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Back to our roots: Understanding Holistic Nursing

Back to our roots: Understanding Holistic Nursing
Nicola Zalewski/

When you think holistic nursing, what comes to mind? Airy, fairy nurses who focus only on warm fuzzies? That too-common misconception ignores the reality that holistic nurses are found in every nursing practice from nursing homes to operating homes. It also ignores the very roots of nursing practice.

In fact, Florence Nightengale, who believed in care that focused on unity, wellness, and the interrelationship of human beings and their environment, may have been the original holistic nurse.

What may surprise most nurses is that they are already using holistic nursing care in their current practice. The goal of holistic nursing is to treat and heal the whole person – by recognizing the interconnectedness of body, mind, spirit, and environment. Also sometimes referred to as complementary health nurses, holistic nurses use alternative medicine, sometimes combined with traditional Western medicine, to care for patients. It is recognized by the American Nurses Association as an “official nursing specialty,” with its own defined scope and standards of practice.

Holistic nursing, however, is more about a perspective that such nurses bring to their patients, instead of specific skill sets. While many holistic nurses can perform reiki, aromatherapy, Swedish massage or other touch therapies, it is instead the idea that what patients believe about their health, their illness, their abilities, how they experience the nurse as healer, and the environment are key to a person’s health and healing.  Quite simply, the primary goal of a holistic is to help their patients to live their lives as fully as possible, in all situations.

As one patient hospitalized with an eating disorder explained, “After I was treated by a holistic nurse, I continued the meditation and exercise methods that she taught me…my nurse didn’t just help me feel better in the shorter term, she also taught me how I can continue to manage the stress in a way that won’t harm my health. Now I watch out for the signs of anxiety and stress. I do meditation and breathing, as well as regular exercise before it gets worse. Being conscious about what is happening to my body and how my feelings trigger illness has really changed my life.”

The American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA) is a non-profit membership association for nurses and other holistic healthcare professionals and offers many resources for its members, including conferences, educational offerings, publications, networking and scholarships. It is an ideal starting place for nurses interested in broadening their interest in holistic nursing.

Prospective nursing students can choose nursing school programs like New York College that offer nursing degrees in holistic health care with an emphasis on Traditional Chinese Medicine. Established nurses can take additional courses or training in areas that may interest them.

The American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation (AHNCC) offers various certifications for several levels of holistic nursing. AHNCC offers two Certifications in Basic Holistic Nursing: Holistic Nurse, Board Certified (HN-BC) and Holistic Baccalaureate Nurse, Board Certified (HNB-BC).

Carmen, a certified holistic nurse explains her passion for holistic nursing, “I believe you can be a holistic nurse in any setting and no matter if you know any particular modalities such as imagery, healing touch and so forth. Now, I’m a book junky and I love to learn new things, so I have learned about these and even sought certification. Those certificates aren’t what make me a holistic nurse, though. What makes me a holistic nurse is how I view my role as a nurse, as a woman, and as a member of this planet. It is not only how I care for my patients, but also how I care for myself. Believe me, this is a challenge sometimes!”

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About Angie Best-Boss RN

Angie Best-Boss, ASN, BA, MDiv is a psychiatric nurse and freelance writer from the Indianapolis, Indiana area. Angie has three daughters and can usually be found with her nose in a book, crafting or, in warm weather, geocaching.