What is “Wellness” Anyway?

“To be “well” is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you, being stuck is bad for you. Wellness happens when your body is a place of safety for you, even when your body is not necessarily in a safe place.”

-Emily and Amelia Nagoski

We live in a relentless world, where the demands we place on ourselves seem to have no limit: Be successful in business. Be present for your children. Buy local, limit screen time and master social media. Plus, look amazing while you’re at it. And above all, never complain.

Amidst all of that there’s the notion of wellness, seemingly another item to check off the list. Except that for such a simple word, its implications are vast. One simply can’t boil down wellness to a single behaviour. At any given time it might mean to eat organic, go on a fast, make that 6 am fitness class, perform daily oil-pulling, prep the right meal, sleep eight hours or even know how to use crystals. And so, down the rabbit hole we go.

 Where’s the finish line? How many green smoothies does it take to become well? Sure, partaking in detox lollipops, celery juice shooters, colonics or any of the other stereotypical wellness fads being pumped by celebrities could possibly be helpful (in moderation, of course, and after thorough research). They might even provide a sense of empowerment and an element of control amidst the chaos. However, it’s much more likely that those fads will become a crutch that merely replaces the real work that should be happening behind the scenes, and at a much deeper level.

We must strive to understand that wellness isn’t so much a destination as a continual process of becoming, or unbecoming, as the case may be. As neuroscientist Emily Nagosky says, “To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you, being stuck is bad for you. Wellness happens when your body is a place of safety for you, even when your body is not necessarily in a safe place.” If this is so, it begs the question: How do we make our bodies a safe place? Obviously, everyone is unique and each one of us emerges from a lifetime of distinct experience, which is why there is no is cure-all fad that can trigger wellness. Instead, we must look inside with openness, curiosity and patience. We must embark on the journey with an understanding that the path ahead will be bumpy, the way often obscured, and it may even end up leading us away from where we had imagined it should, yet it will be uniquely our own and always worth the trip. So how do we take that first step?

Psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow has some ideas. While it’s true that we are all unique, there are still some tenets that we all need to follow. Maslow postulates, “basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.” By which he means that it isn’t until first satisfying our fundamental needs that we can advance towards our highest selves, and gain that all-important “self-actualization.”

“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?
At once other (and “higher”) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge, and so on. This is what we mean by saying that the basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.” (Maslow, 1943, p. 375).

So let’s assume, for the sake of this article, that the most basic of your basic needs have been satisfied.* You have access to food and water and your body is safe from harm. Is that enough? Could it be better? Obviously, yes, if you get by on deep-fried fast food, a litre of cola, and just enough steps to get from the car to a desk chair. That might technically satisfy basic needs, but clearly you can do better. That isn’t to say you need to dive headlong into a keto/paleo/raw food diet. In fact, many experts advise against such a strategy, stating that these restrictive diets are challenging to maintain. You don’t need to overwhelm yourself. Instead, start with a few of the simple steps listed by the University of Minnesota:

  • eat a variety of foods
  • incorporate more vegetables and fruits
  • choose whole grains
  • drink water
  • limit processed and artificially sweetened foods

If and when you’re ready for something more, always perform due diligence before starting any rigorous diet. If you’re unsure, it’s always wise to check in with a reputable nutritionist, naturopath, or family doctor. Remember that the goal is to work towards making your body a safe place in which you can more easily manage life’s many stressors. You’re trying to find authentic wellness, not become the next top supermodel.

While the nutrients we take in are a central component of our physiological well-being, remember too that getting your body moving is equally essential. The School of Human Kinetics at the University of British Columbia (Dr. Warburton, Nicol, Bredin) and the Healthy Heart Program at St. Paul’s Hospital have gathered studies showing that “there is irrefutable evidence of the effectiveness of regular physical activity in the primary and secondary prevention of several chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression and osteoporosis) and premature death.” This is great news. Even better: the studies reveal that we can access these amazing benefits with exercise that expends as little as 1000 calories per week!

Just realize that you don’t have to kill yourself with heavy-lifting, high-intensity programs  — unless, of course, you really, really want to. But it probably makes more sense to opt for, or at least mix in, some movement programs that prioritize mindfulness, like yoga, tai chi, Pilates or Qigong.** These low-impact, breath-centred movements offer a gentle path to reaping the physical rewards we seek, while also providing the foundation to create a greater body-mind connection.

This leads to the next segment of Maslow’s hierarchy, psychological needs. This third tier essentially comes down to connection, like giving and receiving love, or being a piece of a whole. While the global pandemic surges, and people everywhere struggle through isolation and separation from their families and friends, it has become glaringly clear why this phase is listed so prominently. Despite enormous technological advances since Maslow first published his theory in 1943, allowing us to regularly see our loved ones on-screen for example, without that physical connection, study after study has shown that deprivation of physical contact leads to a tremendous rise in both mental and physical health problems across the board.

The touch starvation that is so prevalent now activates the sympathetic, or what’s been called the “fight, flight, freeze or faint” response. But what exactly does that entail? 

  • Increase in stress, depression and anxiety raises levels of the hormone, cortisol
  • Cortisol increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension
  • It also suppresses the digestive system and immune system, increasing the risk of infection
  • Problems achieving sound sleep further exacerbates mental health problems, resulting in a vicious cycle

By contrast, when we receive touch in a positive way the parasympathetic, or “rest-and-digest” response, triggers release of oxytocin (the so-called cuddle hormone), which basically reverses the negative impact of cortisol.

Moreover, when we receive therapeutic touch, the results are multifaceted. Beyond the oxytocin and other endogenous opioids we benefit from with touch, mechanical manipulation of the tissue decreases tension in the body, diminishes swelling and inflammation, increases immunity, and positively affects the way our brains process pain. So, if safe physical connection with others, such as professional massage and bodywork or other manual therapies, is available to you, its many powerful physiological and psychological benefits are within easy reach.

Of course, there are many reasons why this physical connection may not available to everyone. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still strive to access these important emotional benefits on our journey to wellness, and the primal task of making our bodies a safe harbour from life’s stressful states. The chemical and hormonal releases that we see with touch are available to us through many everyday activities. Oxytocin can be triggered through playing with an animal, acts of kindness, or even receiving compliments. Meanwhile, endorphines can flow from laughter, exercise and dark chocolate. Maslow might especially approve of accessing dopamine by completing a task, self-care, and small wins. The serotonine we gain from meditating, running/swimming/cycling, and being in nature are all ways to reach the next tier of his pyramid, esteem needs.

Finding a sense of accomplishment and prestige are key to this stage. We can — and should — dole out gold stars to ourselves when we achieve these healthy tasks and fitness goals. But the second part of that classification is fulfilling the desire for reputation or respect from others. There are many creative ways to do this. Challenge a friend to a step-count competition, start an accountability group for meal planning, take virtual music or language lessons, or teach a friend a skill you’ve mastered. When you seek to inspire the community around you, you too will be inspired.

Presto-change-o! Welcome to Self-Actualization!

Okay, maybe not quite. While theoretically everyone is capable of achieving this last tier, Maslow estimated that only 2% of us ever will. Does that mean we shouldn’t aspire to it? Of course not. Besides, if you’re searching to tick off the characteristics list of those 18 people (mostly straight, rich, old, white men) that Maslow deemed self-actualized, you may spend your life frustrated and overwhelmed. And that is not wellness.

Instead, be who you are in the moment in which you find yourself. Know who you would like to be, take the steps to work towards it, and then be ready to let it all go and become who you are meant to be. Take care of your physical body, take care of your emotional body, and expect that life will throw you curveballs. Above all, be patient with yourself and never stop working to create that safe place inside yourself.

Remember, wellness isn’t a destination. It’s a lifelong, never-ending practice that needs to be every bit as relentless as our hectic modern times.

*If you, or someone you know, need help in meeting these needs, this resource list from Charity Village is a good place to start.

**Whenever you look to ancient techniques to guide the wellness journey, remember how important it is to pay homage to that culture’s history and heritage. The knowledge you gain from asking questions and researching these practices is essential to gaining their benefits without simply appropriating the culture of another.