The conventional definition of clinical or major depression includes a long list of familiar symptoms — persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances — that last weeks, months or even longer.
Ask a holistic or integrative practitioner, a health-care provider who integrates alternative treatments into the traditional medical world, for a definition of depression and you’ll get quite a different answer.
David Santoro, a psychologist in private practice in Twinsburg, treats depression in his patients as a chronic state of “excessive imbalance.” A little imbalance is to be expected, he says, but depression reflects over-the-top, long-lasting imbalance.
Santoro’s goal is to restore to his patients the natural balance that all people are capable of. “The human system is meant to feel good,” he says.
Doug Moore, a psychologist in Independence who started a traditional practice in 1985, also sees depression as an imbalance, in the emotional, mental and energetic aspects of an individual. In addition to traditional psychotherapy, he practices energy medicine, which proposes that imbalances in the body’s energy field cause illness, to treat his patients’ depression.
“Everything is a form of energy,” he says. “When there is a resonance and a balance within that energy, people are healthier.”
Dr. Lynn Klimo, an integrative psychiatrist with Summa Health System in Akron , says the holistic treatment model is based on the belief that the patient has an innate power to heal himself.
To Santoro, that means finding the particular way that a patient heals best and promoting it, whether it be with hypnosis, acupressure and cognitive behavioral techniques, or traditional talk therapy.
“It’s really humbling to know how powerful every person is in terms of the healing mechanism within them,” he says.
There are so many ways to treat depression using holistic therapies that almost all therapists offer their own prescriptions based on their interests and expertise.
The most important first step for anyone seeking integrative care is to first get a full traditional medical work-up. There’s a long list of biological reasons why someone may be feeling depressed, and all the yoga and acupuncture in the world aren’t going to help if they’re low in folic acid or have thyroid disease.
Klimo tests most of her patients for vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies, and checks their thyroid hormone, estrogen and progesterone, and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels.
While other psychiatrists or primary care physicians may do these tests, Klimo is concerned that they are often overlooked, and they may be simple fixes that help people feel better. She even reviews her patients’ diets.
“A lot of times lately I’ve been checking for gluten sensitivity, and over the last six months I’ve been surprised at how much diet has to do with [depression],” she says.
It’s after the traditional work-up that holistic practitioners show their true colors. Moore starts by assessing his patients’ energy. He mostly uses a form of muscle strength testing to see if a patient is strong or weak in response to stressors in their environment like electronics, or if their energy is flowing in the right direction (across the body) or is blocked somewhere.
Sound a little kooky? I agree. But Moore says it’s OK to be skeptical. “Most of my people are skeptical when they come in. It’s the rare person who is aware when they come in . . . so when they start getting better, I know it’s not the placebo effect,” he says.
“We not only have our emotional and physical health, but we also have our energy health, and it’s a new concept for everyone to realize that they are comprised of energy.”
Klimo is fond of a heart-chakra massage: Patients massage themselves in a clockwise motion over the heart while saying exactly how they feel in the moment (usually something like “I feel bad, I feel crappy, I don’t want to be here,” she says) and then she has them say, “I own all these feelings, they’re mine, and I accept them.”
“It’s a self-affirmation but it’s also an energetic technique because on a spiritual or energetic level, they’re moving the energy around,” she says.
She says about 90 percent of her patients respond well. If they don’t, she tosses the technique and tries something else.
That seems to be one of the keys to the holistic approach: recognizing that there isn’t a cookie-cutter solution to any problem, whether it be depression or heart disease.
Some people are going to laugh you out of the room — I may be one of those people — if you tell them their energy is flowing in parallel lines instead of across their body as it should be. Others will grasp the concept intuitively and get something from learning to “rebalance” that energy. So whether you combine talk therapy with weekly hypnosis, try acupuncture for the pain and fatigue that sometimes accompany depression, or take a meditation or yoga class to increase your connections with other people, just remember there are many ways to alleviate some of the pain and isolation of depression. And a lot of them don’t involve a prescription pad.