This whole health and wellness thing stresses the hell out of me.
Here are the promises of the multi-billion dollar global wellness economy: you can get rid of stress. You can have great skin. You can be flexible and touch your hands behind your back in that extremely painful yoga pose. And, according to all the experts, all you need to do to say goodbye to stress is to change your life completely, adopt a series of time-consuming habits and give up the things that bring you happiness.
Human perfection is within anyone’s reach, as long as you are willing to pay for it in money, sweat, time and anguish.
The paradox is so obvious…. Industry gurus go on and on about the insidious biological effects of emotional stress, while promoting stressful lifestyles characterised by strict diets, exercise and meditation routines. “There is no easy shortcut to health,” many of them have told me, after offering me ten euros worth of green juices.
I know this because I have tried all the new fad methods. I have dabbled in sugar-free diets and reionisation treatments. As a health and wellness journalist, I have to admit that I’m only adding to the self-help hype. And I’m a pretty decent example of (more or less) healthy living in the 21st century: I make myself turkey sandwiches for lunch, drink water throughout the day, don’t smoke and go to therapy. I even go running two or three times a week.
And, despite my best efforts, I have come to realise that my body is incredibly toxic, perfect for tumours and horribly out of sync with the universe. I’m not making any of this up: wellness specialists assure me all the time. Which is very stressful.
An Ayurvedic healer once told me, during our brief meeting, that sausages cause cancer, and that I should stay away from gluten, dairy and alcohol if I want to live a long and happy life.
A colon doctor suggested that I stop running, as it will destroy my knees, as well as eating more omega-rich foods. Like salmon, for example. Then a spa attendant assured me that I should avoid eating salmon, unless I wanted to poison myself with all the mercury it contains.
A company owner with skin so freckled it glowed like the sun over the Himalayas told me that stress was the root of all my problems, so I should get rid of it as soon as possible with the help of a hydrocortisone reduction pill that had just come on the market. That, and maybe a couple of profound lifestyle changes.
I was right about stress being bad for your health. Hydrocortisone, a tough-as-nails hormone found in the adrenal glands, is usually the culprit, suppressing other bodily functions (e.g. digestion) and redirecting all your energy where it’s needed (escaping a bear attack). Although everyone secretes some hydrocortisone every day, too much can end up inflaming the kidneys, which in turn affects the immune system. Dr Shanna Levine, of Mount Sinai (New York), has observed stress-related illnesses in many of her patients: “Those with chronic excess hydrocortisone may have problems with their stomach or bones, as well as an alteration in their body physiology. High levels of hydrocortisone can be detrimental”. If things get really bad you could get, say, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome”: a stress-related disease that literally changes the shape of a human heart (in its most extreme cases).
A host of products and treatments in the wellness category aim to reduce stress and inflammation, promising everything from relaxing massage to acupuncture therapy to restrictive anti-inflammatory diets. However, it is all too easy to fall into fear-based marketing when you move into this arena. What happens when I can’t follow an anti-inflammatory diet? I once asked this question to an alternative medicine guru, to which she replied: “You have no choice. Hydrocortisone shot up my spinal cord like a geyser.
I thought about buying whatever I needed to feel more relaxed. It also occurred to me that I was less stressed before I started paying so much attention to my personal self-improvement. My labyrinth is this: I want to get rid of stress without getting too stressed in the process. For someone just entering their twenties, mental and physical health should not require steely rules and a list of forbidden food groups. It should be a period of introspection, of trial-and-error, of small screw-ups that allow you to get it right over time, if that’s what you want.
The welfare economy has the structure of an oligarchy. At the top of the pyramid we find the health czars, practitioners of rules that they themselves have written. Just below are everyone else, swallowing their advice and handing over their money. Being at the top is fabulous, but generally not so for the rest, who are condemned to be always on the verge of reaching their ideal state, which causes them great despair. It is not for nothing that the Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines well-being as “an actively pursued goal”. This means that it cannot be achieved in any permanent sense.
However, it’s not all bad news in the wellness universe. It was the advice of a health czar that encouraged me to try acupuncture, which I now love and which helps me deal with stress. My only advice is: experiment. Try everything (without bankrupting yourself) and then stick with what works for you. Don’t pay too much attention to the non-doctors and their “studies” about toxins. In fact, take any health or fitness advice with a grain of salt. Except if I’ve written it, in which case it’s foolproof.
Because the trick to reducing stress is to stop trying so hard to get it all together.