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Moving Toward Health and Resilience

An interview with Dr. Thomas Plante on the interaction between body and mind.

This is the next in a series of interviews with expert psychologists on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Thomas Plante, used with permission
Source: Thomas Plante, used with permission

Today’s interview is on the subject of health and resilience, from Dr. Thomas G. Plante, whose area of clinical and research interest focuses on stress and coping, the influence of aerobic exercise and perceived fitness on psychological functioning, faith and health outcomes, psychological issues among Catholic clergy and laypersons, and ethical decision making. He is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J. University Professor psychology on the faculty of Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, and he maintains a private practice in Menlo Park, CA.

JA: How do you personally define health?

TP: Great question. If you ask 100 people this question, you'll likely get 100 different answers. I suppose at the end of the day I would describe health using words such as wholeness, completeness, peacefulness, and wellness. It is more than being just free of disease.

JA: How did you first get interested in studying health?

TP: I was really impressed and impacted by the biopsychosocial model when it was first introduced by George Engel, MD in a 1977 article in Science, and by my involvement, when in college at Brown University, working in the Behavioral Medicine Clinic at Rhode Island Hospital with Harold Musiker, PhD. (1978-82). I was very interested in how the body and mind interact with each other, and I was also very interested in nutrition, sustainability, and eating low on the food chain for health but also for the earth's sustainability.

JA: What is the connection between health and resilience?

TP: Health and resilience are closely related in that there are many biopsychosocial stressors out there that can potentially compromise our health. Good health in body, mind, and soul all help us to be more resilient to these stressors that come our way. They fortify us.

JA: What are some health habits people can cultivate to live more resiliently?

TP: Attending to our biological, psychological, social, and spiritual needs as well as those around us can help tremendously. Research tells us that we can face challenges and become more resilient when we are held or supported by a caring community of friends, family, and others. Additionally, we can work to build more resiliency by helping others thus getting out of our own selfish needs and desires. We can keep things in perspective and work to nurture a more optimistic and hopeful explanatory side as well. And of course, a good sense of humor goes a very long way.

JA: Any advice how we might support a friend or loved one struggling with a health issue?

TP: We might want to find out what kind of support they need from us by asking directly (e.g., "I care about you and want to support you in ways that are best for you? How can I help?"). Some folks need tangible support (e.g., getting food and rides to the doctor or grocery store) while others need someone to talk to and others need someone to pray with. So, we want to match what is needed with what we can offer. Sometimes folks just need a hug or reminders that they are loved and cared for while others need very practical and particular assistance.

JA: Can you share about what you’re working on these days related to health?

TP: I do a lot of work regarding health among clerics in the Catholic Church, in particular working with priests, religious sisters, religious brothers, and devout laypersons on psychological and behavioral health issues and consult with many religious groups, nationally and internationally, in this regard. I also am working on biopsychosocialspiritual health among college students with a specific focus on ethics and compassion development as well as better health habits regarding at risk behaviors such as alcohol, sexual, and other problem behavior.

JA: Anything else you care to share?

TP: The biopsychosocial model is so important to health and wellness, but I would also add spirituality and ethics to it. To be healthy and resilient, we need to attend to the biological, psychological, social, spiritual, and ethical aspects of ourselves and those around us and in doing so I do believe that we can have healthy lives no matter what challenges we might face, what illness we might develop, or how many years we might have to live on earth.

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