By Michael Finkelstein, MD
Whether we suffer from common ailments like insomnia, high cholesterol, and allergies or chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and fibromyalgia, our health challenges interfere with our ability to enjoy our lives. The specifics of our respective health challenges affect our lives in different ways and to different extents. For this reason, whatever complaints my patients have, I always ask this question at the outset of our work together: “What will you do with your life once your health is restored?”
Usually, the question takes my patients aback. Not only do people not expect a medical doctor to inquire about such matters but most people have given little, if any, thought to the answer. Yet the answer to this question is typically the lynchpin for our ability to get and stay healthy.
In our fast-paced world, we are used to looking for quick-fix solutions to our health challenges, not realizing that these “solutions” may in fact contribute to our problems. Most health challenges are the result of an imbalance in our bodies and lives, and most quick-fix solutions actually exacerbate those imbalances. If instead we take a “Slow Medicine” approach—identifying the root cause of our health challenges and then devising a thoughtful, step-by-step and long-term response to it— we effectively bring ourselves back into balance. In doing so we not only resolve our primary complaints but also benefit elsewhere in our lives, often in unexpected ways.
As many of us are beginning to understand, health is not just the absence of disease but rather a state of wellness. Sadly, despite this realization, the more-more-more drive of our materialistic lifestyles—more money, more status, more stuff—is slowly killing us with a combination of stress, isolation, and emptiness. When we slow down, live our lives with passion, meaning, and purpose and cultivate harmonious relationships with those who are important to us, we bring ourselves into greater alignment on every level—body, mind, heart, and soul. This alignment in turn enhances our sense of overall wellness, shifting us from the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response to the parasympathetic nervous system’s healing response.
To this end most of my patients have experienced symptom relief not from exercising this many times a day or ingesting that particular supplement but rather as a byproduct of whatever conscious steps they have taken to return to a state of genuine fulfillment—that place where they feel truly alive. They have done some combination of spending time in nature, playing a musical instrument, mending a broken relationship, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or otherwise honoring, deepening, and celebrating their lives.
There are, of course, many external triggers for illness, such as environmental toxins or injuries that lead to a chain reaction of difficulties. In many cases, however, the root of a health challenge is related to an emotional or spiritual component. When this component is taken into consideration as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, people experience better outcomes.
The proverbial struggle with weight, for example, is typically aggravated by emotional eating, yet the most common “remedy” for it is dieting, which in fact is often counterproductive. The shame, guilt, and self-recrimination of dieting only exacerbate the root emotions— creating a vicious cycle of feeling bad, then eating to feel better. Fixating on calories, exercise, or specific foods entirely misses the point of why we overeat in the first place and therefore is doomed to fail in sustainably transforming our habits. Instead we need to identify why we are overeating: What void in our lives are we seeking to fill, and what steps can we take to actually fill it?
To achieve and sustain good health, no matter what the ailment, we need perspective. We need to zoom in on the area calling for attention, pan our lens to take in the big picture, and then use our intelligence and intuition to connect the dots in between. We need to become aware of each area of our lives and explore how to optimize our wellness in those areas—by eating nutrient-dense foods, spending time by the ocean, becoming a foster parent, traveling abroad, finding a loving partner, or whatever else helps us create a harmonious life that is filled with passion and purpose.
Everything is interdependent— muscles and nerves, bodies and minds, people and planet—with each connecting thread having a domino effect on the other. We all have the capacity to understand the interconnected web of our health and to channel the domino effect in a positive direction. This individualized process requires trial and error, and therefore takes time, but ultimately it allows us to cultivate lasting wellness.
The whole reason why we want to be healthy, after all, is to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. By figuring out how to do so right now, in whatever modified forms may be required at this time, we can achieve the state of wellness we seek without unnecessary deprivation and pointless sacrifice. Instead of dieting, we can increase our intake of whole, unprocessed foods that are both healthy and delicious, and we can celebrate our meals with flowers, music, and good company. Instead of exercising on a treadmill at the local gym, we can enjoy moving our bodies through hiking in the woods, practicing tai chi on the beach, or dancing at a nightclub. These changes are all about living, which is the point of being well.
Getting healthy does not need to be a chore; it can be an adventure. By getting creative about how to expand into the life we have right now, and by truly savoring that life— physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—we chart new paths to wellness that leave us feeling better on every level. And that is what health is all about.
Michael Finkelstein, MD, the “Slow Medicine Doctor,” has been featured in top media, including the New York Times and CNN; has presented at leading venues, including General Electric Corporation and Omega Institute; and is the author of Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness, endorsed by such notables as Mehmet Oz, MD, and Andrew Weil, MD. Dr. Finkelstein was trained at premier institutes for conventional and integrative medicine, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Certified in both internal medicine and integrative-holistic medicine, Dr. Finkelstein has distinguished himself not only as a doctor in private practice but also as the medical director of several major hospitals and health institutes, including two integrative medicine hospital departments/programs that he founded. Drawing from this diverse medical expertise, Dr. Finkelstein offers both a micro and a macro point of view on today’s healthcare needs and challenges, and he provides a tried-and-true solution for healing individual patients and the medical system as a whole: Slow Medicine.