Most nights, my family and I sit down to colorful, plant-powered evening meals. But every so often, I like to have grilled bratwurst and a tall beer for dinner. And I savor them.
Before you raise an eyebrow at this, I’d like to mention that it was my breast-cancer diagnosis nearly 10 years ago that inspired me to relish these indulgences rather than obsess over whether they might someday kill me.
Cancer was something I’d dreaded for a long time. Yet it was a wake-up call.
As I emerged from treatment with my health restored, I realized that my careful diet and lifestyle choices up to that moment had largely been an attempt to avoid . . . well, cancer, among other things. Also the heart disease that runs in my family. Diabetes. Dementia. It was a long, scary list.
In other words, I hadn’t been making my healthy decisions from a life-embracing perspective, but from a place of terror. At that point, kale and collard greens were less vegetables to be enjoyed than talismans to ward off evil.
Oddly enough, cancer helped me let go of some of my fears. In facing that nightmare-come-true, I realized that I wanted to live more boldly and joyfully. My prior attitude of self-denial may have reduced certain risks, but it hadn’t (and couldn’t have) eliminated them all.
Still, in order to more fully experience the life I had been fighting so hard to protect, I needed to adjust my mindset. These are the strategies I learned in that process. My hope is that they can help you learn to more fearlessly embrace your health, one day at a time.
10 Tips for Developing a Big-Picture View of Health
1. Start to shift your mindset.
Of course, fear can be a good thing. We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors hadn’t developed an aversion to saber-toothed carnivores and foul-smelling watering holes. The problem is that our perception of risk, and the attendant physiological response, often overshadows the reality of our actual lives.
While we do face legitimate health threats, they’re often not as imminently deadly as we assume. The occasional bratwurst, for example, appears unlikely to kill a person.
“We very often are more fearful than we should be, given our circumstances,” asserts Dan Gardner, author of The Science of Fear. He notes that our fight-or-flight brains tend to override our analytical brains when evaluating risk.
Meanwhile, excessive stress about health can be a hazard of its own. Research underlines a strong relationship between chronic stress and runaway systemic inflammation, which harms us in numerous ways. Plus, our bodies are not built to digest or assimilate food when the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by anxiety. This will slow or even halt digestion.
“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 fully metabolize that meal,” says Marc David, MA, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.
A habit of obsessing about healthy food can even sometimes develop into a form of disordered eating called orthorexia nervosa, first identified in 1996 by Steven Bratman, MD. This preoccupation with food quality can be as harmful as the fixation on food quantity that typifies anorexia and bulimia.
As Bratman explains in his book Health Food Junkies, “All three disorders give food a vastly excessive place in the scheme of life.”
I still check labels and buy organic when I can. I’m still interested in the latest thinking on nutrition and food quality. But I’ve become even more interested in enjoying my health.
2. Choose your health news carefully.
Fear gets attention, and media outlets abound with alarming health information — and misinformation. When scanning headlines, pay attention to how they play on primal survival fears to hook us. It often happens without our noticing.
“You can feel cool as a cucumber and you can think that you are being perfectly rational and objective while being manipulated by psychological biases and subtle emotion,” says Gardner.
If you’re routinely freaked out by, say, the latest admonition to avoid eggs or to eat more bacon, it may be time to get pickier about your purveyors of health news. Did you read something from a reasonably credible source, or was it from someone’s personal story on an Instagram feed? Becoming more selective about media sources can spare you from a lot of needless worry. (For more on becoming a discerning consumer of health information, see “Decoding Health Media”.)
3. Listen to your body.
My occasional brat-and-beer dinner has taught me that as long as I’m eating well overall, I can safely loosen my rules about the “perfect” diet and follow my instincts instead. And there are experts who recommend doing exactly this.
“Forget about vegetarian, forget about paleo, forget all of it,” advises David. He believes that adhering too strictly to a set of guidelines can interfere with the mind–body connection.
Instead, he suggests, choose simple, whole foods produced with care, and notice how they make you feel. When you’re aware of how particular foods affect your energy, focus, mood, and digestion, among other things, you can make decisions from a place of relaxed confidence, balancing expert opinions with your own intuition and experience.
“I think we simply need to ask ourselves if we’re choosing joy and choosing life with a capital L, or choosing fear that’s packaged to look like good habits,” David says.
4. Seek positive influences.
Do the people you hang out with display a life-embracing worldview, or do you gravitate to worrywarts? This can affect your own mindset. “Be with those who help your being,” suggests a poem by 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Rumi.
This is no reason to abandon friends who are health obsessed or tend to worry a lot. But you might want to seek out a few other role models to show you how to live with more ease.
Yoga teacher Matthew Sanford, author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, suggests we look for people whose approach to wellness is different enough to balance our own. “Someone who’s able to discipline herself physically and is able to get out running or to the club five times a week — that person’s got some serious wisdom,” he says.
But, he adds, so does the person who favors spontaneity and ease and doesn’t put quite so much pressure on herself to stick to a routine. “These two can help each other!”
I’ve found that on the days I meditate, I’m less reactive and more receptive to experiences and sensations, including fear. Indeed, research suggests that meditation of any kind may be a good antidote to reactive thinking.
Mindfulness meditation — sitting and paying attention to your breath — seems to be a particularly helpful way to wrangle racing thoughts. It’s the basis of mindfulness-based stress reduction (or MBSR), which studies have shown can relieve stress in breast-cancer survivors, help lower blood pressure, and increase immune function.
In other words, the physical body responds to a calmer mind.
Another form of meditation I practice is called lovingkindness, which features mantras that focus on goodwill, such as “May all beings have happiness and health, and the causes for happiness and health.” You can always direct the mantra toward yourself, too: “May I have happiness and health.”
If you’re completely new to meditation, you might try Calm or other smartphone apps that offer basic instructions and guided meditations.
6. Befriend your body with yoga.
Seated meditation isn’t the only way to shift our habitual patterns of thinking and reacting. For me, the physical practice of yoga reliably cuts through mental noise. Aligning breath with movement helps me focus on the here and now and be in my body.
Different kinds of yoga suit different people and different kinds of stress, at different times. Prior to my diagnosis, I favored a dynamic vinyasa practice that channeled my nervous energy. This served me well in the anxious weeks before my mastectomy.
As I recovered, I delved into the spiritual aspects of yoga, reading translations of ancient sutra texts and exploring a quiet, reflective Iyengar practice that attends to alignment and form. Today, my professional life is busier and I once again practice angst-soothing vinyasa.
Any physical yoga practice can help you develop a more integrated notion of health because the poses address both bodily and emotional needs. Warrior poses build strength and also connect us to our bravery. Back-bending poses like wheel or camel are physically challenging and also open the heart. Inversions like headstand help build physical and emotional balance.
For me, yoga also gets to the heart of impermanence. Ending each practice session in savasana, or corpse pose, is good training for making peace with life’s finitude.
7. Be thankful.
I first felt the grip of health-related fear loosen when I was recovering from surgery. I was overwhelmed with gratefulness: not just for early detection and a good prognosis, but also for the immense love and support I was receiving. There were daily gifts of books, music, and encouraging letters. And flowers — a whole garden, in fact, planted and tended by friends who wanted me to enjoy a pretty view outside my window as I rested.
And then there was the food: delicious, soul-feeding meals prepared by people who love me. I didn’t worry whether it was organic. I ate what they provided, and it nourished me.
A focus on gratitude makes it easier to appreciate our present state of health and all the gifts it currently affords us, whether that’s mobility, strength, or the energy to enjoy our loved ones. Gratitude keeps us grounded in what we have today, rather than focused on what we could lose tomorrow.
8. Appreciate vulnerability.
We’re often taught that independence and strength are virtues, while vulnerability and dependence are deficits. “We think we should be in charge all the time, that we should always be in control,” says meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg. “It’s just not true.”
There are few situations where you feel less “in control” than sitting in a stark, cold room wearing a hospital gown, waiting for the surgeon. Yet once I surrendered to the experience of relying on others to help restore my health, I began to understand the invaluable flipside of vulnerability: community. We are all living in these temporary bodies. And we can be here for each other.
Embracing vulnerability can also help us break the cycle of fear and self-preoccupation. As we relax with the idea that there are forces beyond our control, we can quit bracing against everything and instead become motivated by compassion for ourselves and for others. When we remember that we’re all here for a limited time, it just makes sense to make the most of that time while we have it.
9. Be of service.
If you’re caught in a cycle of fear and worry about your health, serving others can help shift your focus. It may even improve your health and extend your lifespan.
In The Blue Zones, a 2008 study of healthy centenarians, Dan Buettner reports that almost all those who thrive past 100 are routinely involved in helping others.
“Service can be very healing,” confirms Sarah Campbell, senior pastor at my place of worship, Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Minneapolis. “It’s a great antidote to fear and self-protection.”
For me, cancer opened my eyes to how many people struggle with their health. It also made me want to act. After my recovery, I found myself with an opportunity to teach yoga to a group of older adults. My two regulars were in their 80s, and one woman was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for pancreatic cancer.
It felt like a privilege to serve them. I had something to offer that could enhance their lives, even just a little, and that made me feel useful. In return, they provided a reminder of how much of life’s beauty exists precisely because we are so fragile.
“When something rocks our world, we often come to those big questions about the ultimate meaning of existence,” Campbell says. For a lot of people, she continues, “the answer is not just to keep ourselves happy and healthy but to pour our lives out in love for others.”
10. Be whole instead of good.
Back when I fretted constantly over my health, I took my good fortune for granted. Before cancer, I’d never suffered from an illness worse than strep throat. Yet I assumed that if I did, it would be devastating.
Today I feel differently. I’m a little wiser. While I am optimistic that my good prognosis and healthy lifestyle will continue to support me, I also understand that the cancer could return, or that something else could compromise my health.
So now, in order to keep from backsliding into fear or denial, I challenge my own assumption that being healthy is the only way for me to be whole. I learned this from yoga teacher Sanford, who has been paralyzed from the chest down since he was 13.
“Even when things aren’t perfectly healthy, underneath it all there’s a level of you that precedes your health,” he explains. “That’s the part you have to connect to.”
His idea of true health involves being fully present in the moment. “One of my main messages is that you’re stronger when you feel more, not less,” he 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 believes it’s possible to observe even this feeling with interest.
So does Salzberg. “It’s so natural to be afraid,” she says. Though fear can feel suffocating, she sees it as an opportunity for expansion and receptivity.
“Looking at my own fear in meditation, I see that — unlike the common statement that we’re afraid of the unknown — I’m far more afraid when I think I do know. I think it’s going to be really bad! When I remind myself I don’t know, I feel relief. Then there’s space.”
So when I notice the stories rolling in my mind, the ones that shrink my focus to worst-case scenarios, I do my best, as Salzberg suggests, to make peace with the fact that I really don’t know what is going to happen.
That, to a natural worrier, is good news.
It also allows me to enjoy my dinner. Whatever I’m having.