Forget Picture Perfect: How Photography is Teaching Me Perspective on Grief, Stress & Illness

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been coping with some health issues that, well, I’m not ready put pen to paper and write about yet. It’s reminded me that grief over illness loss comes in waves, and isn’t limited to the onset of a condition. Body breakdowns fluctuate over the course of an illness. And limitations affect you differently at different stages of your life. In my 20s it was career and in my 30s it’s been more about family.

I’ve been trying to find those small, good moments and really appreciating them, whether they’re beautiful, or joyful, or hilarious, or super interesting. Not perfect moments. Waiting for those would be like waiting for pigs to fly. I’ve noticed that when something good is happening, I worry that it will be hijacked by…pain, fatigue, stress, GI issues (etc.,etc.,etc.) I’m constantly vigilant, waiting for another flare-up to make me cancel my plans or a painsomnia night to make me scrap my daily to-dos. Those may not sound like very serious problems to someone without a chronic illness. But never being able to accomplish anything makes you doubt your self-worth, especially in our productivity oriented culture. Disappointing the people you care about most threatens your greatest vulnerability, which is losing your community– losing love.

But hyper-focusing on what is bad won’t protect me from a flare or another illness-related loss. But it might prevent me from truly enjoying what is good, like getting a big hug from my husband when he comes home from work, or seeing a butterfly landing on a purple coneflower inches away from me.

I was missing out on those things because my mind was always probing each situation for how it could go wrong. Of course my brain was only trying to protect me, but it wasn’t making me any happier…or safer. I started photographing flowers on my daily walks as a way to stay mindfully present in the moment. (A very literal interpretation of the proverb to ‘stop and smell the roses’! Sorry, couldn’t resist). Each blossom feels like one counter-weight against whatever is bad or negative that day.

Once I started really looking I saw an abundance of opportunities to appreciate simple pleasures. And trust me, I’m still hurting over my losses. This is not me preaching that ‘thinking positive’ will make life all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, I started seeing a therapist earlier in the summer because I wasn’t coping well with recent losses. It felt like my illness were determined to take away every dream I’d ever had for myself. Not just ‘felt like’- my illnesses have taken away the possibility of fulfilling my old dreams. That is still heartbreaking.

But it doesn’t mean that nature isn’t still beautiful. It is. Sharing love still feels so good. Eating a great meal or laughing till I cry still makes my day. And discounting those moments because they aren’t perfect or are side by side with sad or difficult moments just gives more power to my illness, and just allows it to rob me of more of my life. But I won’t let that happen anymore.

Meditation has taught me how to concentrate on one thing, like breathing, while distractions go on around me, like sounds or random thoughts arising. Learning how to gain control over what I pay attention to has been life changing. Like a spotlight, I’m gradually getting better at focusing on good moments and putting them center-stage, while leaving the bad, like pain or worry, in the wings. It’s a skill, not a a one-time epiphany.

Photographing flowers has helped me keep perspective on my illness-related, by keeping the good as well as the bad in the frame. My therapist explained that being on a hair-trigger, ready to activate the fight-or-flight stress response adrenaline rush, or alternately, shut-down and numb-out (to horribly butcher several metaphors), is the natural byproduct of trauma. Chronic illness is traumatic. So finding ways of lowering the threshold for activating the stress response is really important for managing the mental health side of illness.

Natural beauty is a powerful healing force for me. I hope these pictures offered a moment to smile about today for you, too.

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Overcoming Isolation: How to Enjoy Alone Time Caused by Chronic Illness

Chronic illness is isolating. Spending hours alone every day can be lonely. Here’s what I have learned about embracing solitude and learning to be comfortable in my own company.

Overcoming Isolation: How To Enjoy Alone Time Caused by Chronic Illness

I recently went out for lunch with friend who had just transitioned from her office to working from home. She described dreading the long hours on her own, and the resulting cabin fever of spending so much time in one place. As I listened, I realized what a significant transformation my own feelings about solitude have undergone during my illness experience.

As an extrovert, I’ve never looked forward to spending an entire day by myself – never mind a succession of days. I prefer to be around people. I’m happier spending an afternoon in a café than my living room. When chronic pain forced me out of grad school, I was at a loss of what to do with myself at home all day.

But I think it’s about more than being an introvert versus an extrovert. Looking back, I don’t think I ever distinguished between loneliness and solitude. I wasn’t comfortable with my own company. As I reflected on what I have learned about embracing solitude, I came to a few conclusions about the lessons my experience has taught me and what I’m still working on.

Being Present For Simple Pleasures

The first step on my path towards becoming a reformed extrovert was learning to value being present. A year or two after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia and endometriosis, I was referred to a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course at my hospital – an eight week program on using mindfulness meditation to manage pain. I often credit mindfulness meditation for maintaining my sanity, but one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that there are many enjoyable moments in ordinary life that can enrich our lives if only we pay attention in the present moment. The sun on your face, bird song out the window, a great cup of coffee, or a snuggle with your pet are all examples of simple, everyday pleasures that are available for us to enjoy if we learn to tune in to the present moment. Being on autopilot most of the time meant that I was oblivious to these experiences. It’s often easier to savor these times on your own rather than in company, and that’s one of the reasons I have come to value my alone time.

Exploring New Horizons (From Home)

A second change in my perspective has come from exploring my interests and finding new hobbies. In other words, unleashing my inner geek. From reading, and watching and listening, I’ve discovered that I love historical murder mystery books, political news, blogging, archaeology documentaries and calligraphy. I feel fortunate to live in an era of podcasts, online libraries, free e-courses, audiobooks and streaming. If your illness keeps you at home much of the time, being able to explore new horizons from your couch is fantastic. Whether or not you are crafty, artistic, musical or nerdy, there’s something out there for you to geek out on. I honestly haven’t found anything else I prefer to do on my own as much as to feed my curiosity. In the process, I have learned about myself. Learning more about the world helps you understand your own place in it better. Discovering new interests, and new talents is deeply rewarding. Spending time that way really transforms loneliness to solitude.

Making Time For Meaningful Self-Care

Finally, seeing the dividends of investing in self-care has made me more open to making time for myself. This isn’t an easy thing to do. You often see advice about self-care made out to seem like it’s as simple as lighting some candles and taking a bath now and then. I think it’s really about changing your relationship with yourself. Who wants to spend time with someone they don’t like very much? No one. If you have an inner critic with a megaphone, of course you don’t want to spend alone time together. The prospect of spending time by myself months that I was always looking for another distraction. In the age of scrolling through social media and binge watching TV, I think enjoying me-time is almost a lost art form (not that I like binge watching any less than the next person!).

It takes a change in mindset to identify negative self-talk, challenge it and replace it with a kinder and gentler perception of yourself. Self-care is really about self-compassion, and accepting that you’re only human, just like everyone else – it’s okay to be imperfect and make mistakes. For many people  there is a lot of worry, guilt, frustration and self-blame tied up in developing a chronic illness. Cultivating self-compassion in the face of difficult circumstances is a long process, and I’ve found that many lessons need to be re-learned over time. Journaling, meditating, CBT, and therapy are all ways to improve your relationship with yourself. Learning to be more comfortable in my own skin has made me enjoy my own company much more than before. And now I’m much more likely to enjoy a quiet cup of tea, listen to music, meditate, or actually do any of the self-care activities by myself that are listed in the lifestyle magazines!

The Science of Savoring Simple Pleasures: How Mindfulness of Good Moments can Reduce Stress and Improve Wellbeing in Chronic Illness

Does the following description capture what goes on in your mind as you go about your day?

Your frequently scan your body to assess changing pain levels, fatigue, body temperature, medication side effects, and mental function. You monitor your changing environment – from noise, lights, smells, the distance you have to travel, to finding a comfortable position to sit in, among many other features. Then you try to calculate how you should modify your plans based on all of these factors, like a computer running a complex algorithm.

It’s exhausting. In this state, your brain is constantly on red alert and your nervous system is tautly wound, waiting for the next threat or crisis to jump out and surprise you. And for good reason, since, if you have a chronic condition, your body is constantly assaulted by difficult and unpredictable symptoms, which in turn make it challenging to navigate different environments. However, when the brain and nervous system are frequently in crisis mode, they trigger a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol and norepinephrine. This reaction is called the fight or flight mode and it primes your body to cope with dangerous situations. Cortisol and norepinephrine cause a cascade of body wide changes – fast pulse, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, sticky palms, and tensed muscles. Studies have found that people living with fibromyalgia have a hyperactive fight or flight response, which is correlated with pain levels.

Being in a constant state of stress causes your mental, emotional and physical well-being to suffer. In fact, the frequent presence of cortisol actually sensitizes the region of the brain that assesses threat levels to stressors. This region is called the amygdala, and when it becomes sensitized to cortisol, it puts our central nervous system on a hairtrigger, ready to overreact to nonthreatening situations. Stress worsens pain levels, fatigue, anxiety and depression.

We want our brain to accurately assess potential risks and opportunities, to be vigilant but not hypervigilant. So how can we calm a stressed out nervous system? One promising avenue advocated by Rick Hanson is through a set of mindfulness practices that intentionally focus on sensory pleasures and good moments that we typically disregard. Instead of only scanning for negatives, like pain and fatigue, we do the opposite – deliberately bringing our attention to what feels good and enjoyable throughout the day.

Mindfulness means paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, with acceptance. Mindfulness meditation is often taught as a brain exercise, in which you learn to practice concentrating on the present moment, one breath at a time. When your mind inevitably wanders off, you bring it back to the present moment, over and over. Gradually you get better at staying in the here and now for longer stretches of time. Just as importantly, you learn about the types of worries that draw your attention, like a moth to a flame. When you know more about the underlying problems that bother you, you can take better care of yourself while you cope with those challenges.

The point of these exercises is not to disregard all of the information your senses are communicating to you about how you’re doing. For example, body awareness is important for pacing when you live with chronic pain, so that you don’t overdo an activity and trigger a flareup. However, being mindfully aware is different than being hypervigilant. Life can often be easier to handle in the here and now. Sayings like “one problem at a time” and “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” are good reminders about this simple truth. Most anxiety comes from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

It’s all too easy for me to jump from noticing that my neck is sore when I wake up to worrying that I won’t be able to do any computer work next two days and all of my work will have to be put on hold. That might happen, but then again it may not happen. It’s much more productive for me to do what I can in the moment, like taking a warm shower or gently stretching my neck than imagining all of the worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, simply resolving not to jump to conclusions won’t stop your mind from going ahead and jumping ahead anyway. Staying present takes practice.

Mindfulness also opens us up to the sensory experiences and good moments that we typically disregard while we go around on autopilot. Present moment awareness is a natural state of being that we’ve all experienced, perhaps while watching a beautiful sunset, savouring a delicious meal or sharing a poignant moment with a loved one. Often we wish we could be more present, more of the time. Mindfulness makes us feel like we are living our lives to the fullest.

Rick Hanson explains that we can turn these simple pleasures into informal mindfulness practices, by stopping briefly several times during the day. He calls these practices “taking in the good”. The first step is to notice a positive moment – essentially, stop and smell the roses. For example, stopping to recognize a sensory experience like taking your first step of coffee in the morning, enjoying a good hug, or gazing out the window. The moment doesn’t have to be perfect – you’re not waiting for pure bliss, just a moment of appreciation. Or it could take the form of a good feeling, like a small (or big) accomplishment, sharing a laugh with a loved one or playing with your pet. These moments are available to us every day but we normally forget them soon after they happen because, as Hanson says, our brains are “Teflon for good but Velcro for bad.”

The second step is to stay with the sense of enjoyment or appreciation for at least 12 seconds. Mindfully return your attention to your senses if it wanders off. I find it particularly helpful to notice where in my body I have the felt sense of enjoyment, such as a warm feeling in the heart region or a release of tension the neck muscles. Finally, intentionally decide to absorb this positive experience. You could imagine breathing in the good sensations or feelings that accompanied the experience. Hanson suggests visualizing putting the experience inside a box or imagining a warm glow spreading through your chest. I like the idea of imagining stringing a pearl onto a strand, with each one representing recent good experiences.

These practices may sound new age-y or silly but there is research behind them to show how they can change the brain and enhance a sense of overall well-being. The brain is comprised of billions of neuron cells, which signal each other across small gaps called synapses. When we repeatedly engage a neural circuit, it changes the brain: “active synapses become more sensitive, new synapses start growing within minutes, busy regions get more blood since they need more oxygen… [and] the genes inside neurons turn on and off (Hanson).” In contrast, less active neural circuits begin to wither. Intentionally focusing on positive experiences can lower the activity of brain regions that trigger stress and increase the activity of the nervous system associated with well-being. You can ‘use the mind to build the brain’, which is a powerful tool for coping better with chronic illness challenges. Personally, I have found a greater sense of enjoyment in the everyday since I began ‘taking in the good’.

First published in UK Fibro Magazine

Hanson, Rick. 2013. Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment calm, and confidence. Harmony: NY, United States.

Martinez-Martinez LA, Mora T, Vargas A, et al. Sympathetic nervous system dysfunction in fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and interstitial cystitis: a review of case-control studies. J Clinical Rheumatol 2014;20:14650

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/

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.

 

 

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.

Click here to see more reviews on Amazon

Click here for a 40% discount on Memory of Health from Lulu.com

Click here to visit Edie Summers’ website

Mind Games: How I Cope During a Chronic Illness Relapse (Part 2)

 

Coping with chronic illness and fibromyalgia relapse using mindfulness and other mental strategiesIn my last post, I wrote about my fatigue relapse last winter and my present pain progression this winter. My aim in writing these two posts is to share how I cope with illness setbacks, using ‘mind games’, in the hope they help someone else experiencing a relapse.

In essence, what I have learned is that I have the power of choice over what I focus my attention on each day. Through challenging negative patterns of thinking, being present, taking in the good, and pursuing an enjoyable hobby, I try to emphasize what enriches my life and let go of what doesn’t. Of course there are always bad days and I don’t believe any amount of positive thinking frees us from ever experiencing difficult times. I personally have found, however, that changing my worldview has dramatically lessened the amount of suffering I go through during relapses and has improved my quality of life. In Part I, I discussed 1) challenging negative patterns of thinking and 2) cultivating presence.

3) Take in the Good: Are you more likely to remember compliments or criticism?  If you’re like most people, you pick the latter.  That is because the human brain has a built in “negativity bias”, which allows us to learn from and protect ourselves from bad experiences.[i] Unfortunately, it can also make us anxious, irritable and depressed.  One way to rewire your brain so that it takes positive experiences into account, as well as negative, is to be intentional about what Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good”.[ii] This is akin to the old adage to “stop and smell the roses”. The first step is to be mindful of positive moments (to notice the roses) – the taste of a good meal, sharing a laugh with a coworker or hugging your partner. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help with this part, but you can also just start with the intention to take in the good today.  Secondly, pause for 20-30 seconds and focus your attention on enjoying the experience, instead of moving on to the next thing (focus on how pleasant the fragrance of the roses is). Finally, let the positive experience sink into you.  You can do this by visualizing a warm feeling spreading through your torso or by intellectually recognizing that by doing this exercise you’re literally rewiring your brain to tilt towards positive experiences.  If you do this several times a day, you can change the neural pathways in your brain so that positive experiences are ‘registered’ more in your overall outlook on the day.  This practice has been really helpful for my mental and emotional health while I deal of the challenges of chronic illness, especially during a relapse.

4) Pursue an Enjoyable Hobby: After my fatigue relapse, I withdrew from school because it was too demanding. With time on my hands, I decided I wanted to learn something creative. I looked for a hobby that wouldn’t hurt my painful upper back, and eventually settled on modern calligraphy. Last winter, calligraphy practice was often the one activity I did on a daily basis. Seeing my improvement as I wrote out the letters was a bright spot during that difficult period. This time around, I am learning how to digitize my calligraphy, with the hope of opening an Etsy shop sometime next year. Having a sense of personal accomplishment means so much to my mental wellbeing. Dr. Caudill notes that “Some patients feel so bad about their pain and their lack of a ‘productive life’ that they … feel they don’t deserve any pleasure” (2002, p. 83).[iii] Not only is it ok to pursue enjoyable activities, it’s actually critical for your mental health and stress management, which are important components of any treatment regimen. I can’t encourage fellow spoonies enough to find a hobby or creative outlet to focus on during a relapse or flare. Other activities I enjoy include online learning courses (free!) and writing/blogging. In order to get the most out of an enjoyable hobby, be present during these activites. Take in the good moments when you finish a project or learn a new skill. And focus on recognizing what you were able to do today, rather than what you weren’t. Negative thinking habits aren’t changed more easily than any other habit, but routinely practicing positive mental habits is a powerful way to improve your quality of life during a relapse.

[i] http://www.rickhanson.net/take-in-the-good/

[ii] http://www.rickhanson.net/take-in-the-good/

[iii] Margaret Caudill. (2002). Managing Pain Before it Manages You, NY:     Guilford Press.

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

Self-Care as a Mindset: What I Learned at the #SelfCareMvmt Summit

SelfCare Mindset

 

On Monday evening I attended the first ever Self-Care Movement Summit in Toronto, Canada. We arrived at the Mars building, a downtown hub of innovative tech and entrepreneurial companies, to register and enjoy catered refreshments, before taking our seats in the auditorium. The audience, of around 250 people, represented the diversity of the people who live with chronic illness – young and old, with visible and invisible chronic conditions. We were there to listen to a series of panelists and speakers talk about their personal or professional experiences using self-care strategies to meet the everyday challenges of life with chronic illness. As these informative and engaging speakers discussed the multifaceted aspects of this topic, I came to new realization about the meaning of self-care. Self-care is both a set of practical strategies, and a mindset, a particular way of understanding and relating to the activities of everyday life.

The core of the self-care mindset that emerged throughout the evening was acceptance of life with chronic illness. As Margaret Trudeau, the keynote speaker, summed up – coming to the realization that “this is the hand you’ve been dealt and the hand you have to play”. But finding acceptance is a long process. Margaret Trudeau shared her health journey living with bipolar disorder and how she experienced the five stages of grief after her diagnosis – more than once. She said that, in her experience, the first step towards accepting life with chronic illness is forgiving yourself. Your illness is not your fault. During the patient panel, Kirstie Shultz discussed self-care as being kind to yourself, every day. In her presentation on mindfulness practice, Dr. Lucinda Sykes talked about the importance of observing and learning from our daily experiences, without judging ourselves. Overall, humor was woven through many of the talks as a way to live positively with chronic illness. For example, John Bradley named his book on Crohn’s disease the Foul Bowel. Kristen Coppens described her eight illness as a “chronic party”. These insights into the self-care mindset are about relating to ourselves in a new way as we address the daily challenges of life with chronic illness, in a compassionate, forgiving, non-judgmental, humorous way.

The second theme that emerged about self-care as a mindset was finding balance in the activities of everyday life. In the patient panel, Marinette Laureano talked about a holistic approach to her self-care practice, by balancing her faith, family, friends and fun in her daily life. Kirstie Shultz described the zero-sum game of fatigue and chronic illness – working to find the balance between activity and rest. Kristen Coppens discussed the challenges of balancing work and illness. In his talk on this subject, John Bradley discussed achieving success against your own measures, rather than letting your goals be defined by the external world. He described his own experience working with chronic illness, and how he found balance by trying to “be the tortoise and not the hare” in achieving work goals. Balance as part of the self-care mindset is more of an intention rather than a constant state, a learning process of respecting the limitations of chronic illness while participating in the daily activities of life.

The third aspect of the self-care mindset is becoming an advocate in your community. Robert Hawke reminded us that, as patients, we are experts with our own wisdom about our health. Dr. Lucinda Sykes discussed mindfulness as a practice of developing insight about ourselves and cultivating the collective wisdom of people living with chronic illness. She said the summit was a celebration of human potential and our heritage of resiliency down the generations. Grace Soyao, of Self-Care Catalysts, explained that the voices of people living with chronic illness need to be heard and that we have the knowledge to drive change. Change like patient-centred care in the healthcare system, increasing research about chronic illness and reducing stigma about living with chronic mental or physical illness.  It can be hard to share our illness stories. Robert Hawke noted that we prefer to share our shiny selves with the world, rather than our difficulties and challenges. But when we do share our stories and everyday self-care strategies with each other, as Filomena Servidio-Italiano said, “The ordinary becomes extraordinary.” As part of the self-care mindset, advocacy is about self-empowerment, connection with the chronic illness community and society at large, and celebrating the greatness in ordinary accomplishments that we face every day.

Acceptance. Balance. Advocacy. Connection. These are all critical elements of self-care as a mindset and a way of relating to the ordinary activities of daily life with chronic illness. We can learn to pace our efforts, to eat nutritiously, to exercise more, to use practical self-care strategies. These are important wellness tools. But underneath, cultivating a self-care mindset is the key to improving our health and wellbeing as we live with chronic illness.

I want to thank Self-Care Catalysts and Health Storylines for an inspiring and informative evening. I’m looking forward to participating in advocating for self-care as a movement!

 

Back to class: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: holisticgeek)

I am about to go to the second class of my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. In the summer I wrote several posts on reading the Mindfulness Solution to Pain and practicing meditations described in the book.  Mindfulness involves “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the MBSR program. I also posted on research showing how effective mindfulness practice is for chronic pain.

I have really enjoyed doing the assigned “homework” from the first class. The first part was to do a 30 minute body scan from the course CD. (A body scan meditation involves paying attention to different parts of your body for a few moments and observing the sensations you feel). This is the longest meditation I’ve ever done. The practices I have done before were breath meditations, usually only for a max time of 20 minutes. I really like the body scan because I am able to really focus and feel more in touch with what’s going on in my body. I feel like my mind wanders less then when I am doing breath meditation (focusing on your breath). It is very relaxing to have a break from your mind!

Of course, I’m not always in such a good mood when I go to meditate. Before I was meditating when I felt like it, which was usually when I already felt relaxed or calm. The idea of the MBSR program is that you commit to practice seven days a week for eight weeks – as Jon Kabat-Zinn says “you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it”. It sounds a little bit rigid but it’s really important while you are trying to establish meditation has a habit. When you go to practice and you realize you are stressed, agitated, and your mind is wandering everywhere, focusing can seem like the last thing you want to. But that’s when you realize how helpful mindfulness can be! It doesn’t necessarily produce calm every time. It does give you a chance to observe what is going on inside your head. Usually that helps me to figure out a more helpful way of dealing with things then spazzing out, or to recognize stressful patterns of thinking.

One thing I do have to keep working on is not to judge myself when I realized my mind has wandered off or I’m not feeling calmer/better after meditating. As the facilitator of my class says “if you have a mind, it’s going to wander”. You really can’t get into mindfulness with expectations about what it “should” do for you.

The other part of our homework was to try to eat mindfully at least once everyday. It’s really nice to realize how many sensations and moments are available to you if you stop to enjoy them. I love food, cooking and eating. When you realize how many times you just wolf down delicious meals… I always feel like my life is so limited now that I have fibromyalgia, so I think it’s really good for me to realize how much I do have around me to enjoy!