By Michael Finkelstein, MD, Well Being Journal, Vol. 24, No. 5.
Whether we suffer from common ailments such as insomnia, high cholesterol, and allergies or chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and fibromyalgia, our health challenges can interfere with our ability to enjoy our lives. The specifics of our respective health challenges simply impact our lives in different ways and to different extremes. For this reason, whatever complaints my patients have, I always ask this question at the outset of our work together: What will you do with your life, once your health is restored?
Usually, the question takes my patients aback. Not only do people not expect a medical doctor to inquire about such matters, but most people have given little, if any, thought to the answer. Yet the answer to this question is typically the linchpin for our ability to get and stay healthy.
In our fast-paced world, we are used to looking for quick-fix solutions to our health challenges, not realizing that these “solutions” in fact may contribute to our problems. Most health challenges are the result of an imbalance in our bodies and lives, and most quick-fix solutions actually exacerbate these imbalances. If, instead, we take a slow medicine approach—identifying the root cause of our health challenges, then creating a thoughtful, step-by-step, and long-term response to it—we effectively bring ourselves back into balance. In doing so, not only do we not resolve our primary complaints but we benefit elsewhere in our lives, often in unexpected ways.
As many of us are beginning to understand, health is not just the absence of disease but, rather, a state of wellness. Sadly, despite this realization, the more-more-more drive of our materialistic lifestyles—more money, more status, more stuff—is slowly killing us from a combination of stress, isolation, and emptiness. When we slow down, live our lives with passion, meaning, and purpose and cultivate harmonious relationships with those who are important to us, we bring ourselves into greater alignment on every level—body, mind, heart, and soul. This alignment, in turn, enhances our sense of overall wellness, shifting us from the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response to the parasympathetic nervous system’s healing response.
To this end, most of my patients have experienced symptom relief, not only from exercising this many times a day or ingesting a particular supplement but also as a by-product of whatever conscious steps they have taken to return to a state of genuine fulfillment, that place where they feel truly alive. They have done some combination of spending time in nature, playing a musical instrument, mending a broken relationship, volunteering at a homeless shelter, and otherwise honoring, deepening, and celebrating their lives.
There are, of course, many external triggers for illness, such as environmental toxins or injuries that lead to a chain reaction of difficulties. In many cases, however, the root of a health challenge is related to an emotional or spiritual component. When this component is taken into consideration as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, people experience better outcomes.
The proverbial struggle with weight, for example, is typically aggravated by emotional eating, yet the most common “remedy” for it is dieting—which, in fact, is often counterproductive. The shame, guilt, and self-recrimination of dieting only exacerbate the root emotions—creating a vicious cycle of feeling bad, then eating to feel better. Fixating on calories, exercise, or specific foods entirely misses the point of why we overeat to begin with, and therefore is doomed to fail at sustainably transforming our habits. Instead, we need to identify why we are overeating: What void in our lives are we seeking to fill, and what steps can we take to actually fill it?
To achieve and sustain good health, no matter what the ailment, we need perspective. We need to zoom our lens on the area calling for attention, pan the lens out to take in the big picture, then use our intelligence and intuition to connect the dots in-between. We need to become aware of each area of our lives and explore how to optimize our wellness in those areas—by eating nutrient-dense foods, spending time by the ocean, becoming a foster parent, traveling abroad, finding a loving partner, or whatever else helps us create a harmonious life that is filled with passion and purpose.
Everything is interdependent—muscles and nerves, bodies and minds, people and planet—with each connecting thread having a effect on the other. We all have the capacity to understand the interconnected web of our health and to channel the that effect in a positive direction. This individualized process requires trial and error, and therefore takes time, but ultimately allows us to cultivate lasting wellness.
The whole reason we want to be healthy, after all, is to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life. By figuring out how to do so right now, in whatever modified forms may be required at this time, we can achieve the state of wellness we seek, without unnecessary deprivation and pointless sacrifice. Instead of dieting, we can increase our intake of whole, unprocessed foods that are both healthy and delicious, and we can celebrate our meals with flowers, music, and good company. Instead of exercising on a treadmill at the local gym, we can enjoy moving our bodies through hiking in the woods, practicing tai chi on the beach, or dancing at a night club. These changes are all about living, which is the point of being well.
Getting healthy does not need to be a chore; rather, it can be an adventure. By getting creative about how to expand into the life we have right now, and by truly savoring this life—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—we chart new paths to wellness that leave us feeling better on every level. And that is what health is all about.
This article was originally posted in Michael Finkelstein’s blog for The Huffington Post on July 16, 2014, and is adapted for Well Being Journal and reprinted here from http://slowmedicinedoctor.com by permission.
Michael Finkelstein, MD, The Slow Medicine Doctor, is the author of Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness, endorsed by Andrew Weil, MD and Mehmet Oz, MD.