Replace Illness With Wellness
August is National Wellness Month. What does wellness mean to you? Wellness means different things to different people. To some, wellness might mean the absence of illness. To others, it might mean being in good physical health or being emotionally resilient. Many in the wellness space illustrate it with a Wellness Wheel. However you define it, "If you don't make time for wellness, you will be forced to make time for illness."
I first heard the concept of wellness while working as a Resident Advisor in college. Part of my job was to create wellness programs for the residents living in the dorm and on the floor I was in charge of. I made a bulletin board with all the dimensions of the wellness wheel to remind students of the importance of living a balanced life in college. One of the programs I created was learning how to change a flat tire to reduce anxiety. Another topic was navigating grief; one of my residents lost a close family member at the time. As a self-help junkie, the concept of wellness resonated with me and I have been on a wellness journey since.
Early in my career, there was talk about physical therapists being wellness providers especially after Direct Access laws were passed in most of the 50 states. Although I gave many presentations on wellness and even worked at a health and wellness center, there were limited opportunities to help patients achieve wellness through traditional physical therapy. Physical therapists evaluate and develop a treatment plan to help individuals get through what is known as an "episode of care" and then discharge them to the care of some other wellness provider or caregiver since wellness is not typically covered under health insurance. Healthy Core was born out of my frustration of wanting to do more for my patients and to see them through the challenges of life; to be the person they trust when an ailment comes up or to bridge them into wellness without policies or obstacles in the way.
A Wellness Wheel is a pie chart description of all the wellness dimensions that make up the components of a well-balanced lifestyle. These include physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, social, occupational/financial and environmental wellness. According to some sources, financial and occupational wellness are grouped together. A wellness wheel can be instrumental in defining strengths and weaknesses to be addressed through holistic strategies. It can help improve your self-awareness to keep these dimensions in balance, while working on areas of improvement. It allows you to check in with yourself, in several key areas of your life, to encourage a whole, functional version of you. You have often heard me say it as the "best version of yourself."
I found a few good descriptions of each wellness dimension and would like to offer some examples. For me, the theme of Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) or Vagus nerve tone is woven throughout all of them. Read our blog on understanding and strengthening the Vagus nerve here. Let's begin with physical wellness, since this is our main work as physical therapists, although we can do much more to address the other areas of wellness.
PHYSICAL WELLNESS - defined as the ability to recognize that your behaviors have a significant impact on your wellness and adopting healthy habits (routine check-ups, balanced diets, exercise) while avoiding destructive and unhealthy behaviors. This can mean prioritizing physical activity, a healthy diet, sleep and medical care. It is recognizing that you have some control over your health and that there are medical and health professionals who can help you achieve it. I think of this as physiological health in that all systems of the body are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) with the gate keeper being the Vagus nerve.
INTELLECTUAL WELLNESS - defined as the desire to learn new concepts, improve skills and seek challenges in pursuit of lifelong learning. It means expanding your knowledge and skills, staying updated on current events and being curious. Applying this to the Vagus nerve, being in the green zone of safety and social engagement can help you be more curious, inquisitive and retain what you learn. It is challenging to learn new things or be interested in something new when your brain is on overload or you are in fight or flight.
SPIRITUAL WELLNESS - defined as the ability to develop congruency between values and actions and realize a common purpose that binds creation together. It is using your beliefs, values and ethics to guide you through life and inform your actions. The Vagus nerve can be applied here as St. Michael, who is the archangel depicted with a sword (fight) and shield (flight) while carrying a balanced scale. Living a life of purpose is good for your health. This has been well documented in the research and many books. According to Matthew Kelly, author of Resisting Happiness and other books I have read, "when we are spiritually healthy we tend to be focused, invigorated, patient and generous. When we are not healthy spiritually, we tend to be irritable, restless and disconnected."
EMOTIONAL WELLNESS - defined as the ability to acknowledge and share feelings of anger, fear, sadness or stress; hope, love, joy and happiness in a productive manner. It is regularly checking in with yourself, asking for help when needed and avoiding burnout. It can be a daily self-care routine like skin care, grounding or breathing. It is setting clear boundaries that show respect for yourself and prevent resentment from building by saying "no" without guilt or excuses. Applying this to the ANS and Vagus nerve, it is moving through the green, yellow and red zones (traffic lights) and recovering fully without getting stuck in the fight or flight or fawn and freeze zones.
SOCIAL WELLNESS - defined as the ability to develop and maintain positive relationships with family, friends and co-workers. It is belonging to a group, having meaningful connections and support systems. I think of this also as "emotional intelligence". It is setting boundaries, limiting consumption of news and social media, being vulnerable in your feelings while getting professional help when needed. It is planning ahead to have something to anticipate, engaging in activities that increase joy and reduce stress; reading, exercising, gardening, doing puzzles or artwork or watching movies. Applied to the ANS and Vagus nerve, it is being intentional in seeking glimmers and being in the green zone of social engagement.
OCCUPATIONAL/ FINANCIAL WELLNESS - defined as your desire to contribute in your career to make a positive impact on the organization you work in and to society as a whole. It is finding fulfilling work and financial stability. This includes job satisfaction, career ambitions and finances. It is the ability to connect socially with co-workers and colleagues and go on social outings. Suze Orman talks about "living within your means" while Dave Ramsey talks about short and long-term plans with consideration of stewardship and generosity. Applied to the Vagus nerve, if you have financial stress, you might get stuck in fight or flight (yellow zone) or fawn and freeze mode (red zone) which can negatively affect your overall health.
ENVIRONMENTAL WELLNESS - defined as the ability to make a positive impact on your environment, in the workplace, the community or the planet. It is existing in environments that improve your well-being. It might mean ditching the toxic cleaning chemicals, like I did several years ago, and using healthier alternatives or spending more time in nature, grounding your feet in the sand or ground, using natural lighting or gardening. It is understanding the metaphysical connection between yourself and nature; the more we are fallen (from Original Sin), the more nature groans and rumbles. Applying the Vagus nerve, it means avoiding triggers from the environment, whether chemical or physical, and having a plan to prevent them. This is why we have a no-fragrance policy at Healthy Core and use Himalayan salt lamps, air purifiers and diffusers.
I hope this information helps you reflect on the interconnectedness of all areas of your health and well-being and allow you to make healthy choices. A regular practice of checking in with all the dimensions can help you make adjustments and improvements. We are here to help you on your wellness journey, whether you are a novice or well-seasoned professional. "ILLNESS" becomes "WELLNESS" when you replace "I" with "WE"; you are not alone in your health and wellness journey. We can you achieve and maintain wellness through Integrative Dry Needling sessions or our Phase II Maintenance program, which bridges the gap between physical therapy and wellness. If you need help getting started, we can evaluate you and also help you connect with other appropriate wellness professionals that we trust and use for our own wellness. Make time for wellness so you don't have to make time for illness.
Yale School of Medicine Residency Program
written by Janine Laughlin, PT - August 2023