A Holistic Guide to Wellness For a New You in a New Year

Darian Elmendorf

At the beginning of the year, I attended a “2020 Vision” workshop. A group of individuals gathered together for dinner and discussed our current situation, where we wanted to be by the end of 2020, and what goals we wanted to set for ourselves to reach that better version of ourselves. We listed out accomplishments and failures from last year and set goals we wanted to accomplish by the end of the new year. I took a look at that list recently and realized that I didn’t accomplish anything I originally planned to. This had nothing to do with lack of motivation or even the pandemic–it was because the goals I set couldn’t keep me engaged. They lacked specificity to the things that really mattered in my life. They lacked context and they were unrealistically manifested from the motivation I felt from hearing the stories of the other workshop members (most who were older and more experienced than I was).

At the time of the first lockdown in March, I was working with the State of Delaware as a Peer Support Specialist and with the University of Delaware. The shift to working from home triggered a lot of new emotions and feelings, but I was thankful that I still had a job and I was motivated to work hard. Every day I would wake up at 9 am and go straight to work until about 9 or 10pm, only taking breaks to get some exercise, eat, and shower. In my head I was thinking “everything is shut down, so I might as well just work”. I soon realized the hard way that I was neglecting the one thing that needed my attention the most: my health and wellness. After a few months of non-stop work, I was burnt out. My body was tired and stiff, my mind was foggy, I was easily irritated, and I was living paycheck to paycheck, which just made me feel like my work was all for nothing. I couldn’t focus and actually enjoy the work the way I had before. I decided, finally, to take a break and figure out what was going on. As a Peer Specialist, my role is to advocate for the wellness of my peers, and at the time, I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching. I started to browse through some resources that were created by other peer advocates and use them to take a look at my own life. The result of these actions changed the way I approach goal setting, wellness, and my work in Peer Support forever.

One resource that I would recommend to everyone, and I do mean everyone, is The Eight Dimensions of Wellness by Peggy Swarbrick and Jay Yudof. This resource helped me understand which aspects of my life were causing me stress and gave me the direction I needed to set realistic goals that would improve my own health and wellness. I firmly believe it is a necessity that all young people set a strong foundation in each of the dimensions of wellness to improve their quality of life and prepare for any challenges they might face. In this two-part blog entry, I want to break down each of these dimensions, share some of my personal thoughts, and provide actionable steps to set goals and form healthier habits. For Part One, I will focus on the four internally- or individually-focused dimensions that Swarbrick and Yudof cover, and in Part Two I will share my thoughts on the remaining externally-focused ones.

Physical Wellness – Activity, diet & nutrition, and sleep

There are thousands of scientific studies which show that the quality of exercise, nutrition, and sleep we get is greatly impactful on our stress levels and other aspects of daily wellbeing. We are surrounded by distractions and we constantly trick ourselves into giving up healthier activities for the “easy way out.” I could talk about this topic for hours and discuss all the things that work for me, but I encourage you to build habits that are enjoyable to you and fit with your lifestyle. Educating yourself about all the benefits of nutrition, how to get healthy amounts of exercise, and how to improve the quality of your sleep is necessary for managing stress and leading a balanced life. These factors also play a major role in battling mental health challenges. I personally use a mix of YouTube videos, podcasts, and books to get information about these three subjects (some of my favorite experts are Andrew Huberman, David Goggins, Dave Asprey, Pavel Tsatsouline, and Aubrey Marcus) and, the more I learn, the more I realize they are all closely connected and work better when practiced simultaneously. I will tell you from personal experience that having a consistent routine that addresses each of these three subjects daily will greatly improve your mood, energy, focus, and ability to think clearly and work more efficiently.

Emotional Wellness – Developing control over how you feel in your everyday life to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself and others

When we feel good, we love to experience and share these feelings with whoever we can, but it’s often not the same when we feel bad. If you do not allow yourself to feel and be vulnerable when you aren’t feeling well, then you will have a much harder time engaging in the process of managing your emotions. To develop emotional clarity, I recommend making it a goal to take note of who or what triggers negative emotions in your life. I like to set daily goals as feelings I want to experience and think about what activities I need to do and what level of energy I need to bring to reach my goal by the end of the day. Expressing both positive and negative emotions  is an important habit for building emotional wellness. People who genuinely care about you will want you to be honest with them about how you are feeling. Many times we try to keep our feelings bottled from fear that they will have a negative effect on others or how others may perceive us. This does not hold true when communicating with people who want to see you thrive and discussing your difficult feelings with them is not a sign of weakness.

Intellectual Wellness – Learning your creative abilities and expanding your pursuit of knowledge and skill

Throughout life we all make important decisions about what we want to learn in life and how we can best absorb the information, but how many of us are asking why? If you believe that being smart will help you become wealthy then you need to dig deeper and learn about things that you actually know you will love to do. Otherwise, you’ll spend a tremendous amount of time and energy dedicating your life’s work towards a profession that doesn’t make you happy. We need to focus on learning skills that allow us to push our creative abilities and satisfy our personal urge to acquire new information. We live in an information age, where everything is competing for your attention. If you don’t have a clear picture of what you want to learn and how it can bring value in your life then you might end up feeding your head with useless knowledge. The intersection between creativity and expertise is where the real magic happens. When the experience of learning raises curiosity, brings joy, and creates satisfaction in an individual’s life they become exceptional in what they do and fall in love with every minute of the process. I always say the most important thing you can study is yourself. Learn about YOU, learn about things that make you happy and allow you to grow personally and professionally. Pretty soon the acquisition of knowledge will feel natural and authentic to yourself because you start to learn for yourself and not for anyone or anything else. For me, this means learning everything I can about things I know would keep me healthy, focused, and performing well with my professional endeavors. I enjoy learning about peer support, finance, nutrition & exercise, business, and music. These subjects are important to my wellness, they allow me to improve performance in my work, and they help express myself creatively all at the same time.

Spiritual Wellness – Understanding your purpose and creating your own meaning of life

For me, this is the most important dimension in the whole list. Growing up, I constantly felt like my life lacked purpose and meaning. The pressure I put on myself to figure my life out was wearing down my outlook. I didn’t have any faith or gratitude, and this soon led me to feel like there was nothing to live for. This hopelessness was at the core of my depression and it created a deep resentment for the world inside of me. This sort of feeling is why “Purpose” is one of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s four pillars of recovery. Everyone needs something in their life that helps them understand their place in the world. Whether it’s family, religion, fulfilling work, school, nature, or other daily activities that help someone find their place in the world, everyone needs something that sets their soul on fire and drives their creativity and energy. Being spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be religious or meditate all the time. Instead, it is the feeling we receive when we connect with something greater than ourselves, and develop a strong set of values, principles, and beliefs that bring meaning into our lives and guide our everyday actions. I recommend thinking deeply about these subjects and writing them down somewhere that you can easily see them and remember to practice them in your everyday life.

I consider these four dimensions to be internal, because practicing them will directly promote your health and your ability to build self-worth and personal satisfaction. There’s a well known expression that you can’t save the world unless you save yourself first. It may sound cliché, but it’s very true and very important if you want to lead a life or practice a profession that involves leading or supporting others. By focussing on these dimensions of wellness, you will set a strong foundation for yourself and will soon have the ability to serve as a role model for others who want to feel happy, healthy, and inspired by how they choose to spend their time and energy.