Folk Counseling

By Jon Keyes

bamboo A little over a hundred years ago Sigmund Freud initiated the field of psychology, the practice of helping people work through emotional distress by talking and exploring hidden subconscious depths. Early psychoanalysts felt that this exploration could lead to insight that would bring cathartic emotional release and integrative transformation.

Along with psychiatric medications many in the West consider psychotherapy the gold standard for the treatment of mental health conditions. In the modern world, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of cognitive behavioral therapy as the best “evidence based” style of counseling to help people work through conditions such as anxiety, phobias and depression.

We tend to see things through the lens of our modern westernized experience, but these methods of helping people in distress are actually quite new and unique to this time period. Historically and cross culturally, a wide variety of techniques are used to help people heal while counseling may only play a small part in the process.

Hearthside Healing

Each culture has developed unique tools for helping people manage emotional suffering. In China, the practice of qi Gong with its flowing movements, static postures and vocal intonations, form the basis of healing emotional distress. In India, special mantras, rituals, dietary practices and the use of herbs form the basis of healing. In some parts of latin America and Africa, elaborate shamanic rituals, exorcisms, and plant entheogens are employed as a way to help people heal.

Our modern forms of helping people in emotional distress (talk therapy and medications) have largely supplanted more traditional forms of healing. In some cases this is a continuation of oppression and colonization that has gone on for hundreds of years.

teaIndigenous healing practices are denigrated and seen as unscientific, based on superstitions, or as an adjunct to the proper, modern way of helping people in distress. In this way, we have ignored and suppressed folk methods of healing that are often highly effective.

Traditionally, helping people heal from distress has long been the domain of wise women and men acting as kitchen herbalists and hearthside healers. The simple practice of offering rest and comfort, a cup of tea and a listening ear is what I call folk counseling. It is the oldest and most basic form of helping someone when they are down, confused, distressed and overwhelmed. No heroic rituals or complex medicinal formulas are needed.

Principles of Folk Counseling

At the core, folk counseling is a way of helping people to heal based on a few principles. Folk counseling is…

Based primarily on nourishment.

At the core of the practice of folk counseling is the idea that we don’t need to be healed, or need repeated cleanses or elimination of “bad” parts of ourselves. Instead, folk counseling is about nourishing a person so that they can live life optimally. Traditional psychotherapeutic tools emphasize exploring and analyzing past trauma as a way of releasing old wounds and healing. Many folk traditions emphasize the importance of nourishing diet, herbs and spiritual techniques for moving through periods of distress.

Honors neurodiversity.

There is a wide variety of human experience and many different ways of processing life. In most traditional healing modalities, a person is seen as being born with an underlying temperament, or constitution. Some run hot, some cold. Some have a more heightened nervous system, others appear more slow and calm. These are differences to be celebrated and not pathologized. Folk counselors celebrate this diversity, just as they celebrate the diversity of plants and tress growing outside their home.

Honors traditional ways of helping people in distress.

In this era of “evidence based medicine”, there is a strong emphasis placed on offering assistance that has been tested by randomized control studies (RCTs). This has led us to primarily honor medications and specific therapies (CBT) as the main acceptable approaches to “treating” people in distress. But this ignores a wide variety of traditional and indigenous “folk” healing traditions. Folk counseling allies itself with the widely divergent and unique ways of helping people integrate and heal from emotional distress.


Healing is based on creating an alliance where the counselor is not the expert and both people are working together towards integration and healing. Though a counselor may have gained quite a bit of knowledge from studies, the individual seeking assistance is the only one who is truly an expert of their life and current distress.

A nature based practice.

Traditionally, healing often comes from the simple weeds and herbs from the land nearby, from walking in the forests and meadows, from listening to the stories of the plants and the trees. From the Japanese tradition of “forest bathing” to the Amazonian tradition of apprenticing with local plants, the importance of nature in the healing process is a common time honored and cross cultural tradition.
Based in social justice.

tea2When talking about “folk”, we mean the simple everyday people who live in this world. Many of them have been oppressed by outside forces that have harmed their way of life. Throughout the world, indigenous populations have been persecuted by governments and corporations who have stolen their land, used it to extract resources or forced people into servant and slave labor.Folk counseling is based on an underlying principle of resistance to these forces. Much of the distress and illness found today is due to the unrelenting pressures of capitalism and modernity. Part of the work of folk counseling is addressing the ecological, social and economic injustices that happen on a global as well as individual level.

Based in love. Yes, at the core, folk counseling is based on the principle of love. That means that when we are listening to someone who is in pain, we are listening with our full hearts, showing unconditional positive regard towards the people we work with. That does not mean that a folk counselor doesn’t have boundaries, or may choose not to work with certain people, but it means that the core energy in the process is one of offering heartfelt support and compassion.


As we move deeper into the 21st century, we are experiencing ever greater levels of emotional distress. Mental health issues have exploded and increasingly we are medicating ourselves to manage this distress. The process of ever-increasing population, overcrowding, competition for remaining resources and unstable agriculture and water systems, have led to an epidemic of mental illness. More than ever we need to look to our ancestors and to indigenous cultures to see how to regain balance, how to find healing. Folk counseling is a way of returning to the simple and time-honored traditions of healing that have served us for thousands of years.

jonJon Keyes, LPC, is a therapist and herbalist who lives in Portland. Jon is deeply interested in exploring holistic and traditional ways of integrating and healing from emotional distress. He can be found at

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here

In Praise of Pleasure

By Jon Keyes

waterfallAs a therapist I work with many people who feel a range of emotions-  sadness, grief, anxiety, confusion, hatred and anger.  Linking all these emotions is difficulty with feeling pleasure.   Pleasure is a complicated for many of us.  Too much pleasure is often linked with addiction, and many of us are caught in a trap of seeking pleasure that harms us (junk food, drugs) and then feeling bad and ashamed when we seek out that damaging pleasure again and again.  Pleasure is also associated with sex, a deeply complicated topic that brings up many questions around taboos, boundaries, trauma, multiple attractions and issues with intimacy.    At times, pleasure has a bad rap as it implies that we are being unproductive, simply indulging our senses when we could be doing something worthwhile, like…taking out the garbage, building a shed, or writing the Great American novel.

Modern society steers us towards addictive forms of pleasure and away from pleasure that is associated with nourishment and joy.  We often work in nature-less offices where we are allowed 30 minutes to quickly eat a meal and hurry back to the job.  Modern industrial capitalism prides efficiency and speed above all else in a quest for greater growth and profits.  The first assembly line was installed over a hundred years ago in 1913 by the Ford motor company as a way to mass produce automobiles.  From an age of craftmanship and tailor-made products, we shifted to an age of uniformity and grand and unceasing scale.  The time clock had been invented only a couple of decades before in 1888 and has come to dominate the rhythm of most people’s lives.  The hum of office life is one designed to separate us from the daily pleasures of the natural world and our own internal clock that traditionally pulsed in tune with the seasonal changes of heat and cold, dark and light.

In these environments, we snatch away moments of pleasure by sipping coffee, eating a candy bar, scanning iPhones, scrolling and clicking for one more hit that will distract us, feed us something that we have been missing.   When we return home, we have a beer, overeat, or watch too many netflix shows, entraining to the rhythm of the ever glowing screen that can distract us from ourselves, our hearts, our bodies.

But the desire for pleasure is an entirely good one.  As an herbalist I often think of plants as teachers.  One of the fundamental lessons they teach me is about pleasure.  Plants remind us to open our senses, to indulge them and bathe them in the beauty and mystery of the natural world around us.  Plants remind us to savor and delight, to take our time and fully embrace the joy of being alive.  Walking through the hush and quiet of an old cedar forest carpeted with moss and lichen.  Slowly sipping and fully tasting the complex flavors of a cup of linden and rose tea.  Smelling the scent of newly bursting jasmine flowers entrancing and enticing us.  Eating a dinner that has been lovingly spiced with fresh herbs from the garden.  Massaging our body with deeply infused lavender oil.  These are ways of connecting, savoring, remembering and above all- feeling pleasure.

And pleasure is key in this rushed, efficient sped up society bent on maximum production.  There is sense in laziness, in rest, in indulgence with rose petal baths and making art of the flowers and grasses in the field nearby, in slowly drinking an elixir of lemon balm and honey.   There is sense in returning to the rhythms that have sustained us for millennia- tuning into the subtle and ferocious changes of seasons, the beauty of a trillium flower unfolding in the first blush of spring, a sunflower arching its back towards the sky and light, a thunderous storm as magenta maple leaves rain from the sky.  When we open our senses to these experiences, we are entraining with natural rhythms and allowing ourselves to feel fully and totally alive with all its pleasure and pain.

And pain is the twin side of pleasure.  Savoring the delights of the world does not mean that we are covering up, ignoring the hidden recesses of darkness that we all carry.  It does not mean avoidance and flight from the painful corridors of anger, shame and jealousy.  These emotions are often messages that carry deeper meaning, doorways to parts of ourselves that we may have neglected or shut out.  And there is importance in exploring those terrains, but not at the expense of nourishing the hidden joys and ecstasies as well.  Sometimes in therapy, there is too much emphasis on these parts of us that are in pain and lost, and not enough time celebrating our unique beauty and transcendence.  There is too little time spent nourishing that beauty, tending our hearts and creating space for joy.

Pleasure is underrated these days.  People ask, “What do you do for a living?  What are you working on?”  I can’t lately remember someone asking me “what do you do for pleasure?”  “How do you feel joy?”  Perhaps as our lives fade, those are the things we will remember the most, not what we built, but how well we slowed down and connected, tasted and touched, savored with delight and pleasure.

jonJon Keyes, LPC, is a therapist and herbalist who lives in Portland. Jon is deeply interested in exploring holistic and traditional ways of integrating and healing from emotional distress. He can be found at

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here

Herbal medicine, Extreme States and Transformation

Editor’s note: if you are withdrawing from psychiatric drugs there are times when in some cases hypersensitivities may prevent you from tolerating most herbs. Please proceed with caution.

By Jon Keyes

mossy treesRecently a woman emailed me to interview me about my thoughts about working with herbs to help people who have been treated poorly in the mental health system or who have been experiencing psychosis.  The term “survivor” is one that is sometimes used by people who have experienced trauma and ongoing emotional and physical suffering from hospitalization and psychiatric drugs.  There is increasing discussion about how extreme states such as hearing voices, having odd perceptions and unusual thought patterns is extremely common and we jump far too quickly towards pathologizing these experiences.

Recently, the New York Times published a piece about a sea change that is going on in terms of perceiving psychosis, extreme states and “schizophrenia”.   From the article

TWO months ago, the British Psychological Society released a remarkable document entitled “Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia.” Its authors say that hearing voices and feeling paranoid are common experiences, and are often a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation: “Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.”

The report says that there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience: “Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without.”

The report adds that antipsychotic medications are sometimes helpful, but that “there is no evidence that it corrects an underlying biological abnormality.” It then warns about the risk of taking these drugs for years.”

The idea that extreme states are something that requires medical intervention is a relatively new one.  Generally indigenous and folk cultures throughout the world have employed a wide variety of interventions that include spiritual, shamanic, herbal and dietary techniques for working with people in crisis and spiritual emergence.  Within that context, I explored some of the ways that the practice of herbalism intersects with helping people in extreme states.

Q:  Feelings of dissociation or disconnection in people going through extreme states, or particularly people who have been on psychiatric drugs, can potentially make it difficult to feel an emotional or spiritual connection with a medicinal herb – therefore hindering the healing process.  Do you have any strategies or examples of ways to help encourage this connection?

Yes-  so one of the key things to think about with herbs/plants is that they are not just something to ingest- as in a tea, tincture or capsule-  but they have the potential to reach all of our senses in a variety of ways.  For those in extreme states or for people who have been on psychiatric drugs and are deeply sensitive to whatever they ingest, I really emphasize the importance of working with the other senses (outside of taste/ingestion).  That means that healing can happen via smell, sight, touch and hearing.

Smell is one of the most powerful ways to elicit an emotional response and many traditional cultures work with smudging and its associated odor for grounding, purifying and creating a sacred space for ritual and healing.  The scent of white sage, cedar, tobacco and copal are all ways that indigenous cultures have helped people to heal and can be remarkably effective for helping create a tranquil space for people who are highly sensitive.

Other ways of accessing the sense of smell is via aromatherapy.  This can be as simple as walking outside in a garden filled with daphne, rosemary, jasmine, roses and lilacs, or taking these fragrant flowers into the house as pot pourri.  Diffusers and the use of essential oils are also a way of helping bring calm and relaxation.  Rose, ylang ylang, lavender and neroli come to mind.

In terms of sight, I have worked in a number of contexts with people in extreme states and the change that happens when someone in psychosis experiences a beautiful garden is amazing.  The connection to the colors, the play of light and shade, the energetics of the different plants elicit a sense of play, as if the person who may feel fearful and shut down comes to life.  The eyes start to sparkle, start to come awake.

Touch can also be key- not just touching plants but also working with infused herb oils for self massage or massage from a close loved one.  Rosemary, Saint John’s Wort and lavender oil can all be deeply helpful for grounding and centering someone who is experiencing an extreme state.  Often in an extreme state, it is hard to connect to the body, hard to stay present.  These are ways to honor a path back to the body via plants and nature.

Q:  One of the most prevalent forms of trauma amongst psychiatric users and survivors seems to be the “loss of self” from involvement in the psychiatric system.  Do you have any experiences with herbs which may help a person to release this type of trauma?

The experience of hospitalization, polypharmacy, the prescription of high doses of neuroleptics that can be heavily sedating with multifold adverse side effects, as well as a system that seems to disregard personal narrative in exchange for a one-size-fits-all pharmaceutical approach to emotional distress can be  traumatizing for many people.   In many ways you are right that some can feel a “loss of self” and a sense of violation with a lack of understanding of how to find true healing.

This is compounded by many factors.  Socio-economically, many of those who experience severe emotional distress are in poverty and with poor insurance with high deductibles and co-pays that essentially makes it impossible to access forms of care outside psychiatric based therapy.  In terms of culture and heritage, we also neglect the wide diversity of healing tools and modalities found through the world such as diet, herbs, ritual, prayer, shamanic techniques and sacred movement or perceive them to be “un-scientific”, not “evidence based practice” and then repeat the age old trauma of colonizing peoples who have lost access to their cultural heritage.  Native Americans, hispanics and african american cultures are often forced into a system of care that may not be culturally relevant.

Herbal medicine can be seen as part of a much wider story of multicultural connection to the natural world and plants as the prime source of healing.  They have been used in ritual context, as entheogens, in teas, soup and diet as a way of accessing not just medicinal chemical constituents but the spiritual matrix that underlies their cosmology.

We live in a world that is disconnected from this way of looking at plants/herbs and see them as either fairly useless or often as a capsule to ingest to gain a desired effect.  When I work with people who are recovering from trauma, I often do the simplest thing possible, I have a cup of tea with them.  Just the act of siting down and sipping a gentle tea brings connection, warmth, a movement towards increased stillness and trust and away from the noise and the overstimulation of the modern world.  I may  also go for walks with them.  I connect to their experience of the environment.  I may point them to the beauty or fragrance of a particular plant.  Later I may introduce them to one or two plants, say linden, holy basil, lavender or oatstraw,  as a way of creating a direct relationship with single plants.Getting to know specific herbs as friends becomes a way of recreating trust, opening the door slightly to making a larger connection.  Releasing trauma often involves embracing a new vision, a new way of life, creating beauty out of the ashes.  Sometimes gardening can help create this new vision- simply digging hands in the earth, creating connection, reaching out to something whole, alive, real, instead of the shut doors, synthetics and florescent lights  they have received.  The advantage to these ways of healing is that they are simple, cheap and accessible to many.

Q: Herbs for various forms of “depression” (or sadness, melancholy, unhappiness, grief, stagnation, depletion) (I am thinking of borage, betony, or ashwagandha, but whichever you have used in your own practice) obviously play a very different role than pharmaceutical “antidepressants”, nor are they the “instant happiness” that pharmaceuticals want to be.  Could you describe, or give an example of, the healing process with these herbs?

In my practice when I am working with plants for healing, I do indeed think of them in very different ways from antidepressants and psychiatric drugs in general.  An antidepressant contains one chemical constituent that exerts a remarkable effect on the nervous system, globally changing neurochemcial pathways and leads to marked changes in the functioning of the nervous system where it become dependent on chemical intervention to produce mood augmentation.

In my practice I emphasize the role of nourishment with food and herbs in a way that strengthens the body’s own healing process.  In this way I emphasize a nourishment model of healing from all states of emotional distress.  Like plants, if people are given enough time, light, love, care and nourishment, they will begin to thrive and grow.

So when I work with herbs I like to offer gentle and nutritive herbs, often in a way that is most nourishing.  That tends to mean encouraging herbs in the form of teas, syrups made with honey, elixirs that involve both water and alcohol based extracts, etc.  I like to work with  tonics such as the asian herbs reishi, ashwaghanda, astragalus, rhodiola, ginseng, american ginseng, mushrooms such as shitaki and chaga, western nutritive herbs such as nettles, raspberry and oat straw in a variety of forms.  In general I offer these herbs depending on the “energetics of the person”.   I may offer “blood nourishing tonics” to people who appear pale, deficient and worn out.  I may offer soothing and cooling alterative and nervine teas such as lemon balm, skullcap and catnip to people who appear stressed out, hot and overexcited.  I may offer a massage oil infused with an aromatic plant and recommend self massage as a way of reconnecting in a healthy way to the body.  How I mix and match depends on the person’s appearance and the distress process.

Q:  I really liked your article on “holistic approaches to psychosis” – a topic which herbalists all too often seem to avoid.  Do you have a favorite herb to recommend in this context, or one that particularly comes to mind?

Psychosis can be really challenging to mediate and means a whole lot of different things so in some ways its a fairly poor shorthand for someone’s personal and very distinct narrative of an extreme state.  I have worked with people who are operating on a very unusual level with deep and heightened perceptions of reality that can be piercing and powerful.  I have worked with people who are so disorganized in their thinking patterns that they cannot communicate or express their thoughts coherently.  Some people become agitated and violent.  Most are trying to integrate complex thought patterns and somatic experiences into a language that expresses their process.  Herbs are best suited to the individual, their particular temperament and their interest.

I would also take into account the personal experience of those going though “psychosis.”  If they are trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness, taking a regular course of herbs is not the best answer.  Leading them to a place where they can receive shelter and wholesome food is the best.  Most are looking for a direct connection, a relationship of some sort that is non-judgmental and authentic, a genuine expression of care and willingness to try and help.

We in the West work with psychosis in really poor ways.  We either try to hospitalize or medicate the person which almost always means offering strong neuroleptics.  We rarely take the time to listen to the process of psychosis, which is often rooted in trauma, broken connections at some point, abuse, neglect, a deep division where the intact filtered ego cannot hold and the flood gates of a wider unfiltered reality comes rushing in.   Instead of processing this suffering, we try to close up the doors as quickly as possible, create a synthetic filter and sedate a person so heavily that they are no longer hearing the voices, or imagining bizarre realities.  But the sedation comes at a price, physically and spiritually.  The person is not allowed to naturally go through the process and then find a way home.  The journey is stopped cold.  In many indigenous traditions, psychosis is shorthand for a spiritual experience in which a trusted spiritual advisor or shaman acts as a midwife in helping the person transform and release deep suffering and come through as a wise man or woman, a healer.

So you ask which plant I would use.  I start with the connection.   Building rapport.  Trust.  A cup of tea-  perhaps linden, mint, oat straw, rose, chrysanthemum…something gentle and calming.    Then I try to listen and connect to hearing the person’s experience without judgment or agenda.  I try to listen to the person’s song and rhythm.  Are they hurting, confused, empty, wounded, hot and inflamed, angry, disconnected, confused?  The person’s story and words are part of a larger narrative that is written in the person’s face, their eyes, their posture and their breath.  But is what is most important is to truly listen and to try and understand the whole picture of what is happening.  The plant can act as a bridge, via tea, through- scent, aroma and taste- a doorway to connecting more simply and directly with a person.  The plant also becomes an extension of offering, a gift to reconnect the person to place, to ground and root the person in the here and now.

Q:  Much of my research has dealt with herbs to heal the neurological or endocrine effects of psychiatric medication use (dementia, diabetes, etc.), but there is a very limited amount of information on this topic either in herbal or medical literature.  Do you have any specific experiences with herbs for this purpose?

I’m not sure if I understand the question correctly but if you are talking about the positive or negative effects of herbs on endocrine or neurological systems, there are a number of avenues to explore.  There are plenty of herbs that have nootropic effects such as bacopa, gingko and rosemary.   They actually stimulate neurological functioning for greater alertness, memory and cognitive enhancement.  In terms of endocrine systems, the adaptogens are best suited for strengthening the endocrine/immunological/nervous system over time.  Herbs like eleuthero, schizandra, chaga, reishi, ashwaghanda and devil’s club all have marked effects on nourishing these systems and modulating them in a way that is salutary and strengthening.

In terms of specific experiences, I see people get better when they take tonics.  Their mood improves. The light in their eyes improves.  Things become less hard, less burdensome, less challenging.  This doesn’t happen without modulating the diet as well and we haven’t talked too much about that but it is essential that ingesting healing herbs is paired with a diet that is based in whole foods.  I am not too particular about what kind of whole foods diet someone chooses to take on (vegan, vegetarian, paleo, omnivore, etc) as long as it is based in avoiding processed foods and is high in plants.  Because plants, at core, are what we are talking about.  Essentially when we connect to plants in a respectful manner- allying with them, growing, gathering and consuming them mindfully, we create a way for our entire culture to repair the deepest trauma that exists, our disconnection from the Earth itself.  Repairing that underlying fragmentation is ultimately the deep work that is going on here and the excessive intervention of psychiatry is really just a symptom of that underlying malady.

Editors note: Please do not attempt to discontinue psych drugs without first very carefully educating yourself on the risks involved so that you might minimize the chances of developing grave iatrogenic illness if you decide to withdraw. Doctors are not always trained to recognize such issues. Sometimes they do not realize their own ignorance. If you know what to look for you can help both yourself and your doctor learn the new terrain: Psychiatric drug withdrawal and protracted withdrawal syndrome round-up

jonJon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here


Dissociation- On finding the way home

By Jon Keyes


I was talking with someone recently who talked about hearing voices for much of her life.  She talked about how the voices had started when she was young and had been through extreme suffering at the hands of her father.   While he abused her, her mother neglected her and she was left feeling deeply in pain and also utterly alone.  Thats when a kind woman’s voice came through, a soothing sound to tell her she was safe and loved in the midst of the torment.  At these moments she would disappear in her mind to the safety and kindness of this woman’s voice.  The outside world would be blotted out and she would retreat into her own world.  She told me she thinks she made up the voice at first, to find someone who would be there for her at her worst times.

At another time, I sat with a woman who had been so deeply abused as a child that she could not escape the psychological and emotional effects and would frequently “go away” as she described it.  It began as momentary “vanishings” where she would disassociate and time would pass without her noticing.  The shock of the memories was simply too much and she would subconsciously exit, leaving her body behind as her spirit wandered away.  At the point that I met her, the “vanishings” had overtaken her.  She could not go out into the world of banks and buses and grocery stores without frequently “going away.”  I saw her sitting at a table and when I walked over to her I noticed she was rocking back and forth slightly with her eyes closed and fluttering.  She indeed wasn’t there- and I spent a few minutes sitting with her until she returned.  I gently called her name and said I was nearby if she needed anything.  It can be hard to know what to do at these moments.  For many, touch is an utter taboo as it can cause the person to be retraumatized with horrible memories.  But in that moment, it felt somehow okay to connect to her in that way and I reached out and she took my hand and held it firmly.  That moment of connection helped soothe her and soon she was able to return.

She said that when she was out in the world and she disappeared in this way, eyes closed, rocking back and forth in a stuck frozen stance, inevitably someone would call 911.  People were scared, afraid of how to interact, afraid that maybe she was going through a seizure and needed medical care.   Because she went through this process again and again, sometimes everyday, she was unable to work, unable to easily mediate the outside world.  It led this deeply intelligent and kind woman to often isolating, and staying shuttered in a private lonely world.

In both her case and that of the voice hearer, the heart and mind had found ways to protect the person from unimaginable sorrow, from the horror of having one’s closest family breach sexual and emotional boundaries, destroying faith and trust in a few evil acts.  Disassociation becomes an act of reestablishing safety, of protection, of deep care for the individual who is suffering.  Some pain cannot be withstood and we leave, we go away.

I also work with people who are coming off of psychiatric drugs and the report of dissociation, derealization and depersonalization are common threads.  In the case of benzodiazapenes such as xanax or klonopin, the drugs alter neurochemistry to create pleasurable and sedated feelings.  When the drugs are stopped  the body is no longer easily able to adjust to create its own neurochemical pathways that elicit calmness and pleasure.  The body revolts and becomes highly charged and sensitive, easily overwhelmed by the pressures and confusions of a modern world.  In essence one of the only ways to manage this intensity is to “go away”, to literally retreat to one’s home and to one’s bed to escape the intensity, and sometimes to escape through dissociation, disappearing in spirit if not in body.  Again, the body speaks its truth, helping us to manage and traverse frightening emotional experience.

But the path of leaving, of going away, is also scary in its own right.  There is a loss of control, a loss of agency, an inability to stay grounded and present.  Often the therapeutic tools for managing those extreme states involve working on “coming back”, focusing on the somatic expressions of slowly breathing, touching and seeing what is around the person, using the five senses and reconnecting to the surroundings.  Other techniques include creating an internal matrix of safety, a sense of inner calmness to manage intense triggers and memories.  Essentially, the path of working with dissociative states is to find the way home-  through reconnecting with the body, the place that has been deeply violated.

Finding peace with the body can be a long journey.  Those that are working on finding a way home often explore changing their diet and working with modalities such as yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, herbs, EMDR and EFT.  These are ways of building strength and resiliency, of rebuilding the foundation from the ground up, of integrating and processing the deepest levels of sorrow but also transcending these places of fear and shame to come out again, to breathe and shine, to remember their underlying wholeness and holiness that underlies all nature, that can never be breached, that can never be taken away.    Sometimes we must go away to protect ourselves.  But when the time is right,  the path home is available to us all.

jonJon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here


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Modern Mental Health/ The Problem with Evidence Based Treatment

By Jon Keyes

Often when I work with someone who comes to see me I am at a loss of where to begin.  Emotional distress such as depression, insomnia and anxiety often have so many tangled roots that it is hard to know where to begin.   Distress often has its roots in multiple origins such as trauma, ongoing stress as well as poor lifestyle and dietary habits.  On a deeper level, distress can be thought of as a singular expression of a larger pattern of disharmony that spans the globe due to underlying systemic problems of racism, poverty, colonialism and ecological devastation.  If we think of the planet as one living organism, then emotional distress is a signal of systemic suffering.

homelessHow can we can work with depression in the context of people having to work at low wage jobs, eat cheap processed food and live in cramped dangerous urban environments?  Suggesting that a therapy session, or a visit to a doctor will shift this equation ignores the underlying issue of injustice and poverty.  As a therapist I have worked in an acute hospital setting and I often have seen homeless people cycle in and out of hospitalization due to severe distress.  Generally they come for relief from the elements and a safe place to sleep more than any medical attention.  Psychiatric drugs, or counseling, do little to alleviate their underlying socio-economic based distress.

I wonder about the state of modern mental health and its emphasis on evidence based medicine.  In general, the system promotes the use of psychiatric medications in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy for helping manage distress.  I  think about this way of approaching mental health as it slots an enormous amount of people with widely differing narratives and cultural backgrounds into singular approaches.

When I have travelled through Asia and Latin America, I was able to see a variety of styles of helping people heal from emotional distress.  Sometimes it involved the use of prayer, meditation, counseling from a religious or spiritual figure, the use of ceremony and ritual, herbs and dietary changes.  Sometimes it involved sacred movement or chanting.

In Thailand where I grew up in my early years, a village woman our family knew well experienced profound depression after the loss of her son.  She found solace in talking to Buddhist monks and deepening her study and practice of Buddhism.  In Ecuador, I took part in rituals where an Ayahuascero (a healer who uses the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca) helped someone to heal from profound depression and addiction issues.  In Guatemala, I worked with healers who offered local herbs to help with grief and sadness.  In each case, treatment tailored to the worldview, cosmology and culture of an individual proved to be key as part of the healing process.

In this age of Randomized Clinical Trials, there is a strong emphasis on replicability and creating models that can be effective amongst a wide segment of people.  Drug based medicine works well for this as they tend to have a strong singular effect that can be easily duplicated.  2 milligrams of ativan will have a similar sedative effect for most people.   It is much harder to create effective reproducible models of healing when examining varied healing techniques from throughout the world.  Shamanic healing, a conversation with a buddhist monk, the use of culturally singular ceremonial tools and techniques do not easily translate and won’t have the same emotional/psychological impact on different peoples.  This is not to say they are not effective, but not neatly transposed into randomized clinical trials that can be replicated.  But when we require that healing techniques only be allowed that are subjected to this level of scrutiny, we start to place our own limited and narrow cultural beliefs on complex varied societies.   I am trying to imagine an indigenous Quichua man coming for a session of talk therapy or receive medication to help him heal the wounds of colonization and ecological pillage.

When we couch respectability in terms of evidence based science, we can actually cause damage to the potential for healing that can happen within a variety of settings.  Further, calling these various forms of healing superstitious or unscientific reenacts the wound of a dominant culture requiring that the rest of the world fits into their way of seeing reality.  By requiring “treatment” to be “evidence based” we do a vast disservice to those from other cultures and peoples who find healing through a variety of non-sanctioned paths.

highwayOur approach to modern mental health mirrors our approach to the land around us.  We have created landscapes that are straight and narrow, boxes of perfectly grown crops, neatly arranged buildings and roads that are quick and efficient.  Indigenous cultures and their languages are fast disappearing as modern global culture becomes increasingly digitized and homogenized.  Those who fall “mentally ill” along the way, who can’t handle the pace and fragmentation of modernity, are funneled through a modern mental health system that offers one-size-fits all treatment strategies that rarely address the underlying roots of people’s distress.

My hope is that instead of boxing, defining and requiring specific reproducible evidence based mental health strategies, we start to think more out of the box, look to the unique, widely varying traditions of our ancestors and those who still practice indigenous and folk healing. Traditional techniques as simple as  a bowl of chicken soup, nourishing herbal teas, singing, chanting, praying, sacred movement, ritual and warm embrace are time honored methods of helping people return to greater emotional resiliency and wellbeing.

Instead of defining “treatment” in narrow ways, let us open the door to a wider vocabulary that remembers our roots, that embraces a wide assortment of healing techniques and also honors that there are many who cannot escape distress, and cannot be easily “treated” due to oppression and injustice.


jonJon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here

Restoring Balance with the Plant World

By Jon Keyes


As an herbalist, I think of how humans interact and relate to plants everyday.  Mainly we interact with plants through our diet.  Our morning cereal, a sandwich, tea, beans, rice and salad all come from plants.  Even meat comes from animals that ate plants.  In essence, our very survival comes from plant life.  Though plants represent the source of our sustenance, we have become deeply out of balance in our relationship with them.  We have shifted from a diverse and varied plant diet to one that includes just a few highly processed plants.  This is leading not only to a  breakdown in our physical and mental health, it is leading us to ecological catastrophe as well.


In the U.S., 25 billion dollars a year is spent to subsidize the production of just a few commodity crops with an overwhelming emphasis on wheat, corn and soy.  Essentially farmers are paid to produce an enormous amount of just a few crops.  These crops are then processed and turned into dense high calorie foods that are the staple of most modern diets throughout the world.  Look through most grocery shelves and you will find food containing these main three crops.  Chips, crackers, sodas, candy, salad dressing, snack bars, energy drinks are all mainly derivatives of these three crops.  Industrial meat is also primarily being produced by feeding animals enormous amounts of these three crops; so when we are eating meat we are essentially again eating these three foods.

5439518073_f679a9acff_oWheat, corn and soy are often processed in a way that they are calorie filled and energy dense.  A soda with corn syrup along with a wheat and soy filled Big Mac contains over a thousand calories.  Eating a diet saturated with these foods has led to an epidemic of obesity and has helped to increase physical and mental health maladies.  Because these crops are subsidized, we have made them cheap to consume and so the poorest amongst us are pushed towards eating the least nutritious and most unhealthy foods.   We have essentially engineered a society built on eating the processed form of just a few plants; and we are making ourselves fatter, sicker and more emotionally unhappy.


As an herbalist, I sometimes see this from a different perspective.  Modernity in many ways is a tale of a shifting relationship between humans and the plant kingdom.  Prior to the 19th century, most people ate the plants that were harvested locally.  Often there was a rich diversity of local crops and wild harvested foods.  People ate a diverse array of roots, tubers, vegetables, fruits and meat.  Wild animals and fish ate food from the streams, meadows and forest and offered a complex array of nutrients to help us thrive.   People from earlier times faced periodic depravation through poor weather and flooding, and this insured that population didn’t increase excessively and place too heavy of a burden on the environment.

In the 20th century, we superseded this ancient method of eating primarily local food and shifted to a global system that embraced the production of immense monocrops to feed increasing numbers.  Population levels exploded, dependent on just a few species of plants- wheat (Triticum aestivum), soy (Glycine max) and corn (Zea mays).  Through our intense dependency on these few species, we have not only made ourselves sicker, and “madder”,  we have exponentially grown in numbers to create an immense burden on the natural 1473026601_36c5e40166_bresources of the planet.  We require increasing amounts of land, timber, soil, fresh water, coal, oil and gas to survive.  Our utter dependence on these few plants have created an immense imbalance that is showing up not only as obesity, inflammatory diseases, depression and anxiety but also is showing up as clear cuts, mountain top removal, extinctions, polluted oceans, air, streams and climate change.  A simple shift to embracing just a few plant species has engendered a radical change in our planet- one that is literally leading towards apocalyptic possibilities.

On a psychological level, this intense overreliance on three plants have made many of us feel increasingly depressed and anxious.  Our use of the processed form of these plants for the bulk of our calories- in the form of cold cereal, donuts, candy bars, soft drinks, biscuits, chips, sauces and industrial meat has led to physiological changes that stimulate mental health problems.  Food sweetened with corn syrup spikes our6375782633_22f856528f_bblood sugar levels.  Spikes in blood sugar levels stimulates a response from our hypothalmus, pituitary and adrenal glands to secret more stress hormones and adrenaline that make us feel wired and anxious.  If there is a susceptibility to extreme states, it is more likely that these foods will increase our anxiety and lead to a greater possibility for complex nervous system disorganization in the form of hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.

We have increasingly taken to “medicating” processed food disorders  with the concentrated form of other plants.  We use tobacco (Nicotiana), coffee (Coffea), cocaine (Erythroxylum coca), cane sugar (Saccharum) and heroin and other opioids (Papaver somniferum) to help stimulate and calm our body due in part to suffering from the effects of the processed form of wheat, corn and soy.  So we use one set of plants to manage the symptoms of overuse of another set of plants.


We also increasingly turn to completely synthetic ways to manage our emotional states that are in part engendered by this lopsided diet.  Methampehtamine and MDMA are industrially created street drugs but we also increasingly turn to psychiatric drugs such as xanax, prozac, effexor, ritalin, adderall, zyprexa and seroquel to stimulate and sedate ourselves.  20 percent of Americans now are prescribed a psychiatric drug to manage mental health issues.

I want to stress that mental health issues such as severe anxiety, depression and extreme states are not solely caused by a poor diet.  But I do want to honor that this modern diet, coupled with balancing these moods with concentrated addictive plants and synthetics go a long way towards destabilizing and damaging good mental health.    The massive population boom caused in part by the Green Revolution and global monocrops of wheat, corn and soy, has led to a more competitive, frantic and traumatic world that helps create tremendous stress and exacerbates emotional distress.  Because the poor have few choices, they face the brunt of this blow, forced to purchase low priced and low quality food that increases misery and suffering.

There are few easy answers to these problems.  At a core level, I see many of the problems of modernity as based on how we relate to the plant kingdom.  We have chosen to damage the soil and repeatedly plant monocrops of a few plants throughout the world.  Because the soil is so depleted, we add enormous amounts of fertilizer and pesticides to prop up these crops.  We are in a precarious state with our relationship with the Earth and the plant world, and a lot of that imbalance is showing up in our declining mental health.

Trying to find ways through this deep imbalance is extremely challenging.  But one of the ways is to try and 2890854806_8028c69747_oreturn to eating a more varied, more local and more wild diet, filled with nutrient dense food with a wide variety of plant life.  By shifting towards a diversified plant based diet, and away from one dependent on the concentrated industrialized form of “The Big Three”, our mental health will improve and our load on the planet will decrease.   Moving towards eating less industrialized and more organic food, where crops are grown in smaller more diversified lots with greater attention and care will also help shift the equation.  Growing food in our backyards and working with local farmers is part of this revolution.

On a deeper level, taking time to acknowledge our relationship to the plant world by slowing down and connecting to the plants is a key part of the healing process as well.  Connecting to the plant world in gardens, forests and meadows can also be part of the  work.  As an herbalist, I recommend taking herbs in tea form to really get to know the look, scent and taste of an herb.   Essentially, it is key to remember that our relationship with plants is a spiritual one.   They are our sustenance, our healers and our homes.   We can repair our relationship by showing greater care, attention and love when we connect to plants.  Making prayers or just giving thanks before a meal can help us remember our relationship and all that plants offer us.

Seeing our mental health as part of a more global ecological picture where how we eat and the food we grow and buy has a direct effect not only on our mental health, but on how we can heal some of the wounds we have inflicted on our relationship with the planet.  The global ecological and environmental trauma that is occurring is mirrored in the trauma that we experience in our own lives- the disconnection, the isolation, the lack of the sacred.  We can help to heal ourselves in part by re-envisioning how we work with the plant kingdom, feed ourselves and live with the land.


jonJon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here


Somatic Wisdom Technique Part 2

By Jon Keyes

See part 1 here


For example, a sense of tightness, dullness and emptiness near our chest may translate into an emotion of grief and sadness.  Investigated further, this may have to do with a long history of not receiving enough love in our relationships.  Perhaps there was a dynamic of having a mother who was too busy, or aloof to give enough attention to her children.  That history continued in relationships with women who were distant, or cool, somehow detached.  The discomfort in the body is a way of sending a message about this complex dynamic that has stayed stuck in the chest area of the body.

In this second part of using the Somatic Wisdom Technique, I’ll ask you to return to that place of discomfort to find out how to transform that area of distress.  Start with picking an area of the body that you found to be the most “charged” or in need of greater attention and care.  Then begin by sitting comfortable in an upright posture.  For some that may mean sitting in a meditative posture

with legs crossed.  For others that may mean simply sitting in a comfortable chair.  It is important that the upper body and chest stay upright so that the breath can travel freely.  Allow both feet to touch the ground without crossing your legs.

At this point begin the process of deep breathing.  It is helpful if you can begin to inhale from 6-8 seconds and exhale from 8-12 seconds.  As you settle in, allow yourself about ten full breaths to help ground and settle your mind.  If you begin to have thoughts about the day or more disturbing thoughts, allow them to pass.  Simply notice and observe without judgement.

Once you have settled in completely, begin by returning your awareness to the area of discomfort.  You may notice the familiar feeling of distress coupled with pain, tension, tightness, excessive fulllness or emptiness.  Allow any thoughts and images to come up in connection with this area.  At this point you may begin to feel emotions connected to this area…frustration, sadness, grief, anger, hatred.  Allow your examination to go ever inward, listening to the messages as they come to you.  You may have insight into some of the deeper reasons for this distress; old family patterns, destructive grooves and habits you have allowed to persist, old belief systems, etc.

In this state, simple notice these insights and this deeper level of awareness.  Simply having a deeply felt insight like this can be tremendously healing as it allows you to integrate the true meaning of your distress at a core level.  It allows you to be fully aware and present to your whole being.  Allow yourself to simply sit in this dynamic without trying to change or make it different.  The act of observing and sitting with this distress is a process of integration.  Instead of trying to run from this discomfort, or ignore it, fight it or feel frightened by it, you have taken the courageous step of sitting with  it, being present to the message it sends.

In this part of the process, it is now time to do the process of moving the energy, or shifting it towards completion.  At this point it has become stuck and needs your help to move it towards flowing again.  Start with simply asking this area of the body how you can transform this distress for better health and well being.  “How can I transform this distress for better health and well being?”

Then allow yourself to sit and listen.  Again, messages will likely come to you in the form of images, thoughts, emotions, actions and even body movements.  The thoughts may feel cryptic and hard to understand such as “Stop watching the clock”, or may ring clear as a bell such as “Devote yourself to daily meditative practice” or “Send a letter too your Mom telling her how you feel.”   The process of release and transformation may not be a quick one.  It may require regularly checking in with the discomfort and acting on multiple messages over a period of time.  Through the practice of the Somatic Wisdom Technique,  you will begin to be able to release some of the stored and stuck suffering that has become “embodied”.

Finally, as you finish integrating the messages from the stuck and distressed part of your body, it is now time to finish the process by slowly returning your attention to your breath.  Again, deeply inhale and exhale for about ten breaths as you begin to open your eyes and return to an alert state of mind.  As a side note, it is often helpful to write down these insights in a journal or to discuss them with a good therapist who can help you stay clear and focused on your journey to greater health and well being.

See part 1 here

jonJon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here

Other body oriented methods of meditation or therapeutic technique discussed on Beyond Meds: