A 13-year-old female enters my office. His parents brought him in because her depression has become so intense that she frequently tries to avoid going to school and has stopped doing much with her friends, other than online activities. She has started eating more, is tired all the time, and just wants to stay in her room. Her grades have gradually declined over the past five years despite being an A student in elementary school. She ruminates frequently and often seeks reassurance from his mom for various worries.
The above vignette is a composite sketch of many youth I have seen. Youth come to me with specific psychological concerns, but so often within even the first session, a broader story begins to unravel that may include details such as this: She is 30 pounds overweight and has never eaten produce. He usually doesn’t go to bed until after 11 PM and spends his last waking hours gaming. He has rarely been to church in the last eight years even though he is curious about God. Her parents divorced when she was six and she rarely sees her father. His best friend moved out of town three years ago.
As a psychologist, I often tell parents that excessive anxiety (and inattention) is synonymous with having a fever. As the fever signifies that the body is fighting off an infection, so problems with anxiety and attention tell us that our body and mind is struggling to deal with particular circumstances or conditions that are overwhelming the whole system. Yet so often, we as parents and even professionals tend to compartmentalize our problems, assuming that psychological problems must have psychological solutions, that physical problems must have physical remedies, and so on.
But in making these assumptions, we are ignoring a few critical, yet basic aspects of our being. One, there is no such thing as division when it comes to the brain and the body. Everything can and does affect everything. Two, while the body must have a way to express its state of unhealthiness, it should not be assumed that symptoms indicate a primary agent of cause. Three, if we are to be successful in treating any condition, we must always consider how the four dimensions of our being—physical, psychological, social, and spiritual—are implicated in the difficulty. Otherwise, we will likely find ourselves with short-term solutions to long-term problems.
Consider what research has uncovered. Volunteering can improve mood and increase prosocial behaviors long-term. Obesity and consumption of processed foods, such as soda and snacks, is directly connected to anxiety, behavioral problems, and social difficulties. Youth who don’t have a relationship with a higher power are more likely to be maladjusted. When you go to bed can affect how much weight you lose. Excessive screen time can lead to obesity and spiritual vices. Unregulated emotions are one of the leading causes of fatigue and chronic pain. Social isolation and estrangement is associated with depression and health problems. Depression can lead to strained relationships and social alienation. Unresolved psychological issues can lead a woman to undergo hormonal changes that result in her appearing pregnant when she is not.
The list is endless. The point is this. Whenever we experience a particular problem, or our patient or our own child presents with a specific complaint, we should always consider whether factors outside of that specific dimension are connected. This may seem to add increased complexity to an already complicated existence. Yet, if we are willing to take a holistic approach, we may find that not only do answers become more apparent, but solutions become more available.
Do we realize that journaling can reduce anxiety and improve physical symptoms? That sustained exercise can be as effective as medication or therapy in treating depression? That social support is one of the best ways to encourage weight loss and improved mood? That prayer and church attendance are associated with prosocial behaviors and increased well-being? Once we start recognizing where wholiness is, problems start looking less like obstacles, and more like an entry point to the health and happiness we all desire.
For more information about the mind, body, and spirit connection, check out my book, “Wholiness: The Unified Pursuit of Health, Harmony, Happiness, and Heaven.” It can be found on Amazon with my previous works.