The 8 Pillars of Holistic Wellness — What It Truly Means to Be Well
When your kale mango smoothie infused with turmeric and plant-based protein simply isn’t enough
Wellness is the ultimate state of wholeness that can be achieved by a human being. It is the physical, mental, spiritual, and practical utopia of the human experience.
Wellness. Conjures up a myriad of mental images ranging from green smoothies topped with fruit slices to platters full of hearty whole-wheat bread speckled with oats, bran, and flax seed and smeared with avocado. Mmmm… Can’t you taste the insoluble fiber and monounsaturated fats regulating your bowels?
Such vivid visuals are typically accompanied by an attractive female laughing heartily while her wavy, honey-colored hair billows in the wind and her half-eaten whole wheat wrap remains beautifully intact, basil leaves and all, despite the windstorm blowing her hair around. What a captivating sight. Wellness. This is what wellness looks like, say the advertisements for health stores, whole foods, vitamin supplements, exercise programs, and health coaching services alike.
What a beautiful picture it paints. While these primped-up marketing tactics aren’t entirely deceptive, they often instill in our impressionable minds a preoccupation with nutrition and exercise. While both proper nutrition and adequate levels of exercise are crucial components of wellness — they are merely two of the eight pillars that comprise the collective entity of holistic wellness.
So let’s dive right in! What are the eight pillars of holistic wellness?
1) Physical Wellness
Our first pillar relates to the aspects of wellness that are most often associated with health and longevity — those intrinsic to the fitness and performance of the human body, namely physical exercise and proper nutrition. Physical wellness is comprised of several smaller components, such as body mass index (BMI), cholesterol and glucose levels, blood pressure, functioning of organ systems, including the skeletal structure, musculature of the body, and the circulatory system, and overall strength, stamina, and endurance (Univ. of California). Annual physical exams at a physician’s office serve to monitor and regulate these wellness factors. Not only that — a physician can also refer you to a specialized doctor, such as a cardiologist or oncologist, should the need arise. It is extremely important to prioritize annual visits to the doctor’s office.
Underlying these physical components of well-being are various lifestyle factors and behaviors that either promote or diminish wellness. Among them are alcohol/tobacco use, sleep patterns, exercise habits, diet and nutrition, and lifestyle factors such as extreme stress or lack of work-life balance. Collectively, these lifestyle factors create a playing field in which the ultimate result of the game is far more complex than a simple WIN or LOSE.
Applying this allegory to human wellness, a loss would signify death. Rather morbid, I know. Luckily, it’s not that simple. Physical wellness is a spectrum rather than a simple black-and-white measurement. Several factors are at play and balance must be maintained consistently.
2) Emotional Wellness
Emotional wellness involves the ability to engage in emotional self-regulation and compartmentalization. Emotional self-regulation describes an individual’s ability to identify and regulate emotions, as well as appropriate emotions to the situations at hand. It allows us to recognize, identify, and define our emotions and the triggers that incited them. For instance, emotional self-regulation in elementary school-age children is extremely useful; it empowers children to communicate their emotions to their peers, teachers, and parents. It grants us the willpower to handle our emotions maturely and productively — particularly negative ones such as anger, distress, and jealousy. Skills such as emotional self-awareness, anger management, and self-soothing allow us to conduct ourselves as mature adults rather than immature children who throw tantrums at the slightest trigger.
On the same note, compartmentalization is a psychological mechanism that allows the individual to maintain emotional detachment from the emotions they are experiencing. Emotional detachment, which involves separating oneself psychologically from their emotions and thus from the corresponding emotional consequences, sounds harsh. In the wrong scenario, it is. For instance, emotional detachment in a romantic relationship can be incredibly detrimental, as it drives a wedge between two people who ultimately strive for intimacy. Intimacy thrives on a firm foundation of open, honest communication and emotional respect and acknowledgement. One can easily discern why this psychological mechanism would be a bad idea.
Context is everything, though. Consider an entirely different scenario: A man who suffered severe trauma, neglect, and abuse as a child utilizes compartmentalization during a violent flashback to detach himself from a real-life situation that caused him severe psychological harm. In this case, emotional detachment from the horrific memories serves a purpose. It allows him to temporarily compartmentalize the emotions that he has experienced, so that it does not constantly disrupt his adult life. It allows him to live fully in the present and lead a productive, fulfilling life, despite his past trauma. Again, context.
Coupling the vast myriad of human experiences that could befall us with the inevitability of human emotions, it is no wonder that humans quite often experience conflicting emotions. Conflicting emotions present a prime opportunity to utilize those compartmentalization skills. It is often more useful to focus on one emotion at a time than to let conflicting emotions get all jumbled up. Jumbled emotions lead to conflict with romantic partners, family, friends, and colleagues and wreak havoc on personal lives. Which brings us to number three…
3) Social Wellness
Social wellness is precisely the state of our personal social network. “Social network” typically elicits a connotation of online profiles, vacation photo galleries, and superficial human connections that often exacerbate anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction with one’s own life rather than making a meaningful contribution to it.
But in this case, I’m not talking about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube. I’m talking about your social network. The part of your life that is ultimately a patchwork quilt of all your social interactions and friendships. Socialization is intrinsic to human brain circuitry. Humans are a social species. We depend on one another and therefore crave a sense of belonging. When we engage in positive social interactions, we are rewarded with a sense of belonging. Such simple positive reinforcement also explains why toxic relationships are hazardous to your health, and why individuals with stronger friendships and social networks live longer, happier lives.
As such, maintaining strong, healthy social ties is critical to our well-being. It is not necessary to have 100 friends, but rather a few supportive, trustworthy friends will improve your life plenty. A fair warning to all the social butterflies out there— maintaining friendships indiscriminately, regardless of whether or not they truly bring value to your life, is dangerous. One toxic friendship does more damage than having no friends at all. Be selective.
Friendships should be a meaningful contribution to your life, not a parasitic burden that triggers anxiety, stress, and discomfort. Toxic friendships are often easy to identify but difficult to cope with. Become adept at recognizing friendships that are worth your while. Devote yourself to friends who challenge you to be a better version of yourself. Friends who support and encourage what’s important to you. Friends who respect your priorities and boundaries. Friends who truly have your best interest at heart. Offer them the same, and if you find that you can’t, then let them go.
4) Spiritual Wellness
Spiritual wellness means something different to everybody. One individual, an Irish Catholic woman residing in South Boston, Massachusetts, interprets her spirituality by means of a deep connection with God, studying the bible and attending church on Sunday mornings. Each night, she kneels and prays before bed, thanking the Lord for the gift of this day and one day anticipating life in heaven.
A Turkish man prays to Allah and studies the Koran. His life is vastly different from the life of the first woman, but both devote their life on Earth entirely to God.
Yet another engages in soulful meditation and yoga, and makes a living teaching others to do the same. Each day, her meditation class convenes on a quiet beach on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Together, they explore their spirituality and deepen the spiritual bonds between one another.
On the west coast, in Santa Monica, California, we meet a psychic and spiritual medium who facilitates communication with the deceased. He practices psychic readings and connects people to their relatives who have died.
While vastly different, each of the above lifestyles encourages strong spiritual bonds and thriving spirituality. Determine how you choose to nurture your spirituality, and devote time to it regularly. Doing so will make you feel grounded.
5) Intellectual Wellness
Intellectual wellness is likely no strange concept to those reading this article, considering that it is published on Medium, a publishing platform dedicated to the spread of ideas, knowledge, and inspiration. All of which perfectly describe intellectual wellness.
From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are innately curious. Despite this, humans display varying degrees of intellectual prowess and curiosity. While some individuals strive to learn as much as humanly possible, others are content with infrequent intellectual simulation. Reading books, learning new skills, exploring new environments, and asking questions are all means of nurturing our intellectual wellness — yet interest in these activities varies greatly. Furthermore, what fascinates one person may bore another to tears.
Our minds are as diverse as our bodies. For many, the need for engaging intellectual stimulation and thought-provoking dialogue is as crucial as proper nutrition. Without it, they feel deeply unfulfilled. I am one of these people.
As such, learning is a pivotal part of my life. Reading books and science journals, writing essays, analyzing classical music, asking probing questions, honing current skills and learning new ones, exposing myself to viewpoints that contradict my own, and immersing myself in novel experiences are immensely rewarding to me. Whether learning a language, listening to Mozart, or researching personality disorders, I find life most satisfying when I am cognitively engaged.
Intellectual stimulation requires neither books nor a computer, for the curious mind can satiate itself anywhere. Conversations with people of different backgrounds, practicing a new gardening technique, or enhancing your spatial skills by mapping out uncharted hiking terrain — all fantastic, pragmatic ways to engage your mind. Don’t dismiss intellectual wellness simply because you’re not a reader. Not everyone prefers to learn linguistically.
6) Occupational Wellness
Somewhat related to intellectual wellness, occupational wellness describes one’s job satisfaction and fulfillment. Ultimately, it emphasizes our happiness within our work life. Such factors as work-life balance and job satisfaction come into play here. Everyone has tough days at work — no job position or career path will allow you to circumvent that inevitability. But overall, are you happy with your job? Do you feel that you have a purpose? Do you have a safe, comfortable work environment with supportive colleagues and a boss who respects you? Does your work give you a sense of accomplishment and pride? Does your job offer opportunities for professional growth and personal development? Does it challenge you?
Long-term job dissatisfaction is a trigger for stress, anxiety, and depression. It is detrimental to your health, happiness, and well-being. Don’t let it bring you down. Make changes where necessary, even if it means taking a pay cut. Which brings me to our next pillar of wellness…
7) Financial Wellness
Financial wellness and occupational wellness are definitely related, but each is a distinct arena that requires its own consideration. While occupational wellness deals with job satisfaction and career fulfillment, financial wellness deals solely with finances. It evaluates your financial stability; income, expenses, and debts owed. Whether or not you have a stable income that affords you basic life expenses (food, water, housing, transportation, insurance, medical care) as well as the basic expenses of any dependents, such as children, you may have. Is your income predictable and consistent?
Aside from income, debt is perhaps the greatest indicator of your financial health. Do you have a mortgage, or a car loan? Have you taken out any lines of credit, personal loans, or student loans? Do you have credit card debt? Unpaid bills that are past due? All of these are filed under the DEBT category. Calculate the total amount of debt that you owe, subtract it from your total assets — income, savings, value of material possessions — and you have your personal net worth. (Schwab)
Don’t feel bad if it’s negative. It simply means you have some work to do. Tackle paying off loans and credit card debt while downsizing to a shoestring budget and diminishing your expenses as much as possible. You will have to make sacrifices, whether it means cooking all your meals at home, shopping at bargain outlets, or skipping social outings, but no whining — after all, barring unusual circumstances, it is nobody’s fault but your own. Applying for a mortgage, financing a car, taking out a line of credit, applying for student loans, opening multiple credit cards— these are all choices. Choices that entail a hefty financial commitment. A commitment that you made.
So get to work! Evaluate your expenses, put in the over-time, pick up a part-time gig, sell your car — do whatever you have to; your financial health is at stake.
8) Environmental Wellness
Lastly, but certainly not least, is environmental wellness. Environmental health is often mistaken for a political issue, but in reality everyone should strive to live environmentally well. Such a lifestyle includes environmental awareness and appreciation of Earth’s natural resources. It might involve focused efforts to conserve energy consumption or preserve natural habitats (University of New Hampshire). Related to environmental wellness is outdoor immersion and experiences with nature. Gardening, planting trees, and preserving natural environments are also hands-on ways to get in touch with your environment.
At the end of the day, holistic wellness is a product of the interplay between the various factors described above. Each of the eight pillars of holistic wellness plays a pivotal role in your overall well-being and life satisfaction. Always take a holistic approach, and remember that balance is key!