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Dr. Casey Carr, ND

As a naturopathic physician, I am bound to an oath of treating the whole person. Treatment of “mind, body and soul” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? But aside from a melodic saying, I don’t think tending to the soul is often discussed, and is even a bit cryptic. What it means to attend to someone’s soul or spiritual health as a provider is something I am asking myself with just about every single one of my patients, whether spoken aloud to them in the visit or not. It is also an answer that changes with each patient, and would also change if you talked to another holistic-minded physician.

Our conventional medical system has evolved into tending to the physical body in ingenious ways. Doctor’s visits and treatment plans are centered around a “chief complaint” that is generally somatic in nature: chronic low back pain, high blood pressure, headaches, fatigue, depression, eczema... And conventional medicine has done a pretty incredible job at creating interventions that will address these complaints on a mechanistic level by shutting a pathway off or up-regulating another. Scientists have learned how to manipulate and somewhat control certain physiologic reactions through procedures, pharmaceuticals and nutrients. This can be lifesaving or life extending treatment. As Dr. Henry Lindlahr, MD said so elegantly in his 1922 book Nature Cure, ”Physical health is the best possible basis for the attainment of mental, moral and spiritual health. All buildings begin with the foundation. We do not first suspend the steeple in the air and then build the church under it. So also, the building of the temple of human character should begin by laying down the foundation in physical health.” I am grateful for the vast and deep knowledge gained of human health through its physical form, and it is not something I shy away from in practice when such treatment is needed. However, I also recognize these advances have come at a cost for the viewpoint of whole-person health; that is, treatment that pertains beyond just the physical body.

Mental health has become more recognized throughout the 21st century and especially through the COVID-19 pandemic. Conditions of anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc. have garnered more interest and time in the public spotlight. And yes, useful and often-turned to interventions of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications have been utilized. However, I have been excited and impressed by the traction that other lifestyle interventions have garnered, such as practices of meditation, functional breathing and herbal medicine such as lavender, kava and lemon balm. There are more resources now than ever for the chronic stress that plagues most of the US population, including at-home apps and YouTube videos that guide users in at-home mindfulness practices.

However, how does one recognize the third tenet of whole-person medicine in health and healing: the soul (spirit, or insert your own word here). For me, what has been most intriguing about human health is that which we do not know, do not understand fully, and have a difficult time putting together in a randomized controlled scientific trial. While we have figured out physiologic pathways and how to increase serotonin in the brain, we have a hard time describing and therefore tending to that which separates us from those very inventions that have made us so intelligent and advanced. For example, if a human breaks a bone, the bone will naturally mend and actually grow back stronger with some extra bone matrix deposition (once set properly). If a part of your car breaks, it does not have that same capacity. What is it that we call this miraculous ability of the human body and other organic creations? For me, it is the closest and most general definition of spirit moving through the human body, which may also be referred to as God, a higher power, the divine within, etc.

Dr. Lindlahr describes the concept in a metaphor of “The Three-fold Constitution of Man” utilizing a violin: the violin representing the physical plane, the mind representing the player of the violin and the soul being represented by the music or laws of harmony that are created by the violin and player. In a sense, Lindlahr believes that health on all planes is achieved by harmony in accordance with the laws of nature. A question I like to ask my patients on their first visit with me is in addition to their stress level and known stressors, what are their “blissors” or “anchors”? Or, perhaps phrased by me as “what lights you up?” So often in medicine we talk about stress and major stressors, yet so rarely do we inquire what the counterbalancing question may be. It brings joy into the visit by seeing the patient’s face light up as they talk about being in a flow state on their bike, holding their grandchild or having walked all over the world (81 countries and counting for a 78-year old patient I saw recently). It brings me to a concept I came upon from Wayne Dyer in my early 20s regarding the simple word “inspire.” Inspire comes from the word origins of “in-spirit.” Inspired action or feeling can be described as the experience of the harmonious music created through violin and musician in resonance. That sense of ease, flow and perhaps a feeling of connection to something greater. Sometimes, recognizing or inquiring about this experience in-office is medicine enough. Other times, encouragement to continue to do that thing that lights up your being gives a sense of permission. Other times, I may inquire directly about their feeling of connection to a greater whole/being/universe/God and relation to it, if it feels appropriate in the visit. 

Another, more personal example: my dad’s only sibling, my Aunt Mary, passed away this last November. It was a difficult last year for her with a surprise diagnosis of unspecified autoimmune encephalitis, and therefore a difficult year for my dad as well. He was there for her passing, which happened just before a huge Buffalo snow storm. When he returned to his own home, he came down with a nasty cold/flu and a productive cough that seemed to linger longer than I would have expected. He laid in bed for a solid 10 days trying to pass it. And when my mom asked me, “What can we do for it?” I told her of the theory in traditional Chinese medicine that the lungs are considered the processors of grief. While we could medicate or give some herbal mucolytics, I knew that could be suppressing his whole entity: what his mind, body and soul needed to go through following the passing of his only sibling. His body, to rest. His mind, to process. His soul, to grieve. The productive cough could very possibly be a way of his body discharging intense grief, and also forcing him to rest versus “return to normal,” which we are so often trained or expected to do in our modern society. Instead of trying to fix the physiologic and body-based mechanism of the cough and downed mood, I took a look at my father in the lens of a whole person: he needed to rest. There is no antidepressant or mucolytic that can take away the grief of a loved one. So we supported his whole being, not just body, with time and space for moving through it all. 

How to tend to the soul is a difficult but such a worthwhile question. And it returns to my core philosophy of medicine, which is that n = 1, or individualized treatment. While it is much easier to isolate a mechanism in the body for manipulation, it so much more nuanced to isolate the spirit of what makes a human individual as it pertains to their own personal beliefs and how they, as the player of the violin, can best harmonize with their instrument to create their own symphony in this world. As Wayne Dyer also said, “don’t die with your music still in you.”

Dr. Casey Carr.png

Dr. Casey Carr, ND

Dr. Casey Carr is a Naturopathic Medical Doctor presently practicing as a primary care physician in northern Idaho. Learn more about Dr. Casey's educational and personal experiences, as well as her unique approaches to healing, by visiting her website here: Dr. Casey Carr

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