You & Your Family

When psychiatry and spirituality converge

Feb 2014    

… how the brain affects many aspects of human behaviour ranging from mental illness to how differently men and women fall in love.

Last December, I attended a conference named “The Evolution of Psychotherapy”. Held every four years, it gathers leading researchers and clinicians in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and counselling to present their latest works and innovations.

Over five days, thousands of participants watched live counselling demonstrations, studied slides of brain scans and charts, and listened to the experts in the field. Why such interest in this topic?

Research on the brain has made great strides in recent times, and its pervasive dominance in the last 10 years has been known as “the decade of the brain”. Such research shows how the brain affects many aspects of human behaviour ranging from mental illness to how differently men and women fall in love.

An example is the curative effect of the daily cycle of sleep, during which tired bodies get the rest they need and tired minds and emotions have an opportunity to be rebalanced. Saying “let me sleep on it” could allow the subconscious mind to attend to the unfinished business of the day during sleep. That is why we sometimes wake up the following day with a novel solution to yesterday’s problems.

Even as we have improved our ability to peer into the human brain, we still have much to understand about how it influences human behaviour. What little we have deduced leaves us bewildered and amazed at how intricately we have been designed.

Although the brain is very delicate and any damage to it can lead to changes in a patient’s behaviour and personality, improvements are possible in some circumstances. Through a combination of medicine, health supplements, brain exercises and a supportive environment, some patients showed that their brains can regenerate. This is known as “brain plasticity”.

Psychotherapy and counselling affirms the plasticity of the human brain, and the curative effects of receiving help from a supportive environment and being grounded in one’s spirituality. Speaker after speaker at the conference validated these ideas using various research studies.

The environment they referred to goes beyond the therapeutic relationship between doctor and patient, including supportive relationships between friends, extended family, and immediate family. It seems that we are somehow wired to live in and through communities – no man or woman is an island.

However, the quality of the relationships we experience may vary greatly. Some of them are competitive relationships whilst others can be critical and destructive. What these experts refer to are relationships where compassion in words and deeds abound.

It may seem strange that a conference on psychotherapy should address the role of one’s spirituality in a positive manner. In the early decades of psychotherapy, it was viewed in opposition to religion. Today, more than a truce, there is actual rapprochement between the two fields. Some practices of psychotherapy will encourage the use of meditation and prayer as useful vehicles to promote and support change.

In addressing issues such as complicated grief, infidelity and crimes done against family members like incest, there can be no complete resolution and healing without acts of confession and forgiveness. Previously, these processes had been categorised in the world of the sacred as opposed to the sciences.

As Christians, these developments may not come as a surprise – we are familiar with the concepts of necessary rest, renewing one’s mind, thriving in supportive communities and healing through spiritual processes. After all, if we are repairing the mind or emotions, what better way than to refer to the Owner’s Manual, and ultimately to the Creator Himself, who made mankind in all its fullness and complexity?

Picture by alexfiodorov/Bigstock.com

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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