What Are Complementary Therapies and How Do They Work
Complementary and alternative therapies typically take a holistic approach to your physical and mental health. This means that they consider all aspects of your physical and emotional wellbeing as a whole, rather than treating particular symptoms separately. For example, some complementary therapies focus on the mind, body and spirit or on the flow of energy through your body.
Many of these approaches have roots in ancient Eastern philosophies of health or the kinds of traditional healing methods used widely before the development of the treatment models currently used by the NHS.
Why might I try them?
There are many reasons you might decide to try complementary or alternative therapies. For example:
- You don’t want the treatment your doctor has offered (such as psychiatric medication or talking therapies).
- You’ve already tried the treatments your doctor has offered and they haven’t suited you (for example, you haven’t found a psychiatric medication that works, or it’s caused unwanted side effects).
- You’re on an NHS waiting list for treatment, but you need help to manage your symptoms right away.
- You want more options to try in addition to the treatments your doctor has offered.
- You don’t agree with your doctor’s approach and you want to take another approach to looking after your mental health.
Can they treat mental health problems?
Complementary and alternative therapies can be used as a treatment for both physical and mental health problems. The particular problems that they can help will depend on the specific therapy that you are interested in, but many can help to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Some people also find they can help with sleep problems, relaxation and feelings of stress.
There are various different schools of meditation, but all aim to quieten your mind and put you into a state of calm, stillness and rest. Some types of meditation may also involve mindfulness.
While the evidence is mixed as to whether meditation is effective at treating mental health problems, many people do find it a helpful way of relaxing and managing feelings of stress and anxiety.
What are the Hormonal and Cellular Effects of Meditation?
Both guided meditation and deep relaxation have a number of amazing effects on your body and hormones.
- Meditation slows down brain wave activity and subdues stress all the while triggering human growth hormones (HGH) . HGH helps regulate your metabolism, stimulate fat cells to reduce the amount of stored fats, promote protein synthesis in cells, and play a role in regulating your blood sugar.
- Meditation helps calm the adrenals and allow them to rest, relieving them from over-producing cortisol — the stress hormone — which has a devastating effect on your thyroid function and the ability to lose weight.
- Meditation takes your endocrine system out of a state of high alert. Hormonal secretion becomes regulated and all of your hormonal systems — thyroid, adrenals, sex hormones etc — have an opportunity to come back into balance and restore your soul.
- Both meditation and relaxation allow your body to truly rests, and that’s when you restore balance and renew vitality throughout your entire body. That is not always the case with sleep. Meditation also improves the quality of your sleep as it quells the endless chatter of your mind.
- Meditation alkalizes your system, balancing out acidity that has accrued through the overactivity of your analytical mind and the fear-based thinking that generates stress hormones.
- Meditation decreases inflammation at the cellular level neutralizing acidosis and minimizing pain.
Mindfulness involves focusing your attention to what’s happening in the present moment. It aims to help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, so you can choose how to react to them calmly.
Many people find mindfulness helpful for managing negative thoughts and feelings of stress.
Mindfulness improves well-being. Increasing your capacity for mindfulness supports many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life. Being mindful makes it easier to savor the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.
Mindfulness improves physical health. If greater well-being isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have discovered that mindfulness techniques help improve physical health in a number of ways. Mindfulness can: help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, , improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.
Mindfulness improves mental health. In recent years, psychotherapists have turned to mindfulness meditation as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including: depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder
Aromatherapy and Massage
Aromatherapy uses essential oils (oils extracted from plants) for healing. Some people find that the smell (aroma) of particular oils helps them to relax, sleep better, relieve pain and improve low mood. For example, when used appropriately lavender and chamomile essential oils are thought to be relaxing and help you sleep.
The oils can be used in many different ways, such as in creams, oil burners, massaged into the skin or by adding drops to a warm bath.
It is possible to experience allergies or reactions to the oils, so you should speak to an aromatherapist beforehand if you have any concerns.
What to Expect?
Feeling burnt out? If you’ve been running on empty, an aromatherapy massage could be just what you need to recharge your batteries. Massages are usually pretty relaxing, but it’s the addition of essential oils (the aromatherapy part) that makes this treatment truly transformative. Essential oils can do everything from energising to de-stress or reinvigorate, so your therapist will have a proper consultation with you before you start to assess where you’re at emotionally, as well as checking in on any aches and pains. From there, your therapist can create exactly the right blend of essential oils (plus something called a ‘carrier’ oil, which stops the super-potent essential oils irritating your skin) for your needs and your massage can begin.
How does it work?
The power of essential oils is twofold. Firstly, through inhalation, you’ll be relaxed by their lovely calming smell, but also, they penetrate the skin and move quickly into your bloodstream, loosening any muscle pains and working on any suppressed tension you’ve got. Through the physical effects of the oil on your body, and the smells travelling through your super-sensitive nasal passage to your brain to help relax you emotionally, you can imagine why some people manage to totally conk out during an aromatherapy massage.
After an hour to an hour and a half, you’ll be ready to drift on out – despite how much you might not want to. All those oils can be (conversely) a little dehydrating internally, so make sure to drink plenty of water afterwards to keep your hydration levels topped up.
Good to know
Aromatherapy massage can be particularly good for sleep problems, persistent period pains, digestive woes and eczema, but it’s not usually advised in pregnancy or for anyone with kidney problems, due to the potency of the essential oils.
Reflexology is based on the idea that different points on your feet, hands, face and ears are linked to other parts of your body through your nervous system. During a typical session, a reflexologist will use their hands to apply gentle pressure to these points.
Reflexologists recommend this treatment as a way to relieve tension, improve mood and help you to sleep.
By applying healing energy to specific areas on your feet – known as reflexes – reflexology sends signals through the body which, in turn, release positive chemicals, like endorphins. The result? Reduced stress and pain. The treatment is also said to decrease toxins and increase blood supply, easing tension and inflammation.
And with thousands of nerves in each foot alone, it’s a real skill to know exactly where to touch! Therapists use reflexology maps, which enable them to see which specific part of the foot relates to different areas of the body’s nervous system. Take your toes for example, that correspond directly to your head. Or your lower back and intestines, and their link to your heel. That’s why the goal is to relax not just your feet, but your entire body from tip to toe.
Is it for me?
If you’re a bit squeamish about having your feet touched, fear not. You can have the exact same treatment on your hands if you prefer. Reflexology can help ease conditions including arthritis, headaches, migraines, PMS and even fertility issues. Plus, the number of sessions you choose to have is entirely up to you. Many people find themselves feeling healthier and more energetic after just a few. So if you’re sore, stressed out or simply run down, give reflexology a go
Reiki is a Japanese technique which involves the ‘laying of hands’ on different areas of the body including the head, shoulders, stomach and feet. It’s based on the idea that we have a ‘life force energy’ that flows within our bodies. When this energy is low, it makes us more likely to become unwell.
A Reiki treatment aims to restore life force energy to help you to heal and stay well. Some people find it makes them feel more relaxed and less stressed.
Massage uses touch in a sensitive and respectful way, taking account of physical symptoms, wellbeing, and your lifestyle. There are lots of different types of massage therapy, such as Shiatsu, Indian head massage and aromatherapy massage.
What is Swedish massage good for?
The various Swedish massage techniques are designed to improve your circulation, soothe your muscles and make you feel more relaxed.
Swedish massage uses softer strokes on the bonier and more delicate parts of the body, and stronger strokes where there is thicker muscle coverage. This adjustment of pressure makes it an ideal massage for relaxation.
Besides the calming benefits, Swedish massage is thought to be good for:
- easing muscular strain by flushing out toxins
- improving circulation by increasing the oxygen flow in the blood
- helping to keep ligaments and tendons supple
- reducing emotional and physical stress.
Indian Head Massage
Your therapist will greet you and take you to the treatment room where you’ll be seated ready to be healed. They will then begin the massage by applying pressure to points in the upper back, arms and shoulders in the muscles and iron out any knots, before moving on to the neck and head to release tension that can spur on headaches. You’ll be left feeling like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders – quite literally.
Once upon a time, one of the world’s oldest healing systems was born, known as the Ayurvedic system of healing. This gave birth to the Indian head massage, which at this point was designed to stimulate the scalp’s pressure points. Over a thousand years later, this is still widely practiced across the world and has evolved to include other hotspots in the upper body so our entire being can benefit.