Can we be scared into being healthier?

Can we be scared into being healthier?

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Ever since the first ‘dietary intervention’ in the Garden of Eden, even the threat of death has not proven to be an effective motivator to making healthy choices.


PETALUMA, Calif.April 27, 2015 – Anyone over 40 likely remembers the TV ad.

A man standing next to a kitchen stove picks up an egg.

“This is your brain,” he says. “This is drugs,” he continues, pointing to the piping hot skillet in front of him.

Then, after cracking the egg into the skillet, he says, “This is your brain on drugs.”

The message couldn’t have been clearer. But was it effective? Yes. And no. Although drug use among adolescents in the U.S. dropped from 3.2 million to 1.3 million between 1985 and 1992 (this particular ad began running in 1987), just a year later the number went back up to 2.1 million.

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Although the jury is still out as to whether such scare tactics provide any lasting benefit – not just in terms of drug use, but also for other health-related choices we make – the scales appear to be tilting in favor of an approach that involves fewer sticks and more carrots.

“Fear is not a sustainable motivator in any arena, whether it’s politics, or whether it’s medicine or whether it’s behavioral change,” says Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the California-based Preventative Medicine Research Institute (PMRI). “People don’t like to think about scary things for very long.”

What does seem to work for the patients Ornish treats is the satisfaction that comes from seeing immediate and measurable results from even slight changes to their behavior, whether it’s what they’re eating, the amount of exercise they’re getting or the attitudes they choose to entertain about themselves and others.

When a patient came to him complaining of severe chest pains, Ornish recommended that, in addition to the medication he’d already taken, he adopt a more compassionate view of the individual who apparently said something that caused this reaction.

“When you’re compassionate, when you’re forgiving, it doesn’t condone or excuse what the other person’s done, but it frees you from the suffering that goes along with that,“ said Ornish. “Most people find that they feel so much better so quickly that it reframes the reason for making those changes from the fear of dying, which is not sustainable, to the joy of living, which is.”

In somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, Ornish traces this approach back to what he calls “the first dietary intervention,” when God’s threat of death to anyone who ate from the fruit of the trees of the garden of Eden obviously fell on deaf ears.

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This is not to say we shouldn’t exercise wisdom in the choices we make. Ultimately, however, the best way to avoid the bad is to follow our natural inclination to be and to do good, particularly when it comes to our thoughts.

This may require first adopting a revised view of the Divine – not as a capricious, even vindictive “man in the clouds” threatening his own creation but, as Mary Baker Eddy often describes it, as a reliably kind and compassionate “divine Principle” or “Mind” urging us all, by example, to be just as kind and compassionate.

“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;” we’re told in the New Testament, “but that the world through him might be saved.”

This bit of assurance has many applications, not the least of which is a better understanding of the ever-present source, support and protection of those choices that serve to make us happier and healthier – without a threat of any kind.

Eric Nelson writes each week on the link between consciousness and health from his perspective as a practitioner of Christian Science. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Read similar columns on his website and follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.

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