Understanding Holistic Health By Erica Matluck

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Family doctor using holistic healing practices

Today, the wellness industry is valued at $4.2 trillion dollars. While the rise of interest in leading a healthy lifestyle has accelerated alongside the resurgence of ancient practices like yoga, acupuncture and herbal medicine, there’s a growing desire to approach health holistically. 

But do all of the options for health and well-being ever feel overwhelming to you? Do you experience decision fatigue trying to determine what diet is right for you, what type of practitioner you should see or what supplements you should take? The rapid, growing industry is full of products and services claiming to be holistic, but what does it mean, really? 

We’re here to help you understand what a picture of holistic health looks like in modern times so you can make the best decisions for your mental, emotional, spiritual and physical bodies.

Our ‘Quick-Fix’ Culture 

In today’s culture, people often prefer products and services that require minimal commitment and fast results, but a quick-fix mentality isn’t actually “holistic”. Yoga is a great example of a traditionally holistic practice adopted by Western culture to meet the demands of modern life. While new adaptations of yoga are beneficial to our health, the impact of yoga on one’s life is much greater if we commit to a practice that includes asana, pranayama, sensory withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and the pursuit of enlightenment.  Therefore, the depth of impact is lost alongside its holistic benefits.

  1. How to Approach Our Physical Health 

The physical body does a great job of capturing our attention when something is wrong; it responds promptly to pain or discomfort. While medication can temporarily relieve physical discomfort, it isn’t necessarily an effective way to treat most chronic illnesses or achieve well-being. Indigestion, for instance, is a common ailment for people and can lead to anxiety in social situations. This might mean eating in a state of insecurity, rather than eating what’s right for our bodies, which continues to aggravate our digestion and perpetuate an unhealthy cycle. In these instances, we need to use the relationships between our thoughts, emotions, environment and spirit to support our physical experience.

  1. Let’s Talk About Mental Health

Today, mental health is typically addressed with a specialized mental health provider while physical healthcare is reserved for general practitioners. In this disconnect, the discussion around mind-body connection is lost. Our nervous system constantly receives stimuli that triggers the feeling of threat or safety; at the same time, our minds produce thoughts that are a major source of stimuli for the nervous system. 

If your mind is focused on worrisome thoughts and negativity, your nervous system will turn on your fight or flight response as the body prepares for survival. If your mind is focused on the present moment and all the positive things in your life, your nervous system moves into rest and digest mode.

The physiology of the body responds accordingly and the body is able to heal, rejuvenate and experience the finer things in life, like enjoying a good meal or having pleasurable sex. 

Our thoughts are often shaped by past experiences and future anticipation. Not only do they directly affect the physiology of the body, but they influence our emotions via the endocrine system. While the nervous system is permanently on safety surveillance, the endocrine system responds by secreting appropriate chemical messengers, which become our emotions. So if we choose our thoughts carefully, they can promote physical healing and emotional wellbeing. 

  1. Emotions are Everything

Did you know that a human emotion only lasts for 90 seconds, and that an emotion is nothing more than a chemical signal in the body? When we feel an emotion, we assign meaning to it and then react. This impacts our lives, our thoughts, our belief systems and our physical bodies.  

So emotions only live in the mind, but they are integral to every part of health. Consider this: one night your romantic partner doesn’t come home. They don’t respond to your texts and the phone goes straight to voicemail. You start feeling nervous. Your last partner cheated on you and though your current partner has never been untrustworthy, you feel your anxiety rising. You start thinking about all of the possible explanations for this anomaly. After running through various scenarios you decide they are definitely having an affair. Now you’re angry and heartbroken and you begin to plan your exit strategy. Your entire body is pumping with adrenaline and stress hormones anticipating the break-up conversation ahead. This makes you physically nausea and you lose your appetite. You try to go to sleep but it’s impossible. You lay there with your thoughts spinning in circles, pumping out chemical messengers on repeat. It feels like an eternity. 

This is the role our emotions play in our health—and just like our thoughts they can directly impede our ability to heal. But when we learn to emotionally regulate, our emotions can be potent medicine. 

  1. Acknowledging the Role of Spirituality 

When it comes to holistic health, spirituality is the connection between one’s inner and outer world. Without acknowledgment of the spirit, we are no different than very well-functioning robots. We are completely disconnected from one another and the environment. But spirituality allows us to see how our physical, mental and emotional experiences serve to connect us to something larger than ourselves. 

The spiritual quadrant of health is where we understand that illness and suffering serves a purpose. This is where compassion arises from—and human compassion is essential to the survival of our species. There is a greater intelligence that we’re a part of.  Without spirituality, physical, mental and emotional discomfort can feel futile. But they aren’t. Our pain, our struggles and our suffering serve to give us feedback about our place in the whole. It’s how we know we’re out of alignment with the intelligence of nature. This understanding and sense of connection is a boundless source of healing- and it’s essential to a holistic approach.

Designing a Holistic Lifestyle 

Channeling your efforts to well-being requires considering your whole self — physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. You can think of these as the quadrant of oneself. If we begin to neglect one part, the discomfort will simply move elsewhere. So the next time you are choosing a wellness product, service or practitioner, you can consider whether it will impact each one of these areas of self. You can ask some of the following questions to determine if it will set you on a part toward holistic health and well-being:

  • Will this impact the way I feel in my physical body?
  • Will it change the way I think about my health and life?
  • Will it address the emotions associated with my current life goals and challenges? 
  • Will it help me meaning in the situation which led me here?