May 9th, 2014 12:08 EST
Natural Healing Practices Prove to be Helpful to Hundreds
Firsthand experience is always the best, and when it comes to health and wellness, there is much to talk about. The process of healing through trauma, sickness or setbacks in our health is not free of stress. If we do not have the right perspective on options for healing, we can stumble into mix-ups. Today, the options for alternate forms of health care, such as herbal medicines and massage therapy, are ever increasing. This is the topic for my interview today with a person experienced in alternative/natural healing.
Michell: What is your name, age, nationality and occupation?
Melanie: I`m Melanie St. Ours, and I`m from the East Coast of the United States. I`m a clinical herbalist, massage therapist, community-based theater artist, and the founder of psycheandsoma.com.
Michell: When did you decide that the natural health revolution was for you and why?
Melanie: I`ve never thought of it quite that way. There wasn`t a single moment of decision, and I don`t usually think of myself as terribly revolutionary. Like a lot of people who find their way to this work, I had a lot of chronic health problems that modern medicine couldn`t solve. I also experienced firsthand what it was like to be unable to access medical care when I needed it because of unjust laws and insurance practices.
Herbal medicine is people`s medicine, and no matter what happens politically, we can guarantee some degree of access to health care if we learn the basics about natural medicine. I wanted to have that kind of freedom for myself " and to be able to teach it to others. And herbal medicine is medicine that cares for the whole person, uses whole plants, and is in relationship to whole ecosystems (and the whole planet). More than anything, people are longing for a return to wholeness and wholesomeness. Herbal medicine has been a way of cultivating wholeness in my life and work.
Michell: I have heard many faith healers also say that trauma, most of the time, can play a major role in sickness. Do you believe that the psyche can take us there?
Melanie: Absolutely. Trauma of any kind creates a very strong stress response which can contribute to physical illness as well as emotional or psychological distress.
In fact, the definition of trauma isn`t so much about the event itself, but about the way that the psyche and soma (physical body) of the survivor respond to the event. So it`s not just veterans, crime victims, and survivors of abuse and natural disasters that experience trauma. It`s a much more widespread phenomenon than we previously thought.
We experience trauma when a particular experience or set of experiences is too intense, too frightening, or too painful for us to cope with using our regular waking consciousness. When the body and psyche are overwhelmed in this way, there is a very strong stress response that`s created. The stress response affects everything from the way our brains record the memories of the event to our heart rate, breathing, digestion, and immunity.
Since a brain overwhelmed by a traumatic response isn`t able to code the memory of the event in the usual way, many people who experience trauma can continue to experience the emotional and physical intensity of the event even after the experience ends. It can seem as if the traumatic event isn`t over " it continues to be triggered in the body (and sometimes explicitly through dreams or flashbacks), which means that the body can continue to experience the immunosuppression, digestive effects, and emotional overwhelm of the initial incident for months or even years after the actual threat has passed.
Over time, this kind of pattern can cause significant physical health problems. It`s not "in their head" when a survivor has somatic symptoms. This phenomenon is very real.
Michell: Many times victims of sexual abuse also have dealt with physical and psychological abuse. It is sometimes hard for victims because being touched by anyone can be seriously uncomfortable. In addition many survivors spend many years holding on to the pain in different ways. Do you believe that this form of therapy can help even this sort of victim?
Melanie: I`ve worked with a lot of trauma survivors over the years, and the most important thing to remember is that everyone who experiences abuse is a unique individual and there`s no single approach that`s right for everyone. Some survivors benefit tremendously from hands-on therapies like massage, and others would find it triggering or unpleasant.
As therapists, healers, and loved ones, the most important thing we can do is to support survivors in making the choices that feel right to them. Abuse robs a person of his or her freedom to make decisions and set boundaries. Telling a survivor what to do to get better, even when it`s well-intentioned, can actually perpetuate that sense of being disempowered and victimized.
So yes, herbal medicine can help with some of the emotional and physical effects that arise in the aftermath of trauma. Massage & bodywork can also be helpful, as can psychotherapy and counseling. The kind of therapies they want to access is the survivor`s choice. He or she must be given our full support in making autonomous decisions and setting boundaries. Seeing survivors as powerful people who have tremendous strength is not only accurate, but it`s one of the best ways for practitioners and loved ones to support their healing.
Michell: Traditionally, in other countries and cultures, natural herbs are used for multiple purposes. For example, Whole Sage can be used for drinking as tea or used for cramps when a woman has her menstrual cycle. When you talk about herbal medicines, please give some examples.
Melanie: Sure! My practice is informed by Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Herbalism, and Ayurveda. So I use herbs from all three traditions and choose the herbs for each client, based on what will work best for her body and her lifestyle.
While there are general categories that herbs fall into, it`s a big misconception that herbs work by treating diseases or problems. That`s what pharmaceutical drugs do " and those drugs are a wonderful resource when we need them. Herbs are different. They work best when they`re matched to the person who has the condition, not just to the named disease.
For example, a lot of people think of St. John`s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) as "the antidepressant herb." But that`s not strictly true! St. John`s Wort is very soothing to the nervous system, has antiviral properties, is one of the best herbs we have for neuralgias, and has a very "sunny" personality that makes it ideal for people with mild to moderate depression " especially if it`s made worse on cloudy days or during the winter. It`s an ideal herb for someone who has nerve pain as well as depression, or for someone with shingles and mild depression. But it`s not the best herb for someone with depression and anxiety, or someone with bipolar depression. And it can interact with certain medications. You really have to match the herb to the whole person in order to get the best results.
When I talk about herbal medicine, I`m not just talking about the plants themselves, but about the art & science of matching the herbs to the person who needs help. This tradition was largely lost to European cultures because many of the bearers of these traditions were killed or silenced during the Inquisition, and many of the indigenous traditions of North and South America were similarly interrupted by genocide and persecution. That`s why many herbalists have looked to the intact traditions of India and China to learn a whole system of assessment and formulation, and why many elders of indigenous nations here in North and South America have placed an emphasis on teaching and preserving their traditions.
My hope is that more people will start to understand that herbal medicine is much more nuanced than the marketing messages about individual supplements might suggest!
Michell: Today there are so many people addicted to either prescription drugs or street drugs. Can you share some thoughts and suggestions in this area?
Melanie: Addiction is a devastating disease. As you shared, it affects people of all ages and all backgrounds. Here in the U.S., we absolutely need to address this issue differently on a policy level to reflect the modern medical understanding of addiction as an illness, not as a moral failing. Part of the solution needs to be a change in unfair drug laws, mandatory minimum sentencing (which is often racially biased by requiring harsh sentencing for street drugs that are more often used by people of color but not maintaining similar standards for drugs that are more often used by white people) and the lack of treatment options and social safety nets for people who need help.
There`s also a wonderful role that herbal medicine can play as part of an integrative approach to recovery. There are herbs that can help reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol. And sometimes people become addicted to drugs and alcohol because they were using them to self-medicate a mood disorder, or to cope with trauma. For them, getting clean can be an extraordinarily painful process because they not only experience the suffering of withdrawals and cravings for the substance, but they also experience intense suffering from the original issue. In cases like this, herbal medicine and/or appropriate pharmacotherapy is absolutely crucial to treat the underlying issue and prevent relapse.
Herbal medicine also has a role in preventing addiction. For example, many of the medications that are used to ease anxiety and pain are highly addictive. Working with an herbalist can give you options that have no risk of addiction or dependence, which is wonderful for people with family histories of addiction or who feel nervous about using substances with the potential for abuse.
Michell: Let`s talk about fertility and how all this helps in that area.
Melanie: Wow, this could be a whole interview unto itself! I think the simplest thing to say is that so many women experience challenges with their fertility and feel that their only options are to start with invasive testing which often leads to invasive procedures. I support women in their right to choose the kind of fertility care that feels right to them, but I really wish that more women knew how effective herbal medicine can be (and how much less expensive it is).
My message to anyone with hormonal or fertility challenges is simple. If you can, reach out to a qualified herbalist or acupuncturist before you dive head-first into the intensive medical options. And if you do choose to work with a fertility clinic, do really good research into their success rates. There are too many unscrupulous clinics out there that are willing to exploit your fervent desire to have a baby by selling you round after round of treatment rather than doing everything they can to ensure that you`re successful the first or second time.
Michell: I love your quote that says "healing is your birthright". Please expand on this saying.
Melanie: Oh, thank you so much for this! Yes, this is a core belief that`s at the heart of my practice.
"Healing" is different from "curing". It`s true that not everyone who gets sick will be cured. All of us will experience the degeneration of our physical bodies. All of us will die. So there is no promise of a "cure" for everything that ever ails you. Healing is different.
Unlike cures, which feel so miraculous when they occur, healing is always available to you. Healing includes the physical body`s ability to repair itself as well as our human ability to create meaning, wisdom, spiritual growth, and beauty out of suffering. The innate wisdom of your body and that deep spiritual power to create meaning and growth from suffering is always available to you. It`s part of your birthright as a human being, and it`s so central to the human experiences that all of the major world religions have teachings about how suffering can become the prima material for spiritual growth. That is my definition of healing, and it`s what brings the sacredness to the work that I do. Tending the physical body is a sacred act when it`s done with the consciousness that suffering can be a doorway into a deepening of our capacity for love, connection, and spiritual growth.
Michell: Are you or your staff involved with any humanitarian or environmental work?
Melanie: Yes! I`m an advocate for animal protection and environmental stewardship and in the past, I`ve worked on immigrant rights, racial justice, and as an online crisis hotline volunteer for RAIIN. What is your opinion about where animals fit into the healing process? Animals can absolutely play a role in the healing process, both for individuals and for all of us as a society. Companion animals like dogs and cats have been shown to support the health of their human friends by reducing blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and anxiety while increasing the "feel good" hormones associated with love and bonding. There are an ever-increasing number of ways that service dogs can support the healing process, including psychological service dogs that make a difference not just for people with physical disabilities but also for people with PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression.
But if we take a slightly larger view, changing our relationship with animals is a path to healing some of the deep suffering of modern life. Compassion and respect for animals is natural and normal in all human cultures. Universally, cruelty to animals is recognized as a sign that something isn`t right with a person that perhaps they themselves have been abused or are struggling with mental illness. Yet, many industrialized nations, including the U.S., currently employ abusive practices to animals on such a large scale that it`s almost impossible to fathom. Most people eat meat, eggs, and dairy products or buy leather boots, wool sweaters, and silk scarves without having the slightest idea that they are economically supporting an industry that`s creating such vast suffering for animals, such significant environmental damage, and such devastating effects on human health. It`s not easy (it wasn`t easy for me), but if we`re willing to really look at what`s happening in the meat, dairy, and egg industries and adjust our choices to reflect our values of compassion, health, and environmental stewardship, we can create tremendous personal healing as well as cultural and ecological transformation.
It starts with just opening your heart to someone who is different from you. Animals are different from humans in many ways, and similar to us in others. Expanding our compassion to include them is a way of exercising our hearts and "stretching" them to a greater capacity for love. The more you love, the more healing can flow through you.
Michell: On your site you talk about journaling; why do you think that it is helpful?
Melanie: Like any creative practice, it gives you a safe space to express yourself. The need for expression is so deep, and journaling is a way to meet that need. It`s a beautiful tool for learning about yourself, coping with challenges, stimulating your creativity, and documenting your life. You can journal by writing, drawing, collaging, scrapbooking " use any method that feels easy to you. There`s no wrong way to keep a journal.
Michell: What are some of your long term goals?
Melanie: I used to be so much more goal-oriented..... Nowadays, I`ve learned that the path opens up before me so differently than I expect that I`m pretty humble about long-term goals. I hope to be a more compassionate and loving version of myself tomorrow than I am today. I hope to spend more time in nature. And I hope to find ways to bring herbal medicine to people who need it. That`s about as long-term as I can get nowadays!
If any of what I`ve shared has resonated with you, I`d love for you to come to psycheandsoma.com and check out the free resources I have for you. I do my best to offer valuable information and teachings for free through my site and my podcast, but they can`t do any good in the world if people don`t download them!