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Zeraph Dylan Moore

I'm a disabled artist with CFS/ME, a complex nuero-immune metabolic illness that causes me to be limited to my house and often my bed. Explore my life making art with CFS/ME through my blog and videos!

How much would you risk to get well?

Feb 24, 2019 | Posted by Zeraph

What IS the optimal level of risk-taking when someone is trying to heal or improve their health? What can we learn from other fields that study risk-taking? And perhaps most importantly, how can we improve our odds of success?

I talked with a friend today about something we have in common. Both of us tend to be risk-takers. And, both of us sometimes struggle to know which risks are going to be good for us.

I think a lot about risk-taking behavior lately, as one possible lens to understand how to manage and heal chronic conditions.

With ME/CFS, there are many possible treatments, and each of them is a risk.

Sometimes that risk is financial, sometimes physical, sometimes emotional. Often, it is all three.

Yet these risks also might yield rewards. We sometimes hear of someone who has gotten well through one treatment or another. Some people relocated to a mold-free environment, living out of a tent or RV or moving to the desert, on the basis that their illness was caused by an inflammatory overreaction to even small amounts of mold. Some people have tried one of the often-controversial cognitive rewiring programs. Others had big improvements from more common approaches, like low-dose naltrexone (LDN).

Yet often, we also hear of people who have not gotten better or have been harmed. These stories can be scary. For some patients, the fragility of their health combined with the lack of satisfactory options has made them risk-averse. They take few or no risks in order to conserve the level of heath they do have.

Personally, I want to take the right number of smart risks with my health in 2019. These risks might be medications, programs, even new mental frameworks. I know that some risk-taking is necessary if I want to improve. But how can I determine which risks to take? And how often should I try something new?

As I explored this question, I began to wonder if there were answers waiting in the science and mathematics of risk-taking. After all, risk is a concept that is studied in several fields, and surely someone had put plenty of thought into these very questions.

The basics of risk tolerance

As I began to research, I recalled a phrase I’d heard used in the sciences: Risk tolerance. It seemed like a good place to start.

Risk tolerance is the amount and type of risk that someone (or something) is willing to take to meet their objective. As a concept, it can be studied in human beings, in animals, and in organizations. (Pretty much anywhere decisions get made!) It’s a common framework for making decisions around financial investments, for example.

When risk tolerance is high, losses don’t cause much panic; when it’s low, any loss can feel catastrophic.

Juni Daalmans, author of Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations, writes that humans evolved to have a moderate risk tolerance. Though risks do lead to problems sometimes, and even death, it was necessary for our ancestors to take some risks to acquire enough food to survive.

Crucially, they also had to take the right risks, by observing the world carefully to notice patterns.

Of course, not every human, nor every animal in a species, has the same risk tolerance. As with many other things, diversity means that different individuals prefer more or less risk. Linnér et. al (2019) reported on 124 genetic variants associated with risk-taking behavior, but also noted that the environment plays a significant role. Though some of your risk tolerance is established before birth, you can influence your risk-taking behavior.

Making risks less…risky

From my perspective, it’s essential to take some risks on a regular basis to improve my health. And my risk taking tolerance is reasonably high, even with the risk-averse part of me that has been formed by years with ME/CFS.

Currently my health is in a very slow improvement. That’s great, but if I want to recover faster, I should take a good number of risks in 2019— maybe even as many as one per month. That’s a lot of opportunities for improvement, but also a lot of cumulative risk.

Businesses face risks all the time, too, and luckily for us, they have made a science out of evaluating and minimizing them. Two of their risk-minimization strategies are relevant here: Transfer and mitigation.

Transfer is when you cause some other entity to bear some or all of the risk. For example, if I choose to try a new supplement, I can find a reputable company that offers a money-back guarantee if it does not work, or free product to try. In this way, I force the company to assume the financial responsibility if the supplement turns out to be a bad investment for me.

Mitigation is a way to lessen a risk. If there is damage from a risk, mitigation will limit that damage. If a new supplement may cause a side effect, is there a way to limit the damage from that side effect? If I have to travel in order to access a new treatment, how can I make that travel as easy as possible? Often, people with chronic conditions are very creative in mitigating risks.

Beyond that, there’s probably the biggest way to minimize potential risks, which is research. Research can help us take the right risks. But research is also complex: There are many voices speaking. Some are applicable to our unique bodies and some are not.

Some, unfortunately, just want our money.

The research I do now is very different from the research I did when I first got this condition. The average person’s casual research skills just won’t cut it when it comes to navigating a medically unsolved condition. There is a learning curve, and it can be both steep and treacherous for the beginner.

What I learned from learning about risk

I admit, I was looking for a solid answer. I was hoping that mathematics had some wisdom for me about the optimal number of risks to take in order to persevere in the end. I wanted some clear-cut numerical wisdom. I haven’t found anything quite that definite about this complex issue.

What I learned, however, was that the optimal number of risks to take in the modern world depends on the situation, but if the risks are reasonably good risks, it’s often good to take many. One’s cumulative chances of success rise with each risk— as long as you can weather the negatives. And that will come down to your individual body, bank account, and risk tolerance.

What is your risk tolerance when it comes to your health? Is your risk tolerance changing over time? Would you change anything about how you approach risk?

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