Why Every Therapist Would Benefit From Watching “Heal”, the Documentary

First and foremost, I believe that it is important to state that I am in no way affiliated with the “Heal” documentary, which is currently showing on Netflix, or receiving of any benefits by recommending it. I simply support this work and the ideas it is encouraging our community to think about.

So let’s dive into it. Why would all therapists, healers, psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and all the other designations benefit from watching Heal?

Therapists and Healers

They talk about us. They describe how therapists and other healers who work with emotions can help people who have psychosomatic issues. With the ACE study (see reference below), we’ve known that early stress/emotional distress is directly correlated to people’s physical health, the choices they make in their life, and even their quality of life. When I first took this test back in graduate school, I was a little embarrassed that I marked most of the items for ACEs and a good bit for the lack of resilience/resources. At this point, it has helped me make sense of the trauma I’ve stored in my own body throughout the years and further believe in the healing power of therapy, yoga, nutrition, and treating our bodies as a whole. Although completely anecdotal, my n=1 experience has shown my that if I can make this type of recovery, I believe in it for others.

Nutrition Matters

Our client’s nutrition matters. If we are treating someone with anxiety and they guzzle mountain dew throughout the day, it’s likely a no-brainer why they have a hard time regulating their body. However, this happens even more so on an insidious level for many of our clients who struggle with depression, post traumatic stress disorder, rumination, anger and much more. This documentary opens up the discussion about our mind-gut connection and how it is essential to have a healthy gut for our brain to function well. I’ve seen this in other ways working with eating disorders and knowing that food has the power to heal so much. I can’t eat gluten for digestive reasons, however, I noticed that taking it out of my diet and removing coke zero from my diet in college drastically impacted my emotional health. While I don’t recommend incredibly rigid eating, I believe in the power of functional nutrition and feeding our bodies mostly whole foods if we are wanting to improve our mental health and give our body it’s best chance in naturally healing itself. Instead of encouraging client’s to take medication, I’m a big believer in trying alternate approaches first (if they are capable of doing this), as Kelly Brogan’s work shows us how much power we have to heal ourselves with food. It’s definitely worth trying first vs. continually taking pills that may or may not work, cause other symptoms, and can ruin our gut microbiome. Nutrition also has shown to heal autoimmune issues, chronic ailments, and other physical diseases that inevitably pair with depression and anxiety.

Struggles with Depression

My own personal bias. I have struggled with depression on and off throughout my life. It has been a journey for me to figure out what works for me naturally in keeping it at bay. It was only after I incorporated functional nutrition, rest, shame work, body work, and fostering healthy social relationships that I can now say that I have not had a bout of depression in the last 4.5 years. That’s a really good record for me! Although there are days that I can slip into depression for a bit (and sometimes it’s just a gentle nudge to check these areas of my life) with these things in place, I don’t stay there very long. It’s so liberating to trust my body again. To trust that I can take on tough endeavors like a full case load of clients and starting a business without the fear that my depression may rear it’s ugly head and sabotage my plans. I am truly grateful and I’ve known this has been something that works for me even before the research has explicitly stated it. We MUST include these as ideas for our clients.

It explores body trauma & what’s often missing in most traditional therapy treatments. When I was going through eating disorder treatment in high school, none of the body trauma stuff was discusssed or addressed except through using yoga as a means to being friends with my body. And honestly, I wasn’t fully sold on yoga yet. My treatment saved my life and was incredibly helpful emotionally (and I’m so so grateful for my therapist who was/is still very much on the up-and-up about many things), but my body was having a hard time following suit. I still had lots of trauma stored in my body (and I’m still working through this). I still had gut microbiome issues that contributed to my feelings of depression and exhaustion, and I still wasn’t great at being in my body or in the moment. I could know certain things, but my body might tell me otherwise or send me stress signals to keep me in fight or flight mode. Some people may identify this by calling it “triggers” or easily recognize that their stomach turns to knots before giving a public speech. For me, and many others, these moments are usually when our body feels escalated and threatened in a situation that is objectively, not threatening. I’ve noticed it relationally when my partner says something neutral but my body reacts as if he just punched me in the gut, or when I’m working on work stuff and I let my cortisol drive me to get things done throughout the day. We need to talk about these things with clients. We need to be real about how this happens to us. It’s our duty to have a good “self of the therapist” and be mindful of these things in our own life, knowing this impacts our work.

What the Documentary “Heal” Covers

We need more answers and we are part of that discussion. We don’t have all the data or answers in this field. We may instinctively know that nutrition, movement, decreasing stress through body work and neurofeedback helps, but how much exactly? And why is it easier for some to incorporate and like pulling nails for others? How do we even change the mindset or provide motivation to someone so depressed that they can hardly get out of bed? How do we educate the community about these topics? Research-wise, there’s so much to learn. We are a part of this discussion too by introducing these ideas to clients. We can’t force them. I will be the first to admit those efforts are fruitless. We can however start the discussion and make sure we are building a referral list of body workers, dietitians/nutritionists, functional medicine docs, and others in the community that can help us wholly heal our clients. We must treat them as a whole, or at least know that they are whole.

The Healing Journey

Together as a community, we can make a difference. While some of us are whole hearted believers on our own island in our own communities, there are still many in the healing space who have not fully understood or discussed these principles. Start today by watching Heal. Start a discussion with another therapist or holistic practitioner about it. Try to be honest about the resistance that may come up as you learn about these things and can’t unknow what you know. There are times even for me that I resist listening to certain things because I know that I’ll have to actually consciously make choices against my wellness if I choose not to make these changes in my life at the current time. We are all on this journey, works-in-progress. Here’s to learning more about this along the way and asking ourselves the hard questions so we can be of better service to ourselves, our clients, and our community.

ACE Reference:
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245-258.

Jenny Helms, LMFT

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