October 7, 2020 by Mark Hammerstrom
“Bridge of Spies”—part of the great body of work of actor Tom Hanks– is a fine film, in my opinion. Hanks plays James Donovan, an attorney who takes on the highly unpopular defense of a Russian spy, Rudolf Able. The consequences of his capture are significant, and could include the death penalty if convicted of espionage. At several key moments in the movie Donovan asks Able “Don’t you ever worry?’ to which Able replies “Would it help?”
Able’s own rhetorical question never gets an answer, but a point well taken.
Yet, whether or not it helps, we all worry. I don’t know about you, but I worry about big things; I worry about small things. Sometimes the worry is rational (when someone is ill or injured) and sometimes not (that asteroid came how close to earth???).
For the most part, my worries are truly minor and the blessings in my life far outweigh the truly impactful challenges. As a consequence, I have taken to referring to myself as a ‘lousy prophet’; that is, the dire predictions of even my worst worries rarely if ever come true. My wife kids me that if I did not have something to worry about I would worry about not having something to worry about.
This was a new one to me, though. There is now a term for those of us who are perfectly healthy but excessively worry about our health. We may frequently visit the doctor, even though there is nothing wrong. This phenomenon is called being one of the ‘worried well;’ or, more gently, suffering from ‘health anxiety’.
One of the culprits is the rise in the use of on line health resources. While they can be a wonderful resource, in many cases they can have the unintended consequence of incorrect and anxiety producing self-diagnosis. As a result, we can often leap to the direst causes for even the most minor aches and pains.
How prevalent are the ‘worried well’? According to an article by Jane Collingwood posted on PsychCentral (“Tackling the Fears of the ‘Worried Well”) perhaps as many as one in four of all doctor’s visits are by someone reporting symptoms but no corresponding disease or cause is found.
In fact, for those in the medical profession, you are likely very aware there is even a billable ICD diagnosis code for this condition. For the already strained health care system, there are costs to treating the ‘worried well’ too. Unnecessary office visits and tests to reassure the patient that there is nothing wrong can add up for both for the patient and for the healthcare professional in unnecessary and unneeded appointments. For employers, lost employee time and productivity due to unnecessary absences can cause strain not only on the employee involved, but also the entire work place.
There appears to be no straightforward answer to what to do with someone who is among the ‘worried well.’ There are many tools and suggestions for overcoming anxiety and worry, which can keep life and health in perspective. Sometimes professional help is the best answer to break the cycle of unnecessary worry about our health. Yet, discouraging visits to a healthcare professional are not advisable either. We know our bodies and if we feel something is wrong, a visit is always in order.
Of course worry, whether or not about health or life in general, can have consequences that can impact our ability to enjoy life and truly appreciate the abundance of blessings we have all been given. Finding the ability to give thanks for all the blessings we have been given, and do enjoy in life, can also be helpful in offsetting our daily worries.
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