Complementary Approaches to Health

As I mentioned in a recent post, the outer ring of the Wheel of Health focuses on Professional Care, which may include both conventional and complementary approaches to healthcare. A primary goal of integrative medicine is to erase the distinction between conventional and complementary approaches and instead encourage the use of the most effective, evidence-based modalities across the continuum.

 As a public health professional, I absolutely believe in the importance of prevention and primary care services that are typically obtained through more traditional or “Western medicine” practices. However, I also believe in, and have experienced firsthand, the benefits of more complementary approaches, many of which are grounded in more “Eastern medicine” traditions. I have had conversations with many individuals who are skeptical about the effectiveness of complementary approaches. My belief is that if you are open to these approaches and believe they can help you, they will. Whereas if you are skeptical and doubtful of their effectiveness, they likely won’t work for you. I feel fortunate that we all have a choice when it comes to deciding what treatments we seek to help us achieve and maintain our health and wellbeing.

Firsthand experience

I’d like to share my experience with some complementary approaches I have used to help manage anxiety. I have dealt with anxiety since I was a young child. One of the ways my anxiety manifested itself was through a nervous habit of biting the inside of my cheeks. I would chew away as I ruminated on my many worries about school, family, fitting in and all the other concerns of an adolescent trying to find her place in the world. I didn’t think much of it as a kid, but I became more self-conscious about it as I matured. I imagine I looked pretty silly with my mouth contorted to one side or the other. When my husband gently inquired about this habit, it made me realize it was noticeable to others and not something I could keep hidden.

I knew I wanted to break this habit but felt powerless to do so. As anyone who has tried to stop a long-standing habit knows, it can be incredibly difficult to change the behavior. I tried chewing gum to keep my mouth occupied. I tried that bitter tasting chemical that is supposed to help you stop biting your finger nails. I decided to try therapy, to address the underlying issue of anxiety. It helped manage the anxiety to some degree but didn’t break the habit. I eventually decided to see a psychiatrist and try anti-anxiety medication, which to me was a last resort. I try to avoid prescription medications unless absolutely necessary. I started taking a relatively low dose of an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, a class of drugs commonly used to treat depression and generalized anxiety disorder). I would say it took the edge off a little, but it wasn’t solving the problem I wanted to fix which was the cheek biting. I weaned off the medication after about two years, as it wasn’t doing enough, and I did not feel like trying different medications.

At that point, I felt stuck and resigned myself to living with this habit. Then one day my husband came back from a weekend of camping with some friends and shared some interesting news. A couple of the guys had shared that they were working with a local shaman to help resolve some physical and mental health issues – and that this shaman was essentially a miracle worker, curing their ills. I was somewhat taken aback as these gentlemen are well-educated, highly respected professionals…and the first image conjured up in my mind when I heard the word shaman was “witch doctor.” My curiosity was piqued. My husband gently suggested that perhaps this shaman could help with my cheek biting. I was skeptical at first but willing to try anything to get some relief.

I went for my first visit with the shaman and left feeling like a new person. I had not really experienced energy work before, but I felt like he literally wiped away all negative energy that had been present in my body. It took about three or four sessions to kick the habit, but I did stop biting my cheeks. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I did experience an occasional relapse, but I would go in for a booster session and be good as new. The only downside to the experience was the cost – it was several hundred dollars per session and not covered by insurance. For me, it was worth every penny, but I realize I was fortunate that I could afford to seek his services.

I stayed free from my nervous habit for a couple of years but then started to experience more relapses. At this point, our financial situation had changed and we did not have as much disposable income to spend on these services. I sought some less expensive opportunities involving energy work, but they were not as effective at stopping the cheek biting. I felt resigned again to just live with it but knowing that it was possible to break the habit made me continue to seek other options. One day I was doing some internet research about cheek biting and stumbled upon individuals who had success with hypnosis. I was intrigued but skeptical again, as all I knew about hypnosis was the Vegas-style shows where some volunteer from the audience gets hypnotized and does silly things on stage to entertain the crowd. As I read more, I realized that hypnosis was different than that and many people have used it to help stop smoking or to lose weight.

I was hesitant to take the leap until I found a local practitioner who also happened to be a fellow graduate of the Duke health coaching program I attended. This connection gave me the courage to reach out and make an appointment. Once again, it took a few appointments to completely kick the habit. However, in the past year or so since I first underwent hypnosis, I have only had a couple of minor relapses that were easily fixed with a one-time booster session. The cost of hypnosis is much more reasonable and since I sought the services to help address a health issue (anxiety), I have been able to use our Health Savings Account to cover the cost.

I will readily admit that I don’t know exactly how the energy work and the hypnosis helped me break this habit. When I questioned the shaman about how his therapy works, he really couldn’t explain it. His response was basically “if it fixed your problem, does it really matter how it works?” He’s got a point. From what I have read about hypnosis, it is a way to access a person’s subconscious mind to help implement the desired change. The hypnotist serves as a guide, using suggestions that can help you modify your behavior and achieve your goals. Regardless of how these approaches work, I am grateful that they have helped me when conventional healthcare couldn’t. I encourage you to consider exploring complementary approaches if you are not achieving the results you desire through more traditional means.

Prevention and Intervention – Focus on the Flu Vaccine

The outer ring of the Wheel of Health focuses on Professional Care, which is just as important as the areas of self-care I have discussed in previous posts. Maintaining optimal health includes seeking routine preventive medical care such as annual physical exams, recommended cancer screenings (e.g., mammogram, colonoscopy) and vaccinations.

You can find the latest recommendations for adult preventive care on the US Preventive Services Task Force website.  I highly encourage you to review the recommendations for your age and sex and discuss them with your healthcare provider. However, there is one recommendation I want to focus on for this post and that is the annual influenza vaccination, better known as the flu shot.

As a public health professional, I am often befuddled by the level of disagreement over getting vaccinated against the flu. I see friends debating it on Facebook. Some get the shot every year, others have never gotten it and never will. I have had friendly debates within my own family about the importance of annual vaccination. I agree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendation which is routine annual influenza vaccination for all persons aged ≥6 months who do not have contraindications. That last part is important – there are some individuals who cannot and should not receive the vaccination. But for most of us, there is no reason not to take this simple step to protect yourself from a potentially serious and sometimes fatal illness.

If you have any access to mainstream media, you are likely very aware of the toll that the flu has taken on communities across the country this year. This flu season is the worst in nearly a decade and we are not out of the woods yet.  Children and adults alike are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying – yes, dying – from the flu and its complications. I know several people who have had the flu and developed pneumonia, requiring hospital stays and heavy-duty antibiotics in order to recover.

I know there are some myths and incorrect beliefs circulating about the flu shot. Some people think they will get the flu if they are vaccinated (they won’t – if they get sick, they were likely exposed before they received the vaccine). Others argue that it is not worth getting vaccinated if the vaccine is not a good match to the virus strains that are circulating. It is difficult to get an exact match of the virus strain each season, as vaccine production must begin months before the flu virus presents itself. However, even if the vaccine is not an exact or even a good match, getting vaccinated will help reduce the risk of flu-associated complications that often require hospitalization. It can also make your illness milder if you do get sick.

Some people claim that they have never gotten the flu shot and have never gotten the flu, thus, they believe they are not susceptible. The flaw in that argument is that the flu virus strain changes every year so it’s likely they will eventually be exposed to a strain that does cause them to fall ill – especially if they decline to be vaccinated. That is why annual vaccination against the flu is so important. The flu is not simply a “bad cold” that someone can weather through. It is a serious illness that should not be taken lightly.

If you’re still not convinced to get vaccinated for your own protection, please consider doing so to protect the people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions. If you haven’t yet been vaccinated and are now willing to do so, it’s not too late. I encourage you to act fast though as flu shots are running low due to the heavy flu season.  You can use the Flu Vaccine Finder tool on the CDC website to see where vaccine is still available in your area. The flu vaccine is typically covered by most health insurance plans and many pharmacies offer the flu shot at reduced cost for those who don’t have insurance.

For more information about the flu and how to protect yourself, please visit the CDC website.

 

 

Mind-Body Connection

This area of the Wheel of Health relates back to the inner ring of Mindful Awareness. It focuses on mind-body practices that can help you be more present and enhance your physical, mental and emotional health. It includes techniques that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response, such as breathing practices, meditation, yoga, and guided imagery.

History of mind-body connection

Awareness of the mind-body connection is not something new. For centuries, almost every system of medicine throughout the world treated the mind and body as a whole. But during the 1600s, the Western world started to see the mind and body as two distinct things. In this view, the body was considered more of a machine, with no connection to the mind at all.

There were some benefits to this Western viewpoint, including advances in surgery, trauma care, pharmaceuticals, and other areas of mainstream medicine. However, it also reduced scientific inquiry around humans’ emotional and spiritual life, and downplayed their innate ability to heal. Fortunately, this perspective started to change again in the 20th century. There was an increase in research related to the mind-body connection and scientists were able to demonstrate the complex links between the body and mind. In addition, this research confirmed the medical and mental benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices.

How does the mind-body connection work?

The mind-body connection is closely related to stress and how you deal with it. The body’s response to stress begins in the brain and spreads through the autonomic nervous system causing the release of powerful hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeat. It has two components: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car – it triggers the “fight or flight” response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.  On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake – it promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed. Each of these responses has a different impact on the body.

The hormones released during the “fight or flight” response have an impact on many systems within the body, including the immune system. Research has demonstrated that prolonged exposure to stressful events or situations contributes to serious diseases such as high blood pressure, heart irregularities, anxiety, insomnia, persistent fatigue, digestive disorders, mental health issues, and diabetes. In addition, stress can also impact lifestyle and behaviors that affect one’s health and wellbeing. For example, many people are more likely to eat poorly and neglect healthy activities, such as exercise, when they are under stress. The good news is mind-body therapies and practices can help reduce or even prevent the stress response from occurring in your body.

As mentioned above, mind-body practices involve techniques that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response.  When you are exposed to a stressor (say, rush-hour traffic), your response to the stressor determines how your body reacts. You might normally get tense, angry and honk or yell at other drivers who cut you off. However, you can deliberately change your response, through simple techniques like taking some deep breaths and relaxing the muscles in your neck and shoulders.  This response engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases your heart and breathing rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

Examples of mind-body practices

There are many strategies to help reduce stress and promote the relaxation response. Below are some of the more common techniques. At first, it may seem challenging or awkward to engage in these activities, but they are skills that develop over time with practice. It may also take some time before you experience positive changes, so patience is key. Try a few different approaches until you find the one(s) that feel most comfortable to you.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves slowly tensing and then releasing each muscle group in your body, starting with your toes and finishing with your head (or vice versa).

Meditation: The two most common forms of meditation in the United States are transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation. In transcendental meditation, students repeat a mantra (a single word or phrase). In mindfulness meditation, students focus their attention on their moment by moment thoughts and sensations.

Paced breathing: When we are stressed, we tend to take shallow breaths. We can change this constricted breath and stress response by changing our breathing pattern. The 4/7/8 pattern is one example of paced breathing. To practice, breathe in through the nose for a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Exhale through the mouth for a count of eight. Repeat these steps four times.

Guided imagery: This technique is a way of focusing your imagination to create calm, peaceful images in your mind, thereby providing a “mental escape.”  You can use an instructor, tapes, or scripts to help you through this process. You can achieve a relaxed state when you imagine all the details of a safe, comfortable place, such as a beach or a garden.

Sources:

University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide

University of Minnesota Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing

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Relationships and Communication

Relationships

As the holidays approach, it means many of us will be spending time with family, friends and other loved ones. Depending on your relationship with these individuals, this togetherness may bring feelings of joy and happiness, but it can also bring sadness, disappointment and even pain. Our social relationships have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, for better or for worse.

Research has shown that individuals who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. It is beneficial to periodically assess the quality of your social relationships and how they are impacting your health and wellbeing.

A few questions to consider as you assess the stability and satisfaction with your current relationships include:

  • Does the relationship contribute to a sense of belonging, security, purpose and/or self-worth?
  • Do you have a variety of social outlets, from casual acquaintances to one or two close friends who can provide support when needed?
  • Do you foster those relationships in which you feel supported and energized? And conversely, do you minimize contact in those relationships that are conflicted and/or drain your energy?

You may also want to think about the impact of your relationships based on the other areas of the Wheel of Health. For example, do you have relationships that can support you in meeting your nutrition and exercise goals? Are your spiritual beliefs and experiences supported, or perhaps challenged, by your relationships? What impact do your close relationships have on your personal growth and development?

Communication

One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy relationships is effective communication. Whether you want to sustain your supportive relationships or improve your difficult ones, improving the way you communicate can be key. Below are three components of effective communication skills you may want to assess personally:

Listening. Think about the last time you thought someone really listened to you. How did it feel to have their complete attention? Most likely, that person demonstrated the following behaviors or characteristics:

  • The listener was not in a rush, paid attention to what you were saying and held space for you to share what was on your mind. S/he was present with you, mentally and physically.
  • The listener did not rush to judge or criticize what you were saying, and refrained from injecting his or her own opinions about what you had to say.
  • The listener let you know you were heard by reflecting or paraphrasing what you said and/or by asking clarifying questions.
  • The listener used non-verbal behaviors, such as consistent eye contact and nodding, to indicate that s/he was present and focused on you.

The next time you want to engage in active listening, select one of the above characteristics and consciously practice it. See if it makes a difference in the relationship to the person to whom you are listening.

Inquiry. True inquiry comes from a place of genuine curiosity about another person. It is not just asking questions for the sake of carrying on a conversation. It can be accomplished using open-ended questions, that are not easily answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions typically begin with “what” or “how.” For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?,” you might ask “What was the best part about school today?”

If you want to practice the skill of inquiry, consider the use of “I” statements. This approach allows each person to have his or her own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs. Some examples include:

“You” statement: “You don’t understand me.”

vs.

“I” statement: “I’m not sure I am making myself clear.”

 

“You” statement: “You are no help at all!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel overworked and would appreciate some extra help.”

 

“You” statement: “You are always late!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel anxious when you don’t arrive on time.”

If you are not already using “I” statements, you may want to try this approach and see if doing so has a positive impact on communication with your colleagues, friends and family.

Communication styles. Being aware of your communication style can help you choose the one that best fits the specific circumstance and promotes open and effective communication. There are four basic styles of communicating:

  • Aggressive: Getting what you want at another person’s expense. This style typically involves a loud voice, insults, dominating posture and a lack of listening.

 

  • Passive: Allowing another person to have what they want at your expense, often to avoid conflict. This style usually involves a quiet voice and demeanor, a meek posture and little room to express your own feelings or desires.

 

  • Assertive: Balancing what you want with what another person wants. This style generally involves a firm, moderate tone of voice, and communication that includes both listening and the use of “I” statements.

 

  • Passive Aggressive: Attempting to get what you want in an indirect or calculating way. Communication is often not direct but leading and manipulative. Tone of voice and posture vary depending on what you think will get you what you want with the other person or in that particular moment.

Different situations call for different communication styles. There is benefit in being competent in more than one style, and being able to use the style that the situation calls for. Being aware of what style of communication you are using and choosing intentionally can be beneficial in promoting the kinds of relationships you want to have.

Physical Environment

Some people may be surprised to see physical environment as one of the self-care areas on the Wheel of Health. However, the spaces that we live, work and play in can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing – either positively or negatively. There are three major areas that fall under this category: your community, your workplace and your home. I will explore each of these briefly and invite you to consider those aspects of your environment that you can most easily influence to support and nurture your health.

Community

Think about the town or city where you live. There are a number of factors that can affect your health and wellness. For example, local climate may play a role. If you live in the northern US, you may not get enough sunlight during the winter months to make adequate amounts of Vitamin D. You could also be more prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. It may also be more difficult to stay active when winter weather hampers your exercise plans.

If you live in a warmer climate, you need to consider taking precautions against the sun and heat. For example, you may want to use sunscreen when you are outdoors, stay well-hydrated and limit outdoor activity when air quality is poor. The local climate can also impact health issues such as seasonal allergies. There may be certain types of plants or trees that grow in your geographic area that irritate your sinuses. Minor cases are often treatable with medications, but more severe allergies may prompt you to consider moving to a different geographic location to avoid the trigger(s).

There are often different health issues in urban vs. rural areas. City residents may face higher levels of stress due to concerns about crime, violence or traffic congestion. On the other hand, cultural norms in more rural areas may contribute to higher rates of tobacco use or less nutritious diets. Rural residents may also have to travel further to obtain routine or emergency medical care. There are advantages and disadvantages to both settings, so you will want to carefully consider which environment will foster your health and wellbeing.

 Workplace

If you work in an office, it is likely you spend a good portion of your day in that environment. Although we may have limited control over the buildings we work in, our personal work spaces can be created to nurture our wellbeing.  Creating a healthy environment in your office space can have a positive impact on your physical body as well as your emotional satisfaction with going to work every day. There are a few factors to consider such as:

Ergonomics: You want to be sure that your office furniture and equipment supports body mechanics and does not contribute to potential health issues, such as musculoskeletal pain or eye strain. The Human Resources department at your workplace should be able to assess your workstation and assist you with making it as safe and comfortable as possible. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) also has some helpful resources here.

Surroundings: There are several strategies you can use to make your work station or office as pleasant as possible. For example, consider adding green plants to brighten up your space and improve air quality. Play soothing music or purchase a small water fountain to listen to the sound of running water. Decorate your workstation with photos and keepsakes that inspire you. Add a desk lamp to avoid or reduce the need for fluorescent lighting. And finally, do your best to avoid clutter by implementing a file system and/or other organizational tools. Allot some time at the end of each day to tidy up your desk and office space.

Movement/Activity: By now, many of you have probably heard the new mantra that “sitting is the new smoking,” as studies have demonstrated that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a higher risk of all-cause mortality. If you have a job that requires you to sit at a computer most of the day, find ways to build movement into your day. We can all benefit from taking breaks during the work day – whether to stretch, take a short walk or just take a few deep breaths away from our work station. Taking a break allows us to come back to the job at hand with renewed energy and sense of purpose.

Home

No matter what type of dwelling you live in, your home can be a haven for your health, offering support to your body, mind and soul. However, it can also contribute to health problems if we are not careful. There are a few factors to consider when assessing the safety and comfort of your home, including:

Air quality: It is important to have a home that is well ventilated (i.e., one that allows for the exchange of indoor and outdoor air).  Without proper ventilation, an insulated and airtight house may seal in harmful pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, and moisture that can damage a house.  Click here for a helpful guide to home ventilation. There are several reasons to remove your shoes once inside your home, primarily because they can track in dirt, pesticides and other pollutants. When buying new carpet, furniture or paint, consider products with low chemical emissions to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.

Water quality: The water available for drinking in your home can contain a variety of contaminants that may adversely impact your health. You can learn about the quality of your community’s tap water by visiting this website and entering your zip code. If you have a private well, contact your city or county government to have it tested regularly for any potential contaminants. There are certified filters that can remove harmful contaminants from your water.

Aesthetics: Although we often can’t control the environment outside our homes, we have more control over the inside of them. Explore what changes you could make so that each room is a more nurturing, supportive place for you. Feel free to experiment with color, material, scent, music or the overall layout of rooms so that these spaces satisfy your senses. Consider assessing how the color impacts your mood, or whether there is adequate lighting and pleasant smells.

There is one other topic related to aesthetics I would like to address and that is clutter. Clearing clutter is first and foremost a safety issue, as it can reduce the risk of falls and help eliminate germs. However, clutter can also have a subtler impact on us mentally and emotionally. Having too much “stuff” in your living space can drag you down, physically and mentally. Common challenges include excess paper, clothing, and “collections” of favorite objects. Here are some helpful strategies for reducing clutter:

  • Follow the “one in, one out” rule – every time a new item comes into your home, a similar item must leave. For example, if you buy a new jacket, donate or sell a used one that you no longer need. Some people even take this a step further and remove two items for every new one that comes in.

 

  • Create a place for everything. Once all items have a home, it will be easier to put things away regularly.

 

  • Schedule time to regularly go through things and purge as needed. This can be daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – whatever timeframe works best for you.

 

  • If you have trouble dealing with clutter on your own, consider hiring a professional organizer. You can click here to find one in your area.

 

As you can see, there are many ways that your physical environment plays a role in your health and wellbeing! I encourage you to take some time to assess how the places you live, work and play are impacting your health.

Spirituality

For many people, spirituality is a central component of how they experience life and view the world. For this reason, considering spirituality in the context of health is critical.

Spirituality is a way to find meaning, hope and inner peace in your life, but it can mean different things to different people. For many, it is tied to the practice or beliefs of an organized religion or faith to which they belong.  For others, it may not be linked to a particular religion or faith, but can be found through music, art, or a connection with nature. Although spirituality is very personal, the role that it plays in our lives can inform – and transform – our health.

The relationship between spirituality and health

There has been a significant increase in interest in the relationship between spirituality and health over the past few decades. Many research studies have demonstrated that spiritual practices are associated with better health and wellbeing for a number of reasons, including:

Contemplative practice is good for you. Many of these practices guide you to direct your attention inward, to quiet the mind or to increase compassion or empathy. These practices may include prayer, meditation, yoga or journaling. Meditation and yoga have both been found to help decrease depression and anxiety, while prayer and journaling may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.

A spiritual community can improve your life.  Many of us find community through participation in spiritual activities such as attending religious services or belonging to a meditation group. These communities can be sources of social support, which may provide a sense of connection and security as well as improved health and wellbeing.

Spiritual people make healthier choices. Some spiritual traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity. They are also more likely to engage in healthy habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.

Spirituality may help you live longer. A comprehensive review of research that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Although there is not yet consensus about the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health, most researchers agree that there is a positive relationship between religious/spiritual practices and better health outcomes.

(The above information was adapted from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.  Please visit their site for references, if interested.)

Finding spirituality in every day moments 

As noted earlier, spirituality is very unique and personalized for all of us. There are many ways we can seek and find spiritual experiences – and sometimes they just occur on their own. This happened in a number of ways for me recently.  It began with seeing two living legends in the music world – Marc Cohn opening for Michael McDonald. It was an awesome show – from Marc’s rousing rendition of “Walking in Memphis” to Michael opening with “Yah Mo B There” and closing with an encore (including Marc and his band) belting out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and of course, The Doobie Brothers’ “Taking it to the Streets” – it was both soul-stirring and soul-soothing. I have loved Michael’s velvety voice for as long as I can remember. And the songs he writes are meaningful, with themes of love and compassion for one another. Seeing him live was on my bucket list and I am grateful I had the chance to do so.

A few days after the show, I traveled to Wilmington to attend a health education conference. Since I don’t get to the coast very often, I was determined to find a little bit of time to walk on the beach. I don’t particularly enjoy the beach in the summer, but I love being by the water in the fall, my favorite season. After sitting almost all day during the conference, I went back to my hotel, grabbed my sneakers and made my way to Wrightsville Beach. I arrived in time to see some surfers making the most of the last hour of sunlight. I walked along the beach, enjoying the sound of the waves and the cool breeze on my face. I laughed at the woman trying to stop her dog from chasing the waves. I smiled at the little sandpipers as they hurried to pick their food from the sand before the water could wash them away. I then took a moment to stop and sit on the sand, taking in the sights and sounds, and silently expressing gratitude for my good fortune to be here, enjoying the splendors of this earth.

And last weekend, I attended Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist church that is my spiritual home. We have a new minister, and this was only my second time hearing him preach. His sermon was titled “V is for…” and he spoke about the violence and hatred we are seeing across our country and the world, through mass shootings and terrorist attacks. He reminded us of the Golden Rule: to treat others how we want to be treated. He invoked the spirits of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their collective messages of non-violent resistance. He reaffirmed that the only way to fight hatred is with love. It was a sobering message, but one that is needed now more than ever.

Three totally different experiences, all spiritual moments for me. I invite you to explore the ways that spirituality presents itself in your life and the impact it has on your health and wellbeing.

Personal and Professional Development

As I discussed in my previous post about the Wheel of Health, your wellbeing encompasses more than just physical health. Today we will explore the importance of personal and professional development on your journey to optimal health. For many people, these two areas are closely related, which is why I have chosen to discuss them together.

Personal and professional endeavors can be a source of enjoyment and energy, or emotional drain and stress. Some individuals have personal lives that are fulfilling with family, friends and hobbies that provide joy and meaning, while others have not yet reached the place of contentment they desire. The same may be true professionally – some people have careers that are meaningful and resonate with their purpose and values in life, whereas others struggle in demanding jobs that provide little personal or professional rewards. There are also many people who struggle to find balance across these two domains. Regardless of where you are personally and professionally, these areas of your life can affect your health either positively or negatively.

Like other areas on the Wheel of Health, Personal and Professional Development is very personal and varies from person to person. In general, we are referring to whatever gives you meaning and purpose in life – those activities that give you a sense of fulfillment and joy. It may be your family or your work (or both!); it may be continuously learning new things or volunteering through your church. It can be relationships with family, friends or colleagues at the office. Personal and professional development means exploring your own values and finding out what brings you joy and meaning.

Personal Development

For some people, personal development may be tied very closely to their professional pursuits. For others, it may be very distinct. For almost all of us, optimal health may best be achieved by balancing the two, which we will explore later in this post.

There are several areas of the Wheel of Health that relate to personal development, such as spirituality, relationships and communication, and mindful awareness.  However, personal development goes beyond the Wheel and can include topics such as music, art, reading, travel, gardening, and other hobbies and intellectual pursuits. Activities that bring us pleasure and satisfaction enhance our sense of contentment, joy and overall wellbeing. These may be “doing” activities such as those mentioned above, but they can also include “being” activities – for example, star-gazing, sitting on the beach, or meditating on a mountaintop. All of these things can be sources of deep personal development.

Professional Development

For many people, being involved in meaningful work can bring a profound sense of satisfaction and joy. You may have heard the saying: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” These individuals have a sense of meaning and purpose, knowing they are contributing to the world in a way that has significant meaning to them and a positive impact on others. However, there are others who find themselves in careers or work that drains them, and it can negatively impact their health. Many times, dealing with stress, dissatisfaction or boredom with one’s work leads individuals to make poor choices around food, alcohol or drugs.  I have worked with several clients who, through exploration of all areas of the Wheel of Health, realized that their job was the root cause of their health problems, such as weight gain or lack of sleep. They chose to focus on finding new work that was less demanding and would allow them to prioritize their health and wellbeing.

Professional development can also entail taking stock of where you are and where you want to go in your professional endeavors. Perhaps it means going back to school for an advanced degree to move up the ladder at work – or shifting roles within your given profession to allow for more time with your family. For others, it may mean a complete change in career focus to better align with their values and goals.

Balancing Personal and Professional Development

Many people find it challenging to balance their personal goals with the demands of their professional endeavors. Finding enough time and energy to focus on both can be stressful. Often times, the demands of full-time work can leave us with little time or energy for family and our personal pursuits. For others who have given up careers to raise a family or pursue other goals, they may find that they miss feeling “productive” or that their skills are going to waste.

Being mindfully aware of how you have structured your life and the impact it is having on your physical, mental and emotional health can help you achieve optimal health. It is helpful to assess where you are with personal, career or life goals, particularly at times of transition or milestones. These may include work-life balance, financial goals, and personal growth that will support optimal wellbeing. Regular assessment of your goals can also reinforce healthy behavior choices.

Below are some questions that can help you develop greater awareness of how your personal and professional endeavors are fostering or hindering your optimal health. Feel free to choose the questions that are most relevant for you. Take time to reflect deeply, perhaps writing down your responses or sharing them with someone you trust.

  • If money and time were no object, what would you love to do that would bring you a profound sense of satisfaction, joy and/or purpose?

 

  • How balanced are your work (what you do to earn a living) and your personal interests? What would you need to do to bring them more into balance?

 

  • If you continue with your current balance of personal and professional development, including time and energy spent on each, how will your life be 5 years from now? 10 years from now?

 

  • Is there a dream that you would like to resurrect and pursue? How are you stopping yourself? What are some first steps you could take to start pursuing that dream?