What is holism?


Holism is the primary encompassing attribute that makes up the whole body of a person. As philosopher Aristotle put it, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." It focuses on the mind, the body, the spiritual, the emotional and the mental "holistic" part of the individual. In short, "holism" in a therapeutic setting, is defined as being the sum of all the parts of an individual.

Proposed by early philosophers like Aristotle and Descartes and empirically proved by "two counseling-based wellness models, the Wheel of Wellness and the Indivisible Self," within the latter half of the 20th century, holism has been used in the counseling field and implemented by the World Health Organization as a paradigm for "physical, mental and social well-being" for centuries. As such, 20th century theorists such as Adler postulated that the individual is responsible for his own feelings thereby his behaviors come from those feelings. The individuals' thoughts, for example, can often perpetuate a "feeling" of internal discord within thus affecting the rest of the body with physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual manifestations. Therefore, it is important for patients to understand and practice taming feelings of inferiority they may have that all of us can foster at times so that the whole person is taken care of.

Gestalt was founded by 20th century psychiatrist Fritz Perls. The theory behind Gestalt practices has roots in holism, as well, and the focus is on personal experiences and how one deals with those experiences. Gestalt is experiential in nature because it primarily focuses on the client's relationships in his life and how he deals with those relationships. Interestingly, another 20th century psychologist, Max Wertheimer, discovered that people mostly thought of things separately instead of as a whole. He found he noticed when riding the train, the railroad lights would change and alternate but that each light was really stationary; it was simply the alternating of the lights that made it appear as if they were moving. This "pi phenomenon" helped him focus his studies on people and showed him how people seem to tend to "group individual components into a single coherent figure."

While it may seem plausible that reductionism might work on some level; it's more plausible that the theory of "holism" and its use in several therapeutic approaches would benefit the patient more. Reductionism, for example, "breaks down each component so that each can be studied in length"; however, "holism" has to eventually be taken into consideration once those "parts" are broken down and then woven together after being studied in depth. Sometimes a patient in counseling can present with multiple mental issues and this is why many in the health field today find "holism" the best approach to treating patients. Not every patient presents with one issue.

If, for example, a patient comes in for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy but presents with multiple mental health issues, the patient may only derive a part of therapy for one of those issues. If the patient comes in with anxiety but also presents with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a Cognitive Behavioral approach will most likely work very little. If the mental health care provider uses holism as a means to understand the whole patient, then it is highly likely the patient will benefit from gestalt therapy or another therapy using the method of holism in the care of the patient.


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