Treat the Body, Treat the Mind

By Will Meecham

If you’re interested in more of Will’s work highly recommend his blog, WillSpirit, where he explores growing and wellbeing after recovering from a traumatic childhood.

Treat the Body, Treat the Mind

This past weekend my wife and I participated in a Qi Gong retreat, which we found quite energizing and healing.

Ever since my decision to train as a physician acupuncturist, I’ve worked to learn more about bodywork. In addition to my Chinese medicine studies, I’ve dabbled in movement-based healing practices. I’ve done more yoga in the past year than ever before, I’ve tried a few Hindu-derived breathing techniques, and I’ve joined a Feldenkrais class. Qi Gong is a natural extension of this exploration, and is more relevant to acupuncture since it is based on the same meridian theory. I’ve tried it a few times before, and I’ve also practiced a little bit of Tai Chi, which is a subspecies of Qi Gong.

None of these activities come easily to me. Years ago, first as a graduate student and a little later in medical school, I took yoga and dance classes in alternating sequences. However, neither became regular practices. As I think back on why, it seems likely that my brain demanded too much dominance in my life. I had no problem reading or studying for hours, but even a fifty minute movement class felt like too much effort. And no way was I going to exert myself physically when no one was watching. My life seemed too busy to allow what I imagined an unproductive use of time.

It may be that my subsequent problems with neck arthritis and back pain were partly the result of this resistance. Perhaps if I’d taken flexibility training and movement more seriously, the musculoskeletal problems would not have progressed so far. Who knows, maybe I’d even still be a practicing surgeon.

Those choices reside in the past, and can no longer be changed. But I do have a decision going forward. My current age (52) is a time when most of us still feel relatively robust, although we can’t help but notice the looming shadow of old age. There is thus a motivation that I never felt before. My senior years could be relatively vital, or I could descend into decrepitude. Which direction my body goes depends somewhat on the choices made back in youth, but probably will be determined even more by how I behave from here on out. Do I continue to pursue a fairly sedentary lifestyle punctuated only by a few trips to the gym a week plus dog walking? Or do I commit to a healing movement practice like Qi Gong, and take my body seriously?

When I first began my acupuncture training, I had the plan of applying needles to mental health problems. It never seemed likely I’d make much progress treating severe psychiatric crises, but it seemed quite plausible that those with run-of-the-mill depression and anxiety might find significant relief. I soon learned that people aren’t yet inclined to pursue acupuncture for mental health. Instead, my business does much better when I announce treatment of musculoskeletal problems. But I still believe holistic, body-based healing has an important role to play in the future of psychiatry. Indeed, more books about integral and alternative mental health approaches get published every year, and most of these treatments are directed at the body at least as much as at the brain. Not only do somatic therapies and especially movement practices help with psychiatric problems, but research also suggests that physical activity reduces the incidence of dementia. Physical stimulation is good for the body and good for the mind.

This past year, the first that saw me seriously pursuing movement for healing, was also a year in which my neck pain declined for the first time in a decade. Not only that, but I’ve enjoyed more stable moods than ever before, and I successfully tapered off the last of the psychiatric medications. The somatic work has strengthened both body and mind.

In Chinese medicine, and Eastern philosophy in general, there is less tendency to see mind and body as separate than there is in the West. Cartesian dualism grew out of Western thought and never propagated to Asia, or at least not until modern times. One effect is that mental illness was never seen as a separate condition in China to the same extent as here. This unification of bodily and mental disorders in Chinese medical culture was abetted by societal stigmatization of blatantly psychiatric conditions, especially under Communist rule. Prison or other punishments often awaited those judged psychiatrically unsound, so emotionally-stressed people in China became far more likely to complain of bodily symptoms such as digestive discomfort rather than pure mental distress.

Chinese doctors know to ask about physical symptoms in addition to emotional ones. Historically, at least, a person with complaints of sadness would never be given a simple psychiatric diagnosis. The doctor would explore somatic issues and ferret out the ways the patient’s body manifested the turmoil. Treatment would be directed at the broad spectrum of dysfunction, and not at some narrowly defined ‘mental’ disorder. We all know that severe emotional issues seldom occur without some bodily counterpart, but in Western psychiatry clinics the physical symptoms get largely ignored. Not so with the practice of Chinese medicine.

To include the body is the wiser practice, and one we must encourage here in the West. Although I’ve just begun my clinical work as a holistic practitioner, I’ve already seen many patients whose emotional symptoms march in lockstep with physical discomfort. With successful treatment, both psychiatric and somatic distress diminish. Treat the body, treat the mind.

Which brings me back to Qi Gong. Although I believe acupuncture has much to offer those with mental health problems, it remains a therapy administered by experts. So much better to learn to treat oneself. That is the very nature of Qi Gong and many other movement practices, wherein a primary benefit is self-empowerment. Acquiring physical techniques to boost energy and mood teaches us to take control of our bodily and mental health, and to accept responsibility for our own recovery. Personally, I find this far more satisfying than walking out of a clinic with a prescription for pills. The fact that movement helps much more reliably and safely than medication is also worth considering.

“Treat the body, treat the mind,” calls into question the fundamental assumption of psychiatry: that the mind resides as a separate entity, which suffers its own disorders independent from the body. The success of movement in alleviating emotional conflict validates the idea that human personalities arise from unified bodymind systems rather than minds that are brain-generated but otherwise disembodied, as tacitly believed in the West. In my opinion, the most important step one can take to alleviate mental distress is to take up something like Qi Gong, Yoga, Feldenkrais, dance, or almost any other movement tradition. Simple aerobic exercise helps, but practices where the heart is drawn into the mix work even better. The mind feels healthier when the body gets moved and the soul feels honored.

After a traumatic upbringing, Will Meecham, MD, MA studied ecology, zoology, biophysics, neuroscience, medicine, ophthalmology and reconstructive surgery. In 2000, neck disease prevented him from continuing to work as an oculoplastic surgeon. He spent many years in emotional, intellectual, and spiritual exploration, investigating how people cope with childhood trauma, adult disappointment, and mental distress. He now works as a physician acupuncturist, specializing in the promotion of mental wellness. More of his writings can be found at his personal website and blog, WillSpirit.com, and his acupuncture practice is explained at MarinMedicalAcupuncture.com.

More of Will’s work on Beyond Meds:

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