Twenty-eight percent of Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder, which manifests when a person feels fear without any certain or immediate external threat. In addition to fearing illness and death, we’re also afraid of public speaking, heights, going out in public, needles, and spiders. In fact, a 1986 study by the National Institute of Mental Health showed that 5-12% of people surveyed have experienced phobias in the past six months. There are as many as 530 documented phobias, and studies estimate that 24 million Americans will experience phobias in their lifetimes. Some even suffer from phobophobia, which is the fear of phobias!
But the irony is that fear and anxiety have been scientifically proven to harm your health, putting you at risk of everything from heart disease to cancer to the common cold.
On top of that, when you’re afraid of getting sick or missing a diagnosis, you’re likely to put yourself at risk of overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which as I explored earlier in this blog series, has been documented to lead to health risks. As it turns out, fear and anxiety make you sick, and courage heals. So what can you do to minimize fear and anxiety about illness and embrace courage instead? If you’re suffering from a full-blown anxiety disorder or phobia, please seek professional help. But if you, like many of us, just need some tips for navigating the fears that plague all of us, read on.
10 Tips for Reducing Health Fears
1. Understand that fear sells and you’re being manipulated.
Fear sells, and the media knows it. So it’s no surprise that every other headline is warning you about the “Secret Dangers Living In Your Cupboard” or the “Deadly Dangers Of Airplane Travel” or the “Cancer-Causing Toxins In [Pretty Much Everything]."
We’re safer than we’ve ever been, but the advent of cable news as entertainment, and having internet news at our fingertips has transformed us into a fear-driven society, terrified of things that are relatively low-risk. Realize that the media is trying to make you tune in by making you afraid. Refuse to be part of the game.
2. Assess the real risk.
Yes, there are real health risks out there that can be easily avoided. And why not do what you can to minimize your risks? But when many of the risks point to low-risk but high-buzz culprits, it’s easy to lose perspective on how great the actual risk is. For example, when swine flu broke out, everyone freaked out. But as it turned out, swine flu was just a flu virus, not Ebola virus. The same mass hysteria followed the Japanese nuclear plant meltdown after the tsunami.
Rather than getting swept up in irrational fears, educate yourself. Know the real risks, then make decisions accordingly.
3. Shield yourself from the media.
Take a media holiday and just notice what happens to your fear and anxiety levels. Try it. You might be amazed how chillaxed you feel.
Fear and anxiety trigger the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and putting your body at risk for disease. But Harvard professor Herbert Benson, author of the 1970s bestseller The Relaxation Response, proved that a simple meditation shuts off the stress response and stimulates the relaxation response, allowing the body to not only free itself from fear and anxiety, but to also flip on its natural self-repair mechanisms and heal itself.
5. Tap into your inner knowing.
I call it your Inner Pilot Light – that wise, intuitive, body-centered part of you that will tell you whether you really need to worry, or if you can trust that you’re safe.
6. Dissociate from your fear.
I call mine the Gremlin. Martha Beck calls hers her “Inner Lizard.” We all have fears, especially when it comes to illness or death. But it’s important to understand that our fears arise in the amygdala of the primal brain. Their job is to protect us, but in modern life, more often than not, these fears damage us more than they protect us.
Make friends with your Gremlin. Recognize that it’s not YOU. And when you hear that fear voice prattling on, pat your Gremlin on the head, muster up your courage, and take brave steps to improve your health by aligning your life with your truth — in your relationships, your work, your sex life, your spiritual life, your financial life, your physical health, and all that jazz.
7. Push the limits of your comfort zone.
It’s natural to stay firmly inside your comfort zone. But the more you step outside of it, the more you’ll learn that the areas just outside your comfort zone are probably just as safe. If you usually hand your power over to your doctor during health care visits, try speaking up and asking questions. If you tend to avoid risk, try something risky (within reason, of course!) Repetitive experiments with testing the waters outside your comfort zone can retrain your amygdala, reduce anxiety and fear, and help you feel brave.
8. Affirm your courage.
Try affirmations like “I am brave.” Or “I value courage.”
9. Surround yourself with courageous people.
If you’re flanked by fear-driven people who project their fears onto you, it’s no wonder you feel anxious or afraid. Try seeking out brave people and see how their energy affects yours.
10. Trust the Universe.
As A Course In Miracles teaches, fear is the opposite of love — and the two can’t coexist. Essentially, by letting fear and anxiety run the show, you’re telling the Universe you don’t trust that whatever happens is in the highest good for all beings.
Letting go of fear and anxiety is the ultimate show of faith — that it’s all handled, that the Universe doesn’t need you to micromanage your life, that even if you do get sick, it’s because your soul is here on this earth to learn something, and illness just might be the vehicle for that lesson. Let go of the handle. Surrender. Trust.
What’s a Health-Conscious Person to Do?
I’m not suggesting you avoid doctors, ditch preventative medical tests, or decline treatment. But I am suggesting you do what you can to manage fear and anxiety, not only to help your body stay in its natural state of self-repair, but also to avoid putting yourself at risk of overmedicalization.
The way I see it, the best we can do is live healthy lives, not just by eating well, exercising, avoiding bad habits, getting enough sleep, and managing stress, but also by prioritizing healthy relationships, ensuring that we’re aligned with our soul’s work, staying in a positive head and heart space, taking steps to feel spiritually connected, and living an all-around wholly healthy life.
Rankin, Lissa. (2013). Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself. Hay House.