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,” 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.
8 Tips for Developing a Big-Picture View of Health
1. Don’t Be a Slave to Scary Headlines
Fears about health sell headlines, and for anyone interested in the benefits or risks of a particular diet, nutrient, or personal-health practice, news outlets and websites abound with information — and misinformation. As we peruse the newsstand or scan our Twitter feed, we can start to recognize the way these primal survival fears are used to get our attention and influence our choices.
“When you say ‘fear,’ people think that means the big, strong emotion of fear, and that if they don’t experience the big, strong emotion, they’re not influenced by it,” says Dan Gardner, journalist and author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. But, the actions of fear can be subtle and insidious.
“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,” he explains.This doesn’t mean you need to ditch all media. Just be mindful about where your health information comes from. Is your concern based on something you read in a reasonably well-supported source, or is it just one blogger’s personal story?
Choose your media influences consciously and your fear level will drop. (For more on becoming a discerning consumer of health information, see “Decoding Health Media”.)
2. Listen to Your Body
When we focus on enjoyment and moderation (as I do with my occasional beer-and-brat dinner), we can comfortably loosen our rules about the perfect diet and lifestyle and follow our instincts instead.
“Forget about vegetarian, forget about paleo, forget all of it,” advises Marc David of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. He believes that adhering too strictly to a set of guidelines can interfere with the connection between mind and body.
Instead, he suggests choosing simple, whole foods that have been produced with care, and noticing how our food affects us. When we’re aware of how certain choices make us feel, David says, we can make decisions from a place of relaxed confidence, balancing expert opinions with our own experience.
If you are confused about which ever-changing trend and advice to follow, David suggests looking inward.
“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,” he says.
3. Build a Solid Support System
In shifting away from a fear-based relationship to health, observe whether the people you choose to spend time with have a life-embracing worldview, or if you gravitate to fellow worrywarts. “Be with those who help your being,” suggests a poem by 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Rumi.
This doesn’t mean you need to abandon friends who are health obsessed or tend to worry a lot. Only that you might want to seek out a few other role models to show you how to live with more ease. Yoga teacher Matthew Sanford 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,” says Sanford. But, he notes, 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!” he says.
4. Meditate on Goodness
Any kind of meditation is a good antidote to reactivity, but mindfulness meditation is a particularly helpful way to notice thoughts in action. This practice is the foundation of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program used around the world to help medical patients manage stress and pain.
Research on MBSR has demonstrated impressive results, including relieving stress in breast-cancer survivors, lowering blood pressure, and increasing immune function.
When practicing mindfulness meditation, train your attention on the moment. Sit quietly, and patiently “watch” your breath. As thoughts or impulses arise (which they will, a lot), mentally acknowledge them and return to the sensation of breathing.
Meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg teaches what is known as “lovingkindness” meditation, where the mantras focus on goodwill, such as “May all beings have happiness and health, and the causes for happiness and health.” You can always direct these mantras toward yourself, too. Silently repeat, “May I have happiness and health.”
I’ve found that on the days I meditate, I am less reactive. The elusive space between fear and panic opens up so I can think clearly again.
5. Yoga Your Way to Well-Being
Seated meditation isn’t the only activity that can help you downshift health anxiety. For many, the physical practice of yoga is a surefire way to quiet inner chatter and reconnect mind and body.
Different kinds of yoga suit different kinds of stress. 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. If you’re someone whose mind tends to get stuck in ruts, a moving practice can be a good outlet.
As I recovered, I delved into the spiritual aspects of yoga, reading translations of ancient sutra texts and journaling. Today I appreciate a quiet, reflective Iyengar practice that attends to alignment and form, enabling me to focus on how each pose makes me feel. If you’re looking to build greater strength and stability, this might suit you well. (To learn more about the various styles of yoga, see “Yoga 4 You“.)
Any yoga practice is great for developing a more holistic notion of health — as opposed to a strictly physical one — because the poses address both physical and emotional needs. Warrior poses build strength but also connect us with our sense of bravery. Back-bending poses like wheel or camel are physically challenging but also open the heart. Inversions like headstand help build balance and equanimity.
And ending each practice session in savasana, or corpse pose, may be the ultimate training for making peace with the fleeting condition of life.
6. Practice Gratitude
When we focus on gratitude, we can better appreciate whatever degree of health we have, as well as the things our health affords us now — whether that’s physical strength, mobility, or the energy to enjoy our loved ones and pursue our interests.
Gratitude keeps us grounded and helps us make choices that support what we have today, rather than focusing on what we could lose tomorrow. (See “Real Thanks”.)
Even if you’re currently suffering from an illness or physical setback, consider all the ways your body is still operating productively. What aspects of your health and happiness can you count as blessings?
Writing a short list of appreciations in a gratitude journal a few times a week can be a great tool for shifting your thinking from anxiety to appreciation.
I first felt the grip of health-related fear loosen a bit when I was recovering from surgery. I felt overwhelmed with thanks — not just for early detection and a good prognosis, but also for the immense love and support I received from family and friends. I received daily gifts of books, music, and encouraging letters. There were flowers — a whole garden, in fact, planted and tended by friends who wanted me to have a pretty view out my window as I recovered.
And then there was the food: delicious, soul-feeding meals prepared in the kitchens of people who love me. I didn’t worry whether they were organic. I ate what was given, and it nourished me.
7. Accept Vulnerability
Embracing our inherent vulnerability is one of the best ways to break the cycle of fear and self-preoccupation. This can be as simple as accepting help from others when we need it.
When I received my diagnosis and surrendered to the experience of relying on others for assistance, I found the invaluable flip side of vulnerability: community.
I met several people who had gone through, or were going through, similar experiences. In talking about my fears, and in listening to the fears of others, I felt less isolated and less focused on my own suffering.
As we accept the fact that there are forces beyond our control, we quit bracing ourselves against everything. “We think we should be in charge all the time, that we should always be in control,” says Salzberg. “It’s just not true.”
8. Be of Service
Endless studies have shown that volunteering supports good health and can even extend life span. Dan Buettner’s 2008 book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From People Who’ve Lived the Longest, a study of the world’s healthy centenarians, finds that almost all people who thrive past 100 are routinely involved in helping others.
Perhaps this positive effect comes from the knowledge that when we’re engaged in service, our time on Earth is not wasted.
In search of wise and articulate words on this subject, I turned to my minister. Sarah Campbell is senior pastor at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Minneapolis.
“When something rocks our world, we often come to those big questions about the ultimate meaning of existence,” Campbell tells me. For a lot of people, she says, “the answer is not just to keep ourselves happy and healthy, but to pour our lives out in love for others.
“Service can be very healing,” Campbell continues. “It’s a great antidote to fear and self-protection.”
For me, getting sick opened my eyes to how many people struggle with their health.
I recently had the 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 was a privilege to serve these people. I had something to offer that could enhance their lives, even just a little, and that made me feel useful.
In return, I received the reminder of how much of the beauty of life exists precisely because we are so fragile.