Spiritual Healing and Psychotherapy
by Daniel J. Benor, MD
Spiritual healers have been known for bringing about unusual cures throughout recorded history. Until recently, modern medicine has viewed such reports with great scepticism. They are often attributed to placebo reactions, spontaneous remissions of symptoms of ordinary illnesses, remissions of 'hysterical' symptoms, or even to naive exaggerations or deliberate charlatanism.
As a doctor specialising in psychiatry, and with experience in research, it was my own impression as recently as a short decade ago that such reports simply had to be one of the above. When I expressed this opinion in no uncertain terms to a friend, he challenged me by asking, "Have you ever observed a healer?" I had to admit that I had not. What ensued from this discussion changed the course of my professional and personal life.
I was introduced to Ethel Lombardi, an American healer of the Reiki tradition. Ethel is a smiling, mischievious, Scotch-Irish woman with bright red hair and intense green eyes. She invited me to watch her work on Jerry, a young man of about 20 who had a lump under his right nipple. I examined him before her treatment, finding the lump to be one by two centimetres, rubbery firm, more fixed than I would like to see in a lesion of that sort, and quite tender.
Ethel had him lie down on a table and commenced with a laying-on of hands which addressed the chakras (energy centres along the midline of the body) rather than the lesion itself. Within a few minutes Jerry had tears streaming down his face. "You have some unfinished business in here with your father, don't you?" she said. (I was surprised at this, because Jerry had not said a word about why he was crying.) He nodded, and began to sob heavily. Ethel looked up at me and winked, as though to say, "Let's see you top that, Mr. Psychiatrist!"
When he had done crying after about 15 minutes, she continued her laying-on of hands, telling him: "Take in love and healing to replace the hurt which you have released."
In another 15 minutes she declared the treatment complete and invited me to examine him again. I was astounded to find that the lesion had shrunk by a centimetre, was soft, freely mobile and no longer tender. I was more bothered, though, by the fact that she did not clarify what he was sobbing about, nor did she process any of this feelings with him.
This started me on a study of spiritual healing which has continued over the last dozen years.
Being a psychotherapist, I was most interested in what healing might do for emotional and psychosomatic problems. Healers I interviewed reported to me that people usually experience profound relaxation while receiving healing. Healees regularly sigh, flush, yawn and melt into their chairs - occasionally even dozing off. Pains of all causes are often relieved - sometimes instantaneously, but more often gradually. Hurts buried years earlier in the unconscious may be released spontaneously. Integration of the materials released in this way is much more rapid and less traumatic than might be expected by the intensity of the abreactions observed.
I found it hard to know how much credence to give to these reports of healers who had not been trained in psychotherapy. "After all," I reasoned, "they could be misled by placebo reactions or any of the other sceptics' objections (mentioned above)."
It took me two years of speaking with healers, observing some of their treatments, and reviewing the research literature before I ventured to explore the development of my own healing gifts. I studied the Reiki and MariEl methods taught by Ethel Lombardi, Therapeutic Touch as taught by Dolores Krieger, PhD, RN and Dora Kunz, and the meditational method developed by Lawrence LeShan and taught by Joyce Goodrich, PhD. Over the past decade I have integrated these and other, intuitive methods of healing into my practice of psychotherapy.
At first it was difficult to allow myself simply to be an observer of the effects of my healing treatments. Without realising it, I had been raised in a materialistic society, and had been thoroughly indoctrinated in medical school to believe that western science has the last word on explanations for physical and psychological problems. What happens when I work with healing does not fit within conventional paradigms.
Both I and people I treat frequently feel heat and tingling when I hold my hands over a part of the body which appears to be in need of healing. These sensations suggest that a transfer of energy may be occurring between us.
I also have developed a sensitivity in my hands to such sensations, and can 'scan' the energy field around a person's body to identify parts which might be in need of treatment. Other, more sensitive healers, may perceive these energy fields as visual halos of colour, or aura, around a person. They can identify from the various layers of colours the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual state of the healee they are examining. They also observe changes in the aura as people change with treatment.
My greatest difficulty in the early days was to let go of my linear, reasoning habits of analysing what I was doing in order to let healing occur. I was ever so curious to understand healing, but every time I put my mind into thinking gear the healing would shut off. I had to learn to shelve my questioning until after the healing. Healing happens. It is not something which I do. This is one of the characteristics of healing which make it difficult for conventional scientists to accept. They would like to have healing be a treatment like massage, which one can apply at will for a deliberately determined length of time, in a regular, controlled manner. Healing simply is not like that. It seems to occur when a certain complex of conditions are present, but we have yet to identify all of the relevant factors. Probably, even if we succeed in identifying most or all of them, we shall still have difficulty controlling many of them.
Healing is a state of being in which one's mind is centred, or focused, on the intent to help another person. Healing involves an unconditionally accepting, loving awareness of the person one is with. It brings one to feel one is part of a larger 'whole' - a cosmic, transpersonal awareness. It is the latter which gives healing the label, 'spiritual' healing.
One cannot be a psychiatrist and not question oneself when one has such experiences. I have frequently asked myself, "Am I imagining all this? Am I getting into fantasies of grandeur, believing that I can help another person without recourse to physical or social interventions?" And so on. At times like those I fall back on my knowledge of the impressive research evidence for the effects of healing.
I have been surprised to find that the 155 published controlled studies on healing constitute a larger body of research than has been mustered by most of the other complementary therapies combined (with the exception of hypnosis and psychoneuroimmunology). Though most were performed in rigorous fashion, with comparison groups to demonstrate whatever statistically significant benefits healing might have to offer, few were published in medical journals, due to editorial publication biases against this subject. More than a dozen are unpublished PhD dissertations, mostly by nurses practising Therapeutic Touch healing in the United States. These and related anecdotal reports are summarised in a four volume review I have written on this subject, titled: Healing Research: Holistic Energy Medicine and Spirituality, published last year by Helix Verlag GmbH of Munich.
Of greatest interest to me are the doctoral dissertations on healing for anxiety and for pain.
Patricia Heidt, PhD, RN, studied Therapeutic Touch (TT) healing for the treatment of state anxiety in hospitalised cardiovascular patients. (It is well known to psychologists that one finds anxious patients regularly in cardiac units. Here they are supposed to be resting to recuperate from their life threatening illnesses - while being hooked up to panels of monitors which blink and bleep, interrupted periodically by emergency visits of 'crash teams' when something goes wrong with one of the patients on the unit!) Some of the patients in Heidt's study received laying-on of hands TT treatments while others had a nurse mimic TT treatments while doing arithmetic silently in her head in order to avoid entering a healing state. Highly significant reductions in anxiety were experienced by those receiving TT, and the differences between the anxiety scores of these and the control group were also statistically significant.
Janet Quinn, PhD, RN, repeated the above study with one variation. She arranged for TT healing to be given with the hands near to but not touching the body of the patients. Again, highly significant effects of TT were found, compared to the mock treatments.
Elizabeth Keller and Virginia Bzdek studied the effectiveness of TT in treating tension headache pain. People who had suffered a headache and were free of medication for at least four hours preceding the study were given either TT or mock TT. Significant reductions were found in pain immediately following TT in comparison with mock TT. Four hours after treatment the differences between groups were not significant. However, when the researchers factored out those participants who had taken pain medication (50% of mock TT patients vs. 15% of TT patients), it was found that again a significant difference was demonstrated in favour of TT.
David Dressler developed a 'Light Touch Manipulative Technique' (LTMT) for spinal manipulation which he finds highly effective for neck and back pain. He found that "The mental attitude of the practitioner is crucial. ...what is really necessary is to let the sensing fingertip lightly touch the edge of the bone [of the spine] as though it were a delicate leaf floating in a still pool, following its motion wherever it drifts, influencing its direction as little as possible." "To let this happen, the practitioner's attention is absorbed in the sensation of the fingertip, silently aware, with as little thought and will as possible." During treatment, warmth or tingling may be felt by the practitioner or patient. Dressler feels that LTMT activates the patients' own healing abilities.
These studies helped me to trust my experiences with healing, along with the many studies which showed effects on human physical problems (including skin wounds, hypertension, coronary care), as well as on animals, plants, bacteria, yeasts, cells in laboratory culture, enzymes and water. Without this prop to my conventional, linear questioning, I might have wavered and not allowed myself to continue to experiment with giving healing along with my psychotherapy.
I find that healing is particularly helpful with what I call meta-emotions. These are the anxieties about the underlying problems, such as when people say, "If this stress continues I'm going to go mad!" Or in cases of depression, when people say, "I can't see any way out of this black hole of despair. I might as well end it all!"
Healing also alleviates the anxieties which arise in conjunction with emotional releases, when long-buried hurts come to conscious awareness with all the intensity of the initial reactions to the traumas.Healing also alleviates the anxieties which arise in conjunction with emotional releases, when long-buried hurts come to conscious awareness with all the intensity of the initial reactions to the traumas.
Healing, through the above processes, appears to shorten the time needed to reach awareness of underlying problems. By diminishing anxieties, it helps people to have more energies to deal with their problems.
The converse is true as well. Psychotherapy, in my practice, helps people to integrate the emotional releases and long-buried traumas which the healing and psychotherapy have brought to the surface.
I am puzzled by the practices of healers like Ethel Lombardi who leave the treatment of the releases to be managed through healing alone. I do not know whether this is just as effective as my way of therapy. Perhaps it has to do with differing levels and intensities of healing abilities in various healers. I worry, however, that in some manner a person may be left with unresolved problems or with lessons unlearned. Clearly such questions invite serious study.
People often ask me, "What sorts of physical problems can be helped by healing?" Spiritual healing can beneficially be added to the treatment of patients with many problems for which conventional medicine can as yet provide only limited relief. People with diseases such as arthritis, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), multiple sclerosis, cancer and many more may be helped. Pains and other symptoms may be relieved. Again, I find that counselling or psychotherapy can also be helpful, both to patients and to their families. Healing also facilitates the resolution of family tensions and conflicts.
The United Kingdom is a world leader in the integration of spiritual healing with conventional medicine. There are now General Practitioner surgeries with healers paid under the NHS. Many more doctors are referring patients to healers at the healers' treatment rooms. Some doctors are developing their own healing gifts and may get Postgraduate Education Allowance credits for this by attending approved workshops. Healers work regularly at hospital pain, cancer, and cardiac rehabilitation centres.
A Doctor-Healer Network is growing, with five regional groups where healers, doctors, nurses, other health care professionals, complementary therapists and clergy meet every 3-4 months to discuss patients (often those who are treated by doctor-healer pairs), as well as theoretical and personal questions and demonstrations of healing methods. This provides a forum and resource for sharing information and progress in integrating healing with conventional medicine. The Doctor-Healer Network Newsletter shares the experiences of healers and doctors between member groups and with others who are interested in healing of body, emotions, mind and spirit.
Spiritual healing opens people to awareness of deeper meanings to illness, which are then often amenable to psychotherapy. Illness can be a communication from a person's unconscious mind to bring to his awareness various inner conflicts or old hurts which might be ready for release. Illness may be a communication with others, such as a statement of need for love and caring or a protest against stresses. Psychotherapy may then help people to address the root causes of their illnesses.
About the author:
- T. Dethlefsen and R. Dahlke, The Healing Power of Illness Longmead, England: Element, 1990; (Orig. German, Munich: Bertelsmann, 1983)
- Dressler, David, Light-touch manipulative technique, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 1990, 8(4), 19-20.
- Heidt, Patricia, An Investigation of the Effect of Therapeutic Touch on the Anxiety of Hospitalized Patients, New York University: Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis 1979; article in: Nursing Research 1981, 30(1) 32-37.
- Heidt, Patricia, Effect of therapeutic touch on anxiety level of hospitalized patients. Nursing Research 1981, 30 (1), 32-37 .
- Keller, Elizabeth and Bzdek, Virginia M., Effects of Therapeutic Touch on tension headache, pain, Nursing Research 1986, 101-104. (Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Missouri 1983).
- Krieger, D. The Therapeutic Touch: How to Use Your Hands to Help or Heal (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall 1979)
- Quinn, Janet, An Investigation of the Effect of Therapeutic Touch Without Physical Contact on State Anxiety of Hospitalized Cardiovascular Patients, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, New York University 1982.
- Quinn, Janet F., Therapeutic Touch as energy exchange: replication and extension. Nursing Science Quarterly 1989, 2(2), 79-87.
Daniel J. Benor, MD, is a wholistic psychiatrist working in Philadelphia and Medford, NJ. He practices psychotherapy, transactional analysis, gestalt therapy, hypnotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), meditation, imagery and relaxation (psychoneuroimmunology), spiritual healing(as in Reiki and Therapeutic Touch), Tapas Acupressure Technique, Emotional Freedom Techniques, and other approaches. Dr. Benor has taught this spectrum of methods internationally for 15 years to people involved in wholistic and spiritual approaches to caring, health and personal development. He is the founder of The Doctor-Healer Network in England and editor of its Newsletter. After 10 years in England he has returned to live in Medford, New Jersey. He founded Helios: Network for Whole Person Healing, a group of health carers and alternative/ complementary therapists who seminar regularly on how to develop integrated care including conventional medicine and psychotherapy combined with bodymind, biological energy and spiritual awareness. Dr. Benor is the author of Healing Research, Volumes I-IV and many articles on wholistic, spiritual healing. He appears internationally on radio and TV.
About the book:
Healing Research: Volume I, Spiritual Healing: Scientific Validation of a
Healing Revolution by Daniel J Benor, MD. reviews 191 controlled studies of
healing. Available through Dr Benor, PO Box 502, Medford, NJ 08055.
Page last modified or reviewed on January 13, 2010