One of the things I love about our success stories is the far-reaching impact of people’s health transformations. They lose weight (or in some instances gain it in muscle mass). They get fit. They get their basic health in order, and the physical vitality takes on a life of its own with a unforeseen “carry-over” effect, leaving them happier, more confident and newly inspired to pursue other personal goals or productive changes in their lives. This got me thinking about how much the opposite holds true. What about the studies that tell us negative circumstances in our lives become risk factors for a variety of serious health issues, including mortality risk itself?
The thing is, we focus a great deal on the proximate causes of obesity and lifestyle disease (e.g. what people eat, how much they eat, what metabolic issues come into play), but sometimes the actual headspring could be considered “Life” rather than lifestyle issues—negative relationships, family dynamics or job situations, etc. that admittedly don’t force people toward unhealthy behaviors but leave too many of them groping for these as coping mechanisms. From there, the spiral begins. This isn’t to oversimplify the situation or to deny individuals responsibility for their own choices, but it raises a legitimate question: to what extent can getting our lives in order open the door to better health?
We see the headlines on a regular basis linking negative life circumstances or poor quality of relationships to poor health. The latest this week connected the “ambivalent marriage” (in which negative interchange is frequent but not constant and often unpredictable) with higher blood pressure. Research has previously associated hostile and consistently unsupportive marriages with the likes of higher systemic inflammation, slower wound healing, dysregulation of immune function and stress hormone alteration. Likewise, job stress and, in particular, job burnout can raise workers’ use of medical services as well as their risk for stroke and other cardiovascular disease.
While this brand of research relies heavily on self-report and often doesn’t narrow the variables to any gold standard, it’s hard to argue with the results. We know people in these situations or perhaps have been in them ourselves. We can identify or sympathize with what it means to live in an unhappy relationship, to feel lonely, to be in the wrong profession or dread our work environments, to live with various unresolved issues from our past. It’s hard to not feel the toll over time of chronic negative interactions at home, in the workplace or in an extended family or other social structure.
And so the coping begins…. Some people lean into healthy behaviors like exercise that may stay healthy or take on compulsive dimensions. Others begin to turn to less healthy “shadow” comforts like night eating, overeating or “comfort” eating, drinking or smoking, zoning out with sedentary screen time or overworking and undersleeping. An entire psychic-physiological helix gets set in motion, but the portion locking in the entire pattern is that original catalyst—that negative, eventually disempowering “Life” circumstance (or at least our fixed reaction to it).
While I’m not one to let people off the hook for their own choices, I think we know how this goes. People go into denial or feel trapped, “feed/medicate” the gloomy emotions with unhealthy behaviors, thinking that it’s a temporary situation or that they’ll figure some way out of this mess but just for today they need something to take the edge off. “Today,” all too often, becomes many days until it becomes routine. Their motivation to change anything in their lives, including their health, generally dwindles over time. Between the imposed stresses of the core circumstances and added descent into other unhealthy choices, they’re caught and now increasingly at risk for a host of stress related conditions, which (not surprisingly) are also the most common “lifestyle” diseases/conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal conditions and premature death.
We might in these instances be able to identify which came first (the chicken or the egg), but when we can truly trace poor health back to an unfortunate Life situation, where should the most effective approach begin? Should it be following the general prescribed route of adopting healthy lifestyle choices, or should it be pulling up and finally bringing to resolution that initial rotten root. In other words, do you fix the Life or the lifestyle first?
Some months ago I wrote that getting healthy can be an incredible boon to our vitality and equanimity (and, by extension, all good things these factors can foster in our lives), but it is not a panacea. Getting in shape or losing fifty pounds isn’t an automatic fix for all else we struggle with in life, whether it be a toxic work environment, a precarious financial situation, or a dead-in-the-water marriage. Eating a great diet and running a series of 5Ks might make us feel more energetic and raise our self-esteem, but it won’t erase an unreasonable commute that leaves us with too little family time. It won’t eradicate past trauma. It won’t resolve the grief of a major loss.
What health can give us is a more formidable resilience within our lives, a stronger buffer against the impact of stress in its various manifestations. It can offer us a bigger reserve of emotional and physical energy to work with in life, but it doesn’t by any means wipe our slate clean.
Uprooting a festering situation that’s been weighing us down for long stretches of time can be freeing. It can dislodge our lives from seemingly immovable patterns. We can realize with a mixed bag of relief and consternation how much energy and attention that certain situation has drained from us for how many months, or year, or even decades.
And yet… If we’ve allowed ourselves (yes, allow) to go down those rabbit holes of self-denial, of self-diminishment, of self-destruction physically and emotionally, it’s probably unreasonable to believe that shifting an outer circumstance is going to be enough to dissolve all the negative patterns within our daily structure and the defeating self-talk that we’ve amassed (and internalized) within our own mentality.
I believe these situations, should we identify our issues in this way, call us back to the question of health integrity. At some point along the way, we gave away our own health step by step in the name of coping, in the name of avoiding, in the name of abdicating our responsibility. When we’re ready to face the facts of our “Life” conflict, we’re finally poised to cut our excuses off at that original root, but it’s also important to understand they can (and in all likelihood have) become self-perpetuating.
We have to do more than “fix” a problem we situate outside of ourselves. We have to reclaim our own authority. That means we clean up our own patterns by doing the footwork of health and self-care. We acknowledge that we’ll earn that vitality back by our own efforts. Blame has no more place in our day—from either end.
In the end, maybe it’s about finally asserting that our health has the best chance to flourish when our Life (the big choices, relationships and priorities of our lives) and our lifestyle (the details we live regularly) fully correlate.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Do you identify your own situations with this question? What was the answer for you along the way? Share your thoughts in the comment section, and have a great end to the week.
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