Think for a minute about the health messaging sources in our culture. Think of the pharmaceutical ads in every magazine and television show. Think of the medical talk shows and evening exposes on obscure conditions, the nightly newscasts depicting the ravages of epidemics in far flung corners of the globe and “expert” sound bytes warning of pathogens closer to home. Then there are the messages themselves. How many doom and gloom health statistics and inflammatory stock images do you encounter in a day? How many times do you hear “Ask your doctor if [insert medication] is right for you”? This doesn’t, of course, even begin to scratch the surface, but you get my point. Aside from the marketing blitzes telling us why this pharmaceutical is the next best thing or this box of snack food is heart healthy (hint: it’s not), the most commonly viewed/heard “health” related information spinning around in our culture paints a pretty negative, agitating picture.
On an individual level, some people are genuinely facing emergency level, literally do-or-die situations. It might be the diagnosis of an acute condition or the long seen crescendo of a chronic, un-/under-attended lifestyle disease. But too often, we’re gripped by an anxiety beyond reason, without reason. On the clinical end of the spectrum, experts estimate about 1-2% of the population suffers from what’s considered “pathological health anxiety,” although it’s likely around 10% for people who have had serious health problems in the past. True hypochondria can be destructive enough to unravel a person’s life, and experts agree the condition is fed by fears that go much deeper than the latest health headlines.
Beyond this extreme condition, however, are the “worried well” among us who request unwarranted, radiation-laden scans, risky medications, and unnecessary labs because we’re so anxious about our health. Sure, sometimes it’s doctors who fear litigation if they don’t go down every avenue or hospitals who want to profit from expensive testing procedures, but it’s often the will of the patients, too. Increasingly, it’s the patient who’s looking to go down a checklist of his own. Blame the ratings-hungry sensationalist media, self-diagnosis on the Internet, or the general sense that we’re all going to hell in a hand basket.
All this hand-wringing, however, doesn’t seem to do much good in the collective sense. It’s enough to trump up fear and loathing but not enough to inspire much meaningful lifestyle change. Our anxiety is too often misplaced. We have no problem eating fast food multiple times a week, but fear the flu or the next pandemic is waiting to grab us like the bogeyman in the night. Ebola is a mere plane flight away from stealing our children. Food poisoning is lurking in every meal. We can never have enough triclosan, Purell, or antibiotics to quiet our nerves, but here’s a caramel mochachino to take the edge off.
The backdrop on all this, of course, is the real state of affairs. We’re in sad physiological shape as a society, and that’s the understatement of the century. Truth be told, we have plenty of reason to worry – except worry isn’t the answer. No one ever gets healthy cowering in a corner or gnashing their teeth. I think you have to opt out of the game in general – the fear, the escapism, the distraction, the preoccupation. It’s instead about embracing something else entirely.
Rejecting health anxiety isn’t about putting our heads in the sand. The effective opposite of anxiety isn’t denial. It’s reason, power, perspective. I’d argue it’s about learning to read the reality behind statistics, realizing what’s worth your concern and what’s not, and then taking responsibility for today – right now. You have to stop dodging what you don’t want and take what you do. It’s about embracing the life you want for yourself and fixing your attention on that every day. Whether you see health through a lens of fear or aspiration, that’s the principle that will define – or limit – it.
One last musing, and let me know your thoughts on this. I wonder what the results would be if a study was conducted on people who were either exposed to all of the anxiety-provoking, disease-focused messages of our culture or to only positive messages about thriving and enjoying health. Anxiety versus enthusiasm, if you will. Which group would end up making the healthier choices? Which group would end up not only better adjusted but less medicated? Which group would feel more in control of their well-being and actually use that control to their advantage?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great end to the week.