How the four pillars of wellness can help you be healthier and happier

February 2, 2021 in Complementary & Integrative Medicine  •  By Michael Scott, ND, MSA

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered every facet of our daily life—how we socialize, how we do basic tasks like grocery shopping, how our children attend school, and how we work. These changes coupled with the other stresses caused by the pandemic all contribute to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and negative coping strategies including substance and alcohol use, unhealthy eating habits, and skipping physical activity.

We talked with Julie Wald, Founder and Chief Wellness Officer at Namaste Wellness in New York about what you can do to better manage stress and promote wellness while working from home and juggling all your other responsibilities. Ms. Wald has been a wellness practitioner for over 25 years. She holds a master’s degree in Social Work from New York University and began her career as a clinical social worker treating adults, children, and adolescents. In addition, she is a Certified Yoga Instructor, Meditation Teacher, Thai Bodyworker, and Reiki Master and the author of Inner Wealth: How Wellness Heals, Nurtures, and Optimizes Ultra-Successful People.

 PinnacleCare (PC): From your perspective, how is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting health and wellness?

Julie Wald (JW): People everywhere are stressed and struggling. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that before the pandemic, 15 to 20% of people surveyed reported living with a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety. By October 2020, that number had risen to 53% of people reporting that they were suffering from mental health issues due to stress from the coronavirus.

PC: What is driving this increase in mental health issues?

JW: We’re living in a stress laden environment. The number of daily stressors that people are contending with include personal concerns about and caring for aging parents, childcare and remote schooling, job security, meal preparation, the isolation of working from home, marital issues, and national concerns like civil unrest and racism.

Faced with a chronic, long-term stressful environment, our window of tolerance starts to shrink as does our ability to manage stress in healthy ways. Before the pandemic, we were able to reduce stress by going out with friends, going to the gym, and other social activities. When you remove these touchpoints, stress starts to become overwhelming and negative coping behaviors may take the place of our lost means of coping. We begin eating less healthy foods, drinking more alcohol, and other behaviors that deplete us physically and psychologically.

PC: What steps can people take to manage stress and improve their wellbeing?

JW: The key is to create new healthy habits that support our day-to-day functioning. Those habits fall into what I call the four pillars of wellness—movement, stillness, connection, and nourishment. The first step is to assess where our positive habits are strong and where they need support. These changes won’t happen overnight. Research has shown that it takes 66 days of consecutive activity on average to form a new habit.

Of course, behavior change is easier said than done. That’s why it’s important to start small, especially if you’re struggling. For example, if you want to become more physically active, start by making a daily ritual of walking to your mailbox at the same time each day or doing five jumping jacks.

The next step is to attach your new habit to an existing one to weave it into your daily routine. Do those jumping jacks before you brush your teeth each morning and evening.

And finally, reward yourself for following through, whether that means making your favorite smoothie or having a second cup of coffee.

PC: What behaviors do the four pillars of wellness encompass?

JW: While exercise is part of movement, it doesn’t have to be formal exercise. Set a timer and get up every hour or so and stretch. Not every movement experience needs to be a big workout, which can be overwhelming, especially if you’re stressed, depressed, or anxious. Yoga, tai chi, strength training, cardio, and just getting outside for a walk all have demonstrated proven positive impacts on mental health in studies. Choosing an activity you genuinely enjoy will help you be consistent and form a new healthy habit.

Stillness of course includes sleep, but you can also explore mindfulness, breathing exercises, gentle yoga, and reading a good book. What it does not mean is looking at a screen. Stillness is a chance for the mind to decompress and an opportunity for true restoration.

Connection is more difficult right now, but it’s still possible. Many people find connection through being of service to others and reaching out to family and friends to talk and check in. It gives you a sense of purpose and meaning. You could also try to schedule a regular time to walk and talk with a friend, taking the needed precautions of wearing a mask and walking six feet apart.

Nourishment is more than the physical nourishment provided by food, though choosing healthy foods that don’t promote inflammation is part of it. It’s also psychospiritual. It can be listening to music, taking part in creative activities, and rediscovering interests you’ve enjoyed.

PC: What should people do if they or someone they care about is struggling?

JW: First, if you’re struggling right now, you’re normal. A majority of people are. If you or someone you care about is in crisis, call your primary care doctor or a mental health provider. Your primary care doctor can also refer you to other specialists and resources who can help with nutrition, stress management, and exercise.

Life truly is a team game. Reaching out and plugging into support is the most important thing you can do.

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