic process.  The phenomenon of a relational gestalt therapy  (my school of study) dialogue is mostly felt, tasted and sensed, before it gets intellectually understood.

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.

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) of feelings. This healing provides the individual with choice. This concept of healing is unlike that of conventional thought of “healing diseases”, which strive 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.

The healing –in a way described in this article– achieved in psychotherapy, is permanent. What Mary has gained will be with her for life, and she will continue to grow with it.