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Nathan Gates
Nathan W Gates LCPC

What the Heck is Wellness, Anyway?

Wellness means different things to different people. But what is it?

One word that is very fashionable these days is wellness. While popular, the word is often not well-defined. For a number of years, I have worked for organizations that have had the term wellness in their name and have specialized in delivering wellness services. This has meant that I've spent a lot of time trying to tell people exactly what that means.

This was always especially challenging when I lived in Denver, where medicinal marijuana clinics such as "Chronic Wellness", "Herbal Wellness" or the "Verde Wellness Center" are on every corner. In addition to discussing what I meant by wellness, I also had to spend a lot of time clarifying what I did not mean.

You might think that would at least marginally qualify me to offer a terse definition for the term, or to be able to point in the right direction. It turns out, however, that wellness is a fairly tricky term to define..

One way to think of being well is simply as the absence of disease. This would mean that one does not meet diagnostic criteria for any medical conditions. In this case, if you are well, you do nothing, and if you suddenly have a disease, you react by taking action to cure the disease.

This is a definition of wellness that, while clearly defined, is a bit passive and reactive. It implies that wellness is a default setting, and that, to use a common phrase; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Complicating this definition is the fact that, even when clearly defined, disease is often muddled. At what point does one cross the threshold from “well” to not-well? In the case of a virus or an injury, this may be clear cut. But in a syndrome such as diabetes, obesity, or depression, there is not really a clear line between sick and well. It is often sort of slide, rather than a clear drop.

I prefer to think of wellness as a proactive state, in which one is engaged in constantly adapting to various important aspects of life. Change is constant, and our bodies and minds must adapt. It is not possible to stop adapting and continue to enjoy good health and a sense of well-being. There is a reason when someone is struggling in their life they are often referred to as being “in a rut”, “stuck” or “stagnant”. These metaphors capture something essential about the human experience.

Our minds can often be a major culprit in this process. We may, for example, find something that brings us happiness or joy. Our minds often tend to hold on to this tightly and inflexibly, even if it has outlived its usefulness. Conversely, we may try one thing one time, have a poor experience, and refuse to try again, even if it may be beneficial.

This isn’t to say we should blow with the wind at all times. Certain commitments may be foundational, such as family, faith, or career. But our understanding and experience of these things change over time as well, and if we want to maintain fidelity to the things we care most about, we’ve still got to adapt.

So that is wellness. Rather than a state of body or mind, it is a a stance towards life in which one is engaged with his or her highest priorities in a process of constant adaptation to changing circumstances. If this is the case, the rest will take care of itself.

About the Author
Nathan Gates

Nathan Gates is a licensed clinical professional counselor, meditation instructor and aspiring bison rancher maintaining a private counseling practice in rural west central Illinois.

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