It is no ordinary feat to keep a complex machine–made up of several micro and macro parts–up and running every day. But the human body, consisting of 37.2 trillion cells and multiple organs, performs this herculean task–from the time we are born until we die–even with hiccups. The body manages to achieve this extraordinary feat by functioning as a single unit with the mind.
Research has proven that this mind-body connection is vital for the overall functioning of a human being. The mind and the body are not separate. What affects one affects the other. An imbalance in the body can often find its root in an imbalance in the mind, and vice versa.
Given this mind-body connection, it becomes imperative for any wellbeing treatment to address the concerns of both the mind and the body. Taking this concept further with insights from eastern and western systems of medicine, Bangalore-based psychiatrist Dr Shyam Bhat uses an integrative approach to treat mental illnesses.
In an exclusive chat with Soulveda, Dr Bhat speaks about the importance of mind-body connection, Integral Self Therapy and the way forward in the field of psychiatry.
Stress and anxiety are common these days. As a mental health professional, what do you think is the right way to address them?
Anxiety and depression are complex conditions which involve the brain, mind, body, relationships and lifestyle. Ideally, each of these elements need to be examined and balanced for the person to feel better. If the condition is severe and other strategies don’t help, then we treat the brain. We have to understand that any alteration of emotion often does involve brain dysfunction, and often, it does need medicine.
Western medicine approaches medical conditions in isolation. Holistic approach, on the other hand, takes a circumspect view of the problem. Could you elaborate?
It is incorrect to think that western medicine is symptomatic. What it does is treat the root cause that is understood at a cellular or organ level. For example, what is the root cause of diabetes? One way of understanding it is that the pancreas has to have a dysfunction; your insulin receptors have to change; insulin levels have to change and insulin sensitivity has to change. These are all profound insights we have gained about diabetes from western medicine. Whereas in the eastern approach, the way they understand the problem is different.
In an ideal situation, what is required is an understanding of both these systems of medicine, both these approaches to the problem, and the use of both in a synergistic manner. Let’s understand what is happening at a scientific, genetic, cellular, and organ levels, and also understand what is the imbalance in the entire system, which is what eastern medicine is about. We need to understand both the perspectives.
“The brain, mind, and body are a single unit which cannot be separated. Any alteration in the brain affects the bodily functions. Any physical condition can cause changes in the mind and the brain.”
Can you talk about the approach you take for your patients?
I use an integrated approach where you understand a problem at the cellular level, from the perspective of what is happening in that organ system. It is also about understanding how different parts of the body and mind interact with each other and with their environment as well.
I trained in internal medicine and psychiatry in western medicine. Once you train in two disciplines, you can start integrating them because you will start understanding how the mind and body actually work together. For example, if you have an infection, we may have to treat the problem with medication and then look at the whole body and mind.
We treat the infection and look at the overall balance of the mind and body and address issues with the eastern approach. This is what the integrated approach is all about–using multiple perspectives, multiple systems of knowledge to understand one problem.
Could you talk about the mind-body connection and its role in healing?
The brain, mind, and body are a single unit which cannot be separated. Any alteration in the brain affects the bodily functions. Any physical condition can cause changes in the mind and the brain.
Ideally, treatment of any condition should involve all these aspects. It doesn’t matter whether it is the so-called physical conditions like high blood pressure or so-called mental conditions like depression or anxiety. Because depression is not just a mental condition, it affects every part of the body. There is no such thing as a purely mental or a purely physical condition.
“The idea of this therapy is to help a person get in touch with their cosmic self and redefine their identity so that they are less invested in the idea of the individual self.”
At what point in your practice did you realise the importance of holistic approach to psychiatry?
Very early on, I understood that one cannot treat the body without understanding the mind and the brain, and vice versa. Therefore, I chose a post-graduation course where I could do both internal medicine and psychiatry.
After MBBS, I realised you could either do surgery or internal medicine or psychiatry. But one could not do them together. That was a huge problem. When I started studying psychiatry, I discovered an intense five-year programme where you combine both internal medicine and psychiatry and are certified in both these disciplines. I decided to take it up because I was looking for integration.
During the programme and post it, I spent years studying and extensively practising meditation and yoga. I even explored ideas in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. When I was in the US, I started an integrative medicine centre. We integrated different systems into a cohesive synergistic form of treatment.
You introduced Integral Self Therapy in your practice. What is it all about?
The Integral Self Therapy is about the integration of the western and eastern systems of medicine. The idea of this therapy is to help a person get in touch with their cosmic self and redefine their identity so that they are less invested in the idea of the individual self. A person transitions from saying, ‘I am this individual’ to ‘I am both the cosmic self as well as the individual self’. In order to get to that point, we have to address both. For a person to be well and truly evolve, we need both of these approaches.
Spirituality seems to be integral to your medical practice. Could you tell us about it?
When I say spirituality, I am talking about existential questions. Basically, anything that is existential is spiritual, and whatever is spiritual is existential. People often have spiritual-existential questions in health, especially regarding diseases.
I use an existential approach in my therapy. I help the person construct their own meaning rather than accept imposed beliefs. I see spiritual exploration as a vital part of health. Without spiritual meaning, one cannot have good health.