Who wants bad news? I sure don’t. What about you?
It’s only human nature to avoid bad news. So let’s start here: If you sometimes have the urge go into avoidance mode when it comes to your health, you’re in good company. That is, you’re right there with the rest of us.
Recently on National Public Radio, NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam discussed a recent study that showed that when a co-worker was diagnosed with breast cancer, other women who worked with her tended to avoid going for breast cancer screening, even when it was readily available and free of charge. Their avoidance was described with the term “information aversion” – that is, avoiding information because of the uncomfortable feelings it brings up.
And what about all those other conditions that healthcare experts tell us we should be getting screened for? Or those routine tests to monitor conditions that we have already been diagnosed with. Research has shown people avoid all kinds of routine testing.
As a result, our minds may tell us to avoid that discomfort but giving us little messages like, “you can do it later,” or “you know you’re fine. Why ask for trouble?”
So you’d rather now know? Of course. But “I’d rather not know” may not be the healthiest attitude. As they say, “ignorance is bliss.” Until it isn’t.
Look at it this way: Whether it’s a medical test that might – or might not – give you alarming news, when you have the facts, you are in a much better position to take care of yourself.
Simple enough. Or not so simple. Here’s what you can do to get past the avoidance trap:
Let’s face it. Uncertainty is part of life. In a perfect world, we would always know what the future will bring because we would be in absolute control of our own future. But life doesn’t work that way. The prospect of getting any kind of health-related information reminds us of how uncertain life is, and how much of life we don’t control. So how about accepting that uncertainty is part of life? When you stop fighting reality, then what you can control becomes a whole lot clearer.
It’s better to know than not know. This was the message of an advertising campaign I used to hear on the radio a few years ago. The goal was to encourage people to get tested for HIV. So what’s “better” about bad news? Yes, getting any kind of a medical test is a scary first step. But when you know what you’re up against, you can better evaluate the options.
Watch out for superstitious thinking. Superstitious thinking is based on the belief that by controlling your thoughts, you can also control reality. Superstitious thinking is pretty normal. Here are a couple of examples: “If I don’t know about it, it can’t happen.” Or, “if I look for trouble, it will find me. So I’m not going to look.” But not knowing doesn’t make it all go away. The result of superstitious thinking in avoidance of information. Including information that might be vital to your health.
Acknowledge the fear factor. Uncertainty brings up all kinds of fear. And humans are good at using avoidance to keep the fear away. But being afraid is normal. How about fighting the fear with facts?
Stop judging yourself. The human brain is wired to make judgments: this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. We also pass judgment on ourselves in the process. Results from a medical test that are not positive might bring up all kinds of self-accusations of what you should have done, what you could have avoided. Unfortunately, we may avoid medical tests because we don’t want to listen to that scolding and self-defeating inner voice that might flare up when we get the results. Instead, show yourself some compassion. You’re human like everybody else.
Watch your perspective. When it comes to test results, our minds tend to lean toward focusing on the worst possible outcome. That’s another example of superstitious thinking: “If I focus on the absolute the worst thing that can happen, I won’t be disappointed.” Don’t create a catastrophe to fill up that gap in your information.
Decide to face forward. And not stuck in the rearview mirror. Woulda-coulda-shoulda thinking is a waste of valuable time and energy that could be better used in deciding how to take the best possible care of yourself. Whether it’s your blood glucose levels or cancer screening, knowledge opens the door to exploring the options, and the solutions. What’s possible here? That’s called living life on life’s terms.
Focus on the benefit of knowing. If you are aware, you can also take steps to protect your health. Whether that means updating your self-care routine or getting treatment.
Tap into your support network. Talk about your fears with someone who can listen and give you some encouragement. Maybe you can even buddy up with someone and get tested or screened together.
And repeat to yourself: “Information is power.” Get the facts. Know your options. Protect your health.
If you’re interested in knowing more about information aversion, here’s a link to the interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/08/13/340005026/how-a-co-worker-s-breast-cancer-diagnosis-affects-colleagues