Over the past decade, “holism” has become widely accepted as a desirable approach to health. But what does holism really mean? The word holistic, derived from holism, is thrown around everywhere these days. Everyone wants to be seen as holistic. While the word is often misused and commonly misunderstood, I believe it’s more than just a sexy word used to sell you on the latest wellness trend. Today, I’m stripping away the fluffy language and sharing with you the origins of holism, the real health benefits, and practical ways you can pursue holistic health in your own life.
Holism is the idea that the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. In our western society, we have established a “reductionist” approach to health. This approach is thought to be the opposite of holism. It means that we reduce things to their parts and analyze them in detail. To help explain this further, let’s consider the fixation of western society on eating nutrients instead of whole foods. An article in the New York Times by author and journalist Michael Pollan popularized the idea of “nutritionism.” (A great read if you have the time.) Pollan calls attention to the shift that began in the 1980’s when eating whole foods like eggs, cereal, or cookies, was replaced by an obsession with eating the right nutrients like fiber, whole grains, or low fat. This ideology was one component that contributed to our shift away from eating whole foods. In addition to nutritionism, our health care system is also an example of our reductionist approach. It consists of healthcare specialists who are subject matter experts in specific areas of medicine or parts of the body. Is reductionism wrong or bad? Not at all! It’s extremely important and necessary in many circumstances. Every approach to health has its pro’s and con’s – holism and reductionism included. In contrast to reductionism, holism is about addressing the whole person, not just their parts. This includes not just physical health but also social, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Studies continue to show us that both quantity and quality of social relationships have positive impacts on both physical and mental health (Ozbay et al., 2007, p.35). In contrast, social isolation or low quantity or quality of relationships has been linked with earlier mortality, heightened stress, elevated heart rate, blood pressure, as well as a host of conditions and diseases (Umberson, Montez, 2010, p. 2). Positive social support can reduce stress-induced cortisol levels which have negative impacts on health. They also increase oxytocin, sometimes called our “bliss” or “love” hormone, which has all kinds of benefits!
Make it a point to cultivate authentic, loving, and supportive relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. Let go of relationships that bring you down or don’t serve you. Avoid letting yourself become socially isolated and always make sure you have a social support system! Your health depends on it!
Emotional & Mental Health
While emotional and mental health may not be the exact same thing, they are closely related. Many emotional health practices can be used to promote good mental health. Many studies have found that positive emotions are a critical indicator of psychological and physical well-being. Emotional resilience also plays a huge role in emotional health. This refers to our ability to bounce back after we experience emotional distress- growing from it, not just enduring it. You may have also heard that laughter is good medicine. Well, science actually supports this! “Laughter generates increases in positive emotion and produces self-reported improvements in immune system functioning” (Tugade et al., 2004, p. 2). “Positive emotional disclosure” is also associated with better health. This includes things like taking time to write down what you’re grateful for, acknowledging the bright side of unfortunate situations, and overall maintaining an attitude of optimism. A few of my favorite emotional health tips are derived from Ph.D. and psychologist, Guy Winch, who led a Ted Talk titled “The Case for Emotional Hygiene.”
- “Protect your self-esteem.”
- “Battle negative thinking.”
- “Build emotional resilience.”
- “When you’re in emotional pain, treat yourself with the same compassion you would expect from a truly good friend.”
In addition, meditation, self-care practices, exercise, and a healthy diet have also been linked to positive emotional and mental health. Don’t put this aspect of holistic health on the back burner. It’s likely the most important of them all. Take a day to observe your emotions and thoughts. Are you kind to yourself? Are you cultivating positive emotions and thinking? If you’re looking for more ways to promote emotional health in your life consider starting a gratitude journal, practicing meditation for a few minutes a day, or simply focus on encouraging a positive emotional state. I love the apps Calm and Headspace for guided meditation – they have sessions as short as three minutes. I also like the app 5 Minute Journal which provides a space to write five things you’re grateful for each day.
Spiritual health is often overlooked. It refers to belief in a higher power, a focus beyond ourselves and our physical world. Spiritual health is important in promoting feelings of fulfillment, purpose, and meaning. I am not advocating that you attend church just so you feel healthier or check off the spiritual health box. I’m advocating for an authentic faith, something bigger than yourself, that as a byproduct provides you fulfillment and purpose in this life. Studies show that people involved in their church have generally better health, lower blood pressure, and increased longevity. Studies also show that spirituality and religion are associated with-
- Coping with adversity
- Positive emotions
- Well-being & happiness
- Meaning & Purpose
- Self Esteem
- Traits of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and gratefulness
(Koenig, 2012, p. 4)
For me, this is spending time in my bible or devotional a couple times a week, daily prayer, or catching a sermon from one of my favorite podcasts. I encourage you to find out what seeking faith looks like for you. Below are some of my favorite spiritual resources:
Our health is so much more than our diet and exercise. Perhaps shifting our focus towards our social, mental, emotional, and spiritual health may act as a vehicle for improved diet and exercise. My hope is that over time, our society will shift to integrate both reductionist and holistic approaches together as they both have considerable benefits. In the meantime, we must be proactive in promoting holistic health in our own lives by prioritizing more than just a healthy diet and regular exercise. Cultivate a strong social support system for both yourself and for others. Promote mental health through building emotional resilience, loving yourself, and battling negative thinking. And lastly, seek an authentic faith that provides you with purpose and fulfillment bigger than yourself.
- Hoffmann, I. (2003). Transcending reductionism in nutrition research. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 514S–516S.
- Koenig, H. G. (2012). Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications. ISRN Psychiatry, 2012. https://doi.org/10.5402/2012/278730
- Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social Support and Resilience to Stress. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35–40.
- Perlman, A., & Perlman, S. (2017). Living and Leading With Resilience. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 13(5), 348–350. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2017.07.002
- Pollan, M. (2007, January 28). Unhappy Meals – Michael Pollan. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html
- Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501
- Verghese, A. (2008). Spirituality and mental health. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(4), 233–237. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.44742