A Compassionate Chronic Christmas: How to Extend the Holiday Spirit Towards Yourself This Year

A Compassionate Chronic Christmas: How to Extend the Holiday Spirit Towards Yourself This Year

When I think of the holiday season, two competing feelings immediately come up – nostalgic happiness at the thought of celebrating with loved ones (as well as the Christmas cookies), and impending panic at the logistical nightmare of shopping, decorating, baking and visiting. Chronic illness has tilted the balance towards anxiety outweighing anticipation because  my symptoms through so many obstacles in the way of getting ready for everything the holidays entail. Last year I shared mindfulness tips for managing the stress that can accompany the month of December – through staying present, being self-aware and treating yourself with kindness.

This year I’m reflecting on the true spirit of the holidays and what I really want to celebrate. The thing is – for most people, shopping till you drop, cooking up a storm, decking the halls, party hopping, and getting up early with the kids to open presents from Santa – is the essence of the Christmas celebration. Ideally, bonding with your loved ones over good food and the fun of exchanging presents puts family and togetherness at the heart of the holiday season.

A common criticism about how Christmas and other holidays are celebrated is that perfectionism over decorating and party planning, as well as greed in the form of materialistic gift-giving, take over the true purpose of the season. The expectations that we internalize and put on ourselves can really ruin the holiday spirit. What I’ve come to learn is that, If you live with chronic illness, you will inevitably fail to do all the things you’re supposed to do this time of the year. It sucks! But I’ve also learned that we don’t really have to live with the stress, disappointment and sense of failure that result from setting unrealistic holiday goals.

By returning to the core values underlying Christmas, Hanukkah, and other celebrations – generosity, compassion, hope, gratitude and love – I think we can find a new ways to meaningfully celebrate this time of the year. I’m trying something radical this year – extending some of those holiday feelings towards myself. So often I read tweet and blogs about how those of us who live with chronic illness are overachievers or perfectionists. Most likely the person you showed the least compassion and kindness to last December was yourself – am I right?

So what does the holiday season look like if I am compassionate to myself? Making more realistic plans and setting gentle boundaries is the first step. We have three families to celebrate with – my in-laws and my Mom’s and Dad’s families. This year we told everyone that back-to-back celebrations would not be possible. The end result  is that we have Christmas Eve plans, and Boxing Day Plans, but  we are staying home alone on Christmas day. Initially I felt quite guilty about this because I know everyone would love to see us on that day, but if I’m not gentle with myself I will ultimately end up having to cancel. And that would be worse! Compassion is like the oxygen mask analogy – you have to put yours on first before you can help the people beside you.

Another way that I am treating myself with more kindness is to use a softer and gentler tone in my own mind towards myself. When I start to feel stressed about not getting perfect gifts for everyone, or whatever problem that my inner gets judgmental about, I’m trying to take a deep breath and responding instead with more compassion and understanding. A good question to ask yourself is “what would I tell my best friend if she was facing this issue?”

I recently read a book called The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion which gave me the insight that, while we can’t change the challenging experiences or difficult emotions we face, we can change how we treat ourselves as we go along. Much of our suffering comes from resisting what is unfolding – worrying, ruminating, regretting, dreading, clinging, judging – rather than from direct experience of a painful circumstance. But if we can befriend ourselves, and compassionately hold ourselves while we go through a tough time, a lot of the unnecessary suffering can be short-circuited. It’s an ongoing practice, of course!

So far, I’m already finding it helpful to use the ‘loving-kindness phrases’ from compassion meditation to wish: “May I be safe, may I be peaceful,  may I be joyful, may I live with ease and wellbeing”. I repeat these phrases both when I’m sitting in meditation or feeling anxious during the day. This is a secular practice I feel comfortable with, but many people send a prayer rather than a wish. In the Christian tradition, you are asked to ‘love you neighbour as yourself’, meaning cultivating love for yourself and caring for others. This can be done as a blessing exercise: “May I experience God’s love”, repeated for peace, safety and wellbeing.

In the guided meditation, we are then invited to focus on our feelings of love and compassion for people we are close to by repeating wishes for their happiness and well-being (May he/she be safe…peaceful…joyful…live with ease and wellbeing). Then, we extend those feelings to strangers and people we may have difficult relationships with. Finally, we practice extending love and kindness to all beings in the world. Here is an additional guided practice, along with the script, from Mindful Magazine.

If you are in conversation with someone at a holiday gathering, you can silently repeat the phrases to yourself as a wish or a blessing for them. Staying present is one of the best gifts you can give those you care about, rather than getting distracted by ticking items of your ‘perfect holiday to-do list’. Loving kindness phrases can re-anchor you in the moment to the values you are trying to put at the heart of the holidays.

This Christmas, as I try to direct the spirit of the holidays towards myself, I hope that, in turn, I can pass it on by treating my loved ones with more gratitude and loving kindness! By emphasizing these values, I think  how we choose to spend our time will change. What form of togetherness actually gives you a sense of meaning and connection?  Since pacing limits what I can do, I’m going to prioritize the things that really matter and hopefully have a heartfelt holiday season!

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3 Fibro Technology Hacks For Getting Things Done

3 Fibro Technology Hacks For Getting Things Done

Fibromyalgia makes it hard to get things done. Pain, fatigue, and brain fog conspire to slow your progress no matter how determined you are to accomplish your goals. I want to share the three most helpful technology hacks that I use for getting around the challenges of living with chronic illness. (All of my suggestions are based on my own preferences, and are not sponsored or affiliated with any companies or apps).

Voice Dictation Software: The last time I was able to type a single page on my computer was the year before my fibro diagnosis. Shoulder pain, neck pain, carpal tunnel, pinched radial nerve – I developed any and every pain related to computer-work. No amount of ergonomic-anything was able to make it comfortable for me to type. Like many people with fibro, home is where I’ve spent most of my time since my diagnosis. Being unable to use my computer was very demoralizing because the internet was my gateway to the wide world beyond my home.

In the past few years voice dictation software has become significantly more accurate. In fact, voice dictation is 2-3× faster than touch typing! Most importantly, it’s significantly easier on your body. Once I realized how much pain I could save myself, I began exclusively using voice dictation on all of my devices. On my phone and tablet, I use Google Voice typing to dictate text messages and emails. This is more gentle on my wrists than texting, but editing  any mistakes has to be done manually. On flare days, I have to stay away from doing too much on my phone.

My favourite voice dictation software is Dragon Naturally Speaking by Nuance, which is for desktop and laptop computers, both PC and Mac. Not only can you dictate and edit by voice, but you can also command your computer and mouse by voice! It takes a while to get up to speed on how to use Dragon (eventually I got the book Dragon Naturally Speaking For Dummies). However, with a little bit of patience, I’ve been able to use my computer again, and reconnect with the great big world out there. Most importantly, I have been able to spare myself a lot of upper back, neck and wrist pain. One unexpected benefit is being able to work on the computer while standing, sitting or even lying down via my headset. That’s about as fibro-friendly as it gets!

Pomodoro Pacing Apps: So you’re feeling pretty well, better than you have for a few days, and you decide it’s finally time to get some things done. You dive into doing the laundry, clearing your email inbox, or getting the groceries. But in your rush to finish the task, you blow past your limit and end up crashing. The next day you wake up with a flare. Sound familiar?

Theoretically, I know I will be more productive if I do things in small chunks, rather than trying to get it done all at once. I know that I should take small breaks. Closing my eyes and resting for a few moments helps to prevent brain fog. Shifting position, stretching or walking around really helps to banish back pain. But in the moment I find it really hard to remember to take those breaks. In frustration, figuring that ‘there must be an app for that’, I decided to research productivity apps. That’s when I learned about the Pomodoro technique.

The Pomodoro technique is based on the principle that the most productive way to work is in short focused bursts, with mini breaks in between. Typically, this means 25 minutes of work followed by five minutes rest, with a longer 15 minute rest after several work sessions. For people without fibromyalgia, this technique has been shown to increase productivity. And, of course, there are lots of apps for that!

I use one called Good Time, which lets me customize how long I want my work/break sessions to be. On a particularly brain foggy, achy day, I sometimes make my work-break sessions equivalent (15 minutes on, 15 minutes off). On a good day, I stick to the 25/5 minute Pomodoro technique. It’s particularly useful because I can customize taking a longer rest break – usually about half an hour – after two or three cycles of work/mini break bursts.

The problem with simply using the timer on my phone’s clock is that I forget to reset it once a single session has elapsed. You can set the timer on a Pomodoro technique app  to work continuously, so it automatically pings when a new session of work or break begins. It’s brain fog proof! No matter how many times I resolve to pace my activities, I always end up pushing past my limits. The notification bell reminding me that it’s time to take a break is the only solution I have found that actually works.

Voice Activated Virtual Assistant: The bane of my fibromyalgia existence is being unable to remember when I need to do things – deadlines, appointments, responding to emails or texts, or anything of that nature. The answer seems simple – add things to my to-do list when I remember them, and that way I’ll be able to keep track of all my tasks. Except, in order for that to work, I need to remember to check my to-do list! For the life of me, I can’t seem to do that. Brain fog is one of the most frustrating fibromyalgia symptoms, but virtual assistants can do some of the planning for you.

One day, when I was explaining my frustration about forgetting my to-do’s, a friend said to me “all you have to do is enable the Google assistant on your phone, and then verbally ask it to remind you about task X whenever you need to address it.” This was really a eureka moment for me. I can press the home button on my phone to activate the assistant, and say “remind me tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. to call Dr. Smith and book an appointment.” Then, the next morning at 10 a.m. I will get a reminder on my phone to call Dr. Smith. The reminder stays on my notification drop down menu until I clear it. You can even set reminders that will be sent to based on your geographical location. For example, when you get to the grocery store, you will receive the pre-set reminder telling you to “pick up cereal.”

Many of us don’t use the full functionality of assistants like Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant, Alexa, Bixby or Dragon Mobile. You can save notes to yourself if you want to jot something down before you forget it. If you want to compile multiple notes, like ideas for a project, you can send an email to yourself with of a complete list of your ideas at the end of the day. Additionally, you can add general reminders you might want to access at any time, like the license plate of a rental car. If you ask “what’s on my calendar tomorrow?” your assistant will tell you what you have scheduled the next day.

Virtual assistants can send texts, make calls, read aloud your messages, find emails and more by voice, which I find helpful when I have eye strain or sore wrists. Assistants can do calculations, so if brain fog is preventing you from figuring out how much to tip, you can ask for a little help.

Your Mindful Guide to Surviving The Holiday Season With a Chronic Illness

Celebrating the holiday season presents many challenges for people with chronic illness, which can be very stressful. I’d like to share three easy mindfulness practices that have helped me to not only survive the holiday season, but get the most out of it. Mindfulness  is a practice of “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Your Mindful Guide to Surviving the Holidays

It’s early December and that means we’re about to crash straight into the holiday season. As the shortest days of the year approach, many of us are anticipating gluttonous feasting, exchanging gifts, enjoying the company of family and friends and celebrating everything we have to be grateful for this year. Others are also anxious about the hectic schedule, financial strain or encountering certain crazy relatives (most families have at least one).

Chronic illness can complicate the holiday season further. Some people with chronic conditions feel like their family members don’t fully understand their limitations. Even the pressure to “just stay a little bit longer” or “pop by for a short visit” can cause us to push through when we really need to pull back – often resulting in a flare later on. If there are underlying conflicts with family members or friends, then spending a lot of time together attempting forced cheerfulness can also add stress. Constant fatigue, brain fog, food intolerances and pain can make frequent, large get-togethers focused around eating quite challenging, to say the least! Somehow we’re supposed to do it all without crashing from fatigue, badly flaring or getting a virus.

How To Get the Most Out of the Holidays By Using Mindfulness to  Manage the Stress

The consequence of having too much to do and too little time to do it in is stress. The symptoms of emotional and cognitive overload that accompany stress worsens chronic illness and  is a real challenge to manage this time of year. Emotional stress symptoms include irritability, anxiety, and low mood. Cognitive overload results in having trouble remembering things, difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness and constantly ruminating on what’s bothering you. If you find yourself feeling this way during the month of December, you’re not alone! My question this time of year is: how do I get through all of the challenges in order to be able to enjoy the holiday season?

I’ve come across many helpful posts challenges written by bloggers with chronic illnesses explaining how we can pace ourselves through the holidays, delegate responsibilities, adjust expectations and mitigate potential challenges. I’d like to contribute one more strategy for surviving the holiday season with a chronic illness – mindfulness.

I’m not talking about anything new-agey, religious or fringe. Mindfulness is a practical, evidenced-based approach to managing stress and reducing the symptoms of chronic illness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine, mindfulness means “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Meditation is a way to practice being mindfully present. During meditation, the aim is to focus our attention by concentrating on a particular object, like breathing,  scanning the body, or repeating a mantra. Inevitably, we lose focus and become distracted by thoughts, worries, plans or emotions. When we realize this has happened, we gently bring our awareness back to the present moment – this breath, this moment.

“That sounds great,” you might say, “but the last thing I have time for is learning mindfulness meditation right now.” Do you have five minutes a day to watch television? Then you have five minutes to sit and listen to a guided mindfulness practice. Just sit. Just breathe. Just listen. That’s it. Here are three easy mindfulness practices that have helped me to not only survive the holiday season, but get the most out of it.

1) Take A Mindful Pause

One of the first casualties of a hectic schedule is time to process your experiences. The brain needs rest so that it can effectively take in information, process emotions and make good decisions. Otherwise we can become mentally and emotionally overloaded by trying to push through the stress and get on to the next thing. Mindfulness is a switch from the ‘doing mode’ (thinking, planning, worrying, shopping, baking, visiting… you get the idea) to the ‘being mode’ (think watching a sunset or savouring the taste of a great meal). Taking a few mindful breaks throughout the day gives us the mental rest we need to prevent becoming overwhelmed.

A mindful break can be as little as 1 minute but is usually 3 to 5 minutes. It involves intentionally shifting your attention to just sitting and breathing in the present moment. This year I’m planning on incorporating these pauses into my day. If I’m visiting, I might take a few extra minutes in the washroom just to breathe. Even if there’s nothing I need to do on a particular day, mindful breaks can still help reduce anxiety about future tasks and plans I’m worried about, by bringing me back to the present. The Free Mindfulness Project offers a number of excellent guided mindful pause meditations to download (as well as longer mindfulness meditations).

One of my favourite meditation teachers finishes his guided mindful break meditation by asking “what’s the next best thing you can do for myself right now?” Sometimes you can’t solve all your future worries but you can do something to improve things right now, such as making a cup of tea or delegating a task.

2) Put Love & Kindness at the Centre of Your Holiday Celebration This Year

Every year I face a battle with my own expectations about what the holidays should be like. It’s very easy to internalize expectations about what you ought to be able to do and feel guilty if you can’t live up to those self-imposed standards. Maybe you wish you could give your kids the perfect Christmas morning, go to every holiday party you’re invited to or cook the perfect traditional meal for your entire extended family. When you have to cut back on your activities, it can be hard to feel like you’re letting down some of the people you care about most in order to look after your health.

Unrealistic expectations, whether internalized or externalized, only cause unnecessary stress. Instead of trying to have a holiday worthy of a Lifetime movie, what if we refocus our energy on putting love, kindness, gratitude and giving at the centre of our celebrations? These practices can be incorporated into traditional family celebrations – like this idea of having each family member dedicating an ornament to something they are grateful for before hanging it on the tree.

But how do you stay in the spirit of the season despite the pressure of expectations? The ‘loving-kindness meditation’ can help you deepen compassion, and increase your feeling of connectedness to the people around you. In the guided meditation, we are invited to focus on our feelings of love and compassion for people we are close to by repeating wishes for their health, happiness and well-being (“May they be happy, may they be healthy, may they be free from suffering, may they be peaceful”). Then, we extend those feelings to strangers and people we may have difficult relationships with. Finally, we practice extending love and kindness to ourselves – a powerful and important component of the practice, especially if we are feeling guilt over our limitations. Here is an additional guided practice, along with the script, from Mindful Magazine.

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. Unfortunately, it can also make us stressed and anxious. During December, I often spend most of my time worrying about how I will make it through all my plans . Once it’s over, I sometimes feel like I’ve missed out on enjoying the best moments because I was worried about the next thing. One way to rewire your brain so that it takes positive experiences into account, along with the negative, is to be intentional about what Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good”. This is akin to the old saying to “stop and smell the roses”. But exactly how do you go about making this a habit?

The first step is to be mindful of positive moments (to notice the roses) – the warmth of a good fire, sharing a laugh with loved ones, the taste of turkey and mashed potatoes. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help with this part, but you can also just start with the intention to take in the good today. Second, pause for 20-30 seconds and focus your attention on savouring the experience, instead of moving on to the next thing. Then, let the positive experience sink into you.  You can do this by visualizing a warm feeling spreading through your torso or by mentally recognizing that by doing this exercise you’re 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. Sometimes symptoms get in the way no matter how much pacing or stress management we practice. This can be disappointing. But I have found that taking in the good and enjoying the small moments really helps me to balance out the disappointments. One year I was too sick to leave home and had to miss Christmas Day with my family, but eating homemade cookies at home, with the tree lit up, while watching a Christmas movie was still a nice, cozy evening.

 

 

“If It Was Me, I Would Just Give Up”: How Not to Compliment Someone Living with Chronic Illness

How Not to Compliment Someone Living with Chronic Illness

“You’re so strong. If it was me, I would just give up”

If you live with a chronic illness, you’ve heard this type of “compliment” over and over.  A well-intentioned friend, family member or colleague shakes their head at your everyday challenges, and says “I don’t know how you do it; if it was me, I would just give up and lie in bed all day“.  My stomach always twists when I hear these words.  I know it is meant as praise, to recognize the strength it takes to get through each day in spite of all the symptoms of chronic illness.  But if you say this comment to someone living with chronic illness, know that they will not feel flattered or pleased. When you express these sentiments, what you are communicating is that you don’t understand the nature of their daily struggle or how that comment invalidates their sense of worth. If you are a spoonie, I hope this post helps you find your own words to enlighten your friend or family member on how to compliment you. If you are someone who cares about a spoonie, I hope this might help you find a better way to express your admiration and encouragement.

“Where do you find the strength? I would just quit even trying”

 I frequently see social media posts by frustrated spoonies (people who live with a chronic illness), venting about how this type of comment makes them feel. It seems to be the most common way people try to praise spoonies. I think I am a stronger and wiser person after my experiences living with fibromyalgia. If my friends or family notice that change and want to recognize that fact, I wish they would say it as a positive about me, rather than frame it as a negative comparison on themselves. For example, I was discussing with my friend that I think I am coping with a recent setback in a healthier and more positive way than during the first years of my illness. A positive compliment from her would be something like “I think it’s amazing how you are just taking it one day at a time and staying positive even though I can see how difficult the situation is”. A negative comparison on herself would be “if it was me, I would just be wondering why the universe is conspiring against me – I could never see this in a positive light the way you do, it’s amazing.”

“It’s amazing that you even get out of bed every morning”

I’ve always struggled to respond when someone says something like this to me.  If I express a negative reaction, I’m afraid my friend will reply “I don’t understand, all I’m trying to say is that I think you’re great”. I never know how to put into words why, despite that intention, it makes me feel anything but great. I’m going to try to explain it here.

The simple reason that I don’t just give up and lie in bed all day is because that’s not a real option.  I don’t have the luxury.  It’s not a meaningful choice when you live with a condition that has no cure. This comment upsets me because it ignores the reality that I don’t choose to struggle through each day, I am forced to. The reason I don’t lie in bed all day (besides the fact that I would find it really uncomfortable) is not that I’m especially strong or heroic.  It’s because lying in bed all day would be mean giving up on surviving. At some point, you have to make a meal, take your kid to school, or have a shower – and you’re going to want to do that with the least amount of discomfort possible. Living necessarily means having to fight through all of my daily struggles.  That fighting spirit and strength, for me, is just the nature of living day to day.  I know perfectly well that if that same healthy friend who says “I would just give up” actually did develop a chronic illness, they would wake up every morning and try again, too.  Just like we all do.  Because we have to. I like to think that it’s human nature to survive, to put one foot in front of the other, and to keep on keeping on.

“I couldn’t face it day after day, I don’t know where you find the willpower to just get up and try again”

Beyond this, the main response most people living with chronic illness have to this form of praise is that they find it invalidating. While a life with an invisible illness or disability is challenging, the funny thing is, we still want to live it.  We still share love, have passions, make contributions, make art, and have dreams. Our lives are worthwhile and meaningful.  They are worth living.  Even with all the difficulties.  But when the main reaction to seeing what a day in the life of a person with chronic illness looks like is to say “I would just give up,” it invalidates the worth of living that life. It definitely is not a compliment! One person on social media wrote something like “so what, you think my life is so terrible that I should just curl up and die? thanks!” When I remember being healthy and non-disabled, I know that I was always amazed by people who were sick or handicapped but still vital and active-  and wonder whether I would be able to enjoy my life if I was in their situation. It’s a common reaction, but I think one that’s unhelpful to share. Instead, I hope the friends and families of spoonies will try to frame their compliments as positives about the person they care about, without any negative reference to themselves. Here are some more examples:

“I really admire the strength you show in trying all of these treatment options when I can see it isn’t easy”

“I think you showed a lot of grace under pressure when you experienced that setback”

“It took a lot of guts to pursue something you’re passionate about despite all of the recent challenges”