We throw around terms like optimal wellness, holistic and integrative care, wholeness of body, mind and spirit and human optimization, but what does comprehensive wellness really entail? It is now well-established in the scientific community that mental health, relationship health and physical health are linked in important ways. It is difficult to optimize our bodies and fitness if depression is eating away at our brain cells. It is hard to optimize our minds if our relationship stress is producing anxiety on a daily basis. And our relationships depend in significant ways on our individual physical and mental health. Comprehensive wellness, therefore, means that we respect and pursue the complete integration of health and optimization: healthy mind, healthy body and healthy relationships.
For the skeptics in the audience, let’s begin with the science. Mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, were long-thought to be psychological disorders with minor physical components. Through modern neuroscience research, we now understand that these disorders are highly physiological, affecting both the body and the mind in important ways. Depression is cytotoxic, meaning that it degrades living cells, especially in the brain. It also starts to groove in neural pathway patterns that become more difficult to reverse the longer an individual’s depression continues.
Anxiety and stress are related, releasing cortisol in higher-than-healthy levels and can lead to adrenal problems, fatigue and other physical health issues. One of the longest running studies in scientific history, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, along with important research published by the National Academy of Sciences, found that the quality of our adult relationships determines our health and longevity at least as much as diet and exercise do. Some studies have also shown loneliness to be a greater risk factor affecting health than obesity or smoking. Of course, our happiness — and not just our physical health — is also affected by stress and mental health issues, as evidenced by many studies.
The bottom line is that our minds, our bodies, and our relationships are so interrelated that we can’t fully optimize ourselves without addressing each area and understanding how they work together. An individual might excel in physical fitness or nutrition optimization, but still experience the impact of relationship stress on their body, biochemistry, energy and hormone profile. You might focus on exploring your subconscious mind, trauma history and early childhood experiences in therapy, but neglecting the physiology of anxiety and depression can still leave the door open for progressive disease and the entrenchment of those conditions. If we understand that mind, body and relationship health work together synergistically, we have a better shot at optimal health, happiness and well-being.
So, what to do about it? To move toward comprehensive wellness, it is essential to craft a personal growth and health track for yourself that includes support in all three of the key domains. For example, if you haven’t had a physical exam in the last 12 months, it is recommended that you see a doctor to check out your basic physical health. Such exams can catch minor issues early — such as marginally high blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar levels — before they become disease. If you struggle a little with depression, stress, anxiety or irritability, then seeing a psychotherapist for a least a few sessions would give you a plan of action for how to best address those issues. And if your relationship is a source of stress —if you argue a lot with your partner or feel disconnected — it is important, based on what we know of the health impacts of living in a dysfunctional relationship or feeling alone, that you restore the health of your relationship by seeking out a specialized counselor or setting aside time and focus at home to improve how your relationship feels.
It is very helpful — yet seldom done in counseling and medicine — to coordinate your care, progress and evaluations in each important area of health. For example, therapists rarely have access to your medical information, or pursue a collaboration with your doctor, even though such collaborations can be incredibly fruitful in improving both your physical and mental health. Mental health professionals typically do not order lab work, even though many physical ailments, like an underperforming thyroid, can trigger, mimic or exacerbate depression. And too often, doctors many not refer a patient with high anxiety or with relationship stress to a psychotherapist. Many don’t know which therapists are specialized to address specific concerns. Relationship health, especially, often goes unaddressed in the wellness world.
Medical doctors who do support their patients with preventive education and by optimizing health and wellness have improved their understanding of the fundamental areas that impact human functioning. Many focus on assessing your foundational physical health and then home in on your diet, exercise regimen, stress levels and sleep hygiene. As psychotherapists, we add relationship and mental health to that equation, knowing how significant both are to your overall health. The best doctors agree that relationships and mental health are key to include in any assessment and treatment plan for optimal wellbeing.
Comprehensive wellness is getting more attention as researchers and practitioners learn more about the importance of coordinating health across all the major areas of human functioning. Increasingly, smart care in both physical and mental health will include asking about the other, gradually moving toward better coordination of care across disciplines.
As healthcare professionals, we consider it part of our mission to educate the community and help you access such coordinated support. And, while health professionals don’t often talk about your spirit, we believe that feeling invigorated by life and having a strong sense of meaning and purpose are also key to your happiness and overall well being. So, the next time you hear the terms ‘optimal wellbeing,’ ‘comprehensive health,’ or ‘holistic care,’ ask yourself: Do they include a full understanding of mental, physical and relationship health and how those work together?
We believe that embracing comprehensive wellness, and choosing support professionals who encourage that integrated approach, gives you a synergistic boost in each area and improves your overall wellness, health and happiness.
John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They offer individual, couples, and group therapy to help their clients achieve healthy minds and thrive at life.