Caution vs. Fear: When concern goes too far

By Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

My Step father just retired this year at the ripe age of 81.  During his career as an OBGYN, he commonly spent a lot of time in the hospital preforming surgery or helping women give birth.  During my entire childhood I never once remember him calling in sick.  A few years back I asked him how he managed to pull this off, considering he often missed sleep, ate hospital food and spent his days in a place full of sick people.  He credited his good genes a little, but he mostly attributed his good health to his lack of worry about getting sick.

In this day of media bombardment and sensational sound bites, you could easily think that all of the world is a frightening place.  That we simply live one event away from major catastrophe.  While it pays to be informed and cautious, at what point does too much worry become a problem?  It is good to be cautious.  Caution can keep us safe by limiting our exposure to potentially dangerous situations.  However when caution becomes fear or paranoia, it can have a negative effect on our life.  Fear has very noticeable physiological effects on your body.  It can effect your appetite and digestion, mental health and sleep in ways that are not only uncomfortable, but can also make you sick.  Stress and worry lower your immune function, making you less resistant to illness and disease.

Like many of us, I have been following the recent ebola outbreak with some concern.  The virus has devastated parts of Africa, and has found its way into Europe and the USA.  The rapid outset and horror of its effects on the human body has fueled a lot of discussion.  While ebola is not something to be ignored, I can’t help but wonder why something that has sickened and killed so relatively few people makes more headlines that other diseases that are known to be so deadly…and preventable.  It is estimated that from 2008-2010 close to 600,000 americans died each year from heart disease. Heart disease includes a variety of conditions that are largely manageable and often even preventable with certain changes in lifestyle.  Compared to the nearly 5500 people that have died from ebola infections in the entire world, heart disease kills over 100 times as many people in the US alone each year.  There are many other diseases that kill or cripple far more people each year than ebola has during its entire existence.

So why are so many fixated on ebola, when there are so many other health problems to think about? It is similar to the fascination people have when they drive by an auto accident, or the attraction people have with intense and scary films and television.  We are drawn to the fantastic and the frightening.

It is important when we are faced with a health concern to look at the big picture and make decisions based on the actual problem, rather than the emotion that we feel when thinking of the problem.  When I notice that I am getting fearful about something I try to do three things:   I educate myself, I make adjustments in my behavior and beliefs based on what I learned, and I practice watching my mind.  I first try to learn what I need to know in order to make informed decisions.  This involves talking with people who’s opinions I trust, or checking in with reliable sources of information.  After researching a topic, I try to make helpful changes in my behavior that will minimize my risk of having a problem.  Once I am educated and taking action, then I try to witness the chatter of my mind.  Every time my mind begins to create the same fearful chatter, I try to catch it and remind it that I am doing everything I can to minimize my risk, and that worrying about something will make me uncomfortable, and more likely to get sick.

In the case of ebola, screening for exposure, monitoring people with possible exposure, and avoiding unprotected contact with infected people are ways that ebola is being addressed.  Limiting or avoiding exposure to ebola is the most effective way to avoid infection.  Realistically, the chance of being exposed to ebola in the US is very minuscule.  On a personal level, we can all wash our hands after being in public, get enough rest and fluids, eat well and exercise, and consider herbs and supplements that can boost immune function.  Beyond becoming more informed and appropriately cautious with our health, it is also important to work on staying positive and keeping our fears in check.  Just as improving our health with diet and exercise takes practice, keeping our thoughts helpful also involves some work. It takes some practice, but actively working on your tendency to worry will not only keep you healthier, it will also make your life more enjoyable.

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