Empirical Support for Holistic Engagement
Central to such an adaptive capability is the ability to be aware of self, environment, and others, which can be cultivated through mindfulness and other holistic practices, such as yoga and taiji. Mindfulness practices have been shown to be effective in developing a person's ability to adapt to changes and to adopt many of the characteristics of a holistically engaged social worker, such as presence and empathy (Brown & Ryan, 2003: Fogel, 2011). Epstein (1999) posits that mindfulness should be considered a characteristic of good clinical practice, describing how “mindfulness leads the mind back from theories, attitudes, and abstractions ... to the situation of experience itself, which prevents us from falling prey to our own prejudices, opinions, projections, and expectations” (p. 835). Turner (2009) notes that holistic/mindfulness skills training fosters clinician attention, affect regulation, attunement, and empathy, and it can assist in developing clinical sensitivity to even low levels of nonverbal attachment communication.
The research on the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability to change and heal the brain through intentional practices, and affirmed through studies of mindfulness and meditation, furthers the support for the power of the use of holistic engagement methods in practice and in the classroom (Davidson & Begley, 2012). Once thought to be fixed in early adulthood, neural networks actually demonstrate plasticity or the capacity for integration through reparative experiences (Siegel, 2007). Neurobiology research is also validating the clinical social work emphasis on the importance of the attuned therapeutic relationship in the change process (Turner, 2009).
Similarly, biological advances in the understanding of environmental influence on the epigenome, its role in activation of genes for chronic health conditions and mental illness, potentiate holistic engagement in empowering lifestyle changes to prevent or reverse chronic disease. Garland and Gaylord (2009) note the increasing call for performance-based measures of mindfulness, neurophenomenology of mindfulness, and measuring changes in mindfulness-induced gene expression because recent evidence demonstrates that mindfulness training increases antibodies and decreases proteins that lead to inflammation associated with numerous chronic health conditions. Finally, Brown and Ryan (2003) note that increases in mindfulness over time relate to declines in mood disturbance and stress across disease states, including clinical interventions with cancer patients.
Similarly, studies of yoga with a wide range of populations have shown its effectiveness on anxiety, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and so on (McCall, 2007). A recent systematic review of studies on the effect of yoga on stress found that 12 of 17 studies reviewed demonstrated positive changes in psychological or physiological outcomes related to stress (Sharma, 2014). Other mind-body practices that facilitate awareness, movement, and connection have been shown to be efficacious with a variety of populations, including older adults and at-risk youth (Koopsen & Young, 2009; McCall, 2007). The Evidenced-Based Taiji and Qigong Program has been shown to be effective for older adults in areas such as balance, immune function, emotional health, and spiritual well-being (Yang, 2008). Thus, the growing body of literature on the efficacy of mindfulness and mind-body practices provides a compelling evidence base for both holistically engaged social work practice and education.