Current events related to the COVID-19 pandemic are stressing us all out, and now, more than ever, is the time to invest in our wellbeing. The spread of a virus is a great example of a health challenge that requires us to bring a holistic approach to personal and public health.
The so-called “biopsychosocial” model of medicine was introduced to the modern medical lexicon in 1977 and currently generates nearly 3 million results in a Google search. If you are reading this blog then you are likely as bewildered as I am as to why the modern field of Western Medicine got so far off track that it needed a major (and highly controversial) correction from the biomedical model to the biopsychosocial model. I say “bewildered” because the path to that troubling state is well documented, but nonetheless hard to grasp. Diving into that history is a journey into the world of power, politics, and social change that I have to resist, lest we will be down a rabbit hole of note in no time. For a great read on the topic, start with Paul Starr’s “The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry”.
Fortunately for us, many holistic traditions for healing and wellbeing have survived and thrived, and we have access to far more knowledge now than we did when Engel felt the need to school the so-called field of medicine.
Holistic approaches to health aim to incorporate as many types of influencers of our health as possible, thus, “holistic”. There are many ways to group these influences (try that Google search above to get a taste). As you strive to support your health, your family’s health and your community’s health, try to keep all of the following domains in mind. Think of keeping them in a state of balance.
Body - this one is easy to focus on, it is the target of the medical profession’s response, for good reason. Unfortunately much of the mainstream news is about avoiding exposure to the virus and does not emphasize the need to nurture the body to bolster its natural defense systems. So, in addition to attending to hand washing and social distancing (more on that below), be sure that you are listening to your body and attending to what you are hearing. Particularly attend to getting sleep, rest, nutrition, and exercise. It may be hard to lean into physical contact given the dangers of exposure, but within your circle of loved ones, don’t neglect hugs, hand holding, eye-gazing, massage, etc. when your body, or theirs, lets you know it needs contact.
Mind - the impact of fear is very clear all around me at the moment. We do need to try to stay informed, and this is particularly difficult in our culture of fake news, division, and denigration of public health institutions. Humans generally do not do well in knowledge vacuums, and some of us suffer much more than others when we feel unable to be steering our canoes, or to even know where the river is headed. To balance out the unavoidable challenges be sure that you are attending to your emotions and thoughts. Particularly, limit the exposure you have to news sources in order to avoid being overwhelmed. For every time you check your favorite newsfeed spend some time nurturing your mind (preferably for two or three times the duration you spent consuming virus related news). This is a great time to cultivate mental states of compassion, gratitude, and loving kindness.
Spirit - there is nothing like a crisis to drive us towards our spiritual life. Although the world’s spiritual traditions differ dramatically on how they might provide guidance and support in these particular times, there is no doubt that they all have tools and wisdom that can be helpful in negotiating this unprecedented global, human experience. Keep balance in mind here, neither neglecting your spiritual needs, nor diving into them so deeply that you neglect the other aspects of wellbeing.
Community - is what this is all about. Unlike other disasters, when people naturally come together to support one another, in this predicament, we must isolate ourselves physically. For some, isolation may not be particularly distressing in its own right, but for many, there is an added level of stress associated with the fact that they are not able to congregate with others for social support. This also thwarts a common coping mechanism, namely, problem solving and helping others through doing things. Fortunately, we can take advantage of the sometimes problematic technology most people have access to in order to maintain social contact to some degree. While obsessing about events is a natural way to harness social support, be on the lookout for overdoing it. Resist letting every social contact be dominated by discussions of the virus to the exclusion of our other human needs. Although you can hardly tell by watching the news or reading a paper, this is not the only thing going on in our lives. Opportunities to celebrate should be highlighted and given their place alongside our stress.
Environment - like community, environment is playing a crucial role in virus transmission. We cannot, and are not likely too, lose sight of the impact on our wellbeing when the places and spaces we use routinely to support our wellbeing (e.g. restaurants, theaters, sporting events, swimming pools) are being closed. There’s a double whammy to our psyche when these places are no longer available to us, both the immediate impact of not being able to go, but just the psychological hurdle we must get over to conceive of what is happening. As we focus on sterilizing and shielding ourselves from virus in the environment, we must balance this out with connecting to our environment. Focus on contact with the nurturing aspects of the internal spaces of your homes as well as being out of doors and coming into contact with nature.
My intent is not to provide a comprehensive list of strategies for well being in this limited space, but rather to highlight these five dimensions that require balance in order for us to be in touch with our sense of wholeness - essential to personal and public health, and hopefully to inspire you to pay special attention to where you need to focus your attention in order to maintain wellbeing.