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Is Wellness “Alternative Medicine?” (Wellness Spells Series)

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I’ll admit, nothing quite grinds my gears like a conversation about alternative medicine. I think this is largely because I usually take a middle line between extreme approaches to the subject and… people don’t like that. So I get grief from both sides. In fact, I’ve gotten to a place where I generally avoid conversations about alternative medicine altogether. I guess we all have our Achilles heel; alternative medicine conversations seem to be mine. But what better reason to talk about it, right?

First off, what is alternative medicine? I think this is part of the discrepancy, at least for me, as I seem to run into two very different definitions online:

The first definition is any medicine that has not been scientifically proven to be effective, or has been scientifically disproved.

The second definition is any medicine that is not considered part of mainstream medicine.

Here, I think, is where the issues begin. I’ve heard it said so many times: “Alternative medicine that is scientifically proven is just medicine.” That’s all good and well, but where do wellness practices that have been scientifically-proven to be effective, yet are not incorporated into “mainstream” medicine fall?

To give just a few examples:

  • Meditation has been found to reduce anxiety.
  • Yoga has physical and mental health benefits.
  • There are a number of natural herbs and remedies that have been effective for literally thousands of years against various ailments.
  • And let’s not forget the importance of a plant-based diet in terms of our health.

Sure, in fairness, there are plenty of alternative practices that have not been scientifically proven or have even been disproved, and are being marketed by naive-but-well-intended salespeople at best and snake oil salesmen at worst. Who wants to fork over tons of money for a “remedy” that doesn’t work or is even harmful to us? Then there are herbal supplements that are largely unregulated. Certainly it makes sense to avoid those and stick to traditional medicine, then, right?

Here’s the problem with that plan, though. Traditional Western medicine tends to be illness-focused. It’s primary goal, at least as it plays out in the healthcare system, is the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses.

Traditional Western medicine tends NOT to be wellness-focused. There is not a strong focus on prevention, or on improving our wellness, or on looking at the body as a holistic system, at least not in practice.

If you are like me, most of your doctors visits follow this trend:

Symptoms>Diagnosis>Medication

I can count on one hand the number of times I was asked about my diet, or asked about the stress of my lifestyle, or if I rested when I felt ill, or really had any treatments or practices recommended to me other than medication. It’s happened, but it’s been rare.

If we are always only focusing on illness, we are essentially playing a game of wack-a-mole with our health, beating down diseases when they arise, but not looking at the full picture of what we can do to be truly healthy.

Now, I will point out that this varies significantly depending on what part of the world, or even what part of the US, you live in. I live in the American South, so I can only speak to my own experience. I have had others in different parts of the world say their experience is completely different. If you do live in an area that incorporates lots of wellness practices, great! I think -or hope- we will all be headed in that direction eventually.

This isn’t to blame doctors, or other healthcare professionals, either. I think there are several reasons for this mindset. For one thing, it’s the way we have always viewed and practiced health. It’s hard to change an ingrained system attached to a trillion-dollar industry. For another, healthcare is expensive for patients. We often don’t go to the doctor unless we have tried several home remedies ourselves, if even then. For another, there are lifestyle issues. I can’t hold American doctors responsible for the American diet when many of them fight so hard to oppose it, and we as patients don’t always take the time to ask questions about our wellness. And then there are just legal issues, like needing a diagnosis for insurance reasons or having limited time to spend with each patient.

One top of that, some of us received more quality health education in schools than others. Some of us live in food deserts where we don’t have access to healthy food. Then the surge of issues like heart disease and diabetes can be so overwhelming that a wellness focus may seem like a distant dream. And we are all inundated every day with ads and commercials for unhealthy food. So, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

On the flip side of the illness-focused industry are those who have jumped on the wellness bandwagon and have become opposed to traditional medicine altogether. Let’s be clear: medication is not bad; far from it. Many medications, like insulin, are essential in keeping people alive. Vaccinations prevent the spread of deadly diseases. Anxiety medication can curb severe chronic disorders. I would never, ever, advocate not following a medical professional’s advice, especially with regards to life-saving medication. Furthermore, it isn’t helpful to deny legitimate scientific findings, whether they support the evidence of traditional medicine or more alternative methods.

The “wellness bandwagon” can become especially problematic when it comes to mental illness. Yes, diet, exercise, and sleep have a positive impact on mental health. However, there is often an impression that if a person with severe depression would “just exercise” they would feel better. Here’s my tip: if you wouldn’t suggest something to someone with a life-threatening physical illness, please don’t suggest it to someone with a mental illness. That person with severe depression may need their antidepressants to live just as much as a cancer patient needs chemotherapy. In the quest towards holistic medicine, persons with mental illnesses seem to be the first to be demonized. It’s important to trust that those persons with mental illness have worked through a treatment plan with their doctors, just as we would for someone with a physical illness.

Ultimately, I think what we need is to move away from the term “alternative medicine” with regards to scientifically-proven wellness practices and to use terms like holistic medicine, preventative medicine, and complementary medicine. In that way, we can distinguish between valid, but underused, practices and those which truly have no scientific validity. From there, we can begin to address our bodies as holistic systems that might need a combination of diet, exercise, meditation and other wellness practices, and sometimes traditional medications as well in order to optimally function.

So, a few tips:

  • Consider finding an accredited, holistic medical practitioner who is willing to discuss the wellness of your body as a whole, including diet and potentially non-traditional practices like meditation or home remedies. Or, if your traditional family doctor doesn’t bring it up on their own, express an interest. Who knows? They may be thrilled that you are trying to be proactive about your health.
  • If you use a wellness method, consider doing some research on your own to check the scientific validity or your practice. Some practices, like acupuncture, or massage, have produced some limited results but may or may not be helpful in treating your particular ailment.
  • Consider the cultural history of your wellness practice. “Exotic” does not automatically equate to more effective and in turn may be disrespectful to other cultures. On the flip side, be aware of how making fun of other cultural practices may come across to those within that culture. For more on this, check out my post on Elitism and Wellness. 
  • Don’t shell out tons of money for something that promises to be a miracle cure. You will get much better results from good sleep, moderate exercise, and eating a largely plant-based diet.
  • Don’t quit taking any medication, especially life-saving medication, because of alternative medicine. Don’t avoid important preventative practices like vaccinations. Discuss any concerns about this with your doctor. If you have a wellness practice that is helpful to you and you have a serious illness, it may be that you can incorporate your practice with your traditional medication for a more holistic approach.
  • Don’t judge or blame others who need traditional medication to live or to have a good quality of life. This is especially important for “invisible” illnesses such as depression or chronic pain.

Today’s Wellness Spell is:

Be your own advocate.

By this I mean, take your health into your own hands. Do the research and check your sources carefully. Look at the original studies. Come to your doctor’s with a list of questions. Put in the work needed to make your body healthy. Don’t turn away from a truth about health simply because it makes you uncomfortable, whether about traditional or less traditional practices. Recognize that your body is a system and treat it as such.

Any additional thoughts that I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments below.

I Was Blamed for Having Depression

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It’s Christmas time and my husband and I are eating Pho. We are having an interesting debate: What level of crisis allows the off-topic discussion of politics on a non-political blog, and how much or how often?

We agreed that one in twenty posts sounded fair for the time being. So this is my ONE, and I will make it count.

I was diagnosed with depression my freshman year in college. I was grieving from the loss of my mother, aunt, and grandmother, who had all passed away when I was in high school. My dog had been hit by a car and my boyfriend and I had broken up a few weeks prior to my first counseling appointment. I was also having family issues and was struggling with the changes of a new school, new friends, and harder classes. I wasn’t sleeping or eating, I was physically ill, and I had lost 30 pounds in less than two months.

Instead of empathizing with me, my therapist told me after maybe two sessions that I needed to re-frame my thinking; “Sometimes things just aren’t as bad as you think they are,” she said. She then gave me a sheet of paper outlining all the different ways a person can think irrationally.

Now, if you have read my blog, you know I am a big fan of optimism and cognitive re-framing. And no offense to the wonderfully effective cognitive behavioral therapy, (or therapists in general, because in my time working in the field I have known far, far more lovely ones than bad ones) but I didn’t take her particular approach very well for my particular situation.

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Me at the beginning of my recovery from depression; I weighed less than 90 pounds.
This was my first experience with victim blaming, but it wasn’t my last. I realized that yes, depression can be accompanied by irrational thinking, but it was easier for her to think I was depressed as a result of thinking irrationally than to realize that a bunch of losses in close succession might hurt, and that, more importantly, such unfortunate events could happen to anyone, even her. I must have done something wrong. Otherwise, the world wouldn’t be fair.

Despite that unfortunate speed-bump, I recovered quickly on the basic combination of another counselor and medication. I found new meaning in helping others in need. I thought I had put that part of my life behind me.

That was, until I graduated college and applied for health insurance. I received a piece of paper that said that the insurance company could not accept anyone who had been diagnosed with depression within the past five years. I was confused. To a 23 year old, 19 seemed like a lifetime ago. I was healthy and had been healthy for nearly four years. I had already been dropped from my family’s plan, I was living completely independently, the recession had recently hit and I was lucky to even have a part-time job without benefits. I didn’t have many options.

But more than that, the darkest, most painful part of my life was reduced to a simple risk factor. Despite knowing how insurance worked, when I stared at that piece of paper, it felt like I was being punished for something that happened to me that I had no control over. I was angry. This was wrong. But it was also perfectly normal. And I heard that voice again, saying, “Sometimes things just aren’t as bad as you think they are.”

I went on to work in the mental health field at the time when mental health funding for my state had just been cut in half. This had a wonderful trickle-down effect of impairing not only the public mental health centers, but also local nonprofits who saw less grant money and more desperate clients who had been denied treatment by other centers that could no longer accept them. All those extra people ultimately ended up in the emergency rooms, so the state didn’t save any money, and yet when anyone complained, the general attitude from the state politicians was, “Things aren’t as bad as you think they are.”

There have been many, many things happening in the world lately that I have been very upset about, but the recent healthcare bill in the United States hit a nerve. To be clear: I value empathy and compassion above all else. I used to believe that anything could be talked out. That with the right caring, the right understanding, learning enough about how the world works, learning about the people who think differently than me, finding middle ground, then consensus could be reached. And yeah, I DO value conservative values like building up families, financial stability, spiritual growth, and being proud of my country. And I AM concerned about the thinning of the middle class, the national debt, and healthcare costs for Americans. I DO care very much and I DO want to work with people. After all, it’s my job to learn to work with people and listen to what they are going through.

Lately, the assumptions people make are that I am NOT that type of person. I have been called brainwashed, ignorant, accused of not trying, of being hormonal, irrational, too young to understand, and repeatedly talked over with an eye-roll, all because I draw the line at victim blaming, blatant hatred, admitted elitism, willing closed-mindedness, and misogyny committed with a smile. I WANT to be a person who reaches a consensus. I WANT to be a person who reaches out to learn about someone else’s point of view. I WANT to be diplomatic, kind, and empathetic. I WANT to learn and grow and change my mind and not be partisan or polarized in my views.

And heck, I WANT to have a blog where I talk about how finding life’s magic leads to happiness all day instead of talking about this.

But if I am forced to choose between putting my foot down or being complicit in letting people be stomped down, discriminated against, silenced, blamed for their depression, chronic illness, pregnancy, and treatment resulting from rape, and allowed to die, well, I will choose to be the kind of person who puts my foot down.

And if you are bothered by that, that says a whole lot more about you than it does about me.

Because YES, things ARE as bad as I think they are.

 

 

 

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