Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay Off in Chronic Illness: How to Stop Pushing Through Your Fatigue and Give Yourself Permission to Rest

Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay Off in Chronic Illness How to Stop Pushing Through Your Fatigue and Give Yourself Permission to Rest

I’ve never been a big fan of napping. I was that overexcited kid, running around, yelling “No! I am not tired!” Moving on to the next thing I want to do has always seemed more interesting to me than stopping and sleeping. You can imagine how well that impulse has (not) translated into living with fibromyalgia. The metaphor I like to use is putting a racing car engine in a beat-up old car – my mind always wants to go faster than my body can keep up with. But it’s not just curiosity that pulls me forward. I also put a lot of pressure myself to push through, to keep working until it’s all done.

I’ve learned that always pushing forwards is toxic for my body. I’ve also learned that the impulse to soldier on isn’t a personal failing. Believing that “hard work pays off” is a social value, something we are all taught growing up.  We attribute positive character traits to people who spend long hours at work, without ever making time for themselves. We describe them as being committed, determined, effective, ambitious, responsible, and upstanding, rather than just calling them workaholics. The flipside – laziness – is a cardinal sin in our productivity-obsessed culture. But encouraging this imbalance between activity and relaxation serves to support unhealthy attitudes and behaviour around work.

I’m far from the first person to point this out. In recent years there’s been a movement to prioritize emotional wellbeing. You hear a lot about self-care, emotional balance, burnout, stress management, mindfulness, and disconnecting from social media, among other things. Psychologist Guy Winch, in his TED talk How to Practice Emotional First Aid, explains our favouritism towards physical well-being over emotional well-being. He points out that, while we learn from a young age to put a Band-Aid on physical injury, we don’t learn how to treat our psychological injuries, like sadness, loneliness, or anxiety. Psychological pain has a significant impact on the body’s state of health, and increases the risk of chronic disease. The mind and the body are interconnected, and what affects one has an impact on the other.

I think chronic illness magnifies the mind-body connection. Living in a state of constant physical fatigue has significant cognitive and psychological consequences. Brain fog, frustration, anxiety, a sense of helplessness, and many other responses are common among people living with illnesses involving chronic fatigue. Dr. Peter Rowe, director of the Chronic Fatigue Clinic at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, says that “The emotional impact of a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome is different for each person, but it relates to the loss of the ability to do the things you were good at before” (quoted in Everyday Health).

Put another way, fatigue causes people living with conditions like fibromyalgia, to experience multiple and complicated losses. These losses occur in areas that affect our sense of self-identity, like career, friendships, hobbies, parenting, and daily functioning. Kate Jackson (2014) calls them ‘infinite losses’ because they are not time-limited – instead they are unending, which makes them harder to resolve.

So, you might be asking, what does this have to do with taking a nap? For people who don’t live with chronic illness, resting might be a straightforward solution to fatigue. A physical solution to a physical problem. Even for healthy people, however, I doubt that’s always true. Call it stress, emotional overload, or burnout, the impulse to push through when you actually should stop and recover can result in significant psychological and physical problems. Our general preoccupation with work and productivity encourages unhelpful mindsets like perfectionism, shame, anxiety, guilt, and low self-esteem. In turn, these feelings and beliefs can cause us to double down and work even harder in order to measure up (Psychology Today). It’s very difficult to stop and listen to what your mind or body need when you’ve learned to routinely override those signals.

I’ve read countless tweets and blogs from people living with chronic illness who are frustrated with themselves for overdoing it on a good day and causing a flare-up. I’ve wondered why it seems so hard for me to pace myself, to proactively rest, to achieve balance between activity and relaxation. Over time I’ve realized these problems occur because resting is not just a habit. When the fatigue settles in it can often feel like a gate slamming shut.

Fatigue, along with pain, are the primary restrictions that have been placed on my abilities. The resulting frustration or sense of helplessness is a manifestation of the sadness and anger over the ‘infinite losses’ caused by chronic illness. Coping with these feelings is difficult. In this context, it’s a lot easier to say “just go and lie down” than it is to actually do it.

Behind the decision to stop and nap is a whole set of thoughts, feelings and beliefs about how you relate to work and productivity. If I’m writing an article and I feel brain fog and fatigue setting in, my first reaction is to feel frustrated with my body and tell myself to “tough it out.” Even when I take the reasonable step of stopping and lying down for awhile, there is a part of me that feels a creeping sense of guilt or self-blame. In a world where people with disabilities are applauded for “overcoming their limitations,” as if disability is a failure to move past, it’s hard not to worry if taking breaks is some kind of character flaw. I believe that it’s this mindset, this negative self-talk, that sabotages our attempts at pacing.

Becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings is a powerful way to take better care of ourselves – many people find that regularly practicing mindfulness meditation, journaling, or cognitive behavioural therapy techniques very helpful for developing greater self-awareness. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I think it’s important that we talk openly about the social and emotional impacts of valuing work and productivity over balance and acceptance. We need to prioritize healing the psychological as well as the physical. Because, ultimately, resting is an act of self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance, not just a solution for being tired.

Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay Off: Listening to Your Fatigue Instead of Fighting Through It

References:

Jackson, Kate. (2014). ‘Grieving Chronic Illness and Injury: Infinite Losses. Social Work. http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/070714p18.shtml

Kromberg, Jen. (2015). ‘4 Difficulties of Being a Perfectionist.’ Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/inside-out/201311/4-difficulties-being-perfectionist

Orenstein, Beth.(2010). ‘The Emotional Side of Chronic Fatigue.’ Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/authors/beth-orenstein/

Winch, Guy. (2014). https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene

 

Becoming the Author of Your Own Story: How Sharing Your Health Journey Can Improve Your Emotional Wellbeing & Increase Resilience

Connecting with others by sharing your story online is a powerful way to begin meeting your needs for emotional well-being. In this piece, I want to share how blogging and social media have helped me to find a sense of purpose, belonging and connectedness.

Becoming the Author of Your Own Story

The onset of my fibromyalgia came on gradually, as my symptoms snowballed over an 18 month period. I tried everything to accommodate my pain and fatigue so that I could continue my graduate school program, but I just couldn’t keep up. After I received my diagnosis, I finished up the term, and officially withdrew from school. I woke up the first day after submitting my final term paper, and felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff – I was 26 and my career was over before it had begun.

But my immediate problem wasn’t that my future remained uncertain – it was that I had no idea how to fill my days. I had no routine, no tasks to accomplish, and no friends or colleagues to share my experiences with. I was alone all day, until my husband came home from work. Anyone that I wanted to socialize with (when I was up for going out) could only meet me in the evenings, after the work day.

I struggled to fill all these hours on my own. I remember waking up late one morning and thinking “good, now there’s less time to wait until my husband comes home.” In retrospect, I think that says a lot about how I saw my day: as time wasted.

I became painfully aware of what I was missing in life. You need to make connections with people beyond yourself. You need to feel like you’re contributing to the world around you. All of those things felt impossible when I was stuck at home by myself. Psychologists refer to this as self-determination theory –  that all people have three basic psychological needs for emotional well-being (Very Well Mind):

  • autonomy: being the author of your own story, making your own choices
  • competence: having a sense of accomplishment, learning new skills
  • relatedness: feeling connection and attachment to other people

Fibromyalgia can obstruct our ability to meet these needs. We lose our ability to work as hard as we did before, which limits professional accomplishment and a sense of competency. Unpredictable symptoms dictate daily life and can take away any feeling of control over your life, which is necessary for autonomy. Being stuck at home alone and/or less able to socialize can lead to isolation and a loss of connectedness.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Over time, I learned that connecting with others by sharing my story online is a powerful way to begin meeting these needs for emotional well-being. In fact, research demonstrates that “autobiographical storytelling” can have “substantial impacts on psychological and physical health even months after” (Hamby, 2013). In this piece, I want to share how blogging and social media have helped me to find a sense of purpose, belonging and connectedness.

Connection: When Social Media is a Blessing and not a Curse

One day shortly after my diagnosis, as I was googling strange fibromyalgia symptoms (which should be listed as a hobby for people with chronic illness), I stumbled on a list of top fibromyalgia blogs. Clicking through them, I felt a sense of connection with other people who understood what I was going through. It was validating to hear about other people who shared my experiences.

By following these blogs, I learned about tips and tricks for everyday life with fibro, caught up with research into the condition, and most importantly benefited from the wisdom of other people who were open and vulnerable enough to talk about their journey through grief, acceptance, identity, self-care, faith and all the other challenges of living with fibromyalgia.

Eventually, I decided to start my own blog. I didn’t have a lot of followers, but that wasn’t really the point. I interacted with other bloggers, and it was in those reciprocal relationships of reading and sharing that I found a sense of connection.

Social media gets a bad rap because of trolling, scheming Russian bots, and creating the false image of a perfect life. But your faith in humanity can be restored by the kindness and support chronic illness worriers show each other on social media – in Twitter chats like #SpoonieSpeak and #SpoonieChat, on closed Facebook support groups and on fibromyalgia forums (for a detailed list: https://goo.gl/EJLvZT). Social media can help people with fibromyalgia meet their psychological need for connection and relatedness.

Of course, spending too much time on social media can be overwhelming. If you are going through a difficult time, the online community can provide a lot of support, but reading about other people’s problems can be too much sometimes. It’s important to be kind to yourself and unplug when you need to!

Reflecting and Expressing: The Inner Journey of Writing Your Story

Putting your health journey into words, whether on a blog, on Twitter or in a private community, is a powerful act of self-care. I find that putting my story into words helps me to identify the key lessons I’ve learned, to reflect on what’s most important to me and to find my truth. Getting it out there is cathartic and reading back my own words gives me a new perspective on what I’ve gone through. Even in writing this piece I see how far I’ve come since my diagnosis, and I feel proud of that.

When I first started my blog, I didn’t know what to share. I wasn’t sure that I had anything important to say! I wrote about everything from book reviews, new recipes, research on fibromyalgia and bad doctor’s appointments. Even though I was all over the place, it gave me a sense of accomplishment to publish a post.

Over time I narrowed down my writing interests and decided my blog’s focus would be about navigating the challenges of fibromyalgia using self-care skills. I became more comfortable being open about my feelings and experiences. This can apply to vlogging, tweeting and other forms of social media too. In other words, I found my voice. This process was an inner journey, and it deepened my relationship with myself. I feel much more like the author of my own story, and am closer to meeting the psychological need for autonomy then in the early days of living with fibro.

The Power of Words: When Your Story Helps Others, It Helps You

Finally, I learned that sharing my story and the insights I’ve gained from my experiences can help others. Nothing brightens my day more than a comment from a reader that something I’ve written has resonated with them, validated their own experiences, or given them a new idea or approach for tackling a problem. Hamby (2013) explains that your “resilience is strengthened by recognizing that we are all experts in our own lives and we all something to share with others.”

One of things I enjoy most about Twitter are the random acts of kindness from users sending positive thoughts, gentle hugs, and spoons to a member of the fibromyalgia community who is having a bad day. This was an unexpected and lovely benefit that began with sharing my story online. Being able to provide connection and support to others can give you a sense of contributing to the world beyond yourself. It’s an important sense of purpose that many of us find missing developing this difficult condition. In this way, blogging and social media can help people living with fibromyalgia meet their psychological need for competency – a feeling of accomplishment and contribution beyond ourselves. While sharing your story doesn’t take your pain or fatigue away, in my experience it can start you on the road to improving your emotional well-being despite the challenges of living with fibromyalgia.

This article originally appeared in the July issue of UK Fibromyalgia Magazine.

References

Hamby, Sherry. (2013). ‘Resilience and… 4 Benefits to Sharing Your Story.’ Psychology Today. Retrieved 21 May 2018 from https://goo.gl/f5eiRm

Very Well Mind. (2017). ‘What is Self-Determination Theory?’ Retrieved 21 May 2018 from https://goo.gl/cQ8mzy

Why It’s Okay Not To Work When You Live with Chronic Illness

Having an illness like fibromyalgia is not a reflection of your character. No one works harder than someone with a chronic illness – every day is a struggle to work through symptoms and do your absolute best to be where you’re needed.

Why It's Okay Not to Work When You Live With Chronic Illness

The biggest change in my life that followed my fibromyalgia diagnosis was leaving my career because I just physically could not keep up any longer with the demands of the job. I’ve never felt more conflicted about making a decision. On the one hand I felt relief – it was incredibly stressful to constantly fail to meet expectations while working harder than ever before. On the other hand, I felt like I was losing a core part of my identity. After all, a career is not just what someone does between 9 to 5 – it’s often how a person understands and defines themselves.

Have you ever noticed that the first question someone asks you after being introduced is “so, what do you do for a living?” It’s common to answer the “what do you do for a living” question by saying “I am a ___“.   In our society, an occupation is not just what you do but who you are.

We place a moral value on being hard-working – putting in daily effort to provide for your family and contribute to your community – as long as you get paid for it. I still dread meeting new people and having to answer the what do you do question. It’s hard not to internalize the negative judgments about people who don’t work – usually variations on ‘they’re lazy, incompetent, and a burden to society.’ In Canada, where I live:

  • 14% of people with fibromyalgia reported that they were permanently unable to work (compared to 2% of the general public);
  • 43% had annual personal income less than $15,000 [poverty line] (compared to 29 per cent of the general public) (Parlor).

“Our society is largely driven by money, profit, and earning power, and this makes our professions a major part of how we identify.  So if you lose your job, you can easily lose your identity, too” (Norris, 2016). I felt so disoriented in the months after I left my job. It was hard to figure out who I was now and how I fit in.

As I began to engage online  with other people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities, I learned more about how to understand work and disability in our society, and what that meant for me as I transitioned to staying at home.

Definition of Disability:

Initially, the label of ‘disability’ did not resonate with me. I associated it with a permanent condition like vision-loss rather than a fluctuating illness like fibromyalgia. But once I learned the definition of disability, it became clear how it applied to my situation. According to the American Disability Association, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities (Blahovec).

Fibromyalgia impairs my abilities by causing pain, fatigue and brain fog. The lack of truly flexible accommodation in campuses/workplaces, like fixed work hours, deadlines and location, combined with stigma about invisible illnesses/disability, prevents my full participation in society.

Is Disability an Individual Problem?

The most common way we look at disability in our society is through the lens of ‘normal versus abnormal’. A person with a disability is different from ‘what is normal’ because of their limitations. This understanding of disability is often called the medical model – disability is an abnormal, medical condition affecting an individual (Scope).

We often hold up ‘inspirational’ examples of individuals with disabilities who ‘overcome’ their limitations by ‘fighting through’ the challenges they face, all the while having a good attitude (Abilities). The flipside of this is if you go about your business, pacing yourself within your limitations, you may be judged for “playing the victim” by “giving in” to your disability!

Disability as a Social Issue

If we were able to create an inclusive society, which removed the barriers that restrict life choices for people with disabilities, then everyone could participate equally in our communities. “The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference” (Scope). Barriers can include attitudes (stigma, discrimination), policies (workplace accommodations) and physical design (accessible entrances, transportation). For chronic illness advocates, joining the disability movement can help to “advance not only the goals for people with similar challenges, but for the whole disability movement” (Blahovec).

After I learned about the medical model versus the social model of disability, I felt like a light bulb went on inside my head. Here’s what conversations around disability taught me about living with fibromyalgia, and I think applies to anyone who needs accommodations at work, or no longer works:

  • Having an illness like fibromyalgia is not a reflection of your character. No one works harder than someone with a chronic illness – every day is a struggle to work through symptoms and do your absolute best to be where you’re needed.
  • News flash for your inner critic – not being able to participate fully in work/school is as much about ablest barriers as it is about physical limitations, and neither of those things is your fault!
  • If your contribution to the world is not in the form of paid employment, it is no less valuable than anyone else’s. The world is a better place because you’re in it!
  • Finding your identity outside of career makes you a more well-rounded person, whether it’s in relationships (like being a parent) or passion projects (creative expression, writing/advocacy).
  • Pacing your activities within your limits is working smarter. There is no need to “overcome” or be “inspirational” – just living your life the best way you can is all you need to do.
  • Having an illness or disability is pretty commonplace. Living with fibromyalgia is not your individual problem, but just another thread in the fabric of the human experience overall (we need to normalize life with fibromyalgia rather than pathologize it!)

(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of UK Fibromyalgia Magazine)

Resources

Abilities (Disability as Inspiration: Can Greater Exposure Overcome this Phenomenon?)

Sarah Blahovec (HuffPost Blog: I have a Chronic Illness. Here’s Why I Embrace the Label ‘Disabled’)

International Paralympic Committee (UN Convention on the RIghts of Persons with Disability)

Margaret Parlor (Canadian Women’s Health Network: Understanding Fibromyalgia)

Scope (The Social Model of Disability)

Mind Games: How I Cope During a Chronic Illness Relapse Using Brain Exercises

relapse

Around the holidays a couple of years ago, I got a bad cold which left me exhausted. Of course, I assumed that once I got better, my (limited) energy would return. It didn’t. I spent months in a state of brain fog and fatigue. By the mid spring, the relapse gradually began to ebb, although I still didn’t return to pre-viral levels for several more months.

The next holiday season, my pelvic pain increased substantially.  As I wait for more procedures, I worry about how I will cope with this ‘new normal’, which is interfering with my sleep and sometimes restricting my movement to the length of my heating pad cord!

I felt completely overwhelmed at the outset of my fatigue relapse last year.  First, there was the emotional reaction to a new situation: anxiety about whether it was here to stay, frustration that life was about to get more difficult, and grief at the prospect of losing what abilities I still had.  Secondly, there was the practical challenge of figuring out how I would cope, like what new treatment options to try or how to manage my daily routines and responsibilities.  Lastly, I faced the impact of a relapse on my relationships, such as the increased caregiver burden on my partner, and feeling less able to be present with family and friends.

My relapse brought me back to the beginning of my illness journey and how I coped after my diagnosis. I was able to use many of the lessons that had been learned the hard way the first time around. Now that I’m facing a similar situation, yet again, I wanted to write them out for myself –  I hope they may help someone else out there too. 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.

1) Challenge Patterns of Negative Thinking: About a year after my diagnosis, I participated in a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program for pain management. One of the core parts of the program was learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves”.[i]

For example, if you think in “all or nothing” terms – a cognitive distortion – you might believe “if I can no longer pursue my career, I am a failure” (click here for a list of other cognitive distortions). A common belief among the participants in the group (me included) was: “Since I don’t work during the day, all I do is sit around the house wasting time”. The facilitator asked us to challenge this belief by making a list of all our daily activities. I was surprised to have a long list that included, for example, preparing my meals, going for a walk, reading a book, writing a blog post, doing my strengthening exercises, etc. I actually do quite a few things each day, and I rarely waste my time.

Now I try to identify when a negative thought is actually just a distortion and then challenge it with the reality of the given situation. I use a great app called ‘What’s up?‘ that lets you journal your thoughts and feelings, rate your mood and then connect them to any unhelpful negative thinking patterns (not an endorsement, just an honest review). It helps to get my head right instead of jumping to the worst-case scenario, which in turn helps me to feel better!

2) Be Present: One of the most powerful tools that has helped me to cope with my illness setbacks is practicing mindfulness, usually defined as “non-judgemental, present moment awareness”.

I attended a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at my pain clinic that introduced me to how cultivating presence could help me manage my pain.  Much of our anxiety comes from worrying about the future or reliving difficult moments from the past, rather than from anything going on directly in front of us at this moment in time.  Through mindfulness meditation, I have become better at recognizing when my mind as dwelling on the past or projecting into the future, and bringing my attention back to the present.

For example, I’m currently waiting on nerve block to treat my undiagnosed pelvic pain. I have a lot riding on whether this treatment will work – including being able to come off medications while my partner and I try to conceive. Just thinking about it makes me feel anxious and upset.  However, I won’t know anything until after the procedure, which is several weeks away.  Worrying about it now only makes me suffer more.  It’s better for my quality of life if I return my focus to the next best thing I can do for myself in this moment.

One reason I like the What’s up? app is because it includes several grounding exercises that ask you to identify things in your present moment environment, and bring you back to earth if you feel like you’re getting really caught up in a negative train of thought.  As my grandma used to say, worry about crossing that bridge when you get there!

Between spending time on your phone or binge-watching Netflix, it’s easy to become too distracted to enjoy the small moments in life. Meditation can help us relearn to stop and smell the roses. This is especially important for people living with chronic pain. Even during pain flares there are small moments of enjoyment if we stop and notice them — the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favorite hobby. Intentionally taking in the good moments by staying present while experiencing them is a powerful way to counterbalance the negative experience of feeling worsened symptoms during flareups or relapses.

[i] http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/

How to Plan a Chronic Illness-Friendly Wedding

How to plan a chronic illness friendly wedding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was daunted about taking on the chaos that is wedding planning. Through trial and error we were able to plan a wedding that mixed tradition with our own style and my health needs. I wanted to share what I learned about how to plan a wedding that a spoonie bride (or groom!) can not only survive but enjoy.

*Spoonie: A person living with chronic illness, based on the spoon theory

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1. Be unconventional –  the standard all day, all night wedding format is not spoonie friendly. You know, getting ready, early afternoon ceremony, pictures, sit-down dinner, speeches, and dancing until late in the night. Add to that the fact that a wedding is an emotional high in itself. Most of us would lose all our spoons before the ceremony was even though! So pick the traditional elements that are most important to you but design the rest of your day within your limits.

KATIE AND GEORGE_9

In our case we picked a venue where we could have both the ceremony and reception, to limit the travel time – a historic house and gardens in Toronto called Cedar Ridge Creative Centre. We had an afternoon wedding, from 1-5, which was the length of time I thought I could handle. We had a garden ceremony followed by a cocktail style reception inside, with buffet lunch and wine. I gave up on dancing, because it’s not something my body agrees with. Finally, our photographer took mainly candid photos, except for a few posed family ones during the reception. This saved additional time.
I brought a bar chair to sit on during speeches (but still got sore from standing for too long overall). I was lucky that my best friend was an incredible maid of honour, and she did an amazing job at keeping me hydrated and fed  and reminding me to take mini-breaks. As the bride, you become very distracted by meeting and greeting all of your guests, so asking someone to help you remember your self-care plan is a key element to you enjoying your special day.

2. Be budget conscious …without too much DIY
Spoonies are often on budgets because of constraints on work and expenses on care, but  there is no need to go into debt to have a lovely wedding. We spent approximately $7000. The only additional expense was our choice to have a green wedding – organic flowers, catering and wine is slightly more expensive, but we felt it was worth it.

Here’s how we kept costs under control:

  • We rented a municipal property, which was far less expensive then private venues. Cedar Ridge Creative Centre is a historic house preserved by the city as an art gallery with public grounds.
  • We limited flowers. We only had bridal/bridesmaid bouquets during the ceremony, with the garden flowers standing in for floral arrangements. During the reception we had a few floral arrangements on serving tables – mostly single flowers in vases.
  • We only served wine rather than having an open bar.
  • Most significantly for saving on expenses, we didn’t have a sit down meal but rather a catered buffet lunch.  Everyone mingled and enjoyed chatting, which we really enjoyed.
  • Finally, we didn’t go away for our honeymoon, mostly so I could recover without the stress of travel. It also kept our costs down!

DIY can be taken to extremes and will most likely lead to flares. I would rather keep it simple than crash because I decided to do everything myself!

See if you can delegate – Our families helped by creating wall hangings (wallpaper on rectangular foam hung like paintings), and favours (seed bombs). My best friend baked a delicious gluten-free vegan cake (yes, it is possible but it took several trial runs!).
The only DIY I did was using rubber stamps on craft paper to make signs for the serving tables.

 

 

 

3. Organize brain fog away

  • Make a spreadsheet or use a planning app. When things randomly occur to you, add them immediately. Set aside time to review your lists when you feel less foggy. Most importantly, have your partner and maid of honour double check regularly. You will forget things and things will go wrong, so try to be accepting that this is part of the process.
  • I became good at delegating, and this was a surprisingly rewarding thing to do, Initially I felt guilty, but it was a warm and fuzzy feeling that  my friends and family were happy to help, showing their love and affection. Our wedding was better than we had hoped it would be and part of that was the feeling that everyone had pitched in to make it that way.
  • In order to relieve my anxiety that  would forget to tell someone something they needed for their tasks, we made checklist spreadsheets for all our ‘helpers’. It may have seemed a bit OCD but as I’ve said, stress is toxic for spoonies, and since it made me feel better, it was worth it!

4. Plan around tension and keep your boundaries
Oh family – things can sometimes get complicate. For example, I have divorced, remarried parents. A sit down dinner with seating arrangements seemed like a nightmare, so a cocktail party was my solution.

Because we planned our wedding in under 7 months, we came up with our plans for our day quickly. One bonus was this gave less time for anyone to share unwanted advice during the planning process 😉 Actually our families were mostly happy for us to plan the day how we wanted. From talking to friends planning weddings, I advise not having conversations with people whose opinion you don’t want while you are still in the planning stages.

In my opinion the advice that it’s your day so you can do what you want is unhelpful. It’s your marriage and you can do what you want… But the wedding is a celebration with your nearest and dearest. The day is really about celebrating with them. We compromised on a few things, but then we stuck to our plans. I found the phrase “oh that’s an interesting idea, I will talk to my partner about it” helped so much to show you are listening to your family members, but reserving the right for you and your partner have the final say.  Boundaries are important for spoonies as a key way to manage stress and tension in relationships –  which can be toxic to our health and well-being.

5. Practice self-care and take it one day at a time
Plan your self care! I asked my doctor for stronger sleeping pills for the days leading up to the wedding, which helped relieve my anxiety that a sleepless night would ruin my day due to fatigue. I put in appointments with my massage therapist, physiotherapist and naturopath in the days leading up to the wedding. I planned time alone and time alone with my fiance,  just to have fun. Still, I did not do this enough and started to resent the wedding for taking up all my available energy, which is limited enough as is.  In hindsight I would double the time taken for self-care and to make time NOT spent wedding planning.

My maid of honour carried an ’emergency kit’ throughout the wedding day. In addition to make-up and comb, we put in pain killers, indigestion relievers,  and scented calming oils.

Secondly, what I eventually learned was that there is only so much you can organize in one day. At some point you have to let go of what you can’t control and focus on the point of it all – celebrating this love you have found. I learned this by just getting too overwhelmed and having to give up on extra tasks. I  wish I had started by taking it one day at a time! But being a bride inevitably takes over for a little while, as any married person will agree.

KATIE AND GEORGE_18

6. Finally, don’t read bridal magazines! This is NOT “the landmark taste-making event of your life” or whatever panic inducing nonsense they write. This is about love and family and friendship and fun. It’s A day, a big day, true, but not THE day. Spoonies don’t need extra stress! Or extra work! Or hand-dyed organic cotton ribbons to tie around chair backs for a shabby chic effect… Plan this day for you, your love, and your family and friends, not for anyone else!

KATIE AND GEORGE_108

 

The Top 9 Things I Do To Sleep Better At Night Despite Chronic Pain & Fibromyalgia

Do you feel like ‘the Princess and the Pea’ when you try to get a restful sleep? Here are my top 9 recommendations for improving your quality of sleep if you live with fibromyalgia, chronic pain or chronic illness.After being my own guinea pig, I wanted to share the most effective non-drug, natural solutions I’ve found to beating ‘painsomnia’.

Top 5 Things I Do to Sleep Better Despite Fibro and Pain

The never ending search for a good night’s sleep… if you have fibromyalgia, chronic pain, or chronic illness, you know what I’m talking about. Getting a good night’s sleep is one of my biggest challenges day-to-day. Almost everyone living with FM (or CFS, chronic pain or another chronic illness) can relate to this struggle. There seem to be so many obstacles to getting a full night of restful sleep:

  • pain
  • changes in how the brain regulates sleep/wake cycles (researchers have found that Fibromyalgia patients have disordered deep sleep – intrusions of ‘alpha waves’ associated with light sleep during deep sleep ‘delta waves’)
  • hormonal changes, such as reduced production of growth hormone, responsible for night time tissue repair
  • increased environmental sensitivity, such as to light or sound

Like a lot of other people with fibromyalgia, getting enough sleep is probably the single most important factor that determines my quality of life. In my case, I need to get about 9 hours of sleep to be able to function the next day. If I don’t, I am miserably exhausted and everything seems to go wrong – pain goes up, mood goes down and brain fog sets in.

A few years ago I did a sleep study. Before we move on, I would like to just say, for the record, that sleep studies really should be classified as a modern form of torture – what else can you call being forcibly held in place by many restraining wires, while watched through a Big Brother camera by the night guard, err, nurse?

Anyway, moving on… My sleep study showed that I woke up 66 times during the night, or about 14.3 times per hour. In addition, it found that my sleep efficiency was very low, at 64.5% (total time I was actually sleep divided by the time I lay in the bed). Basically, like many other people with chronic pain or illness, I’m just not getting a very restful sleep.

Over the years, I have tried countless supplements, medications, lifestyle changes, products and strategies to help me get a better night’s sleep. While most of these turned out to be ineffective, a number of them have significantly improved the quality of my sleep. I thought it might be helpful to share the results of being my own experimental guinea pig with you!

Quiet Down: Reducing Noise Distractions for Better Sleep

I think I might have actually become the world’s lightest sleeper since I developed fibromyalgia. I get woken up by trucks going by, my husband’s snoring, early commuters closing their car doors, my cat cleaning herself, my husband’s snoring, snowplough machines, dripping faucets, my husband’s snoring… You get the picture. Sudden noises are the bane of any insomniac’ s existence. Even if you don’t actually get woken up by a disruptive sound, it can disturb your sleep by shifting you from deep, restorative sleep into a lighter stage of sleep (Prevention). This is especially problematic for people with fibromyalgia, who already get less restorative sleep than the average person because of their illness.

1) Silicone earplugs: The first thing I tried to block out sound was, of course, earplugs. I tried all different kinds, and eventually settled on silicone earplugs. You might recognize these as a type of earplug used by some people when they go swimming to prevent swimmer’s ear infections. Instead of putting these plugs into the ear canal, the silicone molds to cover and seal the entrance to the ear canal. Personally, I find them more comfortable and effective than regular foam earplugs. For regular use, I think silicone earplugs are safer because there is less worry about damage from impacted earwax (caused by frequently pushing something into the ear canal).

2) White noise: But what if earplugs aren’t enough? This is where white noise enters the picture. White noise is a sound that contains many frequencies at the same intensity, like the sound of a fan, rainfall, or static on the radio (Prevention). By providing a constant, soothing background sound, white noise can blanket or drown out disruptive sounds that wake light sleepers. It works by reducing the noise differential between background noise and the disruptive sound – if the background sound is just silence, then a disruptive noise is very jarring, but if the background sound is white noise, then a disruptive sound is, well, less disruptive.

At first I wasn’t sure how adding noise would help me sleep better, when noise is what frequently wakes me up. But I found that I quickly adapted to the constant sound of the white noise. Best of all, I stopped being woken up by sudden noises!

Initially, I tried a number of free apps to play white noise on my phone. This is a good option to find out if white noise works for you. Over time, I found that my phone wasn’t able to play white noise loud enough to mask sounds like the neighbour’s leaf blower. Additionally, the app would sometimes cut out in the middle of the night and wake me up (yes, even sudden silence is enough to wake me). That’s when I found my new best friend, the LectroFan white noise machine. It is a small white machine that plays 10 types of white noises and 10 fan sounds. I really appreciated that it has a precise volume control so you can incrementally increase it to the right sound volume for you, and it can play a surprisingly loud sound for such a small machine. The best part is that it has an option to play continuously, instead of having an automatic shut off after a set period of time, like many other machines. Now, I’m never anxious that sudden sounds will wake me up because I know I can mask them with the white noise machine.

Lights Off: Why Darkness is Better for Sleep

Your body’s sleep-wake cycle is governed by light and dark. Darkness cues production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to get you ready for a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, artificial light can suppress the production of melatonin, which makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep (National Sleep Foundation). One of the simplest and most effective things you can do to improve your sleep is to reduce exposure to artificial light at night and early sunrise in the morning (unless you prefer to get up at the crack of dawn). Absolute darkness is an insomniac’s best friend. Here are the tips I have found most effective reduce light exposure:

3) Black-out Blinds: if you aren’t familiar with them, blackout blinds are made of specially treated material prevents light passing through them. In my experience, they’re one of the most effective ways to keep my room dark enough for a better night’s sleep. Whether streetlights, headlights or sunlight keep you up, blackout blinds are one of the best solutions. You can even buy portable black-out blinds for home or travel. Heavy drapes or curtains can also keep your room dark. Since I usually need to sleep in relatively late in the morning in order to get enough sleep to last through the day, blackout blinds have been a saving grace because they keep the sunlight out. However, it’s important to open all your drapes and curtains and blinds when you to get up, because sunlight in the morning helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.

4) Sleep mask: in addition to blackout blinds, I often also use a sleep mask. That might seem like overkill, but indoor artificial light is another sleep disruptor for me. The lights from digital clocks, nightlights, computers/TVs, someone else making a midnight trip to the washroom, and many other sources can wake me up.

5) Blue Light Filter: Different wavelengths of light affect your brain differently. Researchers have found that blue light, which has a short wavelength, suppresses the release of melatonin to a greater extent than other wavelengths of light (National Sleep Foundation). Blue light is given off by electronics like computers and cell phones, as well as energy-efficient light bulbs. If you use one of these devices shortly before going to bed, you will probably find it more difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. The best option is to simply turn off all of these electronics a couple of hours before going to sleep. The next best option is to install a blue light filter on your phone/tablet. By reducing the emission of blue light, you can reduce the negative impact of using the device on your sleep. Some phones come preinstalled with a blue light filter, like the Samsung Galaxy, but there are blue light filter apps for every type of phone or tablet. Often you can preset the filter to turn on automatically at a certain time in the evening, so you don’t even have to think about it.

Strange Bedfellows: Coping with ‘Painsomnia’

If you live with chronic pain, you have probably endured countless sleepless nights. Because insomnia often accompanies pain, the term ‘painsomnia’ was coined to describe this struggle. When my pain flares up, I sometimes see my bedroom as a torture chamber rather than on oasis of rest! After much experimentation, here are my recommendations for making your bed more comfortable so you can sleep better at night:

6) Neck Pillow: Personally, without a supportive neck pillow, I develop serious neck pain and migraines. Orthopedic or ergonomic neck pillows are often designed in a contoured wave-like form, and support the natural alignment of the head, neck and spine. If you sleep on your side, there are specially designed contour pillows for you (usually advertized in the product description). Materials like memory foam, latex or bamboo fibre help provide consistent, durable support. Orthopedic neck pillows are more costly than regular pillows,. In my experience, though, buying one is totally worth it! Pillows should be replaced every 1-2 years.

7) Customize Your Mattress: I’m pretty sure the ‘Princess and the Pea’ fairytale was written about a girl with fibromyalgia. A bed can feel like some sort of torture device to someone trying to sleep with chronic pain. I recently had to buy a new mattress because my nighttime back pain was too much to bear. In the process, I learned that there are  many decently affordable online mattress vendors. Once you’ve selected a mattress, they ship it to you in a surprisingly small box, and give you a three month trial. If you decide to return it, you get your money back and the pickup service to retrieve the mattress is free. It was such a relief to know that I had enough time to test out my new mattress and, if I decided to return it, I didn’t need to worry about the cost.

8) Heated Mattress Pad: Unfortunately sometimes even the best mattress can feel uncomfortable to someone with chronic pain. My muscles become very tense at night while I sleep, and I often wake up quite stiff or with a muscle spasm.  One of the best things I have discovered for improving my sleep quality is the existence of heated mattress pads. A mattress pad looks like a regular fitted sheet but it has small wires woven into the material that release a gentle heat. You can’t feel the wires at all, at least not sleeping on the heated mattress pad that I bought. There is a bedside dial that you use to adjust the heat level, and if you buy a queen-size one or larger, each side of the mattress pad has a separate dial for you and your partner. Sleeping on the gentle heat of the mattress pad all night has definitely reduced the number of muscles pain flare-ups I experience. I am less stiff and less sore when I get up in the morning, and I sleep better overall.

9) Mattress Topper: Another option to make your mattress more comfortable is to use a mattress topper – an extra layer to provide additional support while you sleep. I previously used a memory foam mattress topper on my old mattress, which I found helped to relieve pressure points by contouring to my specific shape. Another mattress topper option is the CuddleEwe, which uses specialty wool, and is designed to relieve pressure on your body contact points when lying down (ex. shoulders and hips) by diffusing weight better than a mattress can.

(This post contains affiliate links, but recommendations are based on my own opinions and have been in no way influenced by third parties. Anything you purchase through the affiliate links helps to support this blog, so if you are planning on doing some retail therapy anyway, consider clicking on the in-text links).

 

Chronic Blog Round-up: 6 Insightful Blog Posts About Celebrating the Holidays With a Chronic Illness

Chronic Blog Round-up: 6 Insightful Blog Posts About Celebrating the Holidays With a Chronic Illness

Chronic illness complicates holiday celebrations. Trying to prioritize self-care while also participating in the holiday season is, at best, a tricky balancing act. Recently I wrote about how I use mindfulness meditation to get the most of this time of the year – to stay present, savour the good moments and manage stress.  I often turn to the collective wisdom of the blogosphere to learn how others approach the challenges of life with a chronic illness. I wanted to share a few of the insightful posts that I’ve read written by chronic illness bloggers. Some of them share helpful strategies and important ways to manage expectations so you can enjoy this time of the year. Others provide valuable insights that validated my own thoughts and feelings about what the holiday season is really like for people with chronic health conditions. I hope you get as much out of  reading them as I did!

Disabled Diva: Six Ways to Dominate Christmas With a Chronic Illness

More than just practical tips for getting through the holiday season, this post suggests great ideas for changing your  expectations about how to celebrate. For example, it asks whether you’re wearing yourself out trying to re-create past Christmas memories. I definitely fall into this trap every year! The suggestion to create new traditions that fit that are workable for someone with a chronic illness is really great advice.

My Brain Lesion and Me: A Christmas Symbol of Life With Chronic Illness

This lovely little post describes how a snowflake is the perfect holiday symbol for life with chronic illness. The experience we each have with chronic illness is as unique and individual as a snowflake. There are several important lessons this symbol can teach us, including that comparing ourselves with other people is an unproductive exercise.

Chronic Mom: 5 Gifts People With Chronic Pain Really Want This Year 

This post talks about the non-material gifts that people with chronic illness wish they could receive – like having their boundaries respected or not being criminalized for taking opioids to manage chronic pain. Raising awareness about the social changes that need to be made to really accommodate people with invisible illnesses is important because, really – that would be the best gift of all.

My Medical Musings: A Merry Little Chronic Christmas

I thought this post really captured the ambivalence that people with chronic illness may feel about the holidays – we hope we’ll be able to enjoy the plans that we’ve made, but we feel anxious that our symptoms will get in the way. Many people with chronic illness will be having a quiet Christmas or other holiday celebration. And while this can be truly enjoyable, we can miss the get-togethers and festive preparations going on around us.

ME/CFS Self-Help Guru: The Alternative Spoonie Gift Guide

If you care about someone with a chronic illness, this post describes the best way you can give your love and understanding to them this holiday season. For example, how to connect with them when a traditional holiday event just isn’t possible. This post really puts into words what I want to communicate to family members and friends this time of the year in a clear and thoughtful way.

Feasting on Joy: When Holidays with Chronic Illness are Hard: How to Find Rest and Survive Them 

This post is a very thorough guide to getting the most out of your celebrations this holiday season. It shares a mix of practical tips and important realizations for balancing rest and purposeful activities. This post is written from a Christian perspective on celebrating Christmas, yet I think the realization that intentionally focusing the activities you do choose on what is most meaningful to you can be helpful to anyone with a chronic illness celebrating a holiday. Prioritizing self-care and rest can take several forms and this post describes several useful strategies.

May your days be merry and bright this holiday season and may you be surrounded by the people you care about most! xx

Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with Lost Jobs, Less Income and a Tight Budget

 

Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with a Lost Job, Low Income and a Tight Budget

Chronic illness hurts all over, and that can extend to your budget. It’s not polite to talk about money, and that can lead to a cone of silence around this difficult subject. When I developed fibromyalgia five years ago, I was forced to leave my graduate program because I could no longer keep up. In the process, I lost my scholarship and my teaching assistant position. Now my husband and I live on a single income. I think it’s important to be open about how illness and disability impact income. First, it is vital to break down the stigma that ‘people who live on a reduced income are lazy.’ Second, I think it can be helpful for people living with long-term health problems to share their experiences and support each other with advice on how they cope with the challenges of life with illness.

Unfortunately, my inability to work is far from being an exception.  According to a Community Health Survey, 14% of people with fibromyalgia report being permanently unable to work (Parlor, 2007). That rate is 25% for working-age people with arthritis (Arthritis Society, n.d.). In Canada, only 51% of working-age people living with a disability are employed, compared with 75% of non-disabled working-age people (CCD, 2013). In addition, people living with a disability are two times more likely to work part-time than non-disabled people (CCD, 2013).

Not surprisingly, the reductions in employment levels among people with illness and disability lead to reductions in income. For example, 43% of people living with fibromyalgia reported their annual personal income to be below $15 000, compared with only 29% of the general population (Parlor, 2007). Overall, 20.5% of Canadians living with disabilities live below the poverty line  (CCD, 2013).

In addition, there are out of pocket medical expenses. This is bad enough in Canada, my home country, where many people may not have extended health insurance for medical drugs or treatments like physiotherapy or massage. In the U.S., there is no public medicare (national health insurance), so the medical expense of just seeing a doctor can be prohibitive. The CDA (2013) reports that, in the U.S., medical problems are behind 62% of personal bankruptcies and almost 50% of home foreclosures.

Finally, for those who qualify for social assistance, income support is severely limited. In Ontario, Canada, the maximum financial support for a person living with a disability is $1151/month, for all expenses (Community Living Ontario, n.d.). In the U.S., the average monthly benefit for a family paid by Social Security Disability Insurance is $1,130 (CDA, 2013). Since this amount would barely cover rent and food, it is hard to imagine how anyone could even begin to pay for vital medical expenses or enjoy any quality of life.

Those numbers can look pretty bleak and do not capture the strength and resiliency shown by so many living with chronic illness!  It is important for those who do not live with chronic illness to understand that we work harder than anyone you know, everyday, to manage debilitating symptoms, earn a living if we can, participate in our family and social lives, and advocate for ourselves and others.

If your politics tells you that social assistance should provide only survival support for medical and living expenses in order to “incentivize” recipients to work harder, then you are condemning to poverty people whose only ‘crime’ has been to develop a chronic illness. Working harder is not a cure fore a chronic disease or permanent disability. I believe a compassionate and farsighted society should provide adequate medical and income support to people living with illness and disability, because inequality wastes human ability and restricts the freedom of people to participate fully in society. Appropriate accommodations can be put in place so that we can work, including flex hours, remote work opportunities, and many others. We all have something to contribute, and many of us would be able to do more if adequate social supports were put in place.

I’ll get off my soap box now. It’s time to get practical. Since we are where we are in terms of reduced income for people with chronic illness, what can we to do?

  • Build a budget. No matter how limited, every dollar will stretch further if we spend it on what we need. For a simple and practical approach, I like using Gail Vaz Oxlade’s budget builder http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/resources/interactive_budget_worksheet.html
  • For your weekly expenses, use cash! If you also suffer from brain fog, then you will sympathize with how hard it can be to remember how often you swiped your plastic this week. If getting out to the bank is a hassle, then get cash back at the grocery store, so you can do two chores in one.
  • Put your cash in labeled jars or envelopes, keep your receipts, and record your expenses. Clear glass jars work best for me. My budget jars are labeled: groceries, entertainment, drugstore, pet, clothes, transportation and allowance:  http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/articles/budgeting/magic_jars.html.
  • Don’t be too proud to get the help you need. Whether asking for financial advice, applying for social assistance, buying second hand, or going to a food bank if the fridge is bare, remember this isn’t your fault and you deserve the best quality of life possible.
  • Coping with debt and bankruptcy when you have a chronic illness, by Lene Andersen https://www.healthcentral.com/article/when-the-money-runs-out-chronic-illness-and-bankruptcy
  • Here is some advice on winning your fibromyalgia social security case, by Donna Burch: http://nationalpainreport.com/winning-your-fibromyalgia-social-security-disability-case-8831202.html
  • If you are interested in extra ways of making money from home, here are a few resources from Being Fibro Mom:     http://www.beingfibromom.com/category/financial/make-money/

References:

 CDA (2013) Disability Statistics

CCD (2013) Low Household Income and Disability

Parlor (2007). Canadian Women’s Health Network: Understanding Fibromyalgia

Community Living (n.d.) ODSP

Arthritis Foundation (n.d.) Arthritis Facts

Arthritis Society (n.d.) Facts and Statistics

 

Optimism and Chronic Health Conditions: Is ‘Think Positive’ A Cure, A Daily Boost, Or A False Promise?

Having a positive attitude will not cure you. Saying otherwise to people living with chronic conditions invalidates their experiences. But cultivating optimism can improve your quality of life, and help you to live better with a long-term illness.

Optimism and Chronic Illness

Are There Negatives to ‘Think Positive’ Advice for People with Chronic Conditions?

I was in my physiotherapist’s office when she probed an unexpectedly painful spot. This was the year my body began to fall apart and I had gone to see her in a desperate attempt to relieve the pain in my neck, shoulders, back and pelvis. When she found an agonizing point on my leg, I burst out in frustration: “Stupid body!” The problem, my physiotherapist informed me, was not physical, it was mental. My bad attitude about my body was the source of my pain. If I could learn to let go of my negativity, then my chronic pain would be resolved. Basically, positivity was the cure. I left her office both angry with her for dismissing my very real, body-wide pain, and riddled with self-doubt over whether my outlook on life was in fact the source of my illness. I wasn’t alone in my experience:

The idea that optimism is all you need to achieve anything you want, even recovery from illness, is now conventional wisdom. In her article Smile! You’ve Got Cancer, author Barbara Ehrenreich writes about her experience with breast cancer. Ehrenreich (2010) describes that, when she went online to learn from the experience of other survivors: “The first thing I discovered as I waded out into the relevant sites is that not everyone views the disease with horror and dread. Instead, the appropriate attitude is upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive.” She recounts examples of this kind of thinking, including quotes like this one from Jane Brody: “breast cancer has given me a new life. Breast cancer was something I needed to experience to open my eyes to the joy of living.” Ehrenreich calls this message “the tyranny of positive thinking.”

But, Can a Positive Attitude Actually Improve Chronic Illness?

Is Ehrenreich too fast in dismissing the potential benefits of optimism? Research consistently supports the idea that having a positive outlook can lead to positive health outcomes. In fact, a number of studies have:

…shown that a high level of optimism is linked to both enhanced physiological recovery and psychosocial adjustment to coronary artery bypass surgery, bone marrow transplant, postpartum depression, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, lung cancer, breast cancer, and failed in vitro fertilization (Goodin and Bulls, 2013, p. 329).

Before we go any further, I think it is helpful to define what it means to have a “positive attitude.” Researchers commonly equate positive thinking with optimism. Optimists are defined as “people who expect positive outcomes to occur in their future” and who are “likely to persist in their goal-directed efforts, where as those low in optimism are more likely to withdraw effort, become passive and potentially give up on achieving their goals” (Goodin and Bulls, 2013, p. 329).

The rationale for urging patients to develop a positive attitude is, essentially, that it will enable them to recover from their condition, and improve their quality of life along the way. I think there is a crucial difference between these two claims. The first claim is that a positive attitude will actually change the course of your disease, while the second claim has to do with an improved quality of life while living with illness.

Stop Blaming the Victim: Chronic Conditions Are Not Cured by Positivity

When it comes to the first claim, Ehrenreich (2010) shares her frustration that  “it remains almost axiomatic, within the breast cancer culture, that survival hinges on ‘attitude’.” This message also happens to be wrong – researchers have found that optimism does not increase survival rates for cancer (Medical News Today, 2004).

The positivity dogma shifts the cause of disease from being a physical malfunction to a character flaw – if only you were positive enough you wouldn’t have developed fibromyalgia or your cancer wouldn’t have metastasized. It is the worst kind of blame-the-victim thinking.

And while it might seem easy for people living with illness to dismiss comments suggesting they developed their condition because of their bad attitude, the problem is that illness makes people prone to feelings of guilt. Not only are our own lives changed, but so are the lives of family, friends and colleagues who depend on us. We feel guilty for the burden that our illness places on others, and that makes us vulnerable to self-blame. As the American Cancer Society explains, positivity-as-cure can be a deeply destructive message because it makes the patient culpable for getting sick in the first case and places the burden of recovery on their ability to be cheerful about it along the way (Edmonson, 2017).

The pressure to be optimistic invalidates the normal and natural feelings of grief that accompany illness. To suggest that grieving itself worsens illness, that these feelings should be repressed in favour of positivity, actually makes learning to live with the condition more difficult. If you are a friend or family member of someone living with a chronic illness you should know that attempting help by saying “you should be more positive” dismisses the very real feelings of the person you care about. In fact,

“A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that analyzed the effects of expressing authentic emotions among breast cancer patients. And guess what? The researchers found that women who were able to reveal honest feelings showed overall mental-health improvements and reported less physical pain than the women who kept things bottled up” (Edmonson, 2017).

If you are a person with a chronic condition, let me be clear – your illness is not your fault, your feelings of grief and anger are natural, and recovering or managing your illness does not hinge on being happy all the time.

But Cultivating Optimism Can Improve Quality of Life for People with Chronic Conditions

The second claim about the benefit of positivity is that your perspective will influence your experience of illness – that being optimistic will help you cope better with your symptoms.  Since symptoms like pain and fatigue are ultimately subjective (based on personal feelings), it seems intuitive that your mental outlook might colour your experience of symptoms. This is not to say anyone should try to be positive all the time, or at the expense of expressing authentic emotions, but that working towards optimism, hope and acceptance can reduce suffering and pain.

It turns out that there is a large body of evidence which supports this notion. Greater optimism has been linked to reduced pain levels in people with different types of cancer, as well as arthritis (Goodin and Bulls, 2013). Interestingly, optimism has also been associated with adjusting better to life with a pain condition because of factors like paying less attention to pain symptoms, better daily mood, and less catastrophizing (thinking the worst; assuming every negative event will be an overwhelming disaster).

The idea that a positive attitude could improve my quality of life with chronic illness feels less blaming and dismissive to me than the dogma “survival hinges on attitude” which Ehrenreich describes . First of all, it doesn’t suggest that developing fibromyalgia was my fault because it makes no claims about cure or recovery. Secondly, it makes positive thinking more of a goal to work towards, if I choose. Grief and acceptance come in waves and learning optimism is not about repressing sad or angry feelings.

The idea that a positive outlook might improve everyday life doesn’t dismiss the reality of grief or other negative feelings, but it does provide an option for cultivating a better relationship with my pain and illness, if I decide that my current state of mind is not helpful to me anymore.

Is a possible to cultivate optimism, hope and acceptance? It appears that optimism, and its related traits of hopefulness and acceptance, can be learned. Our brains have the ability to change by forming new neural connections with repeated practice, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. I have listed a few resources below if you are interested in science-backed strategies for learning greater optimism.

  • An app called Bliss has a number of proven exercises that can increase optimism, such as expressing daily gratitude, visualizing your best possible future and purposefully savouring the good things that happen each day.
  • One of the most powerful tools that has helped me to cope with my illness is practicing mindfulness, usually defined as “non-judgemental, present moment awareness”. I attended a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at my pain clinic that introduced me to how cultivating presence could help me manage my pain.  Much of our anxiety comes from worrying about the future or reliving difficult moments from the past, rather than from anything going on directly in front of us at this moment in time. You Are Not Your Pain is an excellent book on learning mindfulness for people living with pain and illness.
  • Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson is a wonderful book with practical advice on how to retrain your brain to strengthen positive brain states like calm, joy and compassion.

So, How Does Positive Thinking Affect Chronic Illness?

  • Having a negative perspective does not cause illness.
  • Having a positive attitude will not cure you.
  • Saying otherwise to people living with chronic conditions invalidates their experiences and feelings.
  • It is natural to feel grief and anger over the onset of illness and healthy to express these emotions.
  • Working towards greater acceptance and cultivating optimism can improve your quality of life, and help you to live better despite the challenges of having a long-term illness.

References:

Edmonson, J. (2017, Sept 3). A positive outlook not always in your best interest. The Star.

Ehrenreich, B. (2010, January 2). Smile! You’ve Got Cancer. The Guardian.

Goodin, B. and Bulls, H. (2013). Optimism and the experience of pain: benefits of seeing the glass as half full. Curr Pain Headache Rep, 17(5): 329. doi:10.1007/s11916-013-0329-8.

Medical News Today.(2004, Feb 9). A positive attitude does not help cancer outcome.

 

Book Review: ‘Memory of Health’ by Edie Summers

book review_memory of health

I have been given this product as part of a product review through the Chronic Illness Bloggers network. Although the product was a gift, all opinions in this review remain my own and I was in no way influenced by the company.

I was recently given the opportunity to review a new book by Edie Summers called Memory of Health. Edie Summers is both a wellness coach and chronic illness patient expert, with 20 years of experience in the alternative health field.

 

If I had to sum up Memory of Health in a sentence, I would say that it is essentially a manual of self-care for people living with chronic illness. The approach that Edie Summers takes to health and healing is truly holistic, which I think is perfectly summed up by a quote she includes: “Health, wholeness and holiness … all three share the same root word and all three share the same state of harmony or disharmony (Deepak Chopra).”

So what can you expect to find in this book? First, Summers shares her personal journey living with chronic illness, including how she recovered. She emphasizes the power of storytelling for well-being. Many of us with chronic illness can feel very alone in our experiences living with these conditions. Connecting with each other over our shared experiences is empowering. From making us feel less isolated in our experiences, to learning from each other, storytelling is very impactful. And there is much to learn from Summers’ story. One thing that really resonated with me was her relentless detective work to find what helped her to heal. The other was how Summers identified mental, physical and spiritual causes that contributed to her illness, and then made changes to effect her recovery.

Secondly, this book covers a wide range of factors that may contribute to chronic illness, and how to address each in turn, including:

  • identifying and removing environmental toxins that may exacerbate your condition
  • causes of chronic fatigue, including changes to the thyroid, anemia, microbiome, immune health, inflammation, depression, etc.
  • improving nutrition, restorative movement, relaxation, mindfulness, improving sleep etc.

In covering all these topics, Edie Summers keeps her focus on the systems that keep the body in balance. In her own words: “This is why I’m fascinated with systems biology which notices patterns, watches for the surfacing of self-organizing models, and observes healing from a holistic point of view. The thing is, nature is a dynamic system, which learns, evolves, and grows (p.120).”

In the final sections of Memory of Health, Summers provides a roadmap to self-care in order to help readers improve their well-being. The book includes detailed summaries of tips to improve physical health including diet modifications, supplements, super foods, relaxation, de-stressing, sleep support, yoga and many other important topics.

I think the most powerful section of the book is dedicated to mental, emotional and spiritual healing. Summers writes “The problem is, you cannot heal if you are not present in your body. This is your first step: get back into your body and stay there. It bears repeating: health resides in your body (p. 336).” Summers believes the road to greater presence is founded in self-love. Finally, she emphasizes connection– to loved ones, to activities that give us joy and to a sense of purpose.

Ultimately Summers sees all these different threads of wellbeing being woven together to effect synergy. She explains: “Synergy, then, is how health occurs, when the total is greater than the sum of “its” parts. A great example of synergy is the experience of listening to a symphony orchestra vs. hearing each individual instrument played on its own (p.280).”

At times I found reading this book challenging because the way it is written is very dense. Some sections interweave scientific explanations, personal observations and spiritual reflections in a way I sometimes found hard to digest all at once. I think the best way to read this book is to focus in on the sections you think are most applicable to your situation, rather than trying to read the entire thing in one go. There is a very detailed Table of Contents to help you identify the sections that you feel are most relevant to you, which is very helpful.

The other caveat is that all of these suggestions are based on Edie Summers’ personal experiences and should not be taken as medical advice. Make sure you consult with a healthcare practitioner before trying to implement any of these tips.

So, ultimately, who is this book for? I think it is ideally suited to anyone living with a chronic illness who feels like they have tried everything and nothing has worked. Memory of Health opens up many new avenues to pursue and can provide hope to people who feel stuck. It is also an inspirational read. If you are feeling in need of guidance on how to live with more purpose, joy or connection, even if you have a chronic illness, then I think this is the book for you.

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