In my last post, I wrote about my fatigue relapse last winter and my present pain progression this winter. My aim in writing these two posts is to share how I cope with illness setbacks, using ‘mind games’, in the hope they help someone else experiencing a relapse.
In essence, what I have learned is that I have the power of choice over what I focus my attention on each day. Through challenging negative patterns of thinking, being present, taking in the good, and pursuing an enjoyable hobby, I try to emphasize what enriches my life and let go of what doesn’t. Of course there are always bad days and I don’t believe any amount of positive thinking frees us from ever experiencing difficult times. I personally have found, however, that changing my worldview has dramatically lessened the amount of suffering I go through during relapses and has improved my quality of life. In Part I, I discussed 1) challenging negative patterns of thinking and 2) cultivating presence.
3) Take in the Good: Are you more likely to remember compliments or criticism? If you’re like most people, you pick the latter. That is because the human brain has a built in “negativity bias”, which allows us to learn from and protect ourselves from bad experiences.[i] Unfortunately, it can also make us anxious, irritable and depressed. One way to rewire your brain so that it takes positive experiences into account, as well as negative, is to be intentional about what Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good”.[ii] This is akin to the old adage to “stop and smell the roses”. The first step is to be mindful of positive moments (to notice the roses) – the taste of a good meal, sharing a laugh with a coworker or hugging your partner. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help with this part, but you can also just start with the intention to take in the good today. Secondly, pause for 20-30 seconds and focus your attention on enjoying the experience, instead of moving on to the next thing (focus on how pleasant the fragrance of the roses is). Finally, let the positive experience sink into you. You can do this by visualizing a warm feeling spreading through your torso or by intellectually recognizing that by doing this exercise you’re literally rewiring your brain to tilt towards positive experiences. If you do this several times a day, you can change the neural pathways in your brain so that positive experiences are ‘registered’ more in your overall outlook on the day. This practice has been really helpful for my mental and emotional health while I deal of the challenges of chronic illness, especially during a relapse.
4) Pursue an Enjoyable Hobby: After my fatigue relapse, I withdrew from school because it was too demanding. With time on my hands, I decided I wanted to learn something creative. I looked for a hobby that wouldn’t hurt my painful upper back, and eventually settled on modern calligraphy. Last winter, calligraphy practice was often the one activity I did on a daily basis. Seeing my improvement as I wrote out the letters was a bright spot during that difficult period. This time around, I am learning how to digitize my calligraphy, with the hope of opening an Etsy shop sometime next year. Having a sense of personal accomplishment means so much to my mental wellbeing. Dr. Caudill notes that “Some patients feel so bad about their pain and their lack of a ‘productive life’ that they … feel they don’t deserve any pleasure” (2002, p. 83).[iii] Not only is it ok to pursue enjoyable activities, it’s actually critical for your mental health and stress management, which are important components of any treatment regimen. I can’t encourage fellow spoonies enough to find a hobby or creative outlet to focus on during a relapse or flare. Other activities I enjoy include online learning courses (free!) and writing/blogging. In order to get the most out of an enjoyable hobby, be present during these activites. Take in the good moments when you finish a project or learn a new skill. And focus on recognizing what you were able to do today, rather than what you weren’t. Negative thinking habits aren’t changed more easily than any other habit, but routinely practicing positive mental habits is a powerful way to improve your quality of life during a relapse.
[iii] Margaret Caudill. (2002). Managing Pain Before it Manages You, NY: Guilford Press.