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/

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Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic Illness

Originally published on ProHealth.com

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic IllnessI’m sitting here at home, in the middle of the afternoon, still in my pyjamas.  All I have accomplished today is breakfast and coffee.  Over the past, week my schedule has gone completely off-track.  It started with a significant increase in my endometriosis pain, then worsening insomnia/daytime fatigue, and finally, my neck and upper back decided to get in on the fun by seizing up.  This runaway train was accelerated by lack of exercise, increased anxiety and cabin fever.

Watching my goals, plans, and self-care routines careen out of control is sometimes harder for me to accept the symptoms that come with a flare-up.  Maybe it’s because I have always been a bit of a control freak, but the sense of helplessness, frustration and self-doubt that accompanies this situation is one of the most difficult aspects of living with fibromyalgia for me. This time, as I was venting about how it felt like my daily life had come tumbling down like a house of cards, a question occurred to me: What if the problem isn’t a failure to control or manage my schedule during a flare-up, but a failure to understand that living with chronic illness inevitably involves ups and downs?

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic Illness

The practice of mindfulness meditation offers some answers to this question.  Renowned mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg writes that, in contrast to our conditioned belief that self-blame and fear of failure help us succeed, “ease in letting go and kindness in starting over is a lot more effective”.[1]  Repeatedly focusing on negative self-judgment and regret is draining, discouraging and ultimately unsustainable.  Meditation can help us practice being compassionate and non-judgemental towards ourselves, helping us to let go and begin again when things don’t go our way. During meditation, the aim is to focus our attention in the present moment, by concentrating on 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 step, this repetition.

The moment we realize our mind has wandered is the crucial moment of the practice. We have a choice: do we berate ourselves for ‘failing’ and force our attention back to the task at hand? Or do we react with kindness towards ourselves and patiently return our attention to the present moment? Salzberg explains “The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation to the practice of self-compassion – to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism.” From this point of view, meditation is like a playing field where I can train for how to cope with the ups and downs of life with chronic illness. I have realized that I can’t control these fluctuations, but I can change how I relate to them. Instead of reacting with self-recrimination and a sense of helplessness, I can respond with compassion and focus my attention on beginning again in this moment.

There is something incredibly hopeful about knowing that “Always, we begin again”, as St. Benedict wrote. It can also be daunting to think that you will have to begin again…and again…and again.  Recently, I was introduced to the concept of tapas in yoga philosophy.  The word is derived from the Sanskrit verb “to burn” and is often translated as “fiery discipline.”[2] Nobody other than those who live with chronic illness can understand the degree of strength it takes to wake up and try again in the face of all our daily challenges.  We are experts in tapas without even knowing it!  I believe that we should direct the fiery discipline that living with chronic illness cultivates in us towards starting over in each moment – instead of cracking the whip and pushing ourselves harder. If we are fiercely dedicated to beginning anew after each setback, then we can change our relationship to the difficult experiences we encounter.

For me, the unpredictability of living with fibromyalgia is one of the hardest parts. Life with chronic illness is an extreme form of constant uncertainty. As people, we tend to prefer stability to uncertainty. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and author, calls this the “fundamental ambiguity of being human” – the longing for predictability and permanence despite the reality that life means constant change (in other words – “this too shall pass”).[3] Chodron argues that resisting this reality leads to suffering and accepting it means freedom. Opening ourselves to the dynamic, changing nature of our experiences releases us from expectations that things should be this way or that way.

For example,  When we try to run away from difficult feelings or hold on to pleasant feelings, we only create more challenges for ourselves.  I feel a sense of freedom by accepting that living with chronic illness means inevitably fluctuating between better and worse days.  Struggling against this by trying to control for every potential outcome is exhausting.  Blaming myself for failing after every flare is depressing.  This doesn’t mean practicing self-care or pacing is pointless!  It just means that I accept that I can’t control every situation and I am not responsible for every setback.

Here is my new intention. Tomorrow, or the next day, or in a few weeks, I’ll have another flare up.  I will try to understand this as part of the natural cycle of living with my illness. I will be compassionate towards myself when my schedule goes off track.  I will focus my attention on the present moment and the next best thing I can do for myself.  I will draw on the tapas that I have cultivated for strength. And I will begin again.

[1] Salzberg, S. (2015). The fractal moment: An invitation to begin again. On Being. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-fractal-moment-an-invitation-to-begin-again/7589

[2] Lasater, J. (2007, Aug. 28). Cultivate your connections. Yoga Journal. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://www.yogajournal.com/article/philosophy/cultivate-your-connections/

[3] Chodron, P. (2012). The fundamental ambiguity of being human. Tricycle Magazine. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://tricycle.org/magazine/fundamental-ambiguity-being-human/

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic Illness

 

My new article on Prohealth is about learning to relate differently to the inevitable ups and downs of life with chronic illness, through letting go, drawing on the inner strength all spoonies cultivate, and beginning again. 

Watching my goals, plans, and self-care routines careen out of control is sometimes harder for me to accept than the symptoms that come with a flare-up. Maybe it’s because I have always been a control freak, but the sense of helplessness, frustration and self-doubt that accompanies this situation is one of the most difficult aspects of living with fibromyalgia for me. This time, as I was venting about how it felt like my daily life had come tumbling down like a house of cards, a question occurred to me: What if the problem isn’t a failure to control or manage my schedule during a flare-up, but a failure to understand that living with chronic illness inevitably involves ups and downs?

My practice of mindfulness meditation has helped me find answers to this question. Renowned mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg writes that, in contrast to our conditioned belief that self-blame and fear of failure help us succeed, “ease in letting go and kindness in starting over is a lot more effective.”(1)

Finish reading here…  http://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=29692