Google “holistic health” these days and you will immediately be invited to expand your perception of health to include the mind, body and spirit. A vast array of alternative practices awaits you: yoga, aromatherapy, “energy” work and acupuncture to name but a few. And while I am highly skeptical of some and have dabbled in others myself, I believe that we are still missing the “whole” picture. These practices along with the other more traditional health behaviors, such as physical activity and diet, continue to put the focus on the individual being solely responsible for their health. And why wouldn’t we? Our North American culture fosters independence, self-reliance and personal autonomy. Sounds pretty good to me. I have always highly prized my independence and have spent my whole life and career helping people adopt better health behaviors. That is why I was shocked to my core this June when I learned something that is still sending reverberations through my brain. And as a health professional I still feel a bit surprised that I truly didn’t “get this” until now. Our health behaviors account for only a small fraction (estimates are anywhere from 8-25%) of our health picture . Say what!?!?!
The truth is, the primary factors that shape our health are not medical treatments or our lifestyle choices but rather our living conditions. Level of income, job security, education, and early childhood experiences play powerful roles in our well being. Coping with conditions of low income, inadequate working conditions, or food insecurity, for example can continually provoke the flight or fight reaction in our bodies, leading to a weakened immune system and disruptions in our hormonal and metabolic systems. Add to that a lack of supportive relationships, or discrimination (age, gender, race, weight) or social isolation and our stress further increases. A life course approach looks at the impact of our environments and situations across our whole life time, lending a greater understanding of our overall health picture, or as I call it — wholistic health.
Does that mean that if we had a crummy childhood or didn’t get a higher level of education we should just give up? Do nothing towards our health? No, not at all. When viewed from this perspective we can gain a deeper awareness and have greater compassion for ourselves and others. Living under stressful conditions can be exhausting, making it extremely hard to take up physical leisure or practice healthy eating habits. And maybe some of our “unhealthy” habits such as excessive use of alcohol/drugs, overeating or numbing out in front of the TV are really just coping techniques, effective in bringing us momentary relief but making our health situation worse in the long run.
So what can we do?
I encourage all of us to continue to do what we can to improve or sustain our well-being. Starting from a place of love, understanding and self compassion versus critical or self berating is a much more effective way to make changes in our health. The broader view helps us to recognize when and why we are struggling so we can then encourage and support ourselves in making those changes in a more realistic way.
Thirdly, I would like to encourage all of us to begin to be more vocal in making sure we all have access to a healthy living wage, can live free from discrimination and have the supports and resources needed to ensure our children grow and develop as they should.
Maybe then, we will all be on our way to wholistic health.