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Are we intuitive about our health? Hell no! On animals and the limits of self-care

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Russian wellness influencer Zhanna D’Art has allegedly died from taking her own advice: a “fully fruit-based-low-fat diet” probably caused malnutrition and infections that finally killed her. There have been many deaths by self-help like this over the years, but they are certainly out at the edges of the bell curve. For every tragic death by self-care, how many less extreme cases are there? People feeling merely rather or somewhat unwell thanks to their misguided wellness optimizations? And then rationalizing and justifying their symptoms as part of the process, maybe a “healing crisis”?

Or, worst of all, how many misinterpret their symptoms as the reason for their efforts? “I feel awful today, so I should eat even more fruit.”

Distrust of doctors, medicine, and science is rampant, of course, and more people than ever are trying to help themselves. Long ago, a popular blog post went viral by arguing that “animals just like you have been taking health into their own hands and paws for millions of years.” Cute, quotable, and there is some truth in that, of course … but it also rings hollow for the victims of dire medical problems and chronic pain, and countless less serious problems that just cannot be “hacked.”

Chronic pain in particular seems to inspire quixotic and reckless self-help experiments, probably because pain is damned motivating, and because there is no other kind of help to be had. And so I have witnessed many cases of people who pursued futile, expensive, and risky self-help strategies — believing themselves to be “educated” and “empowered,” when in truth they were far from it. I don’t know anyone who has died trying to treat their own pain, but I have personally known dozens who suffered more than they had to, and seen clear evidence of hundreds more examples in my correspondence and on social media.

Human animals are really not innately good at “taking health into their own hands.” Indeed, we routinely screw it up royally! We are tormented by countless afflictions utterly beyond our power to prevent or treat — with or without professional help. “And so it goes” (Vonnegut).

Whether you’re getting help, or trying to help yourself, the focus should always, relentlessly be on what is cheapest, safest, and most believable. That’s great in theory, but humans struggle greatly with these. We are rotten with magical thinking and seemingly itching to win a Darwin Award. Exhibit A (out of millions of examples):

Screen grab of a social media post showing a dangerously ignorant request for self-help advice for treating an infection, and three dangerously ignorant replies. The post reads: “Can anyone help! Hubby put a drill into his leg 3 days ago. We’ve had it covered and bandaged, also put colloidal silver on it. It has healed over the top and scabbed already but is now getting hot and red suggesting infection and not healed deeper down. What now? More colloidal silver? OR should I do the castor oil wrap?” The first reply is “AVOID TETANUS JAB!” The second is “Don’t get tetanus, unless he works directly with cow poop he doesn’t need it. Homeopathic remedies !!!! 1000% get” And the third: “Onion wrap in his socks each night will draw the nasty bacteria from his body.”

Seriously, non-human animals are way better at self-care than this. They do not, at least, actively sabotage themselves. As one commenter put it, “Hubby is going to need one less onion sock in the future.”

I’ve added this blurb to two permanent articles on Popular but Weird & Dangerous Cures and The False Humility of “Facilitating” Healing.

PainSci Member Login » Submit your email to unlock member content. If you can’t remember/access your registration email, please contact me. ~ Paul Ingraham, PainSci Publisher