Battle, fighting, beat: is the language of war really good for our health?

It can serve to rally and empower, but could ‘battling’ disease also be holding us back? Nathaniel Hughes, a medical herbalist, asks if it’s time to call a truce on war-like language in health

It can serve to rally and empower, but could ‘battling’ disease also be holding us back? Nathaniel Hughes, a medical herbalist, asks if it’s time to call a truce on war-like language in health

The process of healing is a journey, sometimes short and straightforward but often nuanced, complex and uncertain. At best it teaches and inspires us; at worst it gradually wears us down as our faith in the possibility of getting better fades.

The two metaphors in the previous sentence – that of illness as teacher and that of illness as an arduous slog – are both often shared with me in my clinic as people attempt to make sense of their experiences. In the same way that no healing journeys are the same, I don’t believe that there is a ‘right’ metaphor. But I do suspect that some metaphors serve us while others bind us.

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Since 1971 and President Nixon’s ‘War on Cancer’, medicine has been permeated by the language of the battlefield. Despite unease about this metaphorical framing within the medical profession, the language seems to have spread. Apparently, there are ‘wars’ on diabetes, obesity, dementia and even – without a hint of irony – on antibiotic resistant bacteria. It’s as if all would be well if only our magic bullets were that bit more magic.

A study in 2015 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin indicates some of the problems with this. “Results show that metaphorically framing cancer as an enemy lessens the conceptual accessibility of and intention for self-limiting prevention behaviours,” read part of the summing up.

For some, ‘fighting’ their addiction to food, tobacco or alcohol works. But for many it doesn’t, and the fight itself can create its own casualties

Our unexamined narratives around illness are important. Different metaphors can result in different decisions and behaviours. The belief that you are ‘fighting’ your illness potentially leads you down radically different paths from the belief that you are ‘learning from’ your illness.

What if the language of war risks subtly undermining health-promoting behaviours?

For some people, ‘fighting’ their diabetes works. For some, ‘fighting’ their addiction to food, tobacco or alcohol works. But for many it doesn’t, and the fight itself can create its own casualties. ‘Losing’ isn’t exactly the best balm for the self-worth and self-care that is often desperately needed to shift someone in the direction of health.

What would it be to honour the hard work and persistence through doubt and dark times that so many individuals face when engaging with their own healing?

What would it be to honour the journey each person travels and see that they take that journey for all of us?

Sadly, it takes many ill individuals for our culture to seriously flag up a problem, and even more for something to change. Health is not a separate issue from wealth inequality, the failure of social care, inadequate housing and the many other contributors to chronic stress.

If we conceptually isolate a person’s disease from their culture and environment, we risk missing the broader picture, a picture of loneliness, social unease and escalating mental health challenges.

If we conceptually isolate a person’s disease from their culture and environment, we risk missing the broader picture

If the magic bullet works, and has no destructive repercussions, I’d be all for it. However, if the magic bullet serves as a tool for the cultural denial of deep seated social, economic and environmental problems then it doesn’t really look like such a great solution any more.

Fortunately, I see positive change, from the ground up.

Knowledge and skills that were previously only available to a few are now accessible to all. Health professionals are collaborating, supporting each other, each adding to the networks of skills that help underpin each person’s journey towards health. Increasingly, people are becoming aware that few illnesses exist in isolation of their circumstances. All too often, illness is the canary in the mine. I’m optimistic that we’re starting to listen.

Author Nathaniel Hughes and artist Fiona Owen co-created the book Weeds in the Heart. It is out in October 2018, published by Aeon Books

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