Staying healthy in Japan

Features Health - August 27th, 1982

by Elyse M. Rogers 

Taking health for granted

Although psychology and psychiatry have been an ac­cepted part of medical science for many years, there has recently been an emphasis on what one might call the “per­sonal mental attitude” towards health and disease. The holistic movement in medicine, which many of you are familiar with, has enjoyed much popular ac­ceptance in the U.S. The holis­tic medical approach maintains that the whole is more than simply a total of the parts.

In other words, when one is ill with an injured foot or a diseased organ, even though one must tend to the part, it is important to treat the whole individual too, because that “whole being” helps or hinders the health of each part. A positive attitude is considered extremely important, and the technique of focusing this posi­tive attitude is being used with cancer patients. You may have heard of this method that teaches the pa­tient to imagine his body com­bating his dis­ease.

For instance, he may learn lo envision round cancer cells floating in his body and then imagine his antibodies gobbling up or killing the “bad” cancer cells. Our grandparents called this idea “mind over matter,” and they used it frequently in day to day living. Naturally, any procedure has its limits, but it’s fascinating to read of some of the good results with this type of “psychological warfare” on illness.

That the mind influences the body is well known and ac­cepted. Lately there’s been a great deal of discussion about the “Type A personality”—the aggressive individual who is more prone to heart attacks and heart disease because of his personality and hard-hitting life-style. There’s also been research into the “cancer per­sonality,” with some interesting results. It appears that cancer tends to strike the type of indi­vidual who is angry and frus­trated. Everyone gets negative emotions on occasion, but the more cancer-prone individual is the one who feels hopeless about combating his continual frustrations.

I’ve heard this referred to as “swallowed rage” in medi­cal circles.

Even if you’re not into holistic medicine or are not a “Type A” individual, a com­mon-sense attitude towards health and illness can still be beneficial, according to some experts. We’re all familiar with the hypochondriac who is either ill or worrying that he soon will be. Most people avoid such individuals because it’s tiresome to hear a constant recital of aches and pains; in addition, most of us secretly wonder if such an individual really has unusual problems or merely magnifies those every­day discomforts that we all experience.

I don’t mean to imply that the hypochondriac deliberately feigns illness—he honestly be­lieves his problems are real. For some reason he has not learned to handle either health or illness in a normal manner.

At the opposite end of the scale from the hypochondriac is the “man of steel” personal­ity. (Or “woman of steel”—it fits both sexes.) He disregards illness, insisting that he can beat any physical problem be­cause he is above personal dis­comfort. He does things that no one with any common sense would do. Sometimes his actions turn out okay; some­times they are disastrous.

Like my friend who, with a history of two heart attacks, insisted on going out alone in his sailboat in gusty weather on a large Michigan lake. His body was recovered the next morning.

Most people are interested in good health, but Americans seem to worship it. “If you have your health, you have everything,” is a popular say­ing. Obviously no one likes to be sick, but an over-anxious approach towards health can, I’m convinced, do more to prevent good health than enhance it.

One should do all the sensible things to promote his and his family’s health—eating prudently, exercising, and other good life-style measures (not smoking, moderate drinking, etc.). Beyond that, I think the best approach is to forget health and take it for granted. Health is, after all, one aspect of life, and a certain degree of positive nonchalance about life is prudent.

Ever watched how Japanese parents act when their child falls down? Instead of rushing over to the child, brushing him off and making a big thing of it, they usually smile and wait until the child picks himself up and comes back over to them. I’m not saying that this is always the best policy, but I do admire the overall attitute that implies, “little bumps and bruises are part of life and we shouldn’t worry about them.”

Developing a positive, mat­ter-of-fact attitude towards health is not difficult, although it may take some re-training for those who have grown up with over-anxious parents. Some possible suggestions:

  • Try to be objective about a pain or illness. Remember, over 90% of complaints that people see medical doctors find would cure themselves if left alone.
  • Realize that even a healthy body has twinges or “off days.”
  • Try to get your mind off a minor physical problem. Busy people tend to have less “time to get sick.”
  • Understand that there’s a limit to what a doctor can do for you if he doesn’t know what’s specifically wrong. And to find out what’s wrong he may have to schedule expen­sive and even dangerous tests prematurely.
  • Take medicine only when needed. Don’t be either a pill-popper or a never-take-a-pill person. There are times when medicine is indicated; other times be prudent in its use. More aspirin is consumed for headaches, when either a brisk walk or new hobby would be far more effective “medicine.”
  • Care for your body “all the time.” If you abuse your body it’s bound to catch up with you. Don’t wait for seri­ous illness before you start practicing proper rest, diet, and exercise.
  • When illness strikes you or your family, have the atti­tude that “it’ll be over soon.” Assume that you are healthy and will regain health quickly. (This is particularly important when children are sick. Children quickly sense and adopt the anxieties of their parents.)

The U.S. had a medical bill last year of $280 billion (U.S. dollars), and in Japan the Na­tional Health Insurance deficit is in the billions of dollars (U.S.) yearly. So a positive attitude towards health is not only good for your body but good for your yen or dollar account as well.