Seeing Wellness As A Hierarchy

Wellness is one of the most common things that is mentioned in therapy. It is a term that could be defined as, one’s overall contentment, success, and comfortability in a particular area of life. Wellness is often broken up into different section of our life with a myriad of different breakdowns depending on different therapist, theorist, facility, or book. I personally have seen it broken up into 8 areas most often: Social Wellness, Occupational Wellness, Emotional Wellness, Spiritual Wellness, Financial Wellness, Environmental Wellness, Physical Wellness, and Intellectual Wellness. I will give a brief definition of each of these areas in a moment, but the general concept is that in each of these areas we need to work towards achieving goals that fit our particular standards of wellness. The classical presentation of these concepts comes in the form of a wheel, with each area being a spoke of the big wheel. Each one of equally represented and clients are asked which areas they are struggling in, which they are thriving in, and which they want to work on in counseling. In fact, counselors in many degree programs are asked to do their own Wellness Wheel Assignments to both learn how to use it with clients but also keep our own wellness as something not to be ignored.

From working with clients, I have begun to feel that the Wellness Wheel concept, while helpful, is maybe slightly incomplete or inaccurate. A wheel typically indicates even distribution and importance of each “side” and does not take into account personal differences and the very important fact that people are limited resources. Trying to maximize wellness in all of the 8 areas that the Wellness Wheel identifies has always been near impossible for people, as there are only 24 hours in a day, and we do not have unlimited energy and focus. I believe that those areas of wellness can be organized into a fluid hierarchy, meaning that at times something are at the top while others are at the middle or even at the bottom. The fluid aspect of it refers to that it will change over the course of one’s life, which we will investigate later in this blog. Let’s start with defining the areas of wellness.

Defining Areas of Wellness

There are no official definitions of the 8 areas of wellness previously mentioned. There is a lot of agreement of the general concepts that are incorporated in each area, and we can list those here. Remember though that there is no rule that these definitions have to fit you exactly, and when working with a counselor you can always put your own individual wants and needs into these areas of wellness.

  • Emotional Wellness- This may sound like happiness, but it is better described as feeling satisfied with life and coping well with stress.
  • Spiritual Wellness- For those who are religious, their feeling of connection with their deity and their religious community. For those who are non-religious, their sense of purpose in life.
  • Intellectual Wellness- Keeping one’s mind challenged and learning new skills and information.
  • Physical Wellness- Overall health and physical ability to achieve goals in life. Sleep is also including in this area.
  • Environmental Wellness- Home life and surroundings are enjoyable and conducive to achieving life goals.
  • Financial Wellness- Feeling comfortable and not very worried about meeting financial needs.
  • Occupational Wellness- Feeling satisfied and accomplished in doing work.
  • Social Wellness- Strong friendships, support systems, and for those who are looking for it, romantic relationships.

These areas all contribute to our overall life wellness, and it is often true that some bleed into others. For instance, financial and occupational wellness are often connected, as well as physical wellness and environmental wellness impact each other greatly. Emotional wellness is often seen as an overarching concept that is not only impacted by all the others, but impacts the others. Each area is worked on in counseling but there is obviously focus on less than all 8 for each individual person because not everyone is struggling in the same way. To better conceptualize and define goals in the areas where one is struggling most, a hierarchy can be created.

Creating a Wellness Hierarchy

A hierarchy is often visually represented as a pyramid shape. The main or most important things go on top, followed by another tier often with more items than the top tier, and so on until the bottom.

Since human beings are not unlimited in their mental or physical energy and there is not an infinite amount of time, a hierarchy of wellness will allow a person to properly distribute their own resources to the most important areas where they believe they are struggling. This is not to say you ignore the bottom areas, but you put less emphasis on them due to those areas already going well or not being a major concern at that point in life. Let’s look at two hypothetical clients and what their wellness hierarchies might look like:

A 16-year-old client comes to counseling after having intense anxiety while at school for the last year. Client states she has a very supportive family as well as 6 close friends. She has not been feeling physically well lately and has gained a significant amount of weight. Client also feels that her anxiety is rooted in her not fully understanding her own sexuality as well as not being challenged enough at school. Even with just this bit of information we can make an educated guess as to what the wellness hierarchy may look like for this client.

Being 16 years old, this client likely is not coming to counseling to put much energy into occupational or financial wellness, and the fact that she has a supportive family would likely mean her environmental wellness as home is not in need of much change either. These would then be at the bottom of her current wellness hierarchy. The middle tier of the hierarchy would likely be areas that need some effort and change but do not need any drastic measures taken. The client’s social wellness seems to be overall doing well, although there is some work to be done in terms of exploring her thoughts of sexuality and how that may influence her desire and goals for romantic relationships. Physical wellness would also likely fit into this middle area as she reported not feeling healthy lately, but as a 16-year-old it is not unusual for there to be fluctuations in weight and other physical changes. At the top of the hierarchy or pyramid would fall emotional wellness and intellectual wellness. Emotional wellness because the client is having intense anxiety meaning she may not be coping with stressors well, and intellectual wellness as she feels school is not challenging and could be a cause of that anxiety. You may notice spiritual wellness was not put on any tier so far, and that is due to there not being any indication or information of whether the client puts emphasis on spiritual wellness or is struggling in that area. More exploring would be required to see where this may fall.

To demonstrate how a wellness hierarchy can be drastically different for individuals, lets take a hypothetical client who is 35 years old and comes to counseling because their recent loss of their job has devastated them both emotionally and financially. The client reports that he is barely able to pay his bills currently and job prospects have been few. The client shares that his wife is beginning to worry that both the financial stress of their situation and him being stuck home all day are causing so much conflict between them that they may be falling out of love. The client shares that he worked in construction and therefore has always kept himself fit and is now turning mostly to his church community and God to find support for his problems. What might his hierarchy look like?

Going top-down this time, it is obvious that occupational and financial wellness are at the top of this client’s hierarchy and these areas need major attention. Emotional wellness is also likely going to be found at or near the top due to the emotional state he has been in and how it is impacting his marriage. The middle tier may include environmental wellness as the client is stuck at home without work and is not adjusting to that environment well, and intellectual wellness as his current skills do not seem to be finding him work and he may need to start to develop new ones. At the bottom we can assume that spiritual, social, and physical wellness do not need much attention as they are already doing quite well. So we can see that situation, personal differences, and life-span differences all contribute to making one person’s hierarchy different from another.

A hierarchy or pyramid gives us a better and more focused view of both these situations as to where most of the energy should be directed. The Wellness Wheel concept definitely set a great groundwork for how to conceptualize our overall life contentment but making it more real-world applicable requires us to be more precise and dedicate our time and energy at the right areas at the right times.

If you would like to work on your wellness in any area and develop a hierarchy to best approach these issues, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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