By Jon Keyes
The practice of counseling is based on the idea that the simple act of in depth conversation can lead a person to develop profound insights that can lead to transformative changes and improvement in emotional wellbeing. Essentially, the process of modern counseling is based on an intellectual premise that words and thoughts underlie experience- and by changing one’s limiting beliefs and personal narrative, a healing metamorphosis can take place.
The modern talk-based model of healing emotional distress really began in the early 1900’s when the practice of psychology was first developed by Freud, Jung, Adler and others. These early psychoanalysts focused on the idea that by examining early family dynamics, the subconscious and childhood trauma, insight could be gleaned that would lead to personal transformation and the cessation of “neurotic tendencies.”
Though most counselors do not use these early Freudian psychoanalytic theories in their practice, they still use much of the same structure for helping people to heal. Conversations are limited to specific periods of time, are usually done in an office setting and generally focus on examining personal experience and looking towards restructuring thoughts and beliefs and making personal changes to improve life.
Though counseling in this way can often be deeply helpful, I think we have become excessively focused on the cognitive approach to healing people in emotional distress.
Instead of a cognitive based approach, I think we should place much more focus on somatic “body-based” counseling. Often times I hear people complain that people would rather go to a doctor for psychiatric medication than go to a therapist. Part of this has to do with the idea that it is easier to simply take a medication than engage in therapy, but part of the reason is because medication actually causes immediate physiological changes and affects how one feels and thinks by affecting the nervous system. People who are in distress are often looking for a way to alleviate that distress and talking about it does not generally produce that alleviation they are looking for.
Because of that I think counselors would do well to focus much more on how to help people “somatically’ than cognitively. Our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes will not change if we are feeling crappy and panicked. The physical experience of depression will naturally lead to melancholic and depressive thoughts. It is next to impossible to restructure thinking patterns to be more positive and transformative when one feels awful inside.
So instead of believing that ones cognitions and beliefs are at the cornerstone of one’s emotional wellbeing, I think that one’s physical and emotional experience of life is at the cornerstone of how we think and and often act. If we are feeling crappy, we will not only think crappy thoughts, we are likely to also act in ways that are defeating and destructive.
So how do we improve our somatic and emotional experience of life and how can counselors help in this process? Many counselors are turning towards using “non-talk” based techniques such as mindfulness and meditation as underlying improved wellbeing. By teaching people how to sit, breathe and watch thoughts without attaching to them, a person can develop greater self-mastery and control. The problem is that mindfulness is not a very effective technique if a person is feeling deeply distressed. Imagine how hard it is to engage in meditation if one’s thoughts are going a hundred miles an hour, or if one’s thoughts are dark, scary and violent. The process of sitting with those thoughts can actually amplify their power and make one feel increasingly upset and anguished.
Before we talk about meditation, I think its key to examine the most important concept in improving wellness- how and what we are eating. It is my belief that the modern industrial diet is at the root of much of our modern emotional distress. In the last 75 years, we have moved from a primarily whole foods diet to one that is primarily based on processed and refined plants. We are essentially reliant on the processed form of just a few plants such as wheat, corn and soy. These processed foods are leading not only to greater obesity, heart disease and inflammatory diseases, they are also leading to greater emotional distress in the form of depression, anxiety, insomnia and extreme emotional states. Eating a diet filled with cheetohs, chips, fast food and cola is leading to an epidemic of “mental illness.” No amount of meditation can overcome a diet based on processed foods.
I acknowledge that trauma and stress are also at the root of emotional distress patterns, but the area that we have the most control over changing is how we nourish ourselves. It will actually change and improve how we feel, and this will lead to improving how we think and how we act. This is essentially the reverse of a cognitive approach to healing. Affirmations, changing belief systems, examining “cognitive errors” and other counseling tools will prove useless if one feels horrible inside. Because of this I advocate working from the ground up and promote nourishment as the key to emotional wellness.
So if nourishment is at the core of healing emotional distress, what does that mean? To me it does not involve adhering to any specific diet such as veganism, vegetarianism or paelo. It means concentrating on cutting out industrial based processed foods and eating more from scratch, cooking meals in the kitchen, focusing on a whole foods diet filled with lovingly prepared meals. It means sitting and savoring our food and the family and friends we share our meals with. Pouring love into the food we eat really means pouring love into ourselves. Essentially nourishment is at the core of transforming our mental health.
I believe that moving to a nourishment model of mental health is at the core of helping us transform as a society. Nourishment means not only taking in the best whole foods and herbs prepared with love, it also means avoiding the foods, drugs (legal or not) and substances that damage us. Very simply, take in what is good and whole, and avoid what is processed and refined. In my practice as a therapist, I often encourage “homework” in the kitchen. I promote making soups, cooking a few more meals from scratch and avoiding eating out at the fast food joint. Taking charge of our mental health means really examining the heart of our home- the kitchen.
The kitchen is really the sacred place where deep healing can take place. In the ancient art of alchemy, a base material such as lead would be heated up and transformed into gold. The kitchen is the essential place for domestic alchemy, where whole food and herbs can be prepared and turned into true healing medicine. And when we are talking about emotional distress, we are in need of medicine, medicine for the soul, medicine that will help nurture us and remind us of our good hearts, our good nature. We are in need of a model of healing that will nourish our ability to heal ourselves, to feel calmer, more relaxed and happy inside. The revolution in mental health care starts in the kitchen!
Jon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting. Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.
More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here