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If the term holistic wellness conjures up images of smoky rooms and purple crystals, you’re not alone. Holistic wellness has become pretty sensationalized.
But the “woo-woo” term reflects a sophisticated view of people as the sum total of their experiences, not just one label or idea. And if we understand that people are complex, that means that we understand there’s no “one” definition of wellness, either.
What is holistic wellness?
In general, people mean one of two things when they talk about holistic wellness. The term is often used as a shorthand for alternative medicine. For example, if someone had a medical diagnosis, they may look for “natural” ways of treating the illness. This would be “holistic medicine.”
The broader definition of holistic wellness uses the literal meaning of the word “holistic.” That is, it defines wellness as the interdependence of several dimensions of health. The whole person, therefore, isn’t well unless they’re well in every area of life — not just physical health. While experts debate which areas should be included in holistic wellness, most agree that it encompasses mental, emotional, and physical health.
Why is holistic wellness so important?
The holistic wellness definition is a departure from how we traditionally see health. Particularly in Western society, wellness is typically associated with physical health. We define health as the absence of illness or disease. However, that’s only part of the story. Health — and wellness — can only be understood as parts of a whole, and all of the dimensions are inextricably connected.
Take, for example, stress. It’s widely understood — and scientifically proven — that stress causes or exacerbates most major health issues. And there’s not a single person who can’t describe the emotional impact of extreme stress. Stressful events are a perfect example of how seemingly unrelated areas of your life can affect your emotional, and subsequently your physical, health.
Holistic wellness is now beginning to have a measurable impact on companies across every industry. As the lines between work and home are becoming even blurrier, it’s bringing into focus what we’ve always known — there is no “work you” and “home you,” there’s just “you.” If employers want to increase productivity, creativity, and innovation, they can no longer try to separate it from well-being.
The good news is that there’s no need to try to separate our work and home lives — or even to try to separate different aspects of holistic wellness. Research shows that when we bring our whole selves to work, we’re more creative and perform better. BetterUp created the Whole Person Model (WPM) to measure the mindsets and behaviors that research shows lead to peak performance, enhanced well-being, and strong company culture. The WPM creates a framework for people and professionals everywhere to understand how their mental fitness, along with every other area of life, impacts their performance, and to measure this growth over time.
7 components of holistic wellness
The National Wellness Institute (NWI) promotes a six-dimensional model of holistic wellness. They identify the key components as mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and occupational. Looking at optimal health and wellness through a multi-faceted approach is the best way to support and empower the whole person.
Here’s how each of these areas relates to overall wellness:
Mental wellbeing — and mental fitness — is crucial to overall health. Mental fitness allows us to communicate with others, think critically, and make decisions with ease. A healthy mind is able to learn and grow, and can stay present in the moment. Poor mental fitness is associated with reduced resilience and resistance to stress.
Physical well-being is sometimes thought of as being free from illness. However, simply “not being sick” doesn’t really make for much quality of life. On the other hand, there are individuals who live with chronic disease who feel vital and well. Physical health includes energy, flexibility, strength, fitness, sleep, and nutrition.
Being emotionally healthy impacts your relationship with yourself and others. Emotional wellness determines how you interpret stressful situations and your ability to regulate emotions. It also improves your ability to ask for help and sit with uncomfortable emotions. Considering that suicide ranks as a leading cause of death in the United States, mental and emotional health are undeniably critical to public health.
Spiritual wellness refers to your connection to something larger than yourself. People who are spiritually healthy are able to find purpose and meaning in life. They feel more motivated, are more resilient, and have a sense of their place in the world. Those with poor spiritual health tend to experience existential crises.
Social well-being is driven by a sense of belonging. Participating in organizations, spending time with friends and family, and feeling connected to others are all part of social wellness. Researchers have found that those with strong social networks live longer, healthier lives.
We spend a significant portion of our lives at work, so it stands to reason that how we feel when we’re there impacts the rest of our lives. Occupational health includes finding joy and fulfillment in the work that we do. It also means feeling like you have opportunities to grow and develop within your career.
While financial health isn’t included in the NWI’s model, many other wellness professionals feel that it deserves its own category. A 2020 survey found that financial stress was associated with lower productivity, morale, and increased stress. People with poor financial health feel that they lack control over their income and expenses. They worry about their ability to handle emergencies and have lower self-esteem.
Best practices to achieve holistic wellness
There are endless ways to create holistic wellness solutions — and there’s no “right” answer. As you become more aware of the way multiple areas of your life intersect, you may find that there are times when one area becomes more important than others. Sometimes, a solution or activity will lose the strength of its positive impact. Stay open-minded and compassionate as you develop this new, whole-person approach to well-being.
The following suggestions are great ways to start noticing the impact that one component of wellness has on the others. Choose the one that feels the easiest or most impactful for you to implement, or use it as a jumping-off point to create a holistic approach that works for you.
- Incorporate rest into your day
It can be difficult to sit still when you know you’ve got a lot to accomplish. However, rest makes you more effective, more creative, and happier. Getting enough rest — and not just sleep, but all seven different types of rest — is critical to your holistic health. Try setting a timer to remind yourself to take breaks. Use your time away from work to do something that recharges you creatively and spiritually.
- Work with a coach
Sometimes, it’s not easy to see how different dimensions of wellness may be impacting other areas of your life. Working with a wellness practitioner, therapist, or coach can provide insight as to what changes will make the biggest impact on your overall well-being.
For example, if you’re feeling frustrated at work, you may assume that it’s because you’re not being fairly compensated for your work. That may be true, but the resulting impact on your financial, social, and emotional well-being may have more to do with how you currently feel. Life or health coaching can help you figure out the best way to navigate your circumstances, determine the root cause, and achieve your goals.
- Understand the connection between physical and mental fitness
Physical well-being has a tremendous impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Taking care of your physical health by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating well can improve your mood and cognitive ability. You can incorporate other dimensions of holistic wellness as well, like hitting a workout class with a friend or running a 5K to support a cause you believe in. Self-care practices like acupuncture, chiropractic care, and mindfulness are also good ways to nurture the whole body, mind, and spirit.
- Nurture your relationships
Social health, particularly building relationships that inspire us, helps us develop a sense of belonging. We cultivate our understanding of ourselves — and in many ways, our self-esteem — by how we are perceived by those around us. Invest time in building relationships based on shared goals, support, and mutual respect. These relationships will have profound positive effects on how you feel, what you eat, and even how much money you make.
- Stay open-minded
Skeptical about taking a yoga class, meditating, or getting a Reiki treatment? Try it anyway. Years ago, people whispered that you could “catch” a demon from being too close to another person. That sounds pretty out there — unless you consider it to be a rudimentary theory of infectious disease. Just because we don’t fully understand how something works isn’t a reason not to try it. And if it makes you feel better, we’re all for it.
- Do something that you love
Juggling work, personal relationships, and professional development doesn’t leave much time for fun — but it’s important that you make it a priority anyway. Doing something that you love just for the sake of it keeps your creativity flowing. Time spent doing something fun actually directly correlates to how efficient you are in your work time. It turns out that the better you are at play, the better you are at work.
Despite the common misconception, holistic wellness isn’t all about sage and crystals (although if that’s your thing, we certainly won’t judge). It’s about understanding people as multi-faceted beings who have rich, nuanced experiences. These areas of life intersect and overlap to create the sum total of how we feel at any given moment. Taking a whole-person approach to wellness is key to helping human beings live their happiest, healthiest, and most fulfilling lives.
BetterUp Staff Writer