Wellness Defined, Part 3

Let’s jump back into the Wellness Defined series with a quick definition of the terms disease and illness. Then we’ll look at a different way of seeing health, wellness, disease, and illness.

The shortest and most eloquent definition I’ve found for these terms goes as follows:

“Illness is what a person feels on the way to the Doctor’s office, disease is what they have when they leave.”

For a more technical look, we return to Dictionary.com:

Disease: – a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection, poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity, or unfavorable environmental factors; illness; sickness; ailment.

Illness: – unhealthy condition; poor health; indisposition; sickness.

Defining wellness using terms like disease and illness brings up some issues. First, the two don’t have to have anything to do with each other. Next, putting disease/illness opposite wellness necessitates seeing things in a good/bad kind of way – and that’s not always the case.

Disease is a malfunction of an organ or system in the human body and illness is – well, it’s “feeling bad.”

Put another way, disease resides in the body, illness in the mind. Where does this take us in terms of our discussion of wellness? It takes us to the idea of the Sense of Coherence and to seeing health and well-being as existing on a continuum, that “health” is a heterostatic thing that will change over time, rather than the more pervasive idea that it is homeostatic. Another way to state this second view is to say that health is zero-sum, you have it, or you don’t. Period.

OK, now we pause for more definitions. The Sense of Coherence is an idea put forward by Aaron Antonovsky in 1979 as an attempt to explain why some people got sick and others didn’t. To quote directly from Antonovsky:

Sense of Coherence (SOC): A global orientation that expresses the extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic feeling of confidence that (1) the stimuli deriving from one’s internal and external environments in the course of living are structured, predictable and explicable; (2) the resources are available to one to meet the demands posed by these stimuli; and (3) these demands are challenges, worthy of investment and engagement.

In other words – a person who has the resources to deal with what comes their way, and knows they have these resources, has a high SOC and stands a better chance of staying healthy. The shorter version – a high SOC can stop an illness from becoming a disease. There are several factors that go into a SOC, and many scholarly articles have been written on the subject – however, for our purposes, I’m going to leave it there.

Homeo– and heterostasis are terms describing the condition of our internal systems in the face of constantly changing external conditions. It’s long been assumed that “health” was a homeostatic condition. Either you were healthy, or you weren’t. Health was seen as a set point that a person’s body either was at, or they weren’t healthy.

The idea of health as being heterostatic is a newer concept that grew out of the investigations into SOC. In essence, this idea states that human health is a moving target. What health means for someone at age 24 is one thing, when that same person gets to 42, that definition will likely have changed. This also applies one person to another, what I consider healthy for myself is different than what the person sitting next to me as I write this considers healthy for themselves.

Where was I? Oh yeah, disease vs illness. We can now see that a person can have an illness without having a disease – and that it’s also possible for someone to have a disease without necessarily having the accompanying illness. There are also multiple stages in between, depending on each individual’s SOC and ability to deal with what they’ve been handed healthwise.

What does all this add to our discussion about wellness, besides muddying things up real good?

It highlights what I said way back in part 1 – that wellness is a moving target. What I hope you take away from these 3 posts is that wellness and overall well-being is not one static thing. Achieving it takes work. It takes accountability. It takes time. And most importantly for today’s discussion – it takes experimentation. Trial and error is how I lost 80 pounds.

The key is not seeing the errors as failures. They’re signals that you might want to try something different. That’s all.

Another key is to remember that even while you’re trying multiple paths, your destination may be a moving target as well. That is to say, your definition of Wellness will change over time, so it’s important to keep this flux in mind when you’re laying out the next path to explore. Check in with yourself to be sure you’re aiming the right direction for your current definition.

And now for the obligatory self-promotion. I am a Wellness Coach, so if you think you want to get started making some changes to your well-being, and maybe increase your own SO, and you aren’t sure where to begin – get in touch. Initial consultations are always free, and I’d love to talk you through some ideas and see if working together will benefit you in your wellness journey.

Wellness Defined, Part 2

Welcome back! Here in part two of the “Let’s Define Wellness” series, I’ll be taking a look at the second part of the dictionary definition of wellness to garner a starting point for your journey.

part 2 of dictionary.com definition:

Wellness: 2) an approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to emphasizing treating diseases.

This one presents some sticky points in our discussion. For example, preventing illness. This sounds like an admirable goal and there are indeed many illnesses that have proven to be preventable with intervention. What if you’re one of the millions who is already living with one of these illnesses? Is it too late for you to find wellness?

Absolutely not.

While it may be too late to prevent a disease*, it is never too late to learn how to live well with your illness*. The trick is in realizing that your definition of wellness has changed with time and diagnosis. Even if you aren’t living with a specific illness, you may simply be feeling the effects of the passing years – feeling down about the fact that your runs have been getting shorter, that you’re feeling out of breath playing with your kids/grandkids, or that you’ve started noticing it takes more trips to get the groceries in from the car.

The common denominator here is time and shifting definitions. In all of the above cases, there are things you can be doing, right now, to improve your situation and your well-being – things that may very well keep you from developing a disease.

Any of us can benefit from many of the same behavior changes and from developing some of the same habits. The trick is to be willing to try new things, to experiment, and to NOT be disappointed when something doesn’t work out. When a new behavior doesn’t accomplish what you want it to, that’s a cue to try something else. Maybe the second, third, or even fourth thing you try will prove to be the right one for you.

Sounds kind of like what I said about paths in the last post, huh?

These changes range from the simple and easy to institute, to major life alterations. These changes involve diet, activity level, job situation, family dynamics, or sleep patterns. One thing all of these potential changes have in common is that you, the changer, need to have the willpower and tenacity to stick with a change long enough to know whether it’s going to help, hurt, or be neutral.

This takes accountability. It takes a deep understanding of how to tap into your store of willpower. It takes time.

* In Part 3 I’ll look at a more concrete definition of the terms Disease and Illness, and we’ll see how they’re often conflated yet actually refer to divergent aspects of related situations. I’ll also look at a different way of looking at them in your life, one that I hope will bring some perspective to your search for wellness.

Wellness Defined, Part 1

Wellness is one of those topics – everyone has an opinion, yet nobody can make sense of it. Let’s change that.

This is the first in what will be a series of posts covering wellness and what it means for different people. Part of the problem is that wellness will mean something different to each individual. It can even mean something different to the same person at different times, which serves only to further complicate the matter. (that was a lot of ‘different’s, huh? Appropriate, as you’ll see shortly)

Let’s start with a definition:

Wellness: 1) the quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as the result of deliberate effort. 2) an approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to emphasizing treating diseases. (Dictionary.com)

Today I’m focusing on number 1 – “The quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as the result of deliberate effort.” (emphasis added)

I wonder if they’re being intentionally vague? I mean, what does “healthy in body and mind” mean, anyway? That’s my point. What it means will be different for you, that guy over there, your next door neighbor – and me. For example, I was in a car wreck a while back. For the most part, I was fine – however, I did have some back issues. So for several months of, I was not “healthy in body.”

On the other hand, meditation was going well and I was in a good place mentally, so I could tick the box next to “healthy in mind.” Combine these two, and I considered myself to be well. With my good head-space, I was able to navigate around the back issues just fine and get on with my day-to-day life – including walking and riding my bike. This outlook also allowed me to begin strengthening work as soon as my back was ready, without any feelings of inadequacy or guilt about NOT working out at the time.

So how does this apply to you, the wellness seeker? It means that before you can find well-being, you’ll have to pick a path to try. Then you may have to try another path. And possibly another. This seeking and experimenting is part of the journey to wellness. This falls under the “deliberate effort” part of the definition. In my example above, meditation is a path I tried that turned out to work quite well – for ME. Don’t be afraid of self-experimentation. This is the best way I know of to narrow down the options and find the path that works, for YOU.

One of the things I harp on is this, YOU are the expert on YOU. Not me. Not your GP. Not even your therapist (there is NO shame in seeing a therapist, as a side note). YOU. Every path you try will deepen your understanding and knowledge base of yourself. Every bad habit you break, and every good one you successfully start does the same.

Paths that don’t work out are not failures. They’re simply paths that didn’t work out, you learn from them and then you move on to the next one.

To bring this post to a close – since every definition of wellness will be different, There can be no one right path to well-being. Finding wellness is a matter of trial and error, and patience. Next time we’ll look at part 2 of the dictionary definition of wellness and see how even that doesn’t have one straightforward answer. From there we’ll dive into some of the myriad paths that exist for a person starting out on their journey to well-being.

Tinkering, theoretically

In my post about Complex Systems, I got sidetracked (shocking, I know) and ended up talking about something I referred to as Theoretical Tinkering. I wanted to expand on that a bit.

I have a nasty habit of getting myself injured at the most inopportune times. I’ve been dragged down a flight of cement stairs while working on a remodel project (torn rotator cuff, still dealing with this one nearly 10 years later). I’ve torn 3 out of 4 ligaments in my left knee in a wide variety of ski crashes. I’ve torn a ligament in my lower back carrying a steamer trunk (that one led to a bulging disc and years of discomfort and/or pain). I’ve slammed my thumb with a framing hammer so hard it…well…it sort of popped (no further detail required, right?). I’ve had a 2′ square of plywood sheathing shoot off a table saw and hit me in the inner thigh. And most recently I cut off the very tip of my left ring finger making lunch, leading to what is likely permanent nerve damage in that finger.

I go into this history to highlight why I say that I can’t really indulge in my tinkering tendencies as much as I would like without risking serious injury. In fact, my family has requested specifically that I NOT indulge, certainly not without adult supervision. At my last job, my co-workers took to hiding our box cutters and not letting me help unload deliveries. Not that I minded that last one, not really. When you combine this stifling of my natural tinkering tendencies with the rich inner life (meaning I live in my own head a lot) stemming from my intensely strong Introvert side – I had to find a workaround.

Allow me to explain the Introvert comment. You know those personality assessments you often have to take during an interview? The most famous is probably the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Well, among other things these rank you on an Introvert-Extrovert spectrum. Well, I generally come out in the 85-90% Introvert range.

To clear up a couple of common misconceptions about Introversion: No, I’m not a hermit, I don’t hate all people all the time, and I’m not in any way shy. These are all completely different aspects of a person’s personality, they often happen to correlate to one’s place on this Introversion/Extroversion spectrum – though not always.

What that ranking means to my daily life – I prefer to focus on making deeper connections with a small number of people over superficial social interaction. This means I would rather sit and chat with one person for an hour than meet-and-greet everyone in the room. It also means that being in intensely social settings, like after work cocktail hours, weekend music festivals, or even dinner at a crowded restaurant – leaves me more drained than energized. It can take a weekend for me to recover from a Friday social hour, and over that weekend I’m likely to stay in my apartment and read, maybe heading out for a long walk by myself.

Along with these facts, I also tend to have a rich inner life, meaning a lot more goes on in my head than I let on with what I might say out loud. For every sentence I utter, there are anywhere from 12-99 that I don’t. These other sentences run through my head all the time. Especially when I’m trying to get to sleep, or during a meeting when it’s particularly important that I pay attention.

So knowing that I’m prone to tinker and that I have this rich inner monologue going on – what’s a guy to do? Enter Theoretical Tinkering. Basically, I take what’s going on around me, all the things I’m NOT commenting on out loud – and I comment on them. To myself. Often in writing, because I find it useful to see some of this written out, it’s easier to rearrange the moving parts and make them work better together when you can actually see them interacting on the page.

Right now I’m reading through these amazingly concise summaries of the works of some of history’s great Philosophers by Alain De Botton. It’s fascinating to me to see the similarities between what some of these folks have been able to articulate to what I’ve had running through my brain for years without being able to.

There you go. I get to tinker and there’s little risk of nerve damage in fingers or of not being able to walk for several weeks. Now as for why I felt the need to name this habit, that’s another matter altogether.