The Hole in Holistic

Holistic (adj.) – characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

The rise of of “holistic” as a philosophy is relatively recent, at least by that name. Research shows the word coming about in the 1950s and steadily increasing in use up until the early 2010s.

Holistic nutrition, holistic medicine and holistic wellness are only a few of the myriad of buzzwords (buzz-phrases?) that live almost entirely in the world of social media, neatly tagged and sorted into their places. Photos of women twisted on yoga mats, shots of green smoothies, reposts of quotes about choosing happiness; they all, somehow, fall under the idea of holistic health.

Based on its definition, there’s nothing wrong with having a holistic mindset about anything. After all, understanding the whole as a means to assess and fix the parts isn’t a radical idea at all. My beef, so to speak, isn’t with the ideology or philosophy of looking at things or people holistically.

What I have come to notice during my countless hours spent on social media and blogs is that holistic doesn’t actually mean holistic anymore.

The hashtag #HolisticNutrition for instance is peppered with posts and Instagram stories about food as a healing agent–glasses of lemon water with captions about the triviality of taking Advil. Piles of adaptogenic herbs with lists of their benefits. Well-lit flatlays of fruits and veggies accompanied by a gentle reminder not to overdo it with the fruits, because fruits are sugary.

#HolisticHealth and #HolisticMedicine are worse. I can barely scroll 30 seconds through my feed without seeing a photo of a thin white woman in a perfect dancer pose, talking about how yoga HEALED her depression (cue all the emojis). The people behind some accounts I follow struggle with autoimmune disorders and swear by their diets, forgetting that for many, a diet change is a crutch rather than a cure. I once listened to a podcast episode where the host congratulated a friend of hers for coming off a dozen prescription medications at once to heal her mental illnesses–one of which was bipolar disorder–with nature.

Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing bad about wanting to take a natural approach to your health. But “holistic” doesn’t mean “toss your Lexapro out the window.” Or, it shouldn’t. Nowhere in the definition of holistic is it outlined that shaming people for being dependent or semi-dependent on lifesaving prescription medications is the right thing to do.

The focus on the whole does not necessarily mean throwing out every lesson we’ve learned from Western medicine. On the contrary, it would seem that by merging different theories of health and wellness that we could move closer to true understanding of the parts as connected to the whole.

If we are to truly try to solve a health problem from all angles, why can’t a pill–taken alongside that fruit-free green smoothie–be part of what we consider holistic health?

Scientific studies tend to show that holistic treatments work, at least better than those that aren’t. Anxiety and depression, for instance, are treated best with a combination of SSRIs and outside interventions such as talk therapy, exercise and positive thinking.

Health is different for everyone–not every person can positively think their way out of suicidal thoughts or restrict their diets so much that they cure their arthritis. Those who can do so should feel lucky, and maybe stop talking down to the rest of us for taking advantage of some of the medicinal breakthroughs of the past decade.

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