Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
21 Mar

Do Fear and Anxiety Define Your Health Journey?

FearThink 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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “Ask your doctor if Fixerall is right for you…” is one of the things I miss least about not having cable TV. We save about $70 a month, watch less TV, and don’t have to be exposed to these and other ads. I’m so tired of the marketing that encourages you not to consider your habits and lifestyle but to medicate and make everything better. It’s such a bummer…

    Brent wrote on March 22nd, 2013
  2. It’s for these reasons (creation of fear) that I no longer look at any media. No news station, radio, newspaper or adverts. (I mute the TV if they come on) This is all an illusion created by the corporations to keep us in fear so that they can claim the new world order. More for them, less for everybody else. A prison on earth.

    Without this fear, they loose money and any power they think they have. Too many people don’t see that. Letting life flow is the best thing we can do for ourselves. The joy is in the journey.

    Nathan wrote on March 22nd, 2013
  3. The problem with “positive” messages is that we end up with this: cheery brochures in the doctors’ waiting room, assuring us that everything from macular degeneration to kidney failure is “treatable” and that most sufferers can lead a “normal life”. The sugar-coating is so obvious it destroys all trust. We end up being unable to talk about death, unable to face the hard reality that disease comes to the best of us, it ain’t pretty, and most often the doctors haven’t a clue how to help. It also leaves the patient wondering how bad it’s REALLY going to be, because no-one will dare say. Also we end up with lousy home care and not enough hospices, because we’d all rather pretend that chronic, disabling and terminal illness don’t happen.

    Elisa wrote on March 23rd, 2013
  4. Great post!

    Love how you worded this: “It’s about embracing the life you want for yourself and fixing your attention on that every day.”

    I recently saw this basic idea phrased slightly differently, and it jumped out at me as well: “Decide how you want to feel, and then go about doing things that make you feel that way.”


    Susan Alexander wrote on March 24th, 2013
  5. I think that people are often worried because they recognize that their lifestyles point to oncoming disaster. They realize that if the food they were eating was healthy, they wouldn’t be obese, they wouldn’t be aging at the rate that they are, and that they wouldn’t be suffering with so many unexplained aches and pains.

    Pharmaceutical companies recognize this too, and they use the mountains of information they gather to figure out how best to exploit the anxieties of people in vulnerable categories.

    And it suits their purposes for us not to change our lifestyles. The medical and pharmaceutical industries only generate revenues if we medicate illness after the fact. For them, cure is better than prevention.

    And if I dared to suggest that they were working hand-in-glove with government and the food companies to make us ill in the first place, it would sound like a paranoid conspiracy, right?

    Dane Thorsen wrote on March 24th, 2013
  6. Um…Mark. Have you seen your own video ad for your multi? “The modern world conspires against us to make us weak, tired and sick.” I think you answered your own question. Media does it to make money, just like you…hippocrite.

    Adam wrote on March 25th, 2013
  7. Really great & relevant post! We are all too blessed to be this stressed! Thank you for sharing this!

    JoLynn Braley wrote on March 25th, 2013
  8. “Anxiety v. enthusiasm”…I have heard this type of question before and I believe this idea is coming of age. In other words, you’re supposed to switch from doing things because you’re afraid of the consequences otherwise, to *wanting* something (enthusiastically, if you will).

    The rest should fall into place.

    I have to say I have been trying to alter my experience this way and it is, in fact, helping tremendously.

    Chris wrote on March 25th, 2013
  9. I do agree with the points mentioned here on health and anxiety. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of information!

    Tom Brown wrote on October 30th, 2014
  10. Fascinating. I assumed this article was going to be about the (very real) problem of people reaching for various highly-structured diets (whether Paleo or Vegan) and following them with soul killing, malnutrition inducing rigor, in the belief that to allow a morsel of non-plan food to cross their lips is basically asking for cancer.
    Instead, it’s about people who treat their ebola panic with sugar.
    The issue of food-fear is something the Paleo community needs to be paying attention to. Paleo can be a great way to achieve health, but for some people it is just another way to have an eating disorder, to deny their inescapable mortality, or what have you. People who start agonizing in September about whether and to what extent they are going to cheat at Thanksgiving.
    I know you mention 80-20 pretty regularly, but an article about not taking yourself so damn seriously might not go amiss. Too many people are damaging their health, and quality of life, in pursuit of health.

    Alicia wrote on March 7th, 2015

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