Holism is about the big picture; it relates to the theory that nothing happens in a vacuum. When seeking answers to a problem, holism puts the emphasis on the ‘whole’ rather than the parts.
The English Oxford Dictionaries define holism:
The theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts.
And when holism is about health:
The treating of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.
Another way to think about holism is by using the analogy of systems both natural and manmade (i.e. an ecosystem a health system, a family system, a solar system, etc.).
A system is a complex ‘whole’ with a clear boundary; there is an outside and an inside. The content inside a system (for example: weather, animals, and plants) is made up of interrelated, interdependent parts that directly reflect the overall context, within which they exist, (for example: an ecosystem).
Whenever the whole of anything produces an outcome greater than any of its parts could accomplish, individually, we call that synergy, (for example: a thunderstorm, the music of an orchestra).
The opposite to holism, reductionism, instead analyzes something by its component parts.
Holistic Health: Treating the Whole Person
The traditional approach of the medical system has taught us to recognize health from a reductionist perspective. We go to the doctor to get some specific part of our body fixed because it has stopped functioning well and may be causing us pain.
Millions of people get positive results using the medical-model.
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The only problem is that this model considers, almost exclusively, just the health of the body. And when it comes to mental health, the typical solution is to prescribe antidepressant medicine.
Why is this a problem? We humans are complex beings. We have minds, emotions and a soul, the personal, intangible relationship to a macro reality beyond ourselves. What’s more, who we are, is constantly influenced within the contexts of family, community, country and world.
A holistic approach to health and wellness addresses the reality of these multiple interrelated and interdependent parts that make us who we are. The malaise of any one of them can directly (and negatively), affect the health of other parts of our life.
For this reason alone, the first focus of holistic care is on the person and not the issue or disease. Stress, anxiety, and depression, for example, often end up translating to a physical symptom. It’s all connected.