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What Is Holism?

Traditional Chinese healers strive to balance and create unity throughout the body.
Holistic medicine focuses on the mind, body, and spirit.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2014
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The term holism is understood best by referring to an Aristotelian concept expressing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The actual term didn’t arise until the early 20th century, but the concept far predates it. In health and wellness, operating in a holist or holistic way is not uncommon. What is meant by holism in each context of medical or psychological treatment may vary, but the general goal is to look at the person as a deeply complex system and understand that treating one area doesn’t address the whole and may not be enough.

Perhaps the opposite of holism is believing that humans are just a collection of parts and understanding the parts means understanding the whole. A holistic view posits something different. Even if all parts are broken down and understood separately (reductionism), the whole is still not understood completely. When all parts function together, more is going on. In any form of medical or psychological holist treatment, people have to be understood as whole; treatment applied to a single part neglects much of what makes up the person.

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Examples of holism are easy to find in psychological schools like Gestalt psychology, especially as posited by Fritz Perls and using concepts like psychodrama and early German Gestalt work. Perls and other Gestaltists suggested the mind had to be understood in concept of body. Many of the exercises Perls suggested specifically used parts of the body to arrive at understanding of emotional states. Clenching the muscles and releasing them, while thinking about certain emotional states could deepen emotional understanding. It’s worthy to note that such exercises do not solely focus on thinking or experiencing emotions, but instead focus on connecting mind/body to experience the psychosomatic elements of emotions.

Other types of therapies take a holistic approach. Emotional upset may be understood as arising from emotional, psychological and social circumstances. Looking at the past could be part of holism, since the human is not just the present but is a sum of past and present.

In physical medicine, holism emerges in numerous ways. Doctors, like therapists, may emphasize connection of mind and body. Some may not just treat present illness but look at it as a symptom arising from the whole body, which is connected and influenced by emotional stress, social situations, and personal history. Similarly, some physicians could frown upon treating one part of the body without taking into account the others. There are plenty of physicians who adopt a “treat the symptom or part” approach given the time constraints for treating many patients.

Doctors of osteopathy and complementary medicine specialists are often said to take a holistic approach, and this may be based in part on alternative medicines that have always behaved this way. Chinese medicine focuses on creating whole body unity. Other alternative medicines aim for similar approaches that consider mind, body, and spirit as needing to all be aligned or unified for true healing to occur.

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