We all want to be healthy, and have a pretty good idea of what we need to do for our health.
But you know how sometimes you have no problem doing what you know you should for your health and sometimes it’s a struggle. Why is that? This struggle is not a personal flaw or weakness. In fact, when you make it one, things only get harder. When you are not doing what you know you should, it simply means the way you are approaching health is separating your four internal parts.
Being healthy has become a brain-based activity. Motivation has come to mean overcoming the signals from the other parts of you like hunger, fullness, emotions, pain, or cravings.
So, what is whole person health? As a physiologist, and fellow imperfect human being, I want you to know that you are hardwired to be healthy. That means the motivation to take care of yourself is written right into your cells. When every part of your whole person—brain, body, emotions, and spirit— are working together, you thrive and are naturally motivated. THAT is whole-person health.
The bonus is, that this whole person approach works, even during times of stress, when you need it most. In this article we will take a look at how each part of you is hardwired for you to survive so you can thrive, so you know they are not working against you. Lastly, I will give you the three skills that allow them to work together for your whole person to be healthy with lasting habits.
How your brain keeps you healthy
The brain has three qualities that allow you to survive so you thrive.
- Bad news bias: Your brain is constantly on the lookout for potential threats to your survival. That means it has a slant toward noticing what is wrong or could go wrong. It’s not a problem. We dont want to mistakenly use positive thinking to push this down. This brain quality is here to keep you safe and you need it. Yes, you can choose not to follow that bad news bias, but that takes a conscious effort.
- Time-traveling: Your brain has the ability to time travel, back to the past, into the future, and to imaginary places never to be found on your calendar or map. This quality can make the bad news seem worse. Your brain adds to what is here and now all your worries and memories about that topic. Again, this is to keep you safe. Without the memory of the past or the ability to think about the future, you could not survive.
- Communication with your body: Instantly, your brain takes that information and sends it through your spinal cord to your body. This happens automatically before you are even aware it is happening. Your brain needs the information from your body to know if there is a threat present and your body needs your brain’s input. There is no separating what happens in your brain from what happens in your body. This two-way automatic communication between your brain and body protects you from harm and allows you to be healthy.
How your body keeps you healthy
For your body to use the information from your brain, it has two physiological states.
- Survive State: When a real or potential threat is detected in that brain-body communication, it’s like an alarm is going off inside, letting you know there is a problem. Your cells and systems shift to Alarm Mode. Energy goes into being ready to move to fight, flee, or freeze against that threat so you can survive. Your body tenses and your conscious brain receives a message to be on guard, there is a problem. It stays on high alert until you have cleared the alarm.
- Thrive State: When there is no threat detected, your physiology redirects energy to Recharge Mode. Energy goes back to healing, growth, and learning so you can thrive. This is home base or ‘homeostasis’ for your whole person, the state you are meant to be in most of the time. It’s the state where health happens. Spending as much time in this state as possible is the key to being healthy.
This is the hinge point for your health. When your physiology is in the thrive state more energy is going into being healthy. The challenge is that the bad news bias is our default. When not aware, people will talk about what is going wrong more than what is going right. The news media is filled with ‘bad news’. Unless you actively seek the good news and filter your intake of the bad news, you will get triggered constantly throughout the day. You’ll spend more time in the survive state and not enough time in thrive state, especially because if the alarm is mild, it can go undetected. This is where emotions come in.
How your emotions keep you healthy
Emotions are messengers about what is happening in the brain-body connection. They inform you about what state you are in and what you need to get back to, or stay in, the Thrive State. The Feelings Wheel separates the feelings of the Survive State and the Thrive State into their essential parts
There are different flavors of these core emotions, but simplifying them makes it easy to use them to stay aware of what state you are in.
- Sad, mad, and scared are the core messages that you are in the Survive State.
- Calm, confident, and connected are the core messages that you are in the Thrive State.
See emotions as messengers, telling you the state of your core needs as a human being. This is found in your spiritual element.
How your spirit keeps you healthy
Whether you have a spiritual practice or not, you have a spirit. It is the part of you that informs you about what is most important to you, the people you care about, and what you want to put into the world. You know this at your core (literally and figuratively). Your spirit keeps you healthy by sensing if you are safe, enough, and connected. These three elemental human needs allow you to survive so you can thrive. They are the Core Motivators of everything you do.
- Safe: you have enough air, food, water, shelter, and protection from danger.
- Enough: you have a sense of your unique skills, strengths, and what it means for you personally to thrive.
- Connected: you have a “tribe” of people who you care for and who care for you.
Your spirit element is also in constant communication with your body-brain connection. When your spirit-body-brain senses you are safe, enough, and connected, you stay in the Thrive State. When your spirit element senses you are not, you shift into the Survive State. What it means to be safe, enough, and connected is unique to you. It is Your Core Why for doing what you do in life.
Even when you are not doing what you know you should, your whole person is doing its best to fill these needs. Not exercising might be the best way to stay safe, if exercising is painful. Not sticking with your diet might be the best way for you to be connected, if everyone around you is eating differently. Overworking might be the best way to feel you are enough, if other areas of your life leave you feeling you aren’t.
What you practice gets stronger
This is the one quality all part of you share – what you practice gets stronger. Here is how it works for each part of you:
Brain: When you practice following the negativity bias, or keeping your thoughts in the past and future, your brain will get really great at reliving past threats or predicting future threats and your body will get used to being in the survive state. The opposite is true. The more you practice presence with self-kindness, the more your brain is likely to see what is going well in this moment and your body will get more familiar with the thrive state. This is called mindful self-compassion but as we will see in the next section it needs another element to lead to whole person health.
Body: When you practice mobility, strength and stamina your body will keep those skills. When you don’t, your body loses those skills. That is what we call “getting older”. But it is not normal physiologic aging, it’s disuse! When you are practicing regularly keeping the skills you want your body to keep as you age, you can determine what is actual biologic aging and what is deconditioning. Your body needs all three of these skills, so smart exercise has a balance of each of these. The good news is, its a simple as 1-2-3. The word exercise means to practice, but as we will see in the next section, it needs two other elements to keep it from being a ‘should’.
Emotions: When you practice ignoring emotions, your brain and body connection will be lowered and you are more likely to be in survive state without realizing it. If you practice overidentifying with emotions, your brain and body are likely to stay in a high level of the survive state. When you practice see emotions for what they are, messengers about what you need right now, you strengthen your emotional intelligence and empathy skills. These are connected to health and wellbeing so emotional agility is a skill you don’t want to miss in your plan for whole-person health. As we will see in the next section, there is a three prong approach to emotional agility that is essential for using them to spend more time in your Thrive Zone.
Spirit: When you practice ignoring that little nudge in your gut and heart brain, your body will try to get your attention. This is why so many ailments are tied to chronic stress. You know this for yourself. There is this pit in your stomach or aching in your heart when you sense you are not safe, connected or enough. When you practice listening to and trusting your gut and heart brain, your whole person shifts into the thrive state. This is how you just know, in your body, that you made the right choice. When you are practiced up in using each of your parts as they are designed, what you know in your center, your spirit is much more accessible and choices for your health are made with greater ease.
The three key skills that keep your whole person working together for you to thrive
Now that we know how each part is designed for you to survive so you can thrive, we can see that no part is working against you. Negative thoughts, tension, strong emotions and being ‘lazy’ are simply signs from each part that something is missing. When your physiology is in the state of trying to survive, with those thoughts, emotions and body sensations distracting you, its easy to get pulled in further into a downward spiral of stress creating more stress. While there are many ways to reduce stress, one cannot do it all. Those parts of your whole person need different things.
There are three skills that work together perfectly to give your whole person what it needs to shift your physiology back into the thrive state.
- Mindfulness brings your thoughts back to the present moment. This simple shift starts to calm the alarm by reducing the number of threats from the time-traveling part of your brain. This is known to start to calm the body and allows you to name the emotions so they can be used as messengers rather than treats.
- Self-kindness allows you to use what you notice by seeing it for what it is, simply each part of your whole person letting you know that you have left the thriving state where more energy goes into being healthy. Without judging what is happening, you can see clearly what you need to do to calm the alarm and get back to thriving.
- Exercise science is the best guide we have to move the way your body is designed. Exercise for health is moving for purpose of self-care. Remember, your body is ready to move in the survive physiology. Mindfulness and self-compassion are tremendous tools for calming stress but the return to thriving is incomplete until you give your body the movement it is prepared for. This takes a bit of rethinking the word exercise from the cultural definition. When you know how to move your body with the least strain and greatest strength, mobility, strength and stamina exercises become resources to restore calm, confidence and connection.
Mindfulness, self-kindness, and exercise science and the complete solution to the stress state. They allow your whole person to work together to align with your innate drive to thrive. Stress is no longer a threat, but an invitation to allow the four parts of your whole person to work together as designed so you enjoy whole-person health and lasting habits.
This is what it means to be Exercising Well. Moving your body the way it is designed with presence and kindness to practice being in the thrive state. This is whole-person health.
Check out my guide on Whole-person self-care to continue to nurture your connection with these parts and how they work together for you to thrive. When it seems like you are stuck, stay curious, knowing it simply means a core need is missing from what you are doing. Staying curious allows you to use your brain, body, emotions, and spirit to get unstuck and be healthy with greater ease.