Does the mental aspect of our health, influence health outcomes? “Absolutely it does,” responded Alan Cassels, a pharmaceutical policy researcher at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Cassels was speaking with me about his new book, Seeking Sickness – Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease. The book questions whether these screening tests really can give us an accurate prediction of our susceptibility to, or development of a certain disease. More recently, he’s been in the news for raising concerns about a new polyp-screening process that is being launched throughout BC.
What Cassels’ research has found over the years is that though some tests can be helpful, many are not only expensive, but also inaccurate and not scientifically proven to tell us much at all, beyond averages and probabilities.
What they may do though is start us down an expensive drug therapy road that once on, is hard to get off, and may not benefit our health at all, or lead to the quality of life we want. This approach could even increase our fear and uncertainty about our health….
“The search for health risk factors, and whether we have a likelihood of developing a disease is really about how we want certainty,” adds Cassels. “We are in danger of persuading ourselves into believing that if we know of these problems in advance, we can maybe head disaster off.” We may think that this “seeking sickness” is a rational approach to our healthcare, but Cassels feels it is more emotional.
For example, in his book, Cassels shares his foray into one example of online self-screening for disease that is currently so popular. The subject he chose was adult ADHD. Cassels took the online test offered and was diagnosed with the likelihood he had the condition, as were his colleagues who also took the test. No one passed the test.
So how are we seeing ourselves, if even a simple computer test can fool us into thinking we may have a mental or physical problem?
We all care about our health, and the health of our loved ones, and Cassels recognizes that, but suggests that a more rational approach to our health could begin with having confidence to calmly ask a question or two before taking tests. For example,
1. Is this a screening test recommended by a quality independent body?
2. Who is pushing this test, and why?
These are great questions, and I would add some of my own:
Am I just a passive passenger or an active participant in my health? If the latter, what do I need to know to ensure a sound decision here?
Am I aware of the role my thinking plays in my health? If so, what if instead of looking for and worrying about disease, I begin to check the thoughts I know are unhealthy.
In both cases, the process begins by understanding what is influencing one’s thinking. In my case, it also involves checking the thinking itself to notice and put a stop to morbid fears of disease and to allow a more rational and inspired view to form decisions. We need a clear idea of what health is to us, and what kind of care we want when deciding about any medical tests that are recommended. And we need a basis for making and weighing our decisions, as well as a way of having control over those decisions.
In our conversation, I asked Cassels whether he thought that a spiritual approach to improving our health had merit. Although admitting he did not know much about these modalities, he did point out the many promising studies on the benefits of meditation as a spiritual action that improves health, especially in the areas of pain management and stress-related problems.
So, how does the spiritual meet the emotional and the rational in health choices?
I used to worry quite a bit about my health – always feeling concerned that something was not right. At that time, I think I would have been an ideal candidate for early screening for disease and I suspect they would have found something more for me to worry about. Studies increasingly show that our bodies are not separate from our thinking. Emotions such as fear, hatred, anger, frustration or stress have a negative influence on our health, while gratitude, joy and love produce healthier outcomes.
The nexus of the spiritual, emotional and rational coalesced for me when I realized that I could not deal with these emotions without a regular spiritual practice that helped me to overcome feelings I knew were destructive to my health. Some people find meditation or yoga is helpful to calm thought, others find rituals and counseling work. But for me, returning to the roots of quiet Christian prayer not only calmed my thought but reduced fear.
I discovered that during those quiet moments of prayer there was an opportunity to see myself in a different – more spiritual – light, which eventually dissolved worries about my wellbeing. I felt less alone and more connected to my divine source. This helped me make more rational decisions about my health. Both my confidence and health improved.
In this age of multiple health technologies and campaigns designed to sell them it’s hard to make good decisions about our health. So finding a calm, rational way to consider tests, diagnoses, procedures and drugs is crucial in this process.