Regardless of whether the health care bill survives the Supreme Court challenge, it seems to me that if we truly want to have a healthier life for ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to have to move towards wellness. Wellness pioneer, Donald Ardell, Ph.D had some important things to say on the subject in his book, High Level Wellness, on where we are and where we need to go. “Modern medicine is a wonderful thing,” he says, “but there are two problems: people expect too much of it, and too little of themselves.”
He goes on to say that
“modern medicine costs Americans over $140 billion annually, about 8 ½ percent of the value of all goods and services produced in a year. What we get is called the health system. In many ways, modern medicine is good, invaluable, and worthy of our highest regard.
“But modern medicine is not the same as health. If we could purchase health for $140 billion a year, we would be getting a good buy. The cost would, in fact, be too little for what health is worth. But we are not buying health with these great investments of the national treasure. Health cannot be bought—at any price.”
I don’t know about you, but to me, Ardell makes a lot of sense. Oh, and did I mention that his book, High Level Wellness, was published in 1977, thirty-five years ago? I met Ardell in the San Francisco bay area shortly after the book was published along with another health pioneer, John Travis, M.D. Travis, founder of the Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, California, is a physician with all the credentials of the medical order (Tufts, M.D., residency in Preventive Medicine and Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins). Unlike many health care providers, Travis has realized the forecast made in 1957 by Dr. D.C. Jarvis in his famous book, Folk Medicine. Jarvis predicted that “the doctor of the future will be a teacher as well as a physician, whose real job will be assisting people to learn how to be healthy.”
What is Wellness?
“Wellness is first and foremost a choice to assume responsibility for the quality of your life,” says Ardell. “It begins with a conscious decision to shape a healthy lifestyle. Wellness is a mindset, a predisposition to adopt a series of key principles in varied life areas that lead to high levels of well-being and life satisfaction. A consequence of this focus is that a wellness mindset will protect you against temptations to blame someone else, make excuses, or shirk accountability.”
“Humankind is at a turning point in its evolution,” says Dr. Travis in his book, Wellness for Helping Professionals. “All around us traditional structures are falling. Those we have looked to for answers—our parents, schools, governments and the helping professions—simply don’t have them. The word is out—we cannot continue to place responsibility for our well-being with someone or something ‘out there.’”
What are the elements of a high-level wellness program?
In nearly 40 years of addressing health and wellness issues, I’ve found that we have to focus and organize our activities. Otherwise it’s difficult to get our minds around the things we need to do. There was time in human history where we didn’t have to think about “wellness.” In order to live we had to walk many miles to get the food we needed for survival. We didn’t need to worry about getting enough exercise or staying away from too many sweets or too much fatty food. Now we have to pay attention and act in the face of forces that would keep us sick.
Ardell explores three domains of wellness, with specific practices within each:
- Meaning and purpose—Having a life-direction or “calling,” caring relationships, joy, and humor.
- Physical domain—Exercise and fitness, nutrition, adapting to challenges, and healthy lifestyle habits.
- Mental domain—Developing emotional intelligence, effective decision-making, factual knowledge, mental health, and stress management.
But all these activities have to occur within a context that supports our health. Ardell describes this as “real” wellness. REAL is an acronym for reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty. Thus, this model appears as four intertwined circles.
Reason allows us to evaluate all the health claims we hear and to make rational decisions about what is truly helpful.
Exuberance reminds us that every moment of our life can be lived with gusto.
Athleticism recognizes that humans are built to move, not sit for long lengths of time on our butts.
Liberty must be continually sought and supported or we are at the mercy of those who would try and control us.
In my experience as a psychotherapist, I have found that stress underlies most of the psychological, social, and medical problems people face in contemporary society. If we can get a handle on stress, we can take care of most of the problems we face in our lives. I conducted a survey with more than six thousand men and women between the ages of sixteen and seventy-five. Ninety-one percent said they felt some degree of stress, and 70 percent felt their stress level was increasing and they often felt overwhelmed. It is not an exaggeration to say that stress is the most contagious plague of modern society. Even our pets are stressed. Veterinarian schools now teach future vets how to prescribe Valium, Prozac, and the latest antianxiety pills to soothe your dog and cat.
Here’s how J. Douglas Bremner, MD, one of the world’s experts on stress, describes what happens:
“Our bodies have biological systems that respond to life-threatening danger, acting like fear alarm systems that are critical for survival. When faced with a threatening situation, such as being attacked by a tiger, a flood of hormones and chemical messengers is released into our brains and bloodstream almost instantly.
“These hormones rapidly shift our energy resources away from noncritical tasks and toward more critical tasks that are required for survival. Energy is shunted to the brain and the muscles to help us think fast and run quick, and away from the stomach and digestive track as well as the reproductive system.”
The system works well when the stress is short-lived, and we can either fight or flee. The problems arise when we are under continual stress and we aren’t able to engage the source of danger in a direct, physical way. Much of our present-day stress involves our minds going around and around worrying about what could happen. “Stress—or as I like to think of it, the mind that’s running on overdrive—is now considered to be a leading factor in numerous illnesses,” says Woodson Merrell, MD, chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and author of The Source. “By some estimates, up to 80 percent of all illnesses are stress induced.”
I’ll conclude with this little story that illustrates how stress can build up slowly until it overwhelms us. We need regular health practices to keep us on track:
A young lady confidently walked around the room while explaining stress management to an audience. With a raised glass of water (everyone knew that she was going to ask the ultimate question, “half empty or half full?”), she fooled them all. “How heavy is this glass of water?” she inquired with a smile. Answers called out ranged from eight ounces to 20 ounces.
She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In every case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “And that’s the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on.
“As with a glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden. So, as early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don’t carry them through the evening and into the night. Pick them up tomorrow. Whatever burdens you are carrying now, let them down for a moment. Relax; pick them up later after you’ve rested. Life is short. There may not be so many then and they won’t be so heavy.”
—Photo Matt and Kim Rudge/Flickr