I Call Bullsh*t: Fear Mongering and Pushing Perfectionism in Health Articles

I’ve spent a long time being a voracious consumer of health research. My interest began after my Celiac diagnosis and continued unabated for years. I (metaphorically, and with pun intended) gobbled up anything I could find on nutrition, disease prevention, and healthy living. But, as I found recently, the more I read, the more I became…scared sh*tless.

I didn’t even realize it until my health-panic reached critical mass a few weeks ago — but prior to this epiphany, I’ve spent untold amounts of time vigilantly avoiding everything that I’d read was harming me: canned food, tap water, non-stick pans, plastics, household cleaners (hence the article I wrote about it last spring/summer, when I realized that a lot of products are seriously no bueno), grilled meat, non-organic foods…the list goes on.

While all those habits are definitely good, I didn’t realize until recently that they’ve fed into a growing reservoir of “holy crap you guys everything is poison and I’m going to die an early and painful death because THE ENTIRE WORLD IS MADE OF TOXINS AND DOOM.”

 

DoomThen, a few weeks ago, the reservoir breached its banks. I was reading yet another article about the horrors of drinking water, even though this is a generally venerable habit: tap water is horrible for you, and bottled water is apparently no better. The proposed solution is to buy some sort of reverse osmosis uber-filter and install it in your sink, but since we live in a rented apartment and can’t exactly take apart the plumbing without getting into a heap o’ trouble with the property management office, the alleged “only solution” isn’t viable for non-homeowners like us.

Cue the panic: “Omigod. The bottled water is toxic. The tap water is toxic. I can’t install the filters they say will keep the water from being toxic. I DRINK A LOT OF WATER AND IT’S ALL TOXIC AND IS GOING TO KILL ME OMIGOD.”

Then, a few seconds later, just as I was about to weep and curl up in fetal position beneath my desk, I had another thought: “I do the best I can with the resources I have and the circumstances I’m in. Why do I feel so scared that I’m not doing enough? Why do I feel that despite all my effort, I’m totally doomed?”

A few more seconds later: “Wait a minute. This is bullshit.”

EpiphanyThen I took a brief tour through some of the articles I’d read in recent months, and you know what? According to pretty much everything I read, THE WORLD IS MADE OF TOXINS AND EVERYTHING IS GOING TO KILL YOU.

Here’s a small recap of all the things that are going to lead to you being sick, miserable, and probably dead: being tall, your bottled water, your tap water, your tea, your food, the air in your home, your air freshener, anything plastic, getting angry, taking vitamins, flying, insomnia, your antiperspirant, and, wait for it, pretty much everything you own.

Oh, and BTW: being stressed or anxious about the fact that everything is going to kill you is, in fact, also going to kill you. However, be forewarned that using modern medicine to treat your anxiety is going to kill you even more.

Now, I’m prone to freaking out about, well, everything — but these articles had the collective effect of making me nearly crap my pants in sheer panic. The fear-mongering, as I realized with my highly scientific (cough, cough — sarcasm — cough, cough) meta-analysis, actually looks pretty epic. “Scary,” “could kill you,” and “is killing you” are some of the most common themes that cropped up, over and over and over.

Now, there’s a definite difference between actual scientific studies saying that X (for example, height) is correlated with Y (in the case above, cancer) and the outright fear-mongering pieces that tell you to be afraid, very afraid, of everything. But even in those legitimate study results, I realized that no one ever brings up the fact that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Just because two things are linked, it doesn’t mean that one causes the other. But no one ever says that when writing about studies linking X and Y, which then leads the reader to draw the conclusion that X actually causes Y. And let’s be honest: these studies usually correlate everyday things, like your height, with really scary, life-altering/ending sh*t like cancer. Which is terrifying.

Brandon — AKA The Rational One — has occasionally called me on my panic-induced BS, noting that our water is fluoridated (ergo, my fit of freak-out, which happened after I read some terrifying article about the dangers of fluoride in toothpaste, was really just an exercise in futility), and that the whole antiperspirant-breast cancer link has been resoundingly debunked. (Which is good, because my brief foray into all-natural deodorant sans antiperspirant led to me schvitzing right through my sweaters, thus yielding sweat stains the size of watermelons. I despised it.)

Deodorant without antiperspirantI also noticed that along with these prophecies of doom, there are ample recommendations on what you can do to prevent horrible health outcomes from befalling you. What’s the best way to prevent being killed by everything you own, touch, or ingest?

According to all the health literature I’ve read over the years, it’s simple: adopt this easy 80-step, time-sucking process to propel yourself into vibrant health!

  • Spend 20 minutes per day doing oil pulling. And no, it doesn’t matter if you usually barely have 2 minutes to spend brushing your teeth.
  • Make your own toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, lotion, and all personal care products, only using fresh spring water that you retrieved yourself and carried on your head in a fair-trade, non-GMO, certified organic clay jug.
  • Similarly, craft your own non-toxic stone ware out of fresh clay that was found in a sacred clay deposit after the rainy season in Sedona.
  • Cut gluten, dairy, meat, vegetables, sugar, fruit, grains, and beans out of your diet, because they’re all toxic. Subsisting on air is the way of the righteous.
  • If you do choose to consume food (because you don’t love Mother Earth), don’t buy almond or coconut milks from the store — they have carrageenan, which will kill you! Instead, make your own from scratch. Please note, though, that it must be infused with unicorn saliva, or else it will be unhealthy and still likely to kill you.
  • You must cook solely from scratch, using only organic produce that you foraged from your local forest/city park/vaguely terrifying remote wilderness populated only by militiamen and aspiring Unabombers/whatever.
  • Get at least one hour of exercise per day. And, as one of my track coaches used to say, if you’re not on the brink of barfing or passing out, you’re not working hard enough.
  • Meditate whenever you’re not actively oil pulling, foraging, exercising, cooking, making toothpaste using your artisanal mortar and pestle, or hunting down unicorn saliva.
  • Never allow yourself to experience stress. Always be filled with serenity, gratitude, happiness, and positivity. Horrific tragedy is no match for the power of positive thinking!!!1!
  • Make every effort to be the perfect parent. Not doing so will irrevocably screw up your kids for the rest of their lives. Having screwed up kids will stress you out, which will kill you.
  • Sleep at least 8-9 hours per night.

 

Unicorn SalivaBasically, it comes down to this: 1) at the end of the day, most people are just doing the best they can with what they have, and 2) scaring everyone into doing 80 kajillion more things to keep our lives from killing us probably isn’t going to help.

Yeah, I get that “scary” and “this everyday thing could kill you” make great click-bait – it appears that in the health world, fear seems to sell far more than sex ever could – but after my “this is bullsh*t” epiphany, I’ve become acutely aware, and exceedingly tired, of fear-mongering headlines and articles.

But look: we can’t all take the time to make a bajillion DIY products, 8-9 hours of sleep is sometimes outright impossible (shout-out to all those with newborns or, hey, any children under age 12), and there are plenty of times when people really do need anti-anxiety/depression medication. Ain’t no shame in any of it, folks. You play the cards you’re dealt.

So, in calling bullsh*t on a lot of the aforementioned fear mongering in a lot of health literature, I’ve decided that I’ll continue doing the best I can with what I have. Buying mostly organic, using glass food storage, and using non-toxic household products and cosmetics wherever possible? I’m on it.

However, I’ve decided to quit freaking out about drinking the bottled water at work (plastic bottles > lead pipes), the occasional serving of canned soup, my store-bought shampoo and body wash (Pantene and Dove 4-EVAH, yo), the absolutely necessary antiperspirant, my beloved almond milk, and the fact that it saps all my personal willpower and discipline just to make myself floss regularly. (To my dentist: Sorry, dude. But it really is onerous.)

After all, trying to add oil pulling, detoxing, and DIY almond milk-making to my schedule would make me totally lose it.

And that would probably kill me.

Homesick

One of the things that really sucks about having a career-driven life is having to live in DC. There are a lot of genuinely awesome people here, and there are also genuinely awesome people who like it here (DC isn’t inhabited entirely by Congressional reps who’ve taken leave of their senses, I promise!) – but sweet fancy Moses, I’m not one of them.

Long before this summer and its health crises (and the attendant fear, sadness, and general misery), I was seriously homesick. I miss the mountains, the sunsets, and the 300 days of sunshine per year. I even miss the smell of Colorado. But most of all, I miss the people. I miss my parents, our extended family, the family friends who’ve known me since I was 3 feet tall, and old friends from when I was growing up. Colorado is where my soul feels centered, safe, and happy.

After things got rough, though, I became acutely, painfully homesick. A few weeks ago when I was on the Metro, I saw a woman carrying a bag from the exact yoga studio in Denver where I used to sweat out my grad school stress with one of my closest friends. I nearly burst into tears, so I distracted myself for a bit (there was another passenger with truly fabulous shoes, so I focused on those for a few minutes). I started to feel better, only to look up again and see a bag, no more than a few inches from my face, with a big COLORADO written on it. At that point, it took everything in me not to weep openly on public transportation.

 

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That’s right friends: I nearly had an ugly cry of Kim Kardashian proportions.

 

A similar moment happened the next day, when I was reading my hometown newspaper online and saw an ad for the library system there. Now, I looooooove the library and spent the better part of my youth at the branch near our house.  That place holds more fond memories than I can even count. In a fit of nostalgia, I went to their website and poked around a bit. Lo and behold, I found the activity calendar for the branch where I grew up – and as it turns out, they have tons of awesome free classes: Reiki 101, how to grow a vegetable garden in your back yard…the list goes on.

At that point I nearly cried again, so I decided to see what sorts of classes/talks are available at the Arlington public library. I was hopeful! I was optimistic! Maybe there’d be similarly cool offerings here!

Well. Let’s just say I live in a place where people have a different set of interests than those of people back home. Here in DC, the library offers Mandarin conversation groups, nanny groups, and stock trading talks. To put it mildly, I’d much rather learn about Reiki and gardening than Mandarin grammar and stock trading.

That’s when it really sunk in: there are so, so many ways in which I don’t fit in here. I’d known this on an intellectual level for quite some time – after all, I spent years going along with the whole “shut down your emotions, be super ambitious, learn to be a bureaucrat, and only wear gray or black pant suits” motif, only to realize that I’m creative, emotive, and independent, and that I absolutely hate pant suits – but suddenly, the fact that I don’t fit DC’s demographic hit me on a whole new level.

It’s funny: when I was younger, I wanted nothing more than stability and permanence in one location. We moved across the country when I was 16, and then my parents moved to the Midwest just after I’d started college – so I started my adult years with a profound sense of dislocation. (They wound up moving back to Colorado when I was 24, which was also when I returned to Colorado for grad school.)

When I was in my 20’s, I figured that the solution to that sense of dislocation was to find a job, settle down, and stay in one place. I figured I could bloom wherever I was planted, provided that I stayed long enough to put down roots.

As it turns out, though, spending a long time in one place isn’t enough for me. I’ve been in DC for almost five years – this is the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I was 16 – and yet the more time passes, it the less it feels like home. And, when things got incredibly stressful and scary over the summer and early fall, I found that I need that sense of being at home more and more.

I miss the mountains.... the feeling of something bigger than me.  My silent guardians.  >Sigh<  #homesick.

It’s kind of an odd lesson to learn amidst everything else that’s going on: that what I really need in order to feel at home is, in fact, completely different from what I always thought. I can’t just make a place my home – being there for a long time just doesn’t work, nor does my trying with all my might.

We’ll hopefully be able to visit Colorado sometime in early 2014, and there’s a good chance that I’ll be tempted to 1) kiss the ground when we arrive, even if it’s the icky airport floor, and 2) chain myself to a tree in my parents’ backyard to keep from having to leave. (Moi? Exaggerate? Mais non!) I’m sure everyone will totally appreciate both of those things.

For now, though, I have a small piece of home sitting on my dresser: some rocks that my parents picked up and my mom brought out for me when she visited earlier this month. By way of explanation, since I was a baby, I’ve been fascinated by rocks. Growing up in Colorado, where there were rocks all over the place, I amassed an impressive collection.

Like most childhood things, though, my rock collection has long since disappeared. However! My parents, knowing how homesick I’ve been, decided that I needed a piece of home to keep with me. While they were out hiking along one of our favorite trails, they picked up pieces of quartz and pink granite – the main things you see in Colorado Springs – and sent them along to their displaced daughter.

 

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So, while I can’t go home anytime soon, I at least have a small piece of Colorado that I can look at each morning. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s better than nothing.

And, with that, let it be known: someone needs to invent a teleportation device ASAP. If any of y’all happen to have jobs in science and technology, please get on that project. 🙂

If you don’t live in or near the place you call home, do you ever get homesick?

If so, how do you deal with it when homesickness strikes? (I’m open to suggestions!)