Do you have a primary care physician who you see for annual physicals? A therapist who addresses your mental and emotional health? Maybe you also belong to an organized religion or talk with a spiritual adviser.
While you may rely on different sources to meet these very human needs, there are connections between all three. According to the modality of holistic therapy, it’s possible to treat the whole person at once — mind, body, and spirit.
But what does holistic therapy really mean, and is it effective? Here’s what the experts and evidence say.
In its most basic form, holistic therapy addresses the mind, body, and spirit to support health and healing.
It’s very similar to general therapy or counseling but often draws on complementary and alternative practices that the therapist may also have in their toolbox.
It involves “bringing all layers and aspects of our clients into the therapy and mental health space,” says holistic therapist Lenaya Smith Crawford.
In other words, it’s combining mental and emotional health with physical and spiritual aspects of experience.
For example, a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience physical pain and trembling. They may also experience a lack of trust in the world as a safe, nurturing place.
Holistic therapy can help address all of these symptoms, whether they’re physical, emotional, or even spiritual.
The origins of holistic therapy and its growing popularity today
Holistic therapy may be a buzzword in the mental health space today, but it has existed for centuries.
Older 2007 research credits ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates as one historical figure who laid the foundations for holistic therapy. Different forms of holistic therapy also existed in traditional medicine systems, such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Crawford says she’s noticed an anecdotal uptick in interest in holistic therapy since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
“The pandemic has played a huge role in everyone’s self-awareness around overall health,” she says. It’s increased the “understanding that your health is more than just physical or mental, but an inclusion of all layers of self.”
Though the practice of holistic therapy has existed for centuries, Crawford says it’s only recently that practitioners in the Western hemisphere have begun integrating it into their practices.
Crawford feels colonialism is to blame for the lag, and she’s not alone.
Bringing the body and spirituality into healing was “deemed ‘wrong,’ ‘barbaric,’ or less-than by colonizers, and so for a long time, mainstream health has neglected this necessary integration,” she says.
But the tide has begun to turn in conventional healthcare and mental health.
In 1975, California played host to the National Conference on Holistic Health. Soon after, the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) and the Holistic Medical Association were established.
Crawford believes that this series of events helped holistic healing gain credibility.
She also credits a growing body of research and the 2015 publication of “The Body Keeps The Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, for the growing integration of holistic therapy into modern practices. Kolk’s book addresses how trauma affects both the mind and body.
“As therapists, we have to come from an evidence-based standpoint,” Crawford says. “Now that there is all this research that confirms what people knew all along, it’s more likely to be integrated.”
Crawford says evidence, rather than anecdotes, has helped bring credibility to using holistic therapy in the mental health space.
There’s an emerging and growing body of research around the benefits of holistic therapy.
Peer-reviewed research suggests that holistic therapy can help improve overall mental well-being and may offer benefits for:
- cognitive function
- family communication
- chronic pain
A 2019 randomized control trial of 230 adolescent females in India suggests that individuals who underwent a 1-month holistic-based stress management program were less stressed, anxious, and depressed than the control group.
A 2017 study of 40 healthy adults indicates that diaphragmatic breathing, a common tool in holistic therapy, could improve cognitive function and lower stress responses.
A 2021 randomized control trial of people on probation in Hong Kong suggests that individuals who underwent a family holistic health intervention involving simple physical activity had better family communication.
Yoga is often used as part of holistic therapy.
A 2021 systemic review indicates that several types of yoga, particularly Hatha Yoga, could aid in the treatment of addiction to nicotine, alcohol, or drugs in women.
An evaluation of trauma-informed yoga, also from 2021, suggests the practice could be useful for individuals in correctional facilities or recovering from substance use but the researchers call for more formal research to assess how it might help with physical or mental well-being.
A small 2017 study of 63 participants indicates that somatic breathing might be effective for people with PTSD.
A 2017 systemic review and meta-analysis indicates that meditation might have a small effect on chronic pain and improve depression symptoms.
Generally speaking, most people can benefit from holistic therapy.
Both Crawford and holistic therapist Elizabeth Sumpf of Peaceful Prana Therapy note that it’s especially beneficial for individuals with:
Sumpf points out that trauma is sometimes thought of as a mental health condition, but it can manifest physically as well.
She says patients may experience symptoms such as:
“That trauma is what’s getting stored in the body,” Sumpf says. “Just talking about it doesn’t get to the root of it.”
Starting holistic therapy will likely be very similar to regular therapy.
Your therapist will work with you to develop a plan of treatment based on your needs, preferences, and experiences. They’ll likely do a thorough intake to understand your history before diving into treatment.
There’s a wide range of forms that holistic therapy can take, and your experience will ideally be highly tailored to you.
Sumpf says the end goal of holistic therapy is the ability to self-regulate, or effectively manage thoughts and feelings.
“A lot of holistic therapy is working with the body to regulate the nervous system,” Sumpf says.
This could involve anything from working with the breath to somatic exercises and movement practices.
Through holistic therapy, an individual might learn to “have more of an ability to manage the breath,” Sumpf says. “If we can manage the breath, we can start to manage what we’re experiencing in that moment. It starts to lay a foundation.”
Crawford agrees, adding that holistic therapy also increases self and body awareness.
In turn, she says it empowers individuals to work through triggers and issues outside of the therapy room, giving them actionable tools to empower their healing.
Holistic therapy seeks to enhance the mind-body-spirit connection to improve well-being, lower stress, and help to reduce trauma responses.
Holistic therapy often includes complementary therapies. According to Sumpf and Crawford, common types of complementary therapies included in holistic therapy are:
These are just a few examples of the many techniques that can make up holistic therapy.
Reiki, a Japanese form of energy healing, involves a person lying peacefully on a table or mat. Sumpf says a practitioner may place their hands gently on or above the client’s body to free energy that can get stuck during periods of prolonged stress or trauma.
A 2019 study indicates that reiki could reduce depression and anxiety and improve quality of life. Though more research is needed, the authors suggest that the preliminary results indicate that reiki could be useful for end-of-life care.
A 2021 study indicates that it could help reduce stress in caregivers of cancer patients.
Sumpf says sound baths are a type of sound healing that uses singing bowls. These bowls create vibrations that may change brain waves for improved health. She says they can help balance the chakra systems, which are energy centers associated with specific organs.
Breathwork, as the name implies, regulates the nervous system through breathing. Breathwork could help with trauma treatment, though Sumpf cautions it can trigger some people.
It’s important to do breathwork in consultation with a licensed healthcare professional. Sumpf says breathwork can also increase lung capacity, decrease anxiety, and improve sleep.
Meditation and yoga
Meditation places a larger emphasis on remaining present in the moment. Sumpf says it can help manage stress, improve mental clarity, and increase self-awareness.
Sumpf notes that yoga enhances the mind-body-spirit connection through breath, movement, and mindfulness. Trauma-informed yoga can aid in trauma treatment, she says.
Acupuncture and massage
During acupuncture, a licensed practitioner will trigger specific points in the body by inserting needles. A 2018 analysis says it can help with pain, including headaches.
Massage uses light and heavy touch. Though often thought of as a way to release physical pain, it may help mental and emotional health, though the research is still incomplete.
A 2018 article indicates that available data suggests massage may decrease depressed mood and acute anxiety, though more research is needed on its effects on depression and anxiety.
Tai chi, grounding, and cranial sacral therapy
Tai chi, or meditation in motion, is a low impact form of martial arts that originated in ancient China. A 2018 study indicates it might help with stress.
Sumpf says grounding helps enhance your awareness of the present moment through connection to one or all of your senses, such as feeling your feet on the ground, smelling your morning coffee, or noticing the color of the sky.
She says grounding can be helpful for anxiety, PTSD, sleep, and emotional regulation.
Cranial sacral therapy aims to help a person relax through light touch. A 2020 study indicates that it could treat severe trauma when used with psychotherapy.
Sumpf says there are multiple ways to find holistic therapy services, including:
But she and Crawford say it’s important to know what you’re looking for, as many providers say they take a “holistic approach,” which doesn’t always mean they are holistic therapists.
“Look for a somatic therapist or someone who incorporates mind-body, so [you] know it will be more than talk therapy,” Sumpf suggests.
Crawford suggests asking about training and credentials.
For example, if you’re looking for a holistic therapist and trained yoga teacher, Crawford says you’ll want to find someone who is a registered yoga teacher (RYT) or yoga teacher (YT) with 300 hours of training or more.
They should also be a licensed therapist, such as a licensed clinical social worker.
Though holistic therapy research is still emerging, Sumpf says there are plenty of resources for people who would like to learn more or dive in and try it.
Sumpf says you should always speak with a medical professional before starting any of these types of holistic therapy techniques with a licensed professional:
- trauma-informed yoga classes
- somatic psychotherapy (with a licensed therapist)
- cranial sacral therapy
- sound baths
- float tanks
In addition to techniques you can work on with a professional, Sumpf says there are ways to incorporate holistic therapy into your day-to-day life, including:
- walking in nature to connect with your surroundings
- breathing practices
- grounding exercises
- repeating a daily mantra
- gratitude practice
Want to learn more? Get the FAQs about holistic therapy below.
What should you expect in your first session?
Each therapist will handle the first session slightly differently. But Crawford says that generally, it will be exploratory. The therapist will want to understand:
- why you are seeking therapy
- why you chose holistic therapy
- your experience with certain modalities, such as medication
Sumpf typically has clients fill out a comprehensive intake form before the first session. She asks about previous experience with holistic therapy, trauma history, family, sexual preference, and gender identity.
She typically has the person try out a technique, such as breathwork, so they have something to practice in between sessions.
How long does holistic therapy take to work?
Sumpf says the answer to this question depends on an individual and their goals. Generally, people want to learn to self-regulate, she says.
“People can feel progress within a few weeks if they are doing the work between sessions,” Sumpf says.
Crawford suggests people give it at least six sessions.
“You at least get a chance to get an understanding of what is happening [after about a month],” she says. “If you couple that with work outside the therapy room, you can see changes in 30 days.”
But “can” is the keyword.
Like Sumpf, Crawford cautions, “You can’t put a timeline on it.”
Can holistic therapy be a part of your wellness regimen?
Sumpf says holistic therapy and wellness can go hand-in-hand.
“I think of wellness as a connection to mind-body-soul,” Sumpf says. “Wellness can be internal rather than external. What’s happening in my body? Holistic therapy can help identify that.”
What’s the best holistic therapy for anxiety and depression?
Holistic therapy isn’t one-size-fits-all, even for conditions. Generally, Sumpf finds somatic psychotherapy is the best holistic therapy for anxiety and depression.
“It helps you start to work with physical symptoms that people might be experiencing,” she says. “Grounding and containment are somatic practices people can move to right away.”
Who shouldn’t try holistic therapy?
Sumpf and Crawford believe anyone can try holistic therapy, but certain types of therapy may not be best for some individuals.
For example, Sumpf says people should check with their healthcare professional before trying sound baths if they are pregnant or have a history of epilepsy.
She also says that someone who was recently traumatized or severely traumatized likely should not start with meditation.
“They can’t sit in that state,” she says. “It will be too activating. They will want to build up to it [with something like grounding].”
Crawford adds that people with conditions such as hypertension or heart disease or those recovering from injury should speak to a medical professional before trying movement-based holistic therapy.
Individuals with other conditions, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, should speak with their current mental health care professional before starting holistic therapy.
She says people with these conditions are not disqualified from seeking holistic therapy, but they may require extra support and should continue to take medications as advised.
Holistic therapy incorporates the mind, body, and soul into the process of healing.
There’s a growing body of research on how holistic therapy can help ease trauma, anxiety, and depression plus improve relationships and overall well-being.
Holistic therapy may incorporate modalities like movement, meditation, reiki, massage, or acupuncture into the therapy space.
Be sure to find a licensed practitioner with credentials in the type of holistic therapy treatment you’d like to try. Holistic therapy is not a replacement for taking medication, seeing a psychiatrist for diagnosed conditions, or seeing a medical doctor.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.