Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series focusing on brain health. In this week’s installation, Dr. Terry Rondberg discusses the definition of brain health.
People who are closer to a state of wellness will engage in voluntary actions that will help them reach higher states of function and quality of life, regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms. They do things like exercising, eating healthy, practicing meditation or yoga, having involvement with community and receiving wellness care such as that provided by brain health practitioners; as opposed to people seeking disease and symptom care, as those closer to a state of illness do, usually taking action when a “problem” becomes obvious.
Those who are closer to a state of illness on the illness-wellness continuum usually feel disconnected from others as well as themselves; their awareness becomes narrowed and distracted, and they become self-absorbed. This self-centered focus is accompanied by a narrowing of adaptive responses to life’s challenges and stresses. This response is stress physiology in action, and most of us could think back to a time – perhaps recently – when we faced a major crisis in life in which everything happening around us became a blur as our focus narrowed.
On the other hand, someone who is experiencing wellness may see symptoms as a sign of a body functioning the way it should and may view a health crisis as an opportunity for growth and change. In contrast, one who is in the mode of illness may see symptoms as a major regression, a burden with which they do not have time to handle.
The outdated, but still widely practiced, model of reality or paradigm when it comes to health is called the “medical model.” It holds that we are healthy if we have no symptoms and unhealthy if we do. Let me make this clear: it is not only modern medicine that subscribes to the medical model. Even so-called natural health care systems often practice this way. A person presents to their office, and if they have a cold or an ache or pain, they are given herbal medicine or an acupuncture treatment or an adjustment. When the person’s symptoms go away, treatment ends.
The problem with this model should be obvious: most of us, at one time in our lives, have gotten food poisoning. We ate something that was spoiled, and we quickly and rather unpleasantly, got it out of our systems. I would argue, however that we were not sick. Instead, our body was expressing its health – its ability to get rid of a poison, and quite effectively at that.
On the other hand is the case of “poor Andy,” who was supposedly never sick a day in his life, yet he dropped dead suddenly of a heart attack at age 57. I’d wager that Andy had symptoms but did not consider them to be the call-to-action that they often are. Perhaps his symptoms went something like this: “I hate my ex-wife.” Or “I can’t believe I’m still stuck in this job.” Or “My life is passing me by, and I have done nothing with it.” Or perhaps his symptoms were actually physical. Maybe Andy felt more fatigued than he should or had chronic foot pain or perhaps he had intermittent shortness of breath or minor chest pains. Like most men – and, increasingly, most women – Andy was frustrated because he wanted immediate relief, and when he didn’t receive it, he gave up too soon. This response is an actual medical condition, called alexithymia, in which a person loses the ability to perceive the internal cues with which their body is constantly providing them. Andy probably thought once he could no longer feel his symptoms that he was safe from harm. But that fateful day came, which in his case was actually that fatal day, and he will never be able to listen to his body again.
Health, as defined by the 2012 Physician’s Desk Reference is “a state characterized by anatomical, physiological and psychological integrity; ability to perform personally valued family, work and community roles; ability to deal with physical, biological, psychological and social stress; a feeling of well-being and freedom from the risk of disease and untimely death.” The World Health Organization defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and emotional well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Arizona State University also has a concise, yet comprehensive, definition of wellness: “Wellness is an active, lifelong, process of becoming more aware of choices and making decisions toward a more balanced and fulfilling life. Wellness involves choices about our life and our priorities that determine our lifestyles. The wellness concept is centered on connections and the idea that the mind, body, spirit and community are all interrelated and interdependent.”
These are beautiful words, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. Sadly, the medical establishment is still in the grip of the very powerful pharmaceutical industry and has no interest in putting these concepts into practice.