One of the challenges I face in growing older is discerning when to pay attention to hurts, twinges and discomforts that may or may not be signs of something serious. One reaction: To disregard all but the most persistent or painful problems. Another response—characterized as hypochondria—is to worry that each symptom is a warning sign of an underlying disease or malfunction.
I live squarely in the latter category. Whether inherited or not—I’m an oldest child and psychosomatic disorders plagued my mother and grandmother—this tendency to over-estimate the meaning of physical indicators is strong in me. Although I know this isn’t always helpful, over-reaction seems to be my default tendency.
How do you describe a hypochondriac? Perhaps as someone who worries when they don’t have a temperature? Someone who spends way too much time at WebMD? A person whose concerns about sickness occupy too many synaptic circuits? A semi-professional over-thinker? Someone who has forgotten about his assets and blessings? Whatever the description, this mindset is, for the most part, not helpful for the hyped-person or those around him.
I have always been healthy—perhaps even “young for your age” in some folks’ minds. On the other hand, I’ve worked through cancer, hip replacements and macular degeneration. I know both sides of the aches-and-pains questions. Discernment still comes hard for me, though.
It’s possible, at least in my case, that this leaning toward imagined ills comes from a stubborn streak of narcissism. That I forget the responsibility and privilege of caring about other people. That I know too much about medical matters. (In my case a little knowledge is probably a dangerous thing.) Or that my general tendencies toward anxiety overflow into matters of health and wellbeing. Perhaps that I’m just not trusting God’s providence enough.
The completely opposite attitude makes little sense, though. Avoiding doctors, ignoring established health guidelines (exercise, healthy eating, sleep) or thinking that physical problems will disappear magically—none of these is a good way to wend my way through these later years. either.
So what I keep trying to do is find the middle ground in this ongoing tension. I’m fortunate to be married to a woman whose wisdom in these matters is measured and insistent. She keeps me from focusing only on my physical symptoms, and always reminds me of the deeper truth that we both hold to: How you feel depends largely on how you think—your framing of the situation. She reminds me that activity is therapeutic, that worry poisons relationships and that I have more important things to do than constantly perseverate about my health.
Doctors and friends add to that sense of balanced wellbeing. They remind me that the best explanation (for a set of symptoms) is the simplest one. That healing takes time, that my imagination runs counter to medical wisdom, that prayer is healing. They listen but don’t pity. They ask good questions as a way of helping me remember and learn. And they always affirm the reality that my health is very good for a man of my years!
One small advantage of health vigilance: Catching possible problems early so that healing is more possible. I will still hold that matter close, at the same time being willing and able to just let go of the rest of it.
I hope that you are able to parse your aches and pains with wisdom, so that you can remain healthy into your later years.
I’ll try to do the same.
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