It is a common comment that “too much of everything is bad”. This tends to support the one who said, “virtue lies in the middle”. Is it then ironical that when one takes too much care of his health he runs into health problems? What has been definitely observed is that there are people like us who do not have so much time to devote to taking care of their health and are sometimes termed “careless” but do not fall sick very often, while there are others who have so much time and spend so much time on taking care of their health but fall sick very often. In fact, some of the second group always have one problem or another to contend with almost on a daily basis and can progressively get so bad as to lose the joy of living, and even lose their lives prematurely.
Actually, the vital contrast in the lives of these two groups of people is that the latter care too much and get into trouble while the former are not too uncaring and would have also gotten into trouble if they were too careless. Virtue lies in the middle! The later suffer from “hypochondriasis”.
Hypochondriasis means morbid concern for one’s health. The Webster’s Dictionary defines it as preoccupation with the body and abnormal fear of diseases. The sufferer ‘is a hypochondriac. The question again is, why would someone get unhealthier by devoting so much time to being healthy. It is because this concern has become “morbid”. It has become a serious preoccupation, it has become “too much”.
You can almost tell a hypochondriac by the way he looks and the way he behaves, to the extent you can immediately see: he is always neatly dressed, well shaven, constantly adjusting himself to maintain his neat and clean appearance; further inquiry into his lifestyle will show you he does not eat “just anything” but chooses what to eat “very carefully”, guided by the zeal to avoid ill-health; he is very choosy! He bathes not less than twice a day, at times up to 3 to 4 times a day, each time taking care to devote time to individual parts of the body. He obtains health information as often as he can, sometimes avidly searching for them, and works very hard to abide by them rigorously; he may even harken to these “old wives tales” sort of health information flying about these days and take them seriously.
Among other dangerous habits, the hypochondriac “carefully” listens to his body to “quickly” detect sign of trouble and he runs to the laboratory for tests at the slightest sign of trouble from his own assessment; sometimes the laboratory will detect signs of the endemic diseases like typhoid fever and malaria but if nothing is found, his trouble increases because it means the cause of his “sign of trouble” is occult (hidden) and therefore could be “handmade” probably through a “remote control” or a direct contact that escaped his notice.
A cursory statistical analysis shows that youths form a much greater percentage of people suffering from hypochondriasis. The youths, in their prime of life, may form up to 85% hypochondriacs. Is it also ironical that youths in their prime of life ‘ suffer hypochondriasis more than the aged, for instance, who are closer to death and have weak bodies that diseases attack more easily? The fact is that it is so and there may be several reasons for that. The elderly has gone through life and, whether or not he is satisfied with the life he has lived, he gains much experience and wisdom to believe that surely “all is vanity” and so calmly waits in resignation for the home call. He has seen it all, he felt it all and now believes, and probably wishes the young one would try and know, as he certainly knows, that life on earth is not worth all the anxiety, and that the earth is not a place of rest and bliss that people constantly chase by all means. In this state the informed elderly man sees “reality” and learns to live happily with it while the youth are still full of illusions. One of the illusions in a hypochondriac is that the body as a whole could, at any time be devoid of any iota of a negative-sounding message. They are looking for a perfect body – illusion! But they chase this illusion so desperately and their constant failure works on their minds negatively, and this sets up a vicious cycle that lead to actual bodily illness (psychosomatic disease) that progressively worsens and defies treatment since the trigger remains untreated and most times, even undetected.
The greatest fuel to expedite the unfortunate situation of the youth suffering from hypochondriasis is “fear of death”. Definitely the elderly do not fear death as much as the youth; the elderly even calmly and, sometimes, happily prepares for it. Philosophers make it clear, from their experience, that one who is afraid of death is not enjoying life and, in fact, is not living.
Fr. Anthony de Mello SJ,(The Causes of Unhappiness. Call to Love – Meditations) puts it this way: “Has it ever struck you that those who most fear to die are the ones who most fear to live? That in running away from death, you will be running away from life? Think of a man living in an attic, a little hole of a place with no light and little ventilation. He fears to come down the stairs because he has heard of people falling downstairs and breaking their necks. He would never cross a street because he has heard of thousands who have been run over on the streets. And of course if he cannot cross a street, how will he cross an ocean or a continent or one world of ideas to another. This man clings to his hole of an attic in an attempt to ward off death and in doing so he has simultaneously warded off life.”
This mirrors also the situation in the life of the hypochondriac who is preoccupied with, and morbidly concerned with, not falling sick and not dying. He lives all his life in fear. Fr de Mello advises as follows: “for life is on the move and you are stuck, life flows and you have become stagnant, life is flexible and free and you are rigid and frozen. Life carries all things away, and you crave for stability and permanence. So you fear life and you fear death because you cling. When you cling to nothing, when you have no fear of losing anything, then you are free to flow like the mountain stream that is always fresh and sparkling and alive”.
It is clear from our observations in clinical spheres that a major reason why the youth suffer more from hypochondriasis than other groups is that at this prime of life they are very anxious to remain at their prime and are overly pre-occupied with this being at their prime and so they are in constant anxiety concerning factors that may militate against this state even when such factors may not yet be there. They examine, re-examine, scrutinize and inspect themselves thoroughly to detect the first signs.
Of course they get signs because anytime you listen to your body it must tell you something. What is important is the meaning you attach to this thing the body has told you. Hypochondriacs take every message very seriously; they do not ignore anything. They anxiously go about trying to solve one problem or the other while they are listening more and more and getting more and more messages to be tackled. They cannot let any sleeping dog lie. They do not know that the body has a great capacity to take care of a lot of things and only require to be given a little chance to do that. Those the body cannot take care of will now surface as a significant problem which you do not have to listen for before you detect.
This matter concerns most of our youths but each person thinks he is the only person not living life at its fullest; he does not know that others have the same problems. Various degrees of coping exist, however, but in each case hypochondriasis is significantly stealing life from youth, zest falling below expectations, although outward presentation tend to cover up. Something has to be done about it. The youths have to have life and have it more abundantly.
The solution lies firstly in understanding certain realities:
- Some psychologists met some years ago and decided to bring out a simple formula that will express what one can do to remain happy always. They came out with the formula “SFF” as reported in one of “The psychologist” magazines in the 1970’s. This means “Stop Finding Fault”. Definitely, you cannot be happy if you are in the habit of looking for faults in another person or thing, or in yourself, especially in your bodily function. Think of this seriously. This world is not perfect and there are many faults lying there harmlessly; you don’t go sniffing them up. I must admit that many people do this in response to advice prevalent in the media, to the effect that one has to do frequent checks so as to detect serious diseases early enough. What types of check and how often? This question is important because there are thousands of diseases and therefore thousands monitoring to do, and frequently. The informed advocates have specific diseases in mind, such as hypertension, and high blood cholesterol, both of which can cause stroke and heart attack/arrest, some cancers, and a few other serious systemic diseases. These informed advocates state how often the check should be done lest you become, detrimentally, overly check-conscious, risking hypochondriasis.
- Another reality is that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. So keep busy with positive things and remain little time to be used in detecting “signs of trouble” that “never called your name”. If you are not in a position to be busy with ordinary jobs try religious activities, sports and other hobbies that will engage your interest. Religious activities have an added advantage of providing you with opportunity to enjoy a divine atmosphere and a good formation; the religious activities are in addition to your usual religious obligations.
- Everyone at some time or the other experiences feeling of insecurity concerning a number of things such as the amount of money in the bank, age, physical appearance or health, but the amount of insecurity feeling in each person is not usually proportional to the amount of threat existing but to the extent to which one is “attached” or “detached”.
Understanding these realities well, the youth will stop looking for trouble, ignoring certain troubles for a while and attending to only troubles that surely deserve to be attended to. An example that is important is that noisy abdomen without pain can be ignored for a while and most of the noises will terminate themselves. The more you listen to your abdomen, the more it talks to you, He will also get busy positively, and also learn to “look at the birds of the air and consider the lilies of the field” (Matt. 6:25ff) and try to adopt their attitude to life. Detach yourself from life and you will enjoy life, begin to die and you will live more abundantly.
No one has asked you here to be too careless with your health: We have agreed that “virtue lies in the middle”.