Reflexology and Mental Health
You have probably heard many times before that the best way to overcome your fears is to confront them. I’m not sure I would entirely agree that allowing someone to stick countless needles in me (think tattoo artist more than medical procedure!) will cure me of my needle phobia. However, I do think that becoming better informed about a medical condition can be very helpful in developing confidence about your ability to work with sufferers.
When I first qualified as a therapist I had, so I thought, never encountered anyone with a mental health condition. This was probably due to the fact that mental health was a taboo subject and people just didn’t discuss it in the same way as physical illnesses, such as cancer. Together with which, if asked to name mental health conditions most people would start immediately with serious illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and eating disorders. The medical definition of a mental health condition is “any disease or condition that influences the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and/or relates to others and to his or her surroundings” (medicinenet.com: 2017). In fact, it is only in the last two to three years that the NHS have put the spotlight on mental health and are prioritising funding for this area of medical need.
On reflection, my own nervousness was probably not helped by the commonly held belief that people with mental health conditions were somehow prone to unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable or violent behaviour. The idea of working with people with mental health conditions was definitely not something I felt equipped to deal with. I know that I am not the only therapist to have felt that way as over the years many of my own students have expressed similar concerns during case study discussions. Thanks to the work of counsellors, medical professionals and charities such as MIND, we now regard mental health very differently to the way we did twenty years ago. We understand that it is an umbrella term for a wide range of conditions and that someone’s mental health could suffer for reasons other than it being a genetic disorder. We also know that like physical illnesses, mental health illnesses can sometimes be temporary and respond to treatment.
At the time I qualified my practice was and still is in a commuter town just outside of London. My reflexology clients were mainly professionals, mothers or retired people. A good percentage of them did suffer problems such as anxiety and depression and through working with them I developed an effective reflexology routine to bring about balance and as one of my clients put it “take back the reins”.
This particular client, Angela, had begun to develop symptoms of anxiety and suffered a couple of panic attacks. Angela was a lady in her mid-50’s, she had a successful career as a teacher and was an experienced deputy head of a sought after primary school. About six months before she became my client, her husband of 35 years had suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack, she was with him when he passed away one Sunday morning at their home. After an initial period of mourning, Angela returned to her job and thought that she was coping quite well. That was until something went wrong with her house. To cut a long story very short, Angela was cheated out of a few thousand pounds by some workmen who persuaded her to have repairs done to the house which turned out to be completely unnecessary. As you can imagine this left her feeling very vulnerable and questioning her own sanity; as a deputy headmistress she didn’t expect to be the victim of a scam as she thought she was a good judge of character. The whole episode caused her to become anxious, coupled with still grieving for her husband which magnified the whole issue she began to suffer panic attacks. Angela was fortunate to have a very good GP who agreed, at her request, not to put her on any medication and suggested instead some counselling. Having taken a counselling course herself to help her support her school children and their families, Angela didn’t feel this was going to be a good option for her as “I could predict what direction any discussion would take”. So she agreed with her GP that she would visit him once every three weeks so he could monitor her physical symptoms and in the meantime she would research other therapies that might help her.
On the advice of a colleague Angela decided to try reflexology and had her first treatment with me one Saturday morning about a fortnight after first seeing her GP. I gave her a full treatment with no adaptations so we could both use this as a baseline for further treatments. Given that her symptoms were acute, Angela agreed to an initial course of three treatments given on a weekly basis. A couple of days after her first treatment, Angela contacted me to let me know she had slept almost immediately she got home. Although she was happy that she had got some much-needed rest, we agreed to move her treatments to late afternoon.
Unless someone is physically frail or recovering from a major illness, I always treat all reflexes. Therefore, when I am adapting a routine I will do this by focussing on one or more reflexes repeatedly throughout the treatment. For Angela’s second treatment I decided to try an adapted routine; this time I focussed more on the solar plexus, diaphragm, hypothalamus, spine and adrenals. This produced good results and so on the third treatment I repeated this and added another couple of reflexes. By the end of the third treatment Angela was convinced that reflexology was leaving her feeling more in control of her emotions and better able to cope, particularly at work. We agreed that she would continue to have another set of three weekly treatments and then would return to see me either fortnightly or monthly thereafter. After eight treatments her feelings of anxiety had gone, however, Angela insisted on coming for her monthly reflexology as she so enjoyed the feeling of calm and peace that descended during the treatment.
Since treating Angela I have worked with many people who were suffering with anxiety and have had much success in supporting them during their recovery. Some of them have also had counselling alongside reflexology, while others were also put on prescribed anti-depressants. Without exception all of them have reported benefits during and immediately following reflexology treatments which over a course of treatments have been sustained.
The second case study I would like to share with you is Ben, who when I started treating him, was five years old and had been diagnosed with ADHD. His mother was a client of mine and asked me to see Ben as he was hyperactive almost from the time he woke up to the time he finally fell asleep exhausted, often after being awake for 18 hours. The initial treatment aim was to try to get Ben to sit still long enough to try reflexology and then to help him to sleep for longer. I visited Ben at home so that he wouldn’t be stimulated by the strange surroundings of my treatment room, this had the added benefit that I could play with him and his toys first to gain his trust.
On the first visit Ben agreed to help me give his mum reflexology. I showed him what to do on his foot and then he repeated it on his mum’s foot. Eventually he just relaxed against his mum and let me do 10 minutes on his feet. This short treatment obviously didn’t have much lasting effect, but the fact that he allowed me to work on him for 10 minutes gave his mother and I hope for future treatments. Over a period of three months I saw Ben fortnightly and each time was able to add more and more reflexes to his adapted routine. I learned how to read his feet and quickly worked out how important the spine and colon reflexes were. Our initial hopes for the treatment outcomes materialised after six treatments when Ben had a full 9 hours sleep, something he hadn’t done since being a baby. Although he still had many behavioural problems, the fact that he was able to sleep properly meant that when he did have an emotional outburst it didn’t last for as long as before and he could be calmed by people who knew him well. It also meant that his family had the much needed rest at night to help them support him better during the day.
If you would like to learn more about the reflexology routines and adaptations I have developed to support people with mental health illnesses, I am running a workshop on Thursday 9th March at KSD London, Tibetan Buddhist Centre, 15 Spa Road, London SE16 3SA. Bookings can be made through the CHP website, or you may contact me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost for the day, which includes refreshments, is £105 payable in advance by direct bank transfer or PayPal.