Florian Birkmayer, the Bridge-Builder Between Different Medical Worlds
I first read about Florian Birkmayer when I found this interview on Robert Tisserand’s website. I was fascinated about his work and I felt I have so much to learn from him.
Florian Birkmayer, M.D. founded The Birkmayer Institute in 2009 to offer holistic person-centered psychiatry and addiction medicine as well as seminars and workshops on a wide range of holistic topics to facilitate self-transformation and continued self-development. He views himself as a bridge-builder between different medical worlds and works closely and respectfully with a wide range of healers.
He is now focusing on teaching and writing, with his wife Cathy Skipper and have a beautiful project together, called aromagnosis.com
I am so grateful for the the collaboration with Mr. Birkmayer. This is for you, all the aromatherapy lovers. Enjoy! :)
AG: First of all, I really want to thank you for this opportunity. I am grateful for having the chance to ask you some questions and to learn from you!
Mr. Birkmayer, you are facilitating self-transformation since 2009 and I find this amazing. When I first read about you I was impressed about the way you manage to combine psychiatry, psychotherapy and other integrative therapies including aromatherapy, especially because in Romania this approach is very hard to find. The majority of our psychiatrists focus on the allopathic medicine, without even taking into consideration psychotherapy. Other therapies like aromatherapy are not even an alternative. How did the Psychiatrist Florian Birkmayer get to integrate alternative therapies in his work?
FB: I’ve been interested in integrative approaches since before medical school. Since I was very young, I’ve been deeply inspired by my grandfather Dr. Walter Birkmayer who developed L-DOPA for Parkinson’s Disease and my father Dr. George Birkmayer who has been pioneering the use of NADH for a wide range of ailments. They taught me to think outside the box of medical dogma. Psychiatry, or at least certain pioneers (e.g. C.G. Jung, Eugen Bleuler, Harry Stack Sullivan, and several others) had a long tradition of being holistic, in the sense of being interested in the whole human being, from the molecule to the community, but over the last 40 years due to the overwhelming influence of the pharmaceutical industry, most psychiatrists focused on prescribing and left behind psychotherapy. This also led to a shift from helping the person grow and evolve to merely targeting symptoms, without looking at the underlying causes.
I’ve always found focusing on just the symptoms to be frustrating for the client and the psychiatrist. So for me embracing integrative approaches means both looking backwards to the rich tradition and looking forward beyond the blinders of the current pharmacological myopia. In my practice I’ve been inspired by my clients who are continuously trying to find dignity and meaning as they struggle with their symptoms, the traumas of life and the stigma of society. My clients have been my greatest teachers. It was my clients’ encouragement that allowed me to become more and more integrative in my approach, incorporating helping clients stop their medications (which can be very challenging), aromatherapy and equine-assisted therapy. Once I started my private practice, The Birkmayer Institute, named in honor of my father and grandfather, I was able to practice psychiatry in the way I really wanted to. And the amazing thing was, I didn’t advertise and many people just found me. There’s the theory of the morphogenetic field, which Jung would call synchronicity, in other words the time was right. I think in psychiatry we always have to remain humble. The human brain is the most complex organ, and the human psyche is infinitely deep. What helped me evolve was a humble pragmatism, always focused on the respectful collaboration with the client.
AG: I know there are psychiatrists who integrate psychotherapy in their work, but never heard of one who also uses essential oils. So, what is the place of aromatherapy in your work with clients?
FB: For a long time, I’ve been impressed with the power of aromatherapy to rapidly change emotional states—to lift a depressed mood, to relieve anxiety, to improve concentration, to promote relaxation and sleep. In my work with clients, I started by focusing on symptom relief. For example, a lot of my clients suffer from insomnia and I had developed a simple blend I call ‘Sleep Oil’ and started giving it to my clients. (Recipe: 6 drops spikenard EO, 3 drops cardamom EO, in 3 ml of carrier oil, e.g. apricot kernel oil. Apply 1 drop to each of the following points: both temples, third eye area, both jugulars (just under ear) and frenulum (middle of area between nose and upper lip), pulse points on each wrist and heart. 9 points in all. I call it the 9 point anoint.)
Many clients loved sleep oil and this encouraged me to expand. I quickly focused on custom blends for each client, based on their symptoms and also on their reaction to the scents. I would preselect a few oils that I thought might be helpful for the symptoms and then let the client smell them in the office and in addition to asking whether they liked it or not, I would watch them closely, especially their faces, and the changes you see on the face are much more rapid and accurate than what they say sometimes. Then I’d make a custom blend right there. Usually a few drops in a tiny bottle, so they could smell it whenever they needed, or a few drops in a carrier oil so they could use it like their ‘signature scent.’
Over the past few years, I’ve evolved my approach in collaboration with my wife Cathy Skipper, an internationally known herbalist and aromatherapist, to develop a synthesis of aromatherapy with C.G. Jung’s model of Individuation, i.e. personal evolution. In this approach, we view the essential oils and hydrosols as guides and teachers through the different psychological evolutionary stages that Jung recognized in the language of alchemy. Synchronistically, even though Jung viewed alchemy mainly as representative of the stages of the psyche as it evolves, alchemy was also origin of hydrosols and essential oils. (To find out more about, here’s an article by Cathy Skipper about this: https://cathyskipper.wordpress.com/category/aromaticmolecules-medicine-of-the-soul-and-the-alchemical-journey/)
AG: How do your clients react when you tell them about aromatherapy? How do you know which of them can be helped with essential oils?
FB: My clients have run the spectrum from being only interested in medications to being open to all sorts of modalities. When discussing treatment options I have mentioned aromatherapy along with other options, such as medications and therapy, to give the client a range of approaches. Giving the client a choice about what treatments they want to pursue is really important, because especially in psychiatry, the client’s choice about treatment can be quickly taken away, in a variety of ways—from being a paternalistic doctor to involuntary treatment—and this quickly can turn a human being into a ‘professional patient,’ which to me is a horrible outcome. With regards to benefit, many people are interested in symptom relief, whether for insomnia or anxiety, etc., and rapidly experience the benefits of aromatherapy, which I often demonstrate right in the office. For example, if a patient gets agitated when remembering a traumatic event, and gets rapid shallow breaths and palpitations, letting them smell (or even just opening a bottle to diffuse aroma into the room) an oil such as melissa (Melissa officinalis), perhaps in combination with palo santo (Bursera graveolens) rapidly calms them. The palo santo is a powerful tree, used by indigenous people as a healing incense and grounds us while at the same time connecting us with spirit, like a big tree trunk. Melissa is a powerful heart healer, a green-golden light that reduces heart rate and brings light back into the heart. Clients learn that if they get triggered, they themselves can do something themselves to calm down, by smelling essential oils. This gives them back a sense of self-efficacy, which allows them to deal better with stress.
AG: How do essential oils work in relation to psychiatry and psychoterapy? What kind of conditions can be improved by using essential oils?
FB: There are two big categories: symptom-relief (for ‘conditions’) and helping with process (psychotherapy). In terms of what kind of conditions, I’ve used aromatherapy for anxiety, depression, PTSD, dissociative disorders (e.g. multiple personality) which to me are really part of Complex PTSD. Even people with bipolar disorder and psychotic disorders have enjoyed aromatherapy and reported benefit for sleep, anxiety and other symptoms. As long as clients only smell it and don’t ingest essential oils, aromatherapy can be safely combined with medications. I am reluctant to say they ‘cure’ any psychiatric disorders, because we don’t know what really causes most of them, and most allopathic medications simply alleviate symptoms, for the same reason. But aromatherapy certainly improves a number of symptoms.
Recently I’ve been much more interested in the psychotherapy or process side. Life continues to challenge us and many of us want to learn and evolve. I find that essential oils and hydrosols can be profoundly helpful as spiritual guides so to speak, to help us through the difficulties on our paths, so that we can grow and learn from them instead of being stuck in suffering.
AG: In your opinion, what are the most efficient methods of using essential oils? Does it depend on the expected effect or on the client?
FB: I have focused exclusively on scent as the method of administration in my practice, so I can’t speak to other methods. I don’t need to achieve a certain level of a certain constituent, as I would for antibiotic indications. A few molecules, through which the plant’s intelligence communicates with us, is all that it takes. After all, that’s why ‘we’ (meaning human and animals) evolved a sense of scent. We evolved in an environment in which plants were already well established and were communicating through aromatic molecules like a vast neural network. Scent doesn’t just change our mood. There’s a Brazilian neurosurgeon Clovis Orlando de Fonseca, who has shrunk glioblastoma, a very nasty, usually inoperable brain cancer, by having his patients only smell essential oil of beefsteak mint (Perilla frutescens). In order to create the custom blend for the client, I need to see their reaction, which is more important than book knowledge, although that is required also.
AG: Do the clients „choose” the oils they need? In other words, do you give them to smell the oils and observe their reaction?
FB: Yes. That’s why we evolved a sense of scent. ‘The nose knows.’ For the symptoms and conditions I treat, you can tell on people’s faces, as they smell the oils.
AG: There are people who ingest single or blended essential oils for a better sleep and for their emotional properties. What is your opinion on this? And what do you think about ingesting essential oils, in general?
FB: My wife Cathy Skipper, who was trained and herself taught in France for 25 years, is an expert on this. Because of the concentration of essential oils, ingesting them on an ongoing basis can be quite taxing on the liver. So she advocates and I concur that when internal use is called for, it should only be for a brief course, and with a very specific goal. Of course there are a number of oils that can be quite toxic and should never be ingested. For the mental, emotional and spiritual symptoms I treat, I’ve never seen the need to have clients ingest oils. However, Cathy and I are getting much more deeply into hydrosols, which can be safely ingested. Sipping a hydrosol, just a few sprays into a nice glass of water can make for a transformative experience.
AG: I think that every person can find the needed oil or blend in a particular situation of life. Can people do this without the help of an aromatherapist? How can the aromatherapist help?
FB: I think professionally trained aromatherapists are very important. They know about the safety issues and can create the custom blends that are much more powerful. When someone buys a bottle of some essential oil in a store, they often don’t know how to use it and then it doesn’t work and could cause side effects. Often people think they have a certain symptom and a qualified aromatherapist can explore other symptoms to see the whole picture, e.g. many people may complain of insomnia but they may each have it for different underlying reasons. A good aromatherapist empowers their clients to know about safety and gives them the tools so that the client can find the oil or blend for their particular situation.
AG: What are the things that convince people to integrate aromatherapy in their lives? What about the psychiatrists and other medical doctors, can they be convinced to use essential oils in their work?
FB: I think starting with where the client is at, with what they need, whether it’s a good night’s sleep or quick relief from anxiety, where they can tell an immediate benefit allows people to be more open minded about the power of aromatherapy. Then we can explore more subtle and powerful benefits. With regards to my colleagues, as a dear, wise friend of mine said ‘Oh Florian you’ve jumped out the allopathic window.’ There’s a lot of anxiety among doctors about having to be the expert, and basing decisions on ‘evidence-based medicine’ (a label that has been really exploited and abused by the pharmaceutical industry). Funnily enough, while my colleagues may smile at me behind my back, quite a few of them have asked me for advice and love at least my Sleep Oil. So they know it works, they’re just afraid to admit it.
AG: Which are the most spectacular effects you achieved with essential oils? Can you also tell us the oils you used?
FB: I’ve worked with a lot of people with severe trauma. One man in particular, had had endless severe traumas, was molested as a child and young man, saw friends get shot, worked in very traumatizing settings including as a prison guard, and had severe multiple personality disorder, as part of his severe Complex PTSD. One day we were doing an equine therapy session and I had some frankincense (Boswellia sp., I think it was serrata) essential oil with me. As he arrived to the session, he was switching between different alters (personalities) every few minutes, something had triggered him and he was really struggling. I told him to hold out his hands and put a few drops of frankincense on the palms and told him hold his hands up to his face and smell. He inhaled deeply, primally. The horses formed a circle around him as he kept switching, as if the different personalities were fighting. By the end of the session he had integrated into one personality (his usual) and never switched personalities again. That was like a miracle. What made me happen to have the frankincense on me? Synchronicity?
I’ve seen many clients regain a sense of self-efficacy and control over their lives again, after their symptoms have overwhelmed them and kept them from functioning.
AG: What do you think about the personality profiles of the essential oils? Can aromatherapy offer support on this beautiful path that you are guiding people on, self transformation and self developement?
FB: Absolutely, the essential oil is the soul of the plant, it’s its personality. Aromatherapy to me means that the plants are our teachers and allies on our paths of self-transformation and self-development. They are the original alchemy. Jung unfortunately never talked about smell, except very parenthetically in a description of a haunted house. I wonder what he would’ve thought.
AG: Do you have plans regarding aromatherapy? How does the future look like?
FB: My wife Cathy Skipper and I have written and are working on a number of online classes, which we also teach live (on rare occasions) that teach aromatherapists, and other providers such as therapists, how to use essential oils for personal transformation. You can find up to date info on our classes at our website http://aromagnosis.com/
AG: Thank you, Mr. Birkmayer! I dare to believe that someday I will talk to you face to face and I will have the chance to congratulate you in person for everything you do.