By Mara Benner
Imagine for a moment that you are at your doctor’s office for help with some unexplained symptoms and the physician asks you a surprising question, “Why do you think you are experiencing these symptoms?”
You may be puzzled by the question and think, “How should I know?” But more and more doctors have patients with unexplained symptoms for which there is no clear physical diagnosis. By collaborating with other mind-body practitioners, the physician and patient can develop a more complete picture of health and wellbeing.
It is estimated that one in five visits to a primary care physician are cases known as “medically unexplained symptoms,” or MUS, as reported in a February 2021 Clinical Medicine Journal study. This rate is increasing as the so-called “COVID-19 long haulers” report a wide array of mind-body symptoms. The symptoms range from joint pain, lingering headache and shortness of breath to cognitive impairments and fatigue. Medical universities are now beginning clinical trials related to COVID-19 long haulers who present with various types of physical and mental symptoms. This is presenting medical experts an opportunity to examine and evaluate mental, physical and spiritual health as a holistic picture of a person’s wellness.
While modern society treats an individual’s mental, physical and spiritual well-being separately, many cultures across the world traditionally treated these facets simultaneously. Globally, cultures understood that supporting an individual required evaluating where an imbalance had developed, whether in the mind, body or spirit. Healers would work in partnership with the individual to understand the imbalance and seek to bring all aspects back into alignment.
A key component of this process was the individual’s partnership and ownership of his or her health and well-being. Who else knows one’s body, mind, and spirit better than the actual person?
National consumer organizations are encouraging their members to become active partners in their health decisions. The American Chronic Pain Association encourages its members to pay attention to their mental health. Among the 10 steps required to take back ownership of one’s own wellbeing, the organization encourages its members to recognize one’s emotions and states, “Our bodies and minds are one.”
The association also advocates that the patient become actively involved in the process.
“Take an active role in your own recovery. Follow your doctor’s advice and ask what you can do to move from a passive role into one of partnership in your own healthcare,” the ACPA states on its website.
When confronted with a long term illness, many individuals are following the concept outlined by the ACPA. Patients are becoming active participants in their own healing by developing a team to support their journey. These medical teams incorporate a holistic approach and may include medical practitioners, therapists and other alternative practitioners.
Many individuals are seeking spiritual support as well. This may be a religious professional or spiritual coach. Either way, spiritual advisors can work with the individual to identify what they want to express on a spiritual level, oftentimes through creativity.
The movement of consumers to adopt a more “whole person” approach to their well-being is gaining consumers’ attention. The country’s largest health insurance association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, observed an increase in demand for access to mental healthcare coverage, in part because of the impact of COVID-19 on Americans’ mental health.
Through the use of telehealth, the elimination of coinsurance and an increase of behavioral health services, the organization estimated that some 460,000 Medicare beneficiaries received mental health services in 2020.
It makes financial sense too. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2020 health statistics report found that globally the United States has the highest healthcare costs per capita at $11,072 per person. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Germany, had costs ranging from $3,616 to $7,732 per person.
Why then does the United States have such high costs? There are certainly many reasons, but a key consideration relates to how we handle chronic care disease in our country and the lack of holistic approaches.
Dr. Peggy Swarbrick of Rutgers University has developed well-known, research-based wellness categories in her “Eight Dimensions of Wellness” model. The dimensions are based on emotional; spiritual; intellectual; physical; environmental; financial; occupational; and social care.
By evaluating your personal health and wellbeing, you will be more prepared to partner with your doctor on your health considerations on your next visit. And maybe you’ll even be able to answer you doctor the next time they ask you, “Why do you think you are experiencing these symptoms?”
Mara Benner is the founder of Four Directions Wellness, connecting body, mind, emotions and spirit. The organization is affiliated with the GW Center for Integrative Medicine and offers individual sessions, classes and consulting.