Most of us cite lack of time and lack of energy as the biggest obstacles to achieving our health goals. Money can be another barrier that we perceive as holding us back. Sometimes, though, when we dig a little deeper there is something more complex at the root of our struggles: fear. Our fears are both universal and unique. Fear shows up in our lives in many different ways and often looks nothing like fear at all, at least from the outside: laziness, stubbornness, and isolation are some of its disguises. While it is a common response to the need for change in our lives, fear can be totally paralyzing and trap us in a cycle of inaction. Let’s discuss some common manifestations and causes of fear as it relates to your health and wellness, as well as one simple trick to zapping some of the power that fear holds over our lives.
When there is something pressing that I need to do, such as making a phone call to an insurance company or scheduling a doctor’s appointment, I will sometimes put it off for weeks—even months—until it weighs on my peace of mind so much that I finally get it done. Many patients that I work with as a registered nurse will stretch what should be a doctor’s visit every three months into once yearly, missing 75% of their recommended care. Others arrive to their appointment and announce that they have decided to discontinue their diabetes medication. From the outside, the examples seem ludicrous—make the call, reschedule the appointment, take the medication, how hard can it be?—but all of us who have experienced fear (and that is all of us) know that it is not that simple.
Am I inherently lazy or somehow incapable because I avoid making a phone call? Is a patient who cancels their appointments against their doctor’s advice unconcerned with their health? Does someone who does not want to take medication not want to have a healthy body? The answer to all three of these questions is no, of course not. But fear is one of the oldest and most powerful drivers of the human mind, such a fundamental part of our will to survive that it drives our activities without us even noticing. I may be fearful that I will be told that I am responsible for a bill that I cannot pay, and so I do not call the insurance company. A patient may be fearful of the doctor’s response to how they have maintained their health at home, so they do not come in. Others may have seen or heard about frightening side effects of the medications that they are prescribed so they do not take them. Is this a personality flaw? No, it’s human nature functioning exactly as it’s supposed to.
We run into problems when our avoidance of what we fear has more dire consequences than the action that we fear taking. If I speak with an insurance company, inform them that I cannot pay, and am placed on a monthly payment plan or am referred to a patient assistance program, my needs and the insurance company’s needs are addressed. If I avoid the phone call entirely, and my account is eventually referred to a collections agency, my credit may suffer, and I may not be able to get the home loan that I need to move out of an unsafe neighborhood. If I visit my doctor and inform them that I have had trouble sticking with the nutrition or medications they have prescribed for me at home, they are able to refer me to a nutritionist, a nurse educator, or a community support group. If I avoid coming to my appointments entirely, my condition might have worsened over time but not be addressed until I finally arrive to an appointment that is months overdue. I might end up hospitalized, or with irreversible damage to my body, which could have been avoided if it was caught earlier at my recommended check-up.
Oftentimes, we know instinctively what is at the heart of our inability to do something that we have been compelled to do. But when you find yourself bothered by reminders and requests to do something that you are avoiding, the most powerful tool that you have is asking ‘why?’ Continually asking, ‘but why?’ of yourself-- before asking it of others-- can unravel the tight coil of anxiety that keeps many of us on edge when it comes to our health and wellness. Fear loses its power when we drag it out into the light of day to see what it is really made of. Often, it is made of stories we have told ourselves, or have been told, that have no basis in reality. Asking yourself, ‘But why am I avoiding..’ until you have exhausted your own answers and arrived at an answer that involves someone else, such as a physician, pharmacist, or insurance company, is the best place to start. Once you arrive at a ‘but why..’ question with an answer like, ‘because the doctor told me to..’, it is time to discuss your avoidance with the doctor.
Open communication with any other person or entity that is involved in your fear is necessary for reclaiming your independence from fear, as well as your health. Medical providers may be overscheduled, but they have sworn an oath to care for you with your absolute best interest at heart. If an open discussion about your needs is met with hostility, you may need to find another provider who is right for you. I can tell you, though, as a nurse who has worked with literally hundreds of physicians in my career, I can think of perhaps one or two who were flatly uninterested in anyone’s input but their own. The rest were open, eager, and waiting for their patients’ input to design a plan that set them on the course to a longer, healthier life, with as little fear of the known or unknown as possible. You are deserving of your best health. When that seems out of reach, you can start by wondering if fear is the culprit. Take your fears seriously and keep asking ‘Why?’ You want to feel better, so why not?