What is health? A quick search on the internet for a definition as it relates to humans provides a list of answers with the running theme: "the general condition of the body; freedom of physical disease or pain."
Health is more than the absence of disease!
One can be living in the absence of disease and still feel "unhealthy" though we may not necessarily employ that label. Our health extends beyond the borders of our physical bodies; it encompasses the emotional, mental, spiritual, social, environmental, financial, sexual AND physical realms we exist in. It includes anything that could compromise our sense of agency in the world. As a holistic healthcare practitioner, it’s important to look at each of these aspects to help bring our patients back into balance.
Your ability to take action, be effective, influence your own life, and assume responsibility for your behavior are important elements in the relationships you have with yourself and others. This sense of agency is an essential component to Free Will; the belief in your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior, and to have faith in your ability to handle anything that comes your way. It is your capacity to be stable, resilient, and flexible in the face of conflict or change; the ability to see the choice between A and B, then to choose wisely. Agency and the ability to influence one’s life is easier when you have a full cache of resources and a sense of general freedom; however, when we're lacking in one of the eight health categories, things become difficult, our sense of agency and ability to take the action we want is compromised. Because the different types of health are so tightly interwoven with each other, it can be hard to parse out exactly where the problem lies.
Poor health in any of the categories can be a gift. You’re forced to work through something that you didn't necessarily choose, you're given an opportunity to learn, grow, and overcome. In the end, we can't experience a sense of accomplishment and be the recipient of "healing" if we’re firmly planted in our comfort zone. The difference between healing and health is that healing equates to arriving at a place of comfort; becoming healthy means you have the ability to thrive.
When we're not thriving, we need to first stop and ask "why"? We then need to ask, “What can I learn about myself or the choices that brought me to this point”? Here's a brief look at each of the different facets of holistic health that we’ll be exploring individually throughout the series:
Emotions are the subjective feeling we have to external stimuli, which means we have feelings in reaction to something – and there’s both a chemical AND electromagnetic signature to each of our emotions. Anger, joy, grief, pleasure – the entire emotional spectrum in Asian Medicine is viewed as how each feeling moves through our body and where it resides. For example, we physically feel grief very differently than anger; one constricts and takes your breath away, while the other can make you see red. Emotional health is how we’re able to manage and channel those feelings.
There is no singular authoritative definition of mental health; however, the current descriptions can all be boiled down to “how well you manage stress.” That includes stress factors from each of the other six categories: emotional, social, spiritual, environmental, financial, and physical. Mental health is the ability to stay present and focused through a variety of different situations.
Lao Tzu taught us "if you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present." Mental health can be gauged as to how well we’re able reside in the “now” and manage stress without letting our emotions incapacitate us and without turning our actions against others or ourselves as a coping mechanism.
Spiritual health is a general sense of connection to the universe and to your deeper self. Religion is a vehicle, a set of rules that guides us towards achieving that connection; therefore, religion does not equal spirituality. You can follow every rule in the book of whatever text you're using, and still feel utterly disconnected. You could pick up a new book with a different set of rules that are easier for you to follow and suddenly feel connected. You could also go your own way by ignoring all the rules, maybe even create your own, and feel deeply connected. It doesn't matter HOW you achieve that sense of connection, only that it's there.
Study after study continues to show that those with strong ties to their community, friends, & family tend to live longer. However, there’s a difference between quantity and quality. Are you able to make a 1:1 connection to those around you with love and compassion? Deep heart felt connections change our hormonal response to situations; being in the presence of loved ones and feeling mutual support reduces stress hormones, which impacts our immune system. A heartfelt hug releases serotonin, dopamine, and increases oxytocin – all “feel good” chemicals naturally produced in our own bodies. Social bonds with friends and family should bring out the best in you; if they’re bringing out the worst it’s time to step back to evaluate where the toxicity is coming from.
You would need to ask a historian for the exact causal event and date; however, somewhere in our human history we began to see ourselves as separate from our environment. A disconnect happened and the environment became something to be exploited and controlled. It worked for a while, but we’re now paying the price. Schizophrenic weather patterns with bi-polar swings, contaminated water sources, dead soil unable to nourish plant life, and food sources that have been tampered with in ways we still don’t understand.
Big issues need to be addressed with small steps; and if enough people take baby steps, then as a collective we’ve moved forward by miles. Environmental health includes more than the state of the planet as a whole, but the state of your home, work, and community space.
No matter how far forward we move in the technology we label as "money", psychologically we equate it to "resources". When someone imagines themselves as broke, they may really be imaging themselves as starving to death. Financial dysmorphia can occur when one looks at their assets and feels they've hit rock bottom regardless of the fact that they have a bank account with six or more figures and no debt. This could occur because one is comparing themselves to their peers who appear to have more, and they feel their own monetary lack equates to worthlessness. It could also be there's a fear that at any moment "something" could happen which would render them without resources and starving on the street, so they do whatever it takes keep the money rolling in. It can swing the other way as well, when someone who is living beyond their means finds themselves in credit card debt with interest occurred making their debt more than the value of what they actually purchased. Financial resource health is important because it ties in with our sense of agency and freedom.
This is inclusive of not only whether you have a libido (which is a primary health sign in Asian Medicine) or can perform, but includes sexual identity and whether you feel safe expressing your sexuality. It’s also incredibly important to note that gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation; the two may look similar but are in fact quite separate. Gender identity describes where you feel most comfortable along the gender continuum: male, female, or somewhere in between. Sexual orientation relates to who turns you along that continuum.
There are lengthy texts in Daoist traditions that prescribe specific acts of coitus to alleviate physical ailments one or the other partner may be experiencing. However, especially in today’s culture, we often attach a portion of our self worth to whether we can perform, and if others want to perform with us.
If you have ever been truly physically ill, you know first-hand that healing becomes a full time job and often forces everything else onto the back burner. This is a rather large category and has many contributing factors. We can become physically ill due to anxiety, stress, poor nutrition, weather conditions, genetics, infections, toxins, parasites, and/or trauma. Physical illness can sometimes seemingly come out of nowhere, but is often a manifestation of an accumulation or a combination of different factors. Often times, we don’t seek help or move towards a resolution (i.e. stress management, better diet, exercise, etc.) until we’re in physical crisis. The bodies we reside in are fine tuned instruments that don’t lie; you can only mentally over ride it’s cries for help for so long.
It's exciting to be able to jump into this exploration with you to begin understanding what it means to be healthy. I welcome any comments or questions you have in the discussion area which can only help to enliven and broaden these ideas.
In good health!