The worried well are, apparently, on the rise. In some ways this is not surprising given the frequency of headlines highlighting the way in which all sort of things can be bad for you. As I began writing this I had a quick look at the Daily Mail online health section, and had no trouble finding out that white wine drives some women crazy (not in a good way), and that rice cakes and red meat are bad for your skin. So if you do have a tendency to worry about your health, you can find plenty of things to worry about.
However, it is important to take such headlines with a pinch of salt (or it would be, except too much salt can raise your blood pressure.) A useful antidote might be the work of John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford School of Medicine in the USA, who in 2005 published a paper refreshingly, entitled ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False’. The moral of which is, one bit of research does not prove anything; it needs to be backed up by subsequent studies (and often it isn’t.) Given also that journalists will almost inevitably simplify any research they come across in the interests of catchy headlines, so that a research paper which concludes that, say, eating too many pickled onions may be associated with an increased risk of dementia may lead to a headline ‘onions cause dementia’, we would do well to remain healthily sceptical. (Don’t worry onion eaters, I made this one up.)
But if we can’t rely on such headlines, or, if Professor Ioannidis is right, on most published research findings, what can we rely on? Can we rely on how we feel? What about the silent killer, high blood pressure? The received wisdom is that your blood pressure may be high, and you may not know it. Similarly, you may feel fine, but your cholesterol might be up. You might even be pre-diabetic. Any number of things may be going wrong inside you, and you don’t know it! Personally I’m slightly sceptical about that; I think it depends on how self-aware you are. I think someone who is deeply in tune with themselves, someone who cultivates awareness, would have a sense that something was not quite right.
Health, anyway, is more than the absence of disease. It is more than a few numbers – blood pressure, cholesterol, body-mass index etc – being in the normal range. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we say that a healthy person is one with abundant Qi which is flowing freely, and whose spirit is bright (something you can see in their eyes). Such a person does not, for instance, catch colds very often, and when they do they recover quickly. They have a good level of energy for their time of life. They sleep well. They are supple and lithe. Also, they have a good understanding of their constitution and know how to get the best of the cards they were dealt at birth. They feel healthy. They look healthy.
Furthermore, healthy people do not worry – the term ‘worried well’ is really a contradiction in terms. Health includes emotions, and in TCM our emotional health is a major component of our overall health. And worrying is unhealthy. Well, its not unhealthy to worry if a hungry looking tiger has her eye on you, or if your car has broken down on the level crossing. But it is unhealthy to worry habitually, including worrying habitually about your health. Several ancient wisdom traditions, both eastern and western, recommend the following antidote to worry: if there is something you can do about the problem you are worrying about, then you need to stop worrying and get on and do whatever it is you can do (or at least make a firm decision that you are going to do it). If on the other hand there is nothing you can do about the problem, then worrying is not going to make any difference, so you may as well not worry.
Can you apply that to worrying about your health? I think you can. There are certainly things that you can do to improve and maintain your health, although the difficulty is that there are an almost infinite number of them. So maybe you need to make a finite list of things you are going to do. It might, for a hypothetical individual, look something like this:
• Go for a run three times a week
• Don’t buy chocolate bars
• Have a regular acupuncture treatment
• Go for a walk in the countryside once a fortnight
• Have breakfast every day
• Have an ‘MOT’ with the GP once a year
• Don’t get drunk more than once a month
• Eat home cooked meals five days a week
• Go to a Tai Chi class every week
The trouble is that the fact there are more things you could do may give an opportunity to your internal worrier to take over – “maybe I should go for a run five times a week, not just three?” Or, “maybe running is bad for my knees and I should give it up?” “Maybe homeopathy is better than acupuncture?” “Maybe I should give up pickled onions?” I think you should ignore such a voice. Establish a lifestyle that you think is viable and will promote your health; it won’t be perfect, but nothing much ever is. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be reasonably healthy and realistic. Then kick worry into touch.
That all might be easier said than done. Most of us need help in maintaining our health, and some of us need help in dealing with a tendency to worry, whether about our health or anything else. At The Sean Barkes Clinic we are well placed not only to use treatments such as acupuncture and Tuina massage to promote your health, but also to use the time honoured understanding of health which is TCM to help you lead a healthy life – to help you become one of the unworried well!