Holistic health is the overarching philosophy of looking at a person’s health from every aspect – be it physical, emotional, social, spiritual or mental – and observing how imbalances in one or more of these areas can bring about unwanted symptoms in others.
While modern-day Western medicine has provided us with a long list of essential, life-saving medical advancements, it has also wired us to look at our health in terms of individual symptoms and treatments, rather than looking at the person – and all our parts – as a whole.
By considering how these interdependent parts of our personhood work together to either heal or bring about illness, holistic health provides an alternative or complementary approach to mainstream medicine that goes beyond treating symptoms as they arise. Instead, holistic health practises can support healing by tending to the vast array of factors that impact our wellbeing on a daily basis.
What are the 5 key aspects of holistic health?
Holistic health looks beyond just the physical body when addressing health issues and symptoms – even those that manifest physically such as pain, fatigue or illness. While a symptom may cause pain or discomfort in a physical sense, its underlying causes (and therefore its treatments) can be more rooted in our emotional, mental, spiritual and social wellbeing than we realise. Similarly, how we take care of ourselves physically can have ripple effects on our health in other areas, such as our mental state or emotional wellbeing. Here, we look at the five key aspects of holistic health and how they can work together to impact our overall wellbeing:
When we think about health, most of us tend to think about the physical health of our bodies and how optimally they are functioning. Pain, illness, fatigue and tension are all examples of physical symptoms that are easy to detect and monitor, making them obvious indicators of health issues and imbalances. In mainstream medicine, these physical symptoms are typically treated with medications, physical therapies and/or surgeries – all of which can be incredibly beneficial to the patient depending on their needs and situation. What some mainstream practises fail to do however, is look at the underlying causes of physical symptoms which can manifest as a result of any combination of emotional, social, spiritual, mental and other physical imbalances. This means that while patients may find temporary or even long-lasting relief from their symptoms through mainstream medicines, many may be unaware of how much their environment, lifestyle choices, relationships and other aspects of their lives could be contributing to their physical health and wellbeing. Likewise, imbalances in our physical health such as our sleep, diet, exercise and lifestyle choices can negatively impact our health in other areas. This is why things like getting more sleep, eating more nutrient-rich foods and moving our bodies each day can help regulate our mood, emotions and mental wellbeing.
In tending to a physical or other unwanted symptom, a holistic practitioner will look at every aspect of a person’s health to determine the best treatment/s for them. Examples of treatments could range anywhere from massage and natural alternatives to stress-reduction techniques and therapy.
Emotional health refers to a person’s ability to maintain perspective and control over their moods and emotions as they navigate daily life. An emotionally healthy person is not necessarily someone who is happy all the time or who does not experience setbacks, but rather someone who has the tools and self-awareness to be able to ‘cope’ in a wide range of situations and changing environments.
Tending to our emotional health through emotional regulation practises like mindfulness and meditation, counselling and therapy or journaling and listening to music can be equally as important as tending to our physical health. Especially when we consider the impact that emotional distress is known to have on our bodies’ immune system and susceptibility to physical illness. Good emotional health is key to our ability to manage stress and build resilience, foster high self-esteem and self-awareness and form deeper social connections with others.
Beyond the emotional health practises listed above, we can also tend to our emotional wellbeing through physical health practises like exercising and getting more sleep; social health practises like spending time with loved ones and spiritual health practises like spending time in nature.
Researchers have consistently shown links between our social relationships and health, with poor social health being linked to physical and mental health issues like high blood pressure, heart attacks, cancer, depression and anxiety. Loneliness has also been linked to chronic conditions like heart disease and inflammation due to its impact on our immune systems, with studies stating that a lonely person is 50% more likely to die prematurely than someone with good social health.
Healthy and meaningful social relationships are incredibly important to maintaining good health in all other areas – mental, physical, spiritual and emotional – and are key to our ability to manage stress and experience joy in our lives. It’s important to note that the quality of our social relationships is equally as important as the quantity, and that negative or ‘toxic’ social relationships can be as harmful to our health as a lack of social relationships.
Good social health practises can include things like engaging with your community, turning to family and friends for support, building meaningful relationships with others, creating healthy boundaries, communicating effectively and making time for in-person connection.
Spiritual health can mean different things to different people, making it harder to define than other aspects of holistic health. While spirituality is distinct from faith or religion, the two can overlap depending on your individual beliefs. Spirituality can be defined as our connection to the intangible or non-physical parts of life, such as the feeling we get when we do something we’re passionate about or the meaning we apply to certain places, groups and practises. While for many spirituality can imply a connection to faith, for others it is simply about connecting to themselves, their purpose or the world around them.
We can support our spiritual health through doing things we enjoy or that make us feel purposeful, spending time in nature, practising faith and engaging with our community. All of these practises will enhance not only our spiritual health, but all aspects of our health and wellbeing.
Mental health is distinct from emotional health in that it refers to our overall cognitive wellbeing and the way our brain functions, rather than just our day-to-day mood and emotions. There are many things that can impact a person’s mental health – ranging from biological factors and physical wellbeing to socioeconomic pressures and relationships – and good mental health plays a vital role in helping us foster wellness in all other areas of our lives.
Supporting your mental health holistically can take on many forms. A combination of self-directed activities like getting more sleep, managing stress and eating a nutrient-rich diet can complement treatments like psychotherapy, art therapy, natural alternatives and/or medication for more effective results when treating or preventing mental illnesses and their causes.
Treating the person, not just the symptoms
Holistic practitioners employ a variety of treatments, suggestions and techniques to support their patients’ health, with the goal of holistic medicine being to treat the person – not just their individual symptom/s – as a whole. Your holistic provider should empower you with the knowledge and incentive to make informed decisions about what works for you, your health and your goals by suggesting a range of tailored, evidence-backed therapies based on your needs. By looking at your health from every aspect, you and your holistic practitioner will be best-placed to detect, treat and prevent imbalances while monitoring the impact they have on other areas of your health. It is in this way that holistic health can promote profound, long-lasting healing and empower us to take greater care of our overall wellbeing.