Amanda Valenti was 21 years-old and applying to nursing school when she suffered a life-altering event. Her life was upended and her doctors wanted to put her on anti-depressants to treat her grief. “You can’t medicate for loss,” says Valenti. “The medication wasn’t going to change the loss, it wouldn’t fix the loss. I think there’s an appropriate place for medication. But for me, I didn’t think it was my only option to move past this.” An acupuncturist she was seeing for an unrelated injury discussed adding on treatment for emotional health. “I didn’t know that was an option,” says Valenti. “Within three months I was back to being myself. It wasn’t like I woke up and suddenly everything was better—it was a slow progression of my body coming back to itself.” She changed career paths and became an acupuncturist instead. “I knew there was another option and people just don’t know about it. I wanted to be able to provide that. It really changed my life.”
A man is sick. A man goes to the doctor. The doctor writes a prescription. The man is no longer sick.
The man gets sick again. Repeat, over and over again for a lifetime.
The reactive approach we use to monitor our physical well-being does not work for our mental well-being according to experts, who say there’s a better way, for mind and for body. It’s a shift from Western medicine-based symptom treatment, to the more comprehensive tell-me-everything care prevalent in eastern culture. “I wish I could see more integration,” Valenti laments. “I believe in science and Western medication.”
“The Body is a Truth-Teller”
“The body is a truth-teller,” says Rachelle Ballard, owner of Into the Woods Wellness. “The body will whisper, and then it will talk to you, and then it will yell at you. The mind can tell stories all day but the body doesn’t have that mechanism—it just tells you the truth. I want to teach people to listen to themselves.”
Savannah Lavenstein, nutritional counselor and owner of Evergreen Healing, agrees. “People say, ‘My body is holding onto a lot of weight and I’m doing healthier things than I’ve ever done.’ And I say, ‘This isn’t an accident. Let’s figure out why. Why are you isolating yourself from the world? What intimacy are you avoiding by keeping this layer on you? What happens if we ask why we put on this weight?’ Symptoms are not always a sore throat.”
She continues, “You cannot treat the whole person with half the story. It’s not about the right pill or the needle in the right spot to cure everything. There’s so much to learn from an illness, there’s so much to learn from where in your body your injury is, or what time of year it comes up or what stressful situation sets it off. There’s a whole story.”
“The way that things in our life manifest in our body is fascinating,” says Valenti, who now owns Valenti Acupuncture. “Half of my job is to listen.”
Your Mind is a Car
Emily Hawkins used to deal in trauma. The Licensed Clinical Social Worker’s work history includes a stint at Salt Lake’s Rape Recovery Center. But now she’s focused on helping people to take control of their own lives and happiness at Salt City Wellness.
“We all want joy, and we all find it in different ways. We have to work, we have to make money. We need to rest. People get focused on doing, doing, doing,” she says. “You can’t run a marathon and then run another the next day. Our muscles need recovery time and our emotions do, too. It’s a way of looking at emotional needs as valid and important.”
To put it another way, Hawkins says, “In western culture, we look at emotions as problems to be fixed. If I feel sad I take a pill or I do an activity. I do anything but feel the emotion. So if I stub my toe, the pain is telling me to look at my toe. I don’t get mad if I stub my toe, but I do feel mad if I feel sad. We have all sorts of judgments based on how we feel.”
The secret to joy, says Hawkins, is taking time out to take care of yourself. “Self-care is a buzzword, it’s a tricky word. People think of it as something on a to-do list. But that’s not the self-care we talk about in wellness. There are things we need to do to keep our system running smoothly.”
Think of yourself like a car, says Hawkins. “We fill our car with gas, we fill it with oil and we know if we don’t treat it, it will break down. We don’t do that for ourselves mentally,” she says. “We wait until things get really bad and then we get a prescription or go to a mental health professional.” Understanding joy is therapeutic, she adds. “It’s looking at self care as a necessary component, like putting oil in your car is a necessary component to avoid a huge breakdown.”
Wellness is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Proposition
Hawkins says the work that goes into self-care and wellness is individualized. “I can hang up my shingle and say ‘I’m a therapist, I’m an expert, you have to sit in my chair and do the therapy I prescribe to you’” she says, “But this is much more cooperative work.” Instead of telling people how to live, her focus is on each client and their discovery of what makes them happy. “The wellness model is not about me defining what is right, it’s about providing tools for that work for you,” she says. Valenti says her patients should think of her as on their team, “It’s a process, you aren’t fixing you and I’m not fixing you, this is a project we do together.”
Wellness looks different for everyone, all the experts agree. But they also agree that it should touch all areas of your life. As Ballard says, “When people ask me how I define wellness, I say, literally everything. Everything is what makes a person well.” A shift towards wellness should feel uncomfortable at first, she says. “If it doesn’t look and feel weird, it’s not right.”
“We are sold on the fact that other people have the answers,” adds Lavenstein, “We are so scared that we have them ourselves.” Ultimately, Hawkins says, it comes down to this simple sentence, “Don’t wait until you’re sick to get well.”
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