What have zebras got to do with medical issues, you may be rightfully wondering at this point. It seems like these are two things that operate in very separate spaces; one on the plains of Africa, the other in the deep and dark recesses of your mind. So what’s the link?
It all relates back to a phrase that medical students are taught during their training. For most medical students, they get into their field to be excited, to advance new medical studies, to immerse themselves in scientific breakthroughs. As a result, they are prone to taking a benign set of symptoms and seeing a bizarre, novel cause for them. It’s not through any negligence; but more a manifestation of their desire to be on the ground-breaking, cutting edge of science.
To try and temper this enthusiasm and bring them back down to earth, their professors will ask them to see symptoms as hoofbeats. To put the same problem to you: if you heard the rat-tat of hoofbeats around the corner and turned your head to see what was causing them – what would you expect to see? Horses – or zebra?
For medical students, learning to realize that 99.9% of the time it will be the more generic, realistic horses is a big part of their training. Sure, maybe one day there would be a zoo outbreak, and it would be zebras careening towards them – but the rest of the time, it’s horses.
It’s a point that is pertinent to laypeople as well as the doctors of the future. We all have a tendency to expect zebra when really we’re just dealing with common or garden horses. That’s not to minimize the impact those horses might have (there’s always a chance of being stampeded by wild horses, of course…), but it is to say: look for the most likely cause first.
It’s something we don’t keep in mind when we suffer a health problem. And it can make things a million times worse.
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There are no specific statistics on the number of people that stress kills every year, but if they were, we’d see it a prevalent serial killer. We know the numbers for those who die of stress-related illnesses, and they make grim reading.
If you are stressed, your immune system is lowered. Your neurological functioning is weaker. Your heart rate and blood pressure are negatively affected.
So let’s say you have a symptom that you’re concerned about. Something that seems threatening, perhaps pain near ribs or a shortness of breath. You have a vague understanding that these issues are Bad Things, while not being entirely sure of the exact cause.
The moment you notice these problems, you begin to stress about them. You’re expecting zebra, at this point. It’s far too easy – with help from the never-useful Dr. Google – to assume that there is something seriously wrong. You convince yourself that you’ve not just pulled a muscle or any of the other myriad of mild causes for your symptoms – you’re dying. Your mind jumps to the worst case scenario. And thus, your stress begins to creep up.
How This Makes Things Worse
There’s a very basic way this reaction can make things worse: it can interfere with tests. If you go to see a doctor with those symptoms, they will most likely run a basic blood pressure check. If you’ve been stressing, panic and anxiety eating away at you, then your blood pressure is likely to be high. Not necessarily because of the symptoms you’re experiencing, but because of your reaction to those symptoms. It becomes a false positive, potentially sending medical investigation down entirely the wrong route.
So How Do You Fight Back?
In truth, there is no easy way of dealing with this, no magic fix. Very few of us have active control over our stress response; it’s more something that happens to us rather than something we invite.
The best way to cope with it is to ask family and friends for their opinion. Do they think it’s a concern? They can answer it without the stress hormone cortisol interfering with their decision-making process. Furthermore, if an issue becomes truly invasive, then seek a medical opinion – don’t just sit on both the symptom and your stress about it in the hopes it will go away. The chances are in your favor; you’re almost certainly just hearing horses – but there’s no harm in making sure.
Tia, and TipsfromTia.com is trying to keep you looking good and
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