The new year often means plans for a new you, new resolutions for your health and wellbeing. But what does it actually mean to be well? What is health? Does it mean physical, emotional, or mental wellbeing?

Here at Elmfield we have a large chalk board asking the question What does it mean for you to be well? inviting responses from all our visitors. Business executives, wellness retreat guests, children, parents and grandparents all contribute, leaving words such as “connection,” “no pain,” “agency,” “freedom,” “having time with my dog,” or “time to dance.” These answers speak to the growing awareness of a bio-psycho-social model of health—the idea that the disciplines of biology, psychology and sociology interconnect in the study of health and disease. 

Human beings are complex interconnected systems

We want physical wellbeing but also need emotional and community wellbeing. Human beings are complex interconnected systems so it helps to be aware of what supports us to feel well and the parts that connect to form the whole. Incidentally, the etymology of the word health is whole, meaning not divided into parts.

Dr. Dan Siegel (2012), a pioneer in mental health, talks about the importance of interpersonal neurobiology in wellbeing. His theory holds that our brains are constantly being rewired through our relationships with others. In other words, we are all connected to each other through our nervous systems and thus are affected by our social environment. His works tells us that social pain is coded in the brain in a similar way to physical pain. Healthy relationships are important for our wellbeing, whether at home or at work. To my mind, a healthy business has healthy relationships.  

It is hard to be well in isolation of others

It is hard to be well in isolation of others. The research of psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges (2020) also supports the notion that our wellbeing is supported by our ability to co-regulate with others. The pandemic has added to the collective and individual pain body due to lack of social connection, the fear of getting ill, and increased financial pressures. Not only do we have many extra stresses, but we have lost one of the biggest ways humans regulate—connecting with each other. Porges reminds us that without the resources of co-regulation we are vulnerable to adaptive defensive states. We are more likely to get angry, anxious, or aggressive inappropriately when we don’t have others around us to regulate us, at a neurophysiological level.

If health and wholeness are one and the same, how can we find more wholeness in our lives. What does wholeness in our lives mean? Physician and trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté (2003), whose Compassionate Enquiry practice evolved out of working for many years in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side with people challenged by severe drug addiction, describes health as an ability to be with pain. In other words, from his perspective, being well is a capacity to hold our pain in relationship to the whole of our lives. The pain he refers to is physical, emotional, or social.

If we have the capacity to be not-okay, then it allows us to have more compassion towards ourselves and others

To my mind Maté’s perspective gives us more choice over our wellbeing. If we have the capacity to be not-okay, then it allows us to have more compassion towards ourselves and others. This then strengthens our ability to be in regulated relationship with others, causing a positive feedback loop for our wellbeing.

The next time you feel overwhelmed and consumed by the thing that hurts, can you widen your perception to see the bigger picture? Can you see an image of wholeness. Can we see what is working for us? This helps us to be less defined by our pain. That is not to say we push the pain away, rather we see it in relationship to the rest of us and our surroundings. Conscious awareness of the big picture and of what makes us healthy gives us more choice over what it means to be well for ourselves. Each of us will have a different preference and emphasis on the physical, emotional or social aspects of our wellbeing. We are individuals making up a whole society and difference is important.

For me, being well is being able to connect to love, compassion and kindness no matter how painful is my physical, emotional, or environmental state. What is the one thing you can do this year to support your wellbeing? Maybe it is simply a different perspective.

References

Mate, G. (2003). When the body say no: The cost of hidden stress. Vintage House: Toronto, Canada.

Porges, S. W (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic is a paradoxical challenge to our nervous system: A polyvagal perspective. Clinical Neuropsychiatry Journal

Siegel D. J ((2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. The Guildford Press: New York, NY.

**This article was first published in Ambition, the Northern Ireland Chamber magazine**