We all know that the list of things that can give us cancer, make us sad and cause every medical symptom you can think of is growing all the time. And sometimes it’s just not possible or healthy to worry about all of it. In fact, sometimes the healthiest thing to do is try to give less of a F**k.
I heard this line on HBO’s Girls which really resonated with me. Recently in Bali a friend asked me what I do about water for our house, what filtration system, if we sourced mineral dense or alkaline water etc. My answer was that we didn’t, we just got a normal water cooler with big (shock!) plastic refillable containers because I had just ‘let that one go.’
This was pretty shocking to her considering I am a specialist in integrative & mind body medicine and understand the importance more than most of drinking good quality water and the hormone affecting properties of xenoestogens from plastic.
When I lived full time in Canada I only drank high mineral alkaline water and refusd to drink tap water because who KNOWS what’s in those pipes! But living part of the year in Bali has taught me the beauty of letting things go. Are those strawberries I buy at my local Balinese market REALLY organic? Should I be running on a treadmill to make up for the fact that I barely jog faster than a snail on the beach because it’s so hot in Bali?
The Effect Of Worry On My Patients
A decade ago, the majority of chronic disease patients in the family medicine clinic were in their 50’s and 60’s and suffering from illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. In the past 10 years this has changed dramatically: now a very large percentage of my patients with chronic health issues are in their 20’s and 30’s and are suffering from a host of stress related diseases such as chronic insomnia, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, depression,and heart palpitations.
Most of the time these patients have had a full work up with blood tests and investigations that cannot find ‘anything wrong,’ yet these people are suffering and are feeling anything but ok.
These patients often spend a fortune on supplements, organic foods and cosmetic products because they are sure their symptoms are connected to the toxic urban environment. Although this may not be far from the truth, the bigger unaddressed issue is the direct connection between these symptoms and high base-line stress levels that most people now consider ‘just normal.’
There seems to be so much more in life to worry about than even a decade ago. If you admit you feel overwhelmed, you risk feeling judged or being criticized for being weak, unsuccessful or lacking in some way.
When I started to practice the art of ‘giving less of a f*ck,’ this was a fear I had to confront about how other people would take it: would they be offended, would they approve?
Giving Less of a F**k is Good for Your Brain
So why is letting ‘stuff go’ good for our brains? It all has to do with how we are able to do something called mental time travel to plan for the future and pass on our genes.
The Problem with Mental Time Travel: Worrying
Humans are capable of ‘mental time travel’ meaning using our imagination to think about the past, anticipate possible futures (and threats!) and plan for them. This is an amazing evolutionary skill that makes us great problem solvers. Besides humans, only crows, parrots and apes and possibly the veined octopus have this ability. Because we are planners and thinking about future possible threats, deadlines etc, we also have developed the capacity to worry.
When we worry, specific brain areas and neural networks light up in the left frontal lobe and increased amygdala activation is seen when we have a negative emotional response to something. In people who suffer with anxiety, a recent study showed that they had more grey matter (i.e. more brain mass) in the amygdala (centre for fear and emotional memory) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) related to chronic worrying.
We are wired to worry about the past (to learn from it) and the future (so we can plan). Worry has been adaptive for us as cavemen and can still be adaptive in corporate culture because it leads to conscientiousness in our work: anticipating clients needs, the next project etc. But it can also lead to overwhelm, feeling ‘burned out’ and not being able to shut off our minds so we can rest and sleep effectively.
How I Give less of a F**k
I have found that the more things I can just ‘let go’ of the less trouble I have with worry caused by mental time travel. The stress from worrying about every potential health concern wasn’t worth the potential benefits.
I still do my weekly shopping at the organic farmers market but I always run out of something midweek and have to buy non organic at the local corner. I used to avoid the sun like a vampire if I didn’t remember to apply my highest UVA SPF sunscreen/moisturizer. I used to obsessively exercise and run 10 km a day no matter what because I was afraid of getting fat.
I have started to verbalize my ‘give less of a f’**k” mantra to help remind me of when my desire to control my surroundings is getting out of hand. I even have a few extra sunspots and pounds to prove that so far it’s going well.
So if you find that the number of things that you are supposed to care about is outstripping your capacity for living a stress free life, sometimes the healthiest and happiest thing to do is to try to give less of f**k and enjoy the view.