Fairfield County Edition

Manage the Mind During Chronic Illness

Nearly half of all adults in the U.S. experience—a staggering 112 million—suffer from chronic illness, according to a 2012 survey. All illness is worsened by stress, and having a chronic illness is inherently stressful. On top of being physically sick, the process of undergoing medical tests, shuttling to appointments, and completing insurance paperwork can all take a toll.

Then there are the stresses that arise in your own mind. You may catastrophize about the worst-case scenario. You may fear for your family’s future. You may wonder why this is happening to you at all. Your mind can truly be your own worst enemy. How, then, can you manage your mind to better serve you in managing your illness? 

The following techniques, implemented regularly, can help to still the mind and create a space for better mental and physical health.

Release the ‘Should’

In his book, The Myth of Stress, Andrew Bernstein teaches the reader his ActivInsight process for releasing stressful thoughts. All stress, he contends, stems from thinking that things should be different than they are. 

Your “should” thoughts may include, “I shouldn’t feel so tired,” “This shouldn’t be happening to me,” or “Everyday activities shouldn’t be this hard.” 

Bernstein teaches the reader to take the opposite statement – for example, “I should feel so tired,” and then come up with examples that prove it to be true. Proofs might include: “Actually, I should feel tired, because I am sick.” “I should feel tired, because this morning I cleaned the kitchen and went for a walk.” “I should feel tired, because I didn’t sleep well last night.” “I should feel tired, because I do.” 

When you let go of your resistance—when you accept that it doesn’t matter whether you should feel tired because you simply do feel tired—you release a tremendous amount of energy. That energy can be put instead toward taking good care of yourself.

Treat Yourself like a Small Child

Chronic illness may trigger shame. Self-blaming thoughts like “You can barely walk up a flight of steps? What’s wrong with you?” or, “Maybe this is all in your head after all” can cause intense emotional pain, which is definitely not conducive to the rest you require.

The next time you find yourself thinking self-blaming thoughts, try imagining yourself as a small child. Cuddle the child the way a parent would. 

Talk to yourself as you would talk to that child if he or she were sick or frightened: “Oh, honey, I know this is hard. You are being so brave. It’s okay. I’m here.” 

Learning to care for yourself with kindness will allow you to manage your illness with less suffering.

Manage Expectations

During a good day, or a good week, it’s easy to lose sight of your physical limitations. You might begin to think, “Maybe this is all over! Maybe I’ve finally got this under control!” This is setting yourself up for failure. 

When you have a good day, try thinking: “I am so grateful that I’m having a good day.” Don’t expect necessarily to have a good day tomorrow. Instead, appreciate the good day today.

Count Your Blessings

Most research conducted to date associates gratitude with an enhanced sense of personal well-being. 

During an especially difficult experience—a negative test result, a doctor’s visit that brings bad news, a particularly tough storm of symptoms—consciously choose to make a list of everything for which you’re grateful. Family, friends, a comfortable home, access to healthy food and quality medical care, the strength to go for a walk, your Netflix subscription—appreciate the many blessings you do enjoy, even when good health is not among them.

Go Wordless

Dr. Martha Beck, a renowned social scientist and life coach, describes the concept of Wordlessness in her book Finding Your Way in a Wild New World. She defines Wordlessness as, “shift[ing] consciousness out of the verbal part of the brain and into the more creative, intuitive, and sensory brain regions.” 

When your symptoms act up and your brain starts screaming like a crazed monkey that you are never going to feel better, that you are going to be sick for the rest of your life, that you are a drain on society, practice Wordlessness. Release the resistance to your symptoms and, instead, allow yourself to fully experience them. Lie down and allow the discomfort to wash over you. Notice the exact sensations you’re feeling. Experiencing the pain or fatigue Wordlessly, instead of creating a frenzied loop of thoughts, will allow your body to rest more easily.

Using these techniques every day can open up the mental space to allow you to manage your illness instead of only suffering from it.

Brooke Adams Law is a freelance health writer living in Stratford, Connecticut. Her Protect Your Energy online course helps adults master the thoughts that cause them stress. Connect at BrookeAdamsLaw.com

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