Fearless Health

9 Mins read

Most nights, my family and I sit down to colorful, plant-powered evening meals. But from time to time, I like to have grilled bratwurst and a tall beer for dinner. And that i savor them.

Before you raise an eyebrow only at that, I’d like to mention that it was my breast-cancer diagnosis nearly Ten years ago that inspired me to have 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 noticed 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 within my family. Diabetes. Dementia. It was an extended, scary list.

In other words, I hadn’t been making my healthy decisions from the life-embracing perspective, but from a host to terror. At that point, kale and collard greens were less vegetables to enjoy 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 noticed that I wanted to live more boldly and joyfully. My prior attitude of self-denial might have reduced certain risks, however it hadn’t (and couldn’t have) eliminated them all.

Still, in order to more fully go through the life I had been fighting so difficult to protect, I needed to adjust my mindset. Fundamental essentials strategies I learned in that process. My hope is they can help you learn to more fearlessly embrace your wellbeing, 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 a strong dislike to saber-toothed carnivores and foul-smelling watering holes. The problem is that our perception of risk, and also the attendant physiological response, often overshadows a realistic look at our actual lives.

While we do face legitimate health threats, they're often not as imminently deadly as we assume. The sporadic bratwurst, for example, appears unlikely to kill an individual.

“We very often are more fearful than you should be, given our circumstances,” asserts Dan Gardner, author of The Science of Fear. He notes our fight-or-flight brains tend to override our analytical brains when evaluating risk.

Meanwhile, excessive stress about health could be a hazard of its own. Research underlines a strong relationship between chronic stress and runaway systemic inflammation, which harms us in several ways. Plus, our bodies are not built to digest or assimilate food once 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, you are not going to fully metabolize that meal,” says Marc David, MA, founding father 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 devote the scheme of life.”

I still check labels and purchase 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. Many times, it happens without our noticing.

“You can seem to be 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 might be time to get pickier about your purveyors of health news. Have you read something from a reasonably credible source, or maybe it was 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. Pay attention to your body.

My occasional brat-and-beer dinner has taught me that as long as I'm eating well overall, I'm able to safely loosen my rules concerning the “perfect” diet and follow my instincts instead. 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 the way they make you feel. When you're aware of how food items affect your energy, focus, mood, and digestion, amongst other things, you can make decisions from a host to relaxed confidence, balancing expert opinions with your own intuition and experience.

“I think we just need to ask ourselves if we're choosing joy and selecting life with a capital L, or choosing fear that's packaged to look like good habits,” David says.

4. Seek positive influences.

Do the folks you hang out with display a life-embracing worldview, or would you gravitate to worrywarts? This can affect your personal mindset. “Be with those who help your being,” suggests a poem by 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Rumi.

This isn't any reason to abandon friends who are health obsessed or tend to worry a lot. But you may want to seek out a few other role models to inform 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 differs enough to balance our own. “Someone who's able to discipline herself physically and it is able to get out running in order to the club five times a week – that person's got some serious wisdom,” he says.

But, he adds, so does the one who favors spontaneity and ease and put quite so much pressure on herself to stick to a routine. “These two might help each other!”

5. Meditate.

I've found that around the days I meditate, I'm less reactive and much more receptive to experiences and sensations, including fear. Indeed, research suggests that meditation of any kind can be a good antidote to reactive thinking.

Mindfulness meditation – sitting and watching your breath – appears 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 level, and increase immune function.

In other words, the physical body responds to a calmer mind.

Another form of meditation I practice is known as 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 could 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 the body with yoga.

Seated meditation isn't the only way to shift our habitual patterns of thinking and reacting. For me personally, the physical practice of yoga reliably slices mental noise. Aligning breath with movement helps me concentrate on the here and now and be in my body.

Different kinds of yoga suit different people and various kinds of stress, at different times. Just before my diagnosis, I favored an engaged vinyasa practice that channeled my nervous energy. This served me well within the anxious weeks before my mastectomy.

As I recovered, I delved in to 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 will help you develop a more integrated perception of health because the poses address both bodily and emotional needs. Warrior poses build strength as well as connect us to our bravery. Back-bending poses like wheel or camel are physically challenging as well as open the heart. Inversions like headstand help build physical and emotional balance.

For me, yoga also gets to the heart of impermanence. Ending each rehearsal in savasana, or corpse pose, is good training for making peace with life's finitude.

7. Enjoy it.

I first felt the grip of health-related fear loosen when I was recovering from surgery. I had been 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 inspiring letters. And flowers – a whole garden, in fact, planted and tended by friends who wanted me to enjoy a pretty view outside my window when i rested.

And then there was the meals: delicious, soul-feeding meals prepared by people who love me. I didn't worry whether it was organic. I ate the things they provided, and it nourished me.

A concentrate on gratitude makes it easier to appreciate our present health and all the gifts it currently affords us, whether that's mobility, strength, or even the energy to enjoy our loved ones. Gratitude keeps us grounded with what we have today, rather than centered 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 you should be in charge all the time, that we ought to always be in control,” says meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg. “It's simply not true.”

There are few situations in which you feel less “in control” than sitting in a stark, cold room wearing a medical facility gown, waiting for the surgeon. Yet once I surrendered to the experience of counting on others to help restore my health, I began to understand the invaluable flipside of vulnerability: community. Many of us are 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. Once we relax with the idea that there are forces beyond our control, we are able to quit bracing against everything and instead become motivated by compassion for ourselves and for others. When we keep in mind that we're all here for a limited time, it just makes sense to make the most of that point 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 might even improve your health and extend your lifespan.

In Nowhere 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 inside 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 the number of people struggle with their health. It also made me want to act. After my recovery, I discovered myself with an opportunity to teach yoga to some group of older adults. My two regulars were in their 80s, and one woman was undergoing chemotherapy and chemo for pancreatic cancer.

It felt just like a privilege to serve them. I had something to offer that could enhance their lives, even just a little, which 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 the world, we often come to those big questions about the ultimate meaning of existence,” Campbell says. For a lot of people, she continues, “the response is not just to keep ourselves healthy and happy but to pour our lives out in love for others.”

10. Be whole rather than 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 Personally i think differently. I'm a little wiser. As i am optimistic that my good prognosis and healthy way of life will continue to support me, I additionally understand that the cancer could return, or that another thing could compromise my health.

So now, in order to keep from backsliding into fear or denial, I challenge my very own assumption that being healthy may be 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, beneath it all there's a level of you that precedes your wellbeing,” he explains. “That's the part you need 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 attract 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 being an opportunity for expansion and receptivity.

“Looking at my own fear in meditation, 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, Personally i think relief. Then there's space.”

So when I notice the stories rolling i believe, the ones that shrink my focus to worst-case scenarios, I do my best, as Salzberg suggests, to create 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 savor my dinner. Whatever I'm having.

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