Whole Person Wellness
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 24, 2021 (edited March 25, 2022)
We experience whole person wellness when we address comprehensive human needs across many domains.
We want to be well. Sickness burdens and sorrows existence. Wellness crosses many dimensions of being. Physical health is paramount to whole person wellness but only a piece of a much larger pie. If we want to flourish, experiencing whole person wellness, we must attend to several areas of being, nurturing our souls with healthy activities that build relationships, and encourage physical and mental health.
In our fast paced world, we often seek wellness through alleviating symptoms of sickness. We hope a medicating prescription will save us the excruciating work of making lifestyle changes. We pop a pill, dull the pain, and believe we are well. We are not.
Wellness is more than not feeling pain. Oddly, we can be well while experiencing physical and mental discomfort. Whole person wellness, paradoxically, requires willingness to endure passing twinges of pain. Only in discomfort do we grow.
Whole person wellness is actively engaging in a large variety of activities that promote a state of holistic health.
"According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health is defined as being 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.'"
What is Wellness?
Curing Illness by Treating the Whole Person
Traditional medical treatment is embracing whole person treatment, understanding the quick fix is insufficient, shifting from single transactional treatments, to whole person care.
Doctors finally are widening their views, understanding that acute complaints of sickness point to much deeper causes. Instead of treating the symptom, we need to seek the cause and then provide a comprehensive cure.
We can't experience wellness when our lives are chaotic. If we want to be well, we need to treat our whole person, balancing and nurturing the critical components that create wellness.
"Wellness is not a passive or static state but rather an 'active pursuit' that is associated with intentions, choices and actions as we work toward an optimal state of health and wellbeing."
Global Wellness Institute
Five Critical Components of Wellness
Boiling any wellness exposition into rigid categories dishonors the complexity. Categories, however, serve a purpose, greasing our mind for deeper reflection.
In my research I have found varying numbers of categories presented as foundational facets of wellness. I chose to expand on five most often found in wellness research.
Five characteristics of whole person wellness are: Physical Health, Emotional-Mental Health, Safe Environments, Supporting Relationships, and Spirituality (meaning and purpose).
Wellness begins with physical health. While whole person wellness is possible during illness, debilitating injuries and disease create a massive hurdle to subjective feelings of wellness.
Physical wellness is a project for individuals and societies. Wide accessibility to medical care, clean water, and nutritious food are essential. When these basics of wellness are withheld or unattainable for the masses, wellness suffers collectively.
As individuals, we also have responsibility. We can have access to nutritious food but choose to eat over-processed junk. As individuals, we improve our physical wellness by focusing on several key areas:
Our bodies need to move. Our joints, muscles, and tendons need exercise for healthy functioning. Exercise also benefits organs, improves digestion, and relieves stress. Sedentary life styles invite stress, inflammation and illness. A decaying body severely impacts wellness, interfering with many enjoyments of living.
Daniel Amen in his book Change Your Brain; Change Your Life wrote, "people who exercise regularly report a general sense of well-being that those who lead a sedentary lifestyle do not experience. They have increased energy and a healthy appetite, they sleep more soundly and are usually in a better mood" (2015).
See Exercise and Mental Health for more on this topic
Guy Harrison, an award winning journalist, wrote in his wonderful book Think that "good brains start with good nutrition. Bad eating habits can be devastating to the human brain. A brain is helped or hindered by the quantity and quality of its fuel, and this is true for human being" (2013 location 2746).
Nutrition supports every human function from movement, vital organ processes, to thinking, emotional regulation, and motivation.
In non-scientific, straightforward words: you eat crappy you feel crappy. If we don't have a foundation of healthy consumption, life slowly collapses on itself.
Surviving is hard work. A day of movement and thought drains the body and fatigues the soul. We need rest to rejuvenate, extended patterns of robbing our bodies of vital rest impairs health and proper functioning.
Cheryl Conklin wrote, "poor sleep has been shown to aggravate or contribute to many mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and ADHD" (2021).
Proper sleep is a vital activity for whole person wellness.
See Healthy Sleep Habits to Boost Your Mental Well-Being for more on this topic
Stress Management is an integral part of each of the five components of whole person wellness. We manage stress from two directions. First, we make choices that limit future stress. Second, we learn techniques that mediate necessary stresses of living.
We manage stress through choices by limiting stress producing circumstances. We must balance demands, carefully examining new commitments, evaluating the additional stress an added commitment will dump onto our already over-filled plate.
We budget energy demands through thoughtful, careful living. Mindful choices can eliminate many stresses, reducing emergencies and demands in the future.
Stress Management Techniques
Life inherently is stressful. Survival is an ever-present engagement. Some stresses are necessary for survival and thriving. We biologically are equipped with varying degrees of stress tolerance. Often life deals more stress than we can comfortably endure. In these times, we need healthy stress managing techniques.
These techniques can include enjoyable breaks, exercise, meditation, and cognitive reappraisals.
See Emotional Regulation Skills for more on this topic
Mental health is paramount to wellness. When we suffer from anxiety and depression, wellness evades. The emotions envelope our entire existence in gloom and fear.
Often mental illness is biological beyond simple behavioral and thinking remedies. Qualified professionals and prescriptions are often necessary to regain balance and enjoy wellness.
Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney wrote, "depression, on the other hand, has been associated with low prefrontal activity and inability to sustain reward circuitry activation. The ability to savor and sustain positive emotion is critical to daily function well-being and to health" (Location 1591).
However, behavior and thinking improvements can help. Stress management helps stabilize moods. Employing positive thinking can change perspectives, and lighten emotional loads. Exercise and nutrition significantly intertwine with mental health. Healthy relationships provide several essential needs that heal and calm mental and emotional disruptions.
All the elements of whole person wellness cross, building and lifting the whole person.
We can't enjoy wellness if we are constantly threatened. Dangerous environments demand protective withdrawing for emotional safety. Under constant duress, we cower behind protective walls. Dangerous environments and wellness don't mix.
Improving our environment may require difficult choices, leaving relationships, limiting contact, and frightening new beginnings.
See Toxic Home Environments for more on this topic
Some dangerous environments are beyond our personal control. However, we can (and should) work with local and federal governments to improve dangerous neighborhoods, creating more equality and opportunity.
Dr. Angela Diaz received support from the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center during key junctures in her life. She now is on the Health Center staff. She explains that the goal of the Health Center is to "provide the basic fabric that we all need as humans: warmth; connectedness; the sense that we belong somewhere; the feeling that we matter" (Southwick & Charney, 2018 page 99).
The Neuro-Affective Relational Model (NARM) is a scientifically supported theoretical approach for treating severe psychological trauma. NARM recognizes five biologically based core needs that are essential for physical and emotional well-being: the need for connection, attunement, trust, autonomy, and love-sexuality (Heller & La Pierre, 2012, location 136).
"Being attuned to these five basic needs and capacities means that we are connected to our deepest resources and vitality" (location 138).
Relationships matter. We need healthy relationships for support and balance. Relationships provide necessary nutrients for wellness.
See Flourishing with Others for more on this topic
Spirituality (Purpose and Meaning)
Today, in the age of science, we still need spiritual practices. The more we discover, the more we realize we don’t know. We need hope and faith to guide us through a murky unknown future. We need reassurance that our wisdom is applicable in predicting how actions will benefit or harm our development. In the fog of unknowns, we need practices that soothe our systems, recharges our resolves, and prepares our souls for the courageous journey of living (Murphy, 2018).
Spirituality spans the dark gorges of the unknown, bringing hope, light, and comfort. We can't know everything. In fact, we know very little. Yet, we can gaze into the starry night, bask in the awe, creating for a moment subjective feelings of wellness.
A healthy relationship with the unknown brings peace. Some people find this peace through organized religion, others in nature, and still others through an overarching purpose. For our wellness, it doesn't matter where we find this peace, we just need to discover it, and allow our souls to bathe in awe inspired wonder.
See Awe for more on this topic
Key Practices for Whole Person Wellness:
Wellness Requires Effort
We can't helplessly wait for wellness to grace our lives. Wellness is not static but achieved through active pursuit. Our intentions, choices and actions work toward this optimal state of whole person wellness. Perhaps, whole person wellness is akin to Abraham Maslow's self-actualization.
Wellness is a dynamic state achieved in a moving universe. We constantly must balance, shifting weight as the world moves in unpredictable ways.
Gregg Krech, Japanese psychology expert, expresses that, "taking action is one of the most important skills you can master if you wish to maintain good mental health." (2014, Location 231). He admonishes that we do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, in response to the needs of the situation.
Krech explains, "we want to be able to act, or not act, according to our purposes. If one of our purposes is to stay healthy, we want to be able to make healthful choices and develop habits that support a healthy body and mind" (location 570).
Wellness isn't Something We Possess
Wellness isn't something we possess but something that we are. A whole person practices being well, mindfully attending to many domains. Their wellness is expressed by how they live their life. Their wellness practices strengthens immunity against diseases of the mind and body, while providing a firm and enjoyable foundation where they build their lives.
Join with me in these practices, find joy, and be well.
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Amen, D. (2015). Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Revised and Expanded): The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems. Harmony; Revised, Expanded ed. edition.
Conklin, C. (2021). Healthy Sleep Habits to Boost Your Mental Well-Being. Flourishing Life Society.
Harrison, G. (2013). Think: Why You Should Question Everything. Prometheus; Illustrated edition
Heller, L., LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Krech, G. (2014). The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology. ToDo Institute; First Edition
Murphy, T. F. (2018). Spirituality. Flourishing Life Society
Southwick, S., Charney, D. (2018). Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.