Wellness – What Does Wellness Mean to You?

For me wellness is a process, one that I have been working diligently on for the past three years. This quest has taken a considerable amount of time and energy but is well worth the investment. My road to wellness encompasses a balance of physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual components. Balance was something that was sorely missing from my life and my health suffered as a consequence.

Now I prioritize healthy eating, regular exercise and good sleep in order to keep my physical body well and to supply me with the energy required to do all that I need and want to do in my life. My biggest priority is eating a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables with an emphasis on cruciferous vegetables for their disease-fighting, anti-inflammatory properties (Jiang, 2014).

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As someone who carried a lot of stress in the past, I have made managing my stress a priority and I am having great success through acupuncture, meditation and support from a naturopathic doctor and a clinical herbalist who creates custom teas and tinctures for me. In a study on the effects of Ashwagandha root extract (Chandrasekhar 2012) found that it safely and effectively increased a person’s resistance to stress and in doing so improved their perceived quality of life. I am now calmer and much more resilient to stress which has built up my emotional wellness.

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I consider myself very fortunate to have a supportive and loving husband. His encouragement in all that I do gives me the foundation and security to step out of my comfort zone and follow my dreams. I would describe myself as primarily an introvert who is social, to a point. I enjoy being with friends but need a lot of alone time to recharge. I have gotten much better at taking the time I need and saying no to things when I know they could compromise my feeling of well-being. I used to say “yes” to everything and everyone else, but I have learned that I need to say “yes” to myself first and to the things that are of the greatest priority at the time. I’ve realized that it’s not selfish but sensible to do so! Since I started my Master’s program in nutrition I have enjoyed building relationships with fellow students who share similar interests and passions and I appreciate the sense of community at MUIH which has greatly enriched my social wellness. Returning to school has also been an exciting time intellectually. I have always enjoyed learning but doing so in this new college setting is proving to be more challenging (in a good way) and inspiring.

However, since returning to school I have made less time for yoga, which I miss greatly. I know that I would benefit from the physical aspects of a yoga practice as well as the meditative and spiritual aspects. This is definitely an area I need to work on and find a way to add back into my life in a manageable way. Given that it is increasingly challenging to find time to attend a yoga class, creating my own home practice would be a great solution. (Ross 2012) found that the frequency of a home practice had a greater impact on health and well-being than simply the amount of time a person has been practicing yoga or how many formal classes they take. The benefit appears to come from including healthy habits like a yoga practice into your daily life, which in turn helps you to include and maintain other healthy habits.

School has also limited the amount of time I can spend with good friends. I am thankful that they are understanding and supportive of what I am doing and that they appreciate the importance of my school work and my need to prioritize it. I see this as an unavoidable side-effect of my current situation and I will make every effort to connect with them between trimesters. Meanwhile, I use my long commute time to catch up by phone. Despite these current challenges I am eternally grateful for the life I have and believe that practicing gratitude on a daily basis enhances my feeling of wellness. (Lyubomirsky 2011) found that expressing optimism and gratitude increase well-being. The greatest success arose when participants understood, believed in and committed to the practice.

Since I have been working on building my wellness, I have gained a greater sense of control over my own health and well-being. Changing my diet, taking better care of myself and following my passion have all led me to a greater feeling of satisfaction. I feel empowered by all that I have learned and continue to learn. I have taken charge of my own wellness and I am reaping the benefits of doing so. I know this will be a continual journey and there will be challenges along the way (such as school is at the moment), but I am committed and know that I can manage them through awareness, recognition and constantly striving for balance.

How does wellness show up in your life? Do you feel like you have the balance you need? Where and how could you create more balance to enhance your wellness?

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REFERENCES

Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., Anishetty, S. (2012) A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine 2012;34:255-62

http://www.ijpm.info/text.asp?2012/34/3/255/106022

Jiang, Y., Wu, S.-H., Shu, X.-O., Xiang, Y.-B., Ji, B.-T., Milne, G. L., … Yang, G. (2014). Cruciferous Vegetable Intake Is Inversely Correlated with Circulating Levels of Proinflammatory Markers in Women. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114(5), 700–8.e2.

http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.019

Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J. K., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). Becoming Happier Takes Both a Will and a Proper Way: An Experimental Longitudinal Intervention to Boost Well-Being. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11(2), 391–402. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0022575

Ross, A., Friedmann, E., Bevans, M., & Thomas, S. (2012). Frequency of Yoga Practice Predicts Health: Results of a National Survey of Yoga Practitioners. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM, 2012, 983258. http://doi.org/10.1155/2012/983258

Can we really make friends with stress?

Well, Dr. Kelly McGonigal says we can. She introduces us to new research which just might change the way you view stress. She is the author of several books, with her latest book being appropriately called the “The Upside of Stress.” Her 2013 TED talk, "How to Make Stress Your Friend," is one of the 20 Most Viewed TED talks of all time, with 10 million views!! I just watched this TED talk a few days ago in a class and it has really given me a new perspective on stress. Stress is serious business and a threat to our health, so anything we can do to improve the effects of stress on our lives is a very good thing!

This will be 14 minutes of your time well spent. It’s not one of the top viewed TED talks of all time for no reason!

Briefly, Kelly McGonigal references studies and tests that show that the way we think about stress has an impact on how stress actually affects our health.

Those who believe that stress is bad for their health are more likely to suffer a stress related issue like a heart attack as opposed to those who also experienced stress but do not believe that it affects their health.

Helpful versus Harmful

When people viewed their stress responses as helpful versus harmful their stress response changed. In a typical stress response our heart rate will increase and our blood vessels will constrict, which is detrimental to our heart health, however, those who perceived these responses as positive signs such as your pounding heart is preparing you for the challenge ahead and your fast breathing is helping to get more oxygen to the brain actually changed their physical stress response. Their heart rate still increased but their blood vessels did not constrict. Over the course of a lifetime this type of thinking and response can be the difference between dying young of a heart attack or living to an old age.

Oxytocin affects the stress response

Oxytocin is probably best known for being the cuddle hormone, but it is actually also a stress hormone. When oxytocin is released during the stress response it encourages you to reach out to friends and family for support so you don’t carry the burden of stress alone and it also increases your desire to reach out and help someone else who may be in need.

Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory helping to keep your blood vessels relaxed during stress and it actually helps the heart cells repair and heal from the damage caused by stress. This reaction is increased by social interaction, so when you connect with others during a time of stress you release more oxytocin which helps you recover from stress even faster. People who have a more positive view of stress and those who help others, build up more stress resilience through caring.

"Stress gives us access to our hearts."

She ends by saying “Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart working so hard to give you strength and energy, and when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re making a profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”

Are you ready to make friends with stress? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.