The following has been excerpted from The Vitality Map: A Guide to Deep Health, Joyful Self-Care and Resilient Well-Being, in which naturopathic physician Dr. Deborah Zucker aims to teach readers how to maintain overall health and live with vitality, even in our fast-paced and often exhausting modern world.
Our moment in history
I feel for our human family at this time in history. We’re in the midst of such complexity and transformation, and it can feel utterly disorienting. The impacts of the times we’re living in are akin to a modern invisible plague. The realities we’re navigating, individually and as a human family, are changing so rapidly. Ingenuity and creativity are soaring. Old systems are crumbling. Every day it seems we have new technologies, new demands on our time, more ways to communicate (and be inundated with messages we don’t have time to return), new pressures and challenges to negotiate. We’re all in it together, fumbling around as humans trying to integrate and relate to what is happening, barely getting used to one thing, when the next thing shows up.
In a very brief amount of time, we have shifted into a level of global awareness and connection that’s unprecedented. It can be so hard (and perhaps impossible) to wrap our minds around the complexity of it all. Yet the psychic pressure is there in the background—the weapons of mass destruction, the loss of species, the changing face of our natural world, climate change, compromised food supplies, and so much more.
We’re all taking the brunt of it, whether we realize it or not.
Even if we’re not thinking about these big, global issues, even if we just focus on what’s right in front of us, our daily responsibilities and realities, we can be so totally overwhelmed. There are such strong cultural priorities placed on productivity, efficiency and keeping busy. Because we’re embedded in these paradigms, and we’re all navigating the rapid complexity of changes as a human species at this time in history, it feels to me like we’re in an outbreak of what I’ve come to call the “Over-Everything Syndrome.”
It shows up differently for different people, yet so many of us live with the dial turned up to high all the time. And it’s almost like we’ve forgotten how to turn the dial down, to really let go in life, to relax and feel deeply at ease—rested, nourished, replenished. And if we do experience these precious states, it’s relegated to vacation time for a couple of weeks a year. And it’s not just because we don’t have the opportunity. Jacqueline Olds, MD, and Richard S. Schwartz, MD, write in The Lonely American that “American workers gave back, or didn’t take advantage of, 574 million vacation days in 2005, the equivalent of more than 20,000 lifetimes. Surveys done by Gallup and the Conference Board indicate that Americans, who already take fewer vacation days than workers in any other industrial nation in the world, are cutting back even further. About 25 percent of Americans get no paid vacation time, and another 33 percent will take only a seven-day vacation.”
Not surprisingly, our stress levels are off the charts. Every system in our bodies is affected. Inflammation is high. The natural feedback loops that keep us in a state of vitality and resilience exhaust themselves and no longer function properly. Our hormones, neurochemicals and immune systems get wonky. When I look at many of the diseases that are rampant these days, it seems to me that stress is at the heart of them, or at least a strong contributor.
The American Psychological Association states that, “If untreated, consistently high stress could become a chronic condition, which can result in serious health problems including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Research shows that stress can even contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity, or exacerbate existing illnesses.”
Arianna Huffington, in her book Thrive, shares that “according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as much as three quarters of the country’s healthcare spending goes toward treating these kinds of chronic conditions.” And she cites researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital as estimating that between 60 and 90 percent of doctor’s visits are connected to stress-related conditions.
We no longer know how to turn our dials down. One of my clients, Stacy, is a physician in a three-year residency program. She commonly works 70-plus hours per week, including alternating regularly between night and day shifts. She has reported frequently to me how hard it is for her to stop doing things even in the limited amount of time off she has, as there are always things to do—shopping, laundry, cleaning, follow-up work, studying and residency assignments. While Stacy’s schedule may be extreme, we all have our own versions of how hard it can be to let down. We no longer know how to live from a place where ease and relaxation is the foundation.
Have you ever gone on vacation or had a transitional period in your work when there was less to do and noticed how uncomfortable it can initially feel to have spaciousness and unstructured time? It can be hard to remember what to do with all of that freedom. It can even cause an increase in anxiety for many of us.
We can be so caught up in the momentum of what’s happening that we lose connection with the bigger picture of our lives and what we really need to be nourishing and tending to in our own state of vitality and wellness. We are so busy being busy that we neglect ourselves in critical ways—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and physically.
Basic life skills we were never taught
I see the challenges we face today in the world as a generative force, calling us all to develop the skills, capacities, and orientations we need in order to care for ourselves, each other and the world. If this sounds like yet another task to add to your endless to-do list, don’t worry. I’m not asking you to take a crash course in medicine, or to venture into the bewildering maze of online medical information. The skills I’m teaching you here are not actually “new” capacities at all—they are already in you; they may simply never have been activated. Once you start to engage with them, they will slowly but surely become natural, and the end result will be a foundation of deep ease and self-compassion that will help you get off the treadmill of modern life and find your own balance.
Many people I meet feel utterly confused about their inability to effectively care for themselves. They even feel shame and embarrassment that they ought to know better. You might wonder how you could have gotten to this point of feeling so out of touch with your ability to guide yourself toward a thriving life.
Here’s where the big embrace of self-compassion begins: It’s not your fault. There is nothing wrong with you.
You simply never learned what I consider to be basic life skills of how to intimately and confidently care for yourself. I never learned these skills either. Most people don’t. I came into them through a very rocky journey of self-discovery and once I began to see them and apply them I realized how utterly ridiculous it was that I never knew how to relate to my own self-care in these ways.
I imagine you may experience this too as you engage with the 9 Keys to Deep Vitality. At times, they may seem utterly simple and obvious. And yet, the application of them is profound. These skills are what allow us to cultivate the soil of our lives and come alive to who we’re here to be.
I find it such a relief to recognize that health is in fact about learning these basic, innate life skills we were simply never taught. Understanding this can move us out of the sense of dis-empowerment that so often accompanies our attempts to improve our health. Rather than seeming so mysterious and confusing, health becomes something we can consciously decide to engage with and thus we can take charge of our lives at this most fundamental level.[box style=”rounded”]
The 9 keys to deep vitality: An overview
Key #1: Honouring your unique life
You’re the only one who can transform your health and find a path that will sustain you in the long run. Doctors can help. Friends can help. Family can help. But only you hold the keys to make your life blossom, flourish, and thrive.
Key #2: Facing and embracing your shadows
The main obstacles to deep health and vitality are the unconscious thought patterns, assumptions and other shadow aspects that sabotage even your best intentions to change. When you illuminate and embrace these shadows, you free your capacity to sustain the transformation you seek.
Key #3: Strengthening your self-awareness muscles
In order to become a conscious steward of your own vitality, you need to learn the art of receiving feedback from your body. Your body will tell you what it needs, and as you learn to heed its messages, you become your own best health guide.
Key #4: Cultivating resilience
Most of us were never taught how to guide ourselves toward actions, attitudes and practices that support rather than hinder our own vitality. Learn to cultivate your capacity to direct yourself in more nourishing directions with discernment, skillfulness and confidence.
Key #5: Aligning with your “yes!”
Discover how to consciously invest your life-energy where you get the best returns, letting go of those things that inhibit your natural and organic blossoming.
Key #6: Experimenting with playful curiosity
Free yourself from the trap of being too serious about health and self-care—all of the rights and wrongs, the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Learn to be flexible, curious and playful on your health journey so that you can sustain it in the long run.
Key #7: Discovering easeful discipline
In order to sustain the changes you seek, you sometimes need clear commitments, intelligent strategies and structures of support. This kind of discipline springs from a dedication to honouring your unique life—fierce, yet full of compassion.
Key #8: Inviting support and connection
No ingredient is more powerful and essential than developing relationships that will support you in your health journey. You can’t do it alone. We all need each other.
Key #9: Living like you matter
Your health isn’t just about you. It is the foundation that you need to serve the world. You’re a vital member of life. Our world needs you! You need you. You matter.