“I am not advocating that we give up on tried and true methods of therapy […] But I now view that approach as addressing a symptom rather than treating the issue [.]”
I graduated in 2004 from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas (UTSW) with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. My graduate and undergraduate (Duke University) educations in the field of psychology were top notch. I chose UTSW because of its emphasis on clinical development and the in-depth training I would get learning to actually assess, work with and help people (many doctoral programs in clinical psychology are actually geared at producing researchers rather than clinicians).
My training consisted of hundreds, nay thousands of hours spent learning about the history and theory of modern psychology, how to identify, label and treat various psychological disorders, how our mind, environment and up-bring contribute to mental health and illness. I learned about neuropsychology and the brain, psychopharmacology, child psychiatry, cognitive theory, psychodynamic theories and crisis management. I was taught how to administer, score and interpret dozens of tests, and I spent near three thousand hours working directly with patients. Nowhere in that vast amount of education were we ever taught (in any meaningful way that I retained) how our current lifestyle choices, our diet and sleep impact and may even be at the origin of so many psychological ills.
My recent years exploring all things Paleo and Primal have led me to believe that evaluating diet and lifestyle (such as sleep, work/personal life balance, screen time and our ability to rest, play and unwind) may be some of the most important factors in addressing mental illness and psychological distress on both an individual and global level. I will venture to say that this stance marks me as cooky, unorthodox and potentially dismissible in my field. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that that vast majority of psychologist and mental health practitioners out there don’t believe in the impact of lifestyle and environment on health, it is just that these are seen as moderators rather than causal factors. My beliefs make me a heretic in some circles; a new age, soft science weirdo.
Which leads me to ask, when did we stop believing that what we put in our bodies and the way we choose to live have the greatest impact on our health? At what point did this even become a matter of belief versus being an undeniable fact? It baffles me that I find myself having to convince patients or other practitioners that advocating changes in these areas can be the first line of action in treating mental illness or psychological malaise. It is not normal that over their lifetime 16.5% of American adults will suffer from major depressive disorder and nearly 30% will suffer from an anxiety disorder. These numbers, to name only two of the countless disorders treated in mental health clinics everyday, are astoundingly high, and in my opinion can be significantly lowered through lifestyle changes.
I am not advocating that we give up on tried and true methods of therapy. I have been incredibly successful in treating Depression, Anxiety, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and a host of other issues using traditional psychotherapy methods and theories. I firmly believe that helping people understand how their thoughts, emotions and behaviors interact to create or resolve disordered patterns is not only effective, but also worthwhile to the individual gaining that insight and coping skill set. But I now view that approach as addressing a symptom rather than treating the issue, and find myself wondering when we as a society will come to our senses and realize that with the choices we make everyday have the power to break us down or buffer us against stress and life.
In my work both as a coach and as therapist, I now try to address lifestyle, not as an afterthought, but as a primary culprit for the woes that are affecting my clients and patients. I have found, time and time again, that evaluating goodness of fit in lifestyle choices and making seemingly simple changes yields significant benefits for most people.