Worrying excessively about our well-being can do us more harm than good. Here’s how to keep your health concerns in perspective.
If the quest for for clean eating and a healthy diet becomes so great that it interferes with your quality of life, relationships, and general decisions around food and eating behaviors, it ultimately becomes an obsession. If that's becoming a familiar scenario, it's time to rethink our beliefs around healthy eating and health in general. Falling into overly rigid thinking or fear-motivated priorities about health isn’t good for anyone because stress and anxiety about our health may be as harmful as the other health hazards we're trying too hard to ward off! Read on for some practical advice to 'chill out' and live fearless relating to our beliefs around eating and health. -Maria
Most nights of the week, my family and I sit down to colorful, plant-powered dinners. But every so often, I tuck into a grilled bratwurst and a tall beer instead. And I savor them.
Ironically, it was my breast-cancer diagnosis five years ago that inspired me to relish such occasional indulgences rather than wondering whether they would kill me.
Before I got cancer, my healthy choices were hardly motivated by a life-embracing perspective. I thought of kale and collard greens less as vegetables than as talismans to ward off evil. I rarely noticed the present moment because I was too busy fretting about the future.
My list of health worries was long and scary: cancer, the heart disease that runs in my family, high blood pressure, diabetes, dementia, and any number of other maladies that might befall me if I strayed even slightly from the path of diet-and-lifestyle perfection.
Ironically, coming face to face with a real health crisis — instead of just obsessing about the potential catastrophes in my head — actually helped me understand and release some of my fear.
Coming to terms with my diagnosis, I knew I wanted to be well, but I realized that I also wanted to live more boldly and joyfully than I had been.
My attitude of self-denial may have reduced certain risks, but it obviously hadn’t (and couldn’t have) eliminated them all. When I took a good look at what had been motivating my choices, I realized that if I wanted to more fully enjoy the life I was fighting so hard to protect, I’d need to adjust my mindset.
Falling into overly rigid thinking or fear-motivated priorities about health isn’t good for anyone. What’s worked better for me is redefining my notions of what it means to be well.
Here’s some of what that shift in perspective has taught me. If you’re inclined toward worry about your own health, perhaps these suggestions can help you find a saner headspace, too.
Stress Will Not Save You
Now that I’m officially cancer-free, I still check labels and buy organic. I remain interested in the latest reports on nutrition, environmental toxins, and product safety. But I’ve become just as interested in learning to identify unnecessary worry and to let it go.
Why? Because stress and anxiety about our health may be as harmful as the other health hazards we face.
Copious research has identified a strong correlation between chronic stress and runaway inflammation that can result in disease. Most of us know firsthand how stress can make our guts ache, heads hurt, and skin break out.
As for fear-based dietary perfectionism, our bodies will slow or even halt digestion when our sympathetic nervous system is triggered by anxiety.
You could be eating the healthiest meal in the universe, but if you’re in a state of fear and stress, then you’re not going to be fully metabolizing that meal.
“You could be eating the healthiest meal in the universe, but if you’re in a state of fear and stress, then you’re not going to be fully metabolizing that meal,” says Marc David, MA, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colo.
And when an interest in healthy eating becomes an obsession with food quality and purity, it can turn into a self-defeating cycle. “If you’re constantly living in misery and fear, then what good is the healthy food?” asks David.
Such habits are now recognized as a form of disordered eating called orthorexia nervosa, first identified in 1997 by Steven Bratman, MD. Whereas anorexia and bulimia are a fixation on food quantity, orthorexia is a preoccupation with quality. As Bratman explains in his book Health Food Junkies, “All three disorders give food a vastly excessive place in the scheme of life.”
It’s great to care deeply about what you eat. But when you’re preoccupied with making sure every last morsel is pristinely healthy, you may have little energy left to actually enjoy your food. And what’s healthy about that?
Be Whole Instead of Good
Yoga teacher Matthew Sanford, the author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, was in a serious car accident at age 13. He has been paralyzed from the chest down ever since. One of Sanford’s primary lessons is that we can always experience our lives fully, regardless of our state of fitness or health. He believes it’s more important to live as a whole person — mind, body, and spirit — than to strive to achieve some ideal of physical vitality at any cost.
“Even when things aren’t perfectly healthy, underneath it all there’s a level of you that precedes your health,” says Sanford. “That’s the part you have to connect to.”
Sanford’s idea of true health involves being fully present in the moment rather than following abstract and arbitrary rules.
“One of my main messages is that you’re stronger when you feel more, not less,” Sanford says. “The appeal to health has to be an appeal to feeling more, to being more present in your body — not just doing the right things, but actually feeling more alive.”
“Feeling more” inevitably involves feeling fear, yet Sanford teaches that we can observe this feeling with interest. When we feel our terror about disease and death instead of trying to vanquish it, it can teach us more than we expect.
“It’s so natural to be afraid,” says Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and author of several books, including Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. Though fear can be a constricting emotion, Salzberg sees it as an opportunity for expansion and receptivity.
“Looking at my own fear in meditation,” she explains, “one of the things I see is that, unlike the common statement that we’re afraid of the unknown, I’m far more afraid when I think I do know — and I think it’s going to be really bad! When I remind myself I don’t know, I feel relief. Then there’s space.”
Illness and accidents prove that there are no guarantees, except that someday the life we’re trying so hard to safeguard will, inevitably, end.
Still, if we can notice the self-talk and stories that narrow our focus to worst-case scenarios, and if we can, as Salzberg suggests, make peace with the fact that we really don’t know what is going to happen, we create the kind of mental space that enables more vital and life-enhancing choices.
This is not as esoteric an effort as it seems. Here are some practical strategies that can help us all think more expansively about our health.