The first time I heard that derisive phrase — the “worried well” — my initial reaction was, “Uh oh, I’m pretty sure I fall into that category!” My second response was, “Go ahead, make fun of us if you want. I suspect we’ll have the last laugh.”
The worried well is a blanket term that describes people who are basically quite healthy, yet continually concerned about their health. But in my view, we fall into two rather distinct categories: (1) those inclined to believe they’re sick, want a pill for every ill, and who eagerly pursue every last body scan, diagnosis and prescription drug they can get their hands on; and (2) those who are intent on proactively maintaining and optimizing their well-being (even if other people make fun of them for it).
Those of us in the second group are prone to taking vitamins, flossing our teeth and reading the fine print on labels. We avoid toxins, food additives and unnecessary antibiotics. We wonder about odd stuff, like how our intestinal flora are faring (see “Good Bacteria Welcome”), whether our acid-alkaline balance is OK, if our cell phones might be emitting unhealthy levels of radiation, and whether that little bump, itch, twinge, cough or red spot is anything to be concerned about.
We notice subtle symptoms early, often at their “subclinical stage,” but rather than just treating the symptoms, we’re inclined to go on the hunt for root causes. We tend to seek out a variety of health professionals (including integrative docs, chiropractors, acupuncturists and nutritionists) for advice and care, perhaps doing a fair bit of our own research in our quest for understanding — and the highest level of vitality we can hope to enjoy.
Sometimes, it’s true, we get a little worked up, wringing our hands over how much vitamin D might be too much, or gnashing our teeth about how seriously we should take the latest version of the USDA Dietary Guidelines. And OK, we occasionally get ourselves in a lather over little, self-resolving symptoms that really do turn out to be nothing to worry about.
I’d like to point out, though, that being one of the worried well does not necessarily make you a paranoid hypochondriac. These days, frankly, if you’re not at least a little concerned about your health, you’re probably not paying attention.
And paying attention is a good idea, because a whole raft of clinical evidence shows that many conditions, imbalances and diseases initially produce very subtle symptoms — say, an odd sensation, “off-feeling” or mild irritation — and then progress to more intense ones, like inflammation, pain, cell disruption, tissue damage, cancer and death.
Being one of the worried well makes it more likely you’ll notice and deal with such problems early, before massive damage has been done, and while they can be more successfully (and less traumatically) addressed.
It also makes you more inclined to ward off many health problems before they occur, and to bounce back quickly when they do. (See “The 5 Best Ways to Build Resiliency.”)
Of course, one can certainly worry too much (see Bahram Akradi’s Perspective column). And at some point, being overly concerned about your health can turn you into a party pooper and a buzz kill (particularly if you regularly go around pointing at other people’s food and saying, “Oh my gosh, do you know what’s in that stuff?”). Overzealous self-care — from abrasive tooth brushing to excessive supplement popping — can also lead to its own share of problems.
Given the choice, though, I’d prefer to err on the side of caution, doing the things that bolster my good health, rather than undervaluing it and running it down over time. I know I’m not alone, and my sense is that our ranks are growing.
So perhaps it’s time for our proactive faction of the worried well to formally break from the hypochondriac pack and reframe our concern for our health as engagement, keen interest, appreciation and investment. Then, rather than accept the mocking label of the “worried well,” we can lay claim to a more positive, hopeful moniker. Maybe something like “the well-informed well” — a designation that can be worn not with an apprehensive “uh-oh,” but with dignity, confidence and some healthy self-respect.