Wellness means different things to different people. Most people would agree however that wellness, or well-being, encompasses more than just our physical health. It includes the health of our mind and spirit as well as our bodies. Further, when health professionals talk about wellness, they’re referring to how these separate components of health interact and affect the others.
The connection between stress, for example, and the physical impact of stress on our bodies is well documented. Untreated stress can lead to higher blood pressure, headache and migraine, body aches, and gastrointestinal problems. When the body is stressed, the hypothalamus signals the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland which produce epinephrine and cortisol, sometimes called the “stress hormones.” These hormones can affect everything from the production of glucose which in turn can increase risks of diabetes, reduce proper reproductive functions, and impact the nervous system.
These are good examples of how our thoughts and emotions interact with the health of our bodies. But the reverse is also true. Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been clinically shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. The increase in blood circulation to the brain that occurs during exercise is thought to influence several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.
Nobody would argue that diet is important to our physical wellbeing, but less commonly known is the direct impact on our mental health. In several studies, including a 2011 analysis of more than 5,000 Norwegians, researchers found lower rates of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder among those who consumed a balanced diet of lean meat and fresh vegetables than among people who consumed processed and fast foods. While the research is ongoing and relatively new, the evidence indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.
And what of spirit? In wellness circles, this can refer to everything from traditional religious thought, to non-traditional spiritual wellness and alternative medicine. It can include main-stream religious affiliations as well as meditation, Yoga, Tai chi and Reiki, or more controversial alternative medicines like Homeopathy and Naturopathic medicine, the belief that the body heals itself through vital energy.
While the jury is out on alternative medicine, studies support the positive effects of relaxation techniques and even spiritual affiliation. The Pew Research Center reported that, overall, 85% of Americans report some specific religious or spiritual affiliation. And according to 2008 NIH report, 38 percent of adults (about 4 in 10) are using therapies such as yoga, meditation, energy therapy (Reiki) on a regular basis. More to the point, as reported in the Psychology Today article, Troubled Souls: Spirituality as a Mental Health Hazard, 2013, individuals without some spiritual or religious foundation were more likely to take psychotropic medication, to use or be dependent on recreational drugs, to have a generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, or any neurotic disorder, and to have abnormal eating attitudes.
Psychologists are now developing and evaluating a variety of spiritually integrated approaches to treatment, including: forgiveness programs to help divorced people come to terms with bitterness and anger; programs to help survivors of sexual abuse deal with their spiritual struggles; treatments for women with eating disorders that draw on their spiritual resources; and programs that help drug abusers re-connect to their higher selves.
Wellness made simple
For those seeking improvement in health and well-being, here are five basic things that experts say you can focus on that can help:
1) Diet & Nutrition
You’ve heard this before, but what you put into your body matters for overall health and wellness. Information on eating the right combinations and proportions of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein is critically important to overall health and wellness.
Other important considerations include drinking enough water, understanding how vitamins and minerals are derived and processed by the body, and eating habits such as when, how often and how much.
If you’re already active, keep it up. If you’re not, then setting a simple goal of 30-minutes a day can have tremendous benefits to your heart and mind. Any activity – walking, dancing, gardening, biking, anything really – is better than no activity. Even if you’re an avid TV watcher or video-gamer, walking in place while you view will improve your physical health and overall well-being.
The first step to any workout routine is to evaluate how fit you are for your chosen physical activity. Whenever you begin an exercise program, it’s wise to consult a doctor. Anyone with major health risks, males aged 45 and older, and women aged 55 and older should get medical clearance, says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
The importance of sleep cannot be understated. Generally, adults need from seven to eight hours a night; children and teens, a couple hours more. Unfortunately, less than 30% of Americans report they get sufficient sleep. Even worse, too many people feel they can sacrifice sleep to stay atop of heavy work and school schedules.
Lack of sleep is linked to mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression. It impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving, all of which affects learning and job performance. Sleep can even affect your weight! According to a 2004 study, people who sleep less than six hours a day were almost 30 percent more likely to become obese than those who slept seven to nine hours. As discussed in our article, Get More Sleep, getting sufficient sleep can have an immensely beneficial impact on your physical health, your emotional well-being, thinking and behavior, and ultimately, your happiness
4) Maintain your Brain
Much of what we do for overall health and wellness directly affect the operation of the brain, both in its physical make-up and in thought. Diet and exercise, meditation or other spiritual pursuits, all provide benefits that result in greater clarity of thought and better emotional health. Likewise, how we think about ourselves, and what is happening to us, directly impact our ability to introduce and maintain other healthy elements into our lives. From eating to running, often our actions are entirely driven by the thoughts in our heads.
A basic foundational insight of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is, if you can change your thoughts, then you can change your life. When things happen, how we respond is often a choice. Depending on how rational or irrational our beliefs may be about what happened, and the feelings we have in respond to those beliefs, the actions we take can lead us in positive or negative directions.
Brain health and thought-health is not the same thing, but many activities – like better diet and more exercise – do improve both. So too does stimulating activities like reading, games and puzzles, and stimulating conversation. On the flip side, alcohol or drug use, excessive television watching, smoking and of course, too little sleep, can all hurt the physiology of the brain, as well as negatively impact our thoughts, attitudes and emotions.
5) Find peace
Peace of mind is largely a matter of personal preference and perspective. It includes joy and laughter; music, the theater and the arts; compassion and love; relaxation and visualization; affirmations and self-love, breathing, meditation and God; gratitude and forgiveness, quiet and solitude; friends, family and humanity. It may be found briefly in a place or action, but for it to take hold; it must ultimately be found within ourselves.
Peace comes from acceptance of what is and awareness of the beauty of the moment. Rarely is the moment we’re in as bad as the thoughts we’re having about what was, or what may be. Training ourselves to find peace in all things is not easy. But with guidance, and patience, it’s a reward.
Wellness is a balance; an interaction of the different parts and pieces of our being. Each draws and pulls on the other, making our lives harder or easier in its way. Perfection may be impossible but it takes only small steps to improve upon what we have and find greater happiness. If you are looking for assistance in any or all of the pieces that make up your well-being, contact Capital EAP.