Are You Part of the "Worried Well?"

Do you make mountains out of medical molehills? Get five expert tips to put your health anxiety in perspective.

Worried Well

Do you worry about your health? Would you say you’re pretty healthy?

That’s how neurologist and author Robert Burton, M.D., began our conversation about the “worried well”—people who are basically healthy but worry that they’re not doing everything they should be to stay well.

(I answered yes to both questions.) 

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I’m not alone. “The worried well is most of us,” says Burton. “It’s a normal state.” An educated, health-concerned and well-read bunch, the worried well often misinterpret normal symptoms as signs of larger problems.

Take depression, for example.

You’re watching TV when a depression commercial comes on asking if you experience sadness, lack of interest, trouble concentrating. (Oh, you do? You and everyone else.) With such a generic symptom list, the worried well may wonder if their daily ups and downs are signs of a mental health problem—which most likely isn’t the case. 

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Carol Greenwood, Ph.D., a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, works with older populations and finds many of the worried well among them. “They’re really concerned that any sign or symptom might suggest that they’re moving into an age-related disorder,” she says. Memory loss is one of the biggest triggers for this type of anxiety, where ordinary forgetfulness might be interpreted as an early sign of dementia.

“The worried well often over-interpret the ordinary,” says Burton. Whether an irregular heartbeat or a forgotten appointment gives you a rush of anxiety, both are just par for the course. No second opinions or witty last words needed. 

YouBeauty Wellness Advisor Beth Ricanati, M.D., aims to help the worried well breathe easier. She encourages patients to focus on the big picture instead of beating themselves up about the details. “When we lose the big picture, we try to micromanage our health,” says Ricanati. “Is it really the blueberries that are so good or is it that they’re part of a bigger, well-balanced diet? It’s about the way these different substances interact together.” 

When we’re bombarded with questionably reliable headlines like, “The Blueberry Drink That Can Shrink Tumors,” or “The Secret to Eternal Youth? Try a Tomato,” it’s easy to believe that we’re choosing between life and death every time we push our shopping carts past the produce aisle. 

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What the news sources rarely explain is that there are plenty of other ways to get the same nutrients. “We end up studying single foods in isolation because it’s the only way we can design a good experiment,” says Greenwood, noting that this often skews our perspective. “There’s no question that blueberries have a lot of antioxidants, but we ignore all the other fruits and vegetables that also do. A healthy diet is more than just a blueberry.” 

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