I inherited motion sickness from my father’s side of the family. I can’t sit in the back seat of a car for more than 10 minutes without becoming sick. I take meclizine before every plane flight.
I inherited asthma from my mother’s side of the family. Exposure to perfume, 90+ degree temps with 90+% humidity, or even a good laugh will all prompt me to cough.
These two maladies of mine have one thing in common – multiple people over the years have informed me that they’re “all in my head.”
Among the advice I’ve received:
“You just need to distract yourself.”
“It’s all stress. You need to relax.”
“Yoga. Yoga will realign your energies.”
“You’re taking too much medication. Your body is reliant on it.”
Upon hearing these statements, I rapidly cycle through the following emotions: hurt, indignation, disappointment, anger. None of those emotions provide a good starting point for hearing this advice, which I have to admit is probably well-intended.
But, if I am honest with myself, I can’t pretend that I am not guilty of thinking some of the same things about my patients. I get frustrated that my overweight patients continue to choose unhealthy foods and avoid exercise. I bite my tongue when my patient with liver damage continues to drink alcohol. Maybe blaming others makes us feel better about ourselves, and it might even make us feel that we’re invulnerable to the disease under discussion; we’re making the “right” choices, after all, and that somehow makes us superior to the afflicted person. I am certainly guilty of those same thought processes.
When I catch myself thinking this way, I try to override these thoughts with the knowledge I gained through my studies in health behavior theory (HBT). The basic tenet of HBT is that each individual believes that the health choices he/she makes are rational and reasonable. These choices are usually based on 1) the priorities their environment imposes on them and 2) their beliefs about health. For example, if a person grows up in a poor neighborhood where most people are overweight and with limited access to healthy food, this person will likely deduce that being overweight and eating fast food everyday are normative conditions.
HBT teaches that blaming others for their health problems helps no one. Whether it’s motion sickness, asthma, mental illness, fibromyalgia, obesity, diabetes — most 21st century health conditions are due to some combination of genetics, environment, and personal choice. Health is a combination of personal responsibility along with the luck of the genetics and environment we’re born into.
Maybe if we could spend less time on blame and more time on supporting each other – and creating healthier environments – our good intentions might result in more than just hurt feelings.
-Jennifer Middleton is a family physician who blogs at The Singing Pen of Doctor Jen.