Is wellness culture is fuelling a health anxiety crisis?

Hypochondria has been around for centuries, but the growth of the wellness industry may be making us Extremely worried

Cecily*, 27, has always struggled with “debilitating” OCD. “It will make me feel like I constantly need reassurance that I’m not going to die,” she says. While Cecily has struggled with these feelings since she was diagnosed with a chronic illness at age 15, she feels that society’s growing obsession with “wellness” has exacerbated her existing anxieties. In particular, at one point she became obsessed with tracking all the health data available on her Apple Watch. “I was constantly monitoring my heart rate,” she recalls, explaining how she once went to the ER after her heart rate skyrocketed due to anxiety. “In the end they said he was completely fine, just very anxious.”

From Cicero to Lord Byron and Charles Darwin, people have always cared about their health. In A body made of glass: a story of hypochondria, author Caroline Crampton delves into the cultural history of health anxiety (or “hypochondria,” her preferred term), a mental condition characterized by the persistent and often unjustified fear of having a serious illness. “This condition has come a long way over the last 2,500 years,” he tells Dazed, explaining that doctors such as Hippocrates used the term ‘hypochondria’ to refer to conditions thought to arise from an area of ​​the abdomen known as ‘hypochondria’. ‘. hypochondrium’, until the scientific advances of the 17th and 18th centuries began to supplant the dominance of the humoral theory. “By the early 19th century, hypochondria had become entirely a condition of the mind, rather than the body,” Crampton continues. “That feeling that this is a mental illness persists today.”

While hypochondria is not a “new” condition, as Crampton also points out, the rise of wellness culture has likely made hypochondria more prevalent. Notably, a 2020 study found that the proportion of students at an American university who reported feelings of health anxiety increased “exponentially” from 8.67 percent in 1985 to 15.22 percent in 2017. “Wellness culture encourages people to view their health as a perpetual work in progress and to constantly monitor how they feel, two things that can increase anxiety and concern about the disease,” he said. Explain. “Instead of being able to appreciate the health and abilities we have, we are encouraged to always strive for more, to constantly modify and improve ourselves.”

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This agrees with Helena, 23 years old. Like Cecily, she also has OCD and in particular struggles with obsessive thoughts about her health. “I’ve always been predisposed to feeling anxious about my body health,” she says. But she adds that consuming wellness content on social media has made her anxiety worse. “I felt like I was helping myself, but really all I was doing was investing more money in the wellness industry and wasting time online instead of doing things that actually made me feel good.”

Generally speaking, wellness encourages prioritizing our health, which sounds good in theory. But as the industry continues to boom, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this obsession with looking “good” could actually be causing serious concern. We are encouraged to constantly monitor ourselves, with new technologies allowing us to track how many steps we take, how many calories we burn, how many hours we sleep, and how fast our heart beats. At the same time, the definition of “good health” is changing. Today, good health is no longer simply about “not being sick”: but, largely thanks to the spread of wellness, health is today considered an ongoing project that must be continually worked on.

“YO I see many parallels between the supplements, diets and regimens being pushed now with the quackery of the past” – Caroline Crampton

“At one point, I was taking a handful of supplements every morning, listening to all these nutrition podcasts, and watching tons of ‘what I eat in a day’ videos from personal trainers who were also models,” Helena recalls, explaining that she “would hit [herself] “she became more anxious” if she didn’t follow the strict routines or diets she saw promoted by wellness influencers, and as a result, she “just became more anxious.” “It was a vicious cycle,” she says. “I think the wellness industry sells you a magic cure that only makes you sicker.”

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It is not unreasonable to worry about our health, especially as NHS funding cuts in the UK mean the state healthcare system is not as reliable or robust as it should be. But it’s fair to point out that the wellness industry is increasingly hell-bent on creating consumer anxieties in order to sell us snake oil-style “solutions.” “One doctor I interviewed described a lot of wellness information and remedies as ‘1750s medicine,’ and I see a lot of parallels between the supplements, diets, and regimens being pushed now with the quack medicine of the past,” Crampton says.

It’s also worth noting that many of the products and services hit by the wellness industry are only accessible to the wealthy due to their high prices. We have reached a stage where private clinics charge £400 for “a comprehensive general wellbeing profile”; companies like ZOE and Lingo are shilling continuous glucose monitors to non-diabetics; and on a recent episode of The Kardashians, family matriarch Kris underwent a ‘preventive’ full-body MRI to screen for potential health problems. a procedure that cost approximately $2,499. “There are definitely companies today with business models based on the health anxieties of people with abundant disposable income,” says Crampton, noting that this chimes with the historical view that hypochondria was predominantly a disease reserved for the rich.

“The type of ailments you suffered marked you as a member of a particular class as clearly as the type of clothing you wore,” Crampton writes in A body made of glass. “Conditions that came from within, such as hypochondria and nervous diseases, were associated with refinement, imagination and intellectual activity.” But although there has long been a link between social class and hypochondria, she emphasizes that the condition does not discriminate. “Recent research In fact, it has been suggested that lower socioeconomic status is associated with a higher risk of health anxiety, with the idea that lack of regular access to good health care options and health education contributes to higher levels of uncertainty and anxiety,” he says.

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Crampton, who also suffers from hypochondria, emphasizes that there is accessible treatment for hypochondriacs and that there are steps people can take to avoid falling into a spiral. “Personally, I know I have to be very careful about the accounts and posts I follow, because if I watch too much wellness content I’m prone to falling into anxious thinking patterns that I’ve worked really hard to get away from,” he says. . “Simply having so much health information available, much of it not evidence-based, can focus our minds on aspects of our body that we otherwise wouldn’t think about very often.”

Cecily also says she has reevaluated her relationship with the more extreme side of wellness. “Now I know what my limits are,” she says, adding that she has stopped using her Apple Watch. Similarly, Helena is trying to put less pressure on herself and has stopped trying to “optimize” her life for the sake of it. “I’m trying to come to see wellness as something different, a kind of satisfaction with my life on my own terms. […] something that requires lying down and going out at night and bowls of ice cream instead of, or in addition to, gym sessions and eating a healthy diet, because these are also things that make me feel good, grounded and content,” says. “Why can we really call it ‘wellness’ if it makes so many of us feel so fundamentally bad?”

*Name has been changed

A Body Made of Glass: A History of Hypochondria is available here.

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