A Whole Body Approach to Mental Health
This summer I read a book on exercise and the brain that helped me think about how my own understandings of faith and human flourishing have grown over time.
The book is by the highly acclaimed psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey. It’s his work Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Ratey stars his book in an innovative high school physical education program and ends with a rousing call to a more rigorous personal exercise regimen. In between, he reviews a great deal of research on the benefits of exercise for the health and resilience of our brains, including how exercise can help us learn and reduce troubles associated with stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, and aging.
Wow, I thought – that’s good news! And the work confirms my experience with the role running plays in my own mental health and managing of ADHD, and with the help it’s been to a number of my friends in recovery. I think running gives me clarity and focus, just as a number of my friends find it helps them be less inclined to return to their drug addictions.
Turns out there’s science backing this up: Ratey affirms the value of therapy and of medication at the center of his field but is clearly wanting to broaden our approach to and understanding of mental health. He writes:
The problem with the strictly biological interpretation of psychology is that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the mind, brain, and body all influence one another. (119)
We needn’t treat mental health issues as disembodied problems we talk or medicate ourselves out of. We can explore how the use of our bodies is integrated into our mental health as well.
Ratey also quotes his colleague, the psychologist Dr. Robert Pyles, who says:
Exercise saved my life. I think running really put me back with the unitary nature of body and mind – it’s all one thing. We’re not split into pieces. (83)
For Ratey, exercise was part of his way out of a serious lymph system disease that was accompanied by immense stress and significant depression.
We’re all one thing – we’re not split into pieces.
Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that the mind, brain, and body all influence one another. We are whole people, embodied people.
What About a Whole Body Faith?
What Ratey wants for psychology and psychiatry, I want for faith and religion.
For good or for bad, people of faith have had lots to say about matters of the spirit. Wonder about how to go to heaven when you die? Where and when and why to pray? What it means to be a good and righteous person? Religious communities have an answer for you, or at least a direction to point you in.
Those are not the questions my friends and I are asking about our lives. Being saved doesn’t make the kind of intuitive sense to us as being well. Tending to our spirits doesn’t make sense apart from tending to our minds and bodies as well. If faith is going to speak to my life, it’s going to need to speak to my real, authentic self.
I’m serious about my exercise, but I put more into my practice of faith. Not because I’m afraid of hell or particularly motivated to a more moral or spiritual person. No – for me, faith centers, grounds and nourishes my whole, embodied person.
An embodied, holistic faith gives me resources to make peace with my past, so I can live a freer future.
An embodied, holistic faith helps me accept mental and physical disabilities, navigating my own and others’ with more compassion and grace.
An embodied, holistic faith gives me tools to be more connected and at peace with others.
An embodied, holistic faith moves my experience of sexuality beyond shame or pleasure and into intimacy.
An embodied, holistic faith validates my anger in the face of injustice and fuels passion and courage to act.
If we’re all one thing, all whole and embodied people, we need an experience of faith, a practice of spirituality, and an approach to God that validates and nourishes the whole of our bodies and life experience, and equips us to flourish and be agents of the flourishing of our neighbor and our world too.