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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The Pet Prescription: How a Stray Cat Named Sara Helped Me Learn To Be Braver & To Live More Fully Each Day, Despite Chronic Illness

I’m glad I didn’t listen to that voice of doubt in the back of my mind when it came to adopting a stray tabby named Sara. In a strange way, taking care of her has been an act of self-care for myself. She has become a part of our family and, besides all of the health benefits of adopting her, I think it’s the healing power of companionship and optimism that pets like Sara offer us most.

THE PET PRESCRIPTION: HOW A STRAY CAT NAMED SARA HELPED ME LEARN TO BE BRAVER & TO LIVE MORE FULLY EACH DAY DESPITE CHRONIC ILLNESS

 

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Hello, I’m Sara, and I’m an affectionate, but shy, 3-year-old grey tabby. I like pillow forts, spying out the window and perching on your shoulder when you sleep.

Just over a year ago, we adopted a cat named Sara who is an affectionate, but shy, two-year-old grey tabby. Adopting a pet is good for your wellbeing. Pets enrich our lives and the benefits can be measured in health improvements: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets… can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. They can also increase opportunities for getting exercise and engaging in outdoor activities, as well as provide more opportunities for socializing with others” (Confronting Chronic Pain).

 

In particular, contact with animals has been found to benefit people living with chronic pain. For example, visits with therapy dogs at a pain management clinic was found to reduce pain and emotional distress in patients, as well as improve the emotional well-being of friends and family members who were there with them (Confronting Chronic Pain). Pets help reduce pain and stress, as well as give their humans companionship, and a sense of purpose.

One of the things I’ve learned from living with cats and dogs is that they wake up each morning optimistic about what the day ahead will bring. We see that in their excitement to play, their contentment snoozing in the sun and in their demonstrations of affection. They live fully hour to hour. When we share in those moments with them, some of that optimism inevitably wears off on us too. We love our pets and take care of them, as they take care of us.

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Lily was our 18 year old tuxedo cat. She loved playing goalie with tossed toys, petting sessions and sleeping on clean laundry.

Before we adopted Sara, we had a lovely 18-year-old black and white ‘tuxedo’ cat named Lily who lived to eighteen. She was originally my husband’s cat, and initially treated me like an interloper. But since fibromyalgia kept me at home, I became her constant daytime companion, the giver of treats and nearest available warm lap. We became friends and, eventually, family . She was always there for me on the hardest days when I felt unwell, and it meant a lot to me that I was able to be there for her in her golden years. The companionship and affection of a pet is an invaluable comfort during a fibromyalgia flare.

 

Our newest addition to the family, Sara, was abused in her first home and then went to a high-kill shelter. She was fostered by an animal rescue organization until we adopter her. The agency wanted to place her in a peaceful and quiet environment. That describes life at home with fibromyalgia to a tee. Living with a chronic illness necessitates a slow pace of life. I sleep late, wake up slowly with breakfast, coffee and the news; stretch and meditate; spend the afternoon writing and on the computer, with nap breaks in between; then I go for a walk when my husband comes from work; and we spend the evening together catching up on our favourite shows. Sara has lots of company, plenty of time for cuddles, and no one interrupts her cat naps. I gain companionship, the endless amusement that cats can provide (like watching non-stop cat videos) and the enjoyment of taking care of something other than my health.

As a person with chronic illness, living in a society obsessed with productivity, I often feel like a round peg in a square hole. My goals include learning to savour the small moments, staying present more of the time, and learning to take more time off and push myself less. The goals of my friends include career success, homeownership and completing their first triathlon next year. For them life is busy busy busy and for me it’s the opposite. There’s something wonderful about the fact that Sara fits into my lifestyle like a round peg in a round hole. My slow pace of life at home has been the exact right safe and healing environment she needed. Watching her learn to trust us and become confident enough to cuddle, sleep on our clean laundry, get into trouble and generally boss us around is such a bright spot in each day.

When you live with a health condition that’s lifelong, it’s easy to become habitually cautious about anything new – after losing many of my abilities, I have a lot of self-doubt about what I’m capable of. When we saw Sara’s picture and read her story online, I was torn between hoping we could provide her with the right home and the creeping doubt of trying anything new that people who live with chronic illness develop over time. I worried about the differences between looking after a geriatric cat you know well and an energetic two-year-old cat you’ve just met. Writing the animal rescue coordinator to start the adoption process was a spontaneous act of bravery and optimism.

Of course, there are things that I reasonably should not attempt to do because they will leave me feeling awful, such as working full time or attempting a triathlon. But that there are other things that I reasonably could attempt to do, but worry or a lack of confidence sometimes makes me hesitate. I’m glad I didn’t listen to that voice of doubt when it came to adopting Sara. In a strange way, taking care of her has been an act of self-care for myself. She has become a part of our family and, besides all of the health benefits of adopting her, I think it’s the healing power of companionship and optimism that pets like Sara offer us most.

Confronting Chronic Pain:

http://www.confrontingchronicpain.com/can-a-pet-help-with-your-chronic-pain/

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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

My Fibromyalgia Story: Learning How to Manage One Day at a Time

my story

Part I: From Onset to Diagnosis

For Fibromyalgia Awarenss Month, I wanted to share my illness journey here on the the blog. My story starts eight years ago. It wasn’t a climactic beginning. It was just achey low back pain that got worse the longer I sat writing my M.A. thesis. It seemed like a common enough problem to have, except for the fact that I was 23. The nurse told me to take ibuprophen 24/7 and stretch. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. About a year later, my body gradually began to fall apart, limb by limb. My back pain worsened. My knee gave out. My shoulders become too painful to allow me to type. This is what the doctors call “gradual onset”.

I thought I was losing my mind.

My doctor at the time told me all she could do was suggest Robaxacet. At this point I was starting my PhD. The physical demands of reading and writing 24/7 began to take their toll, exacerbating my pain. Daily functioning on my own became increasingly difficult. My fiancé (now husband), who was living 4 hours away,  had to come every weekend to help me with the chores (groceries, cleaning, etc.) that I could no longer do.  In retrospect, I think the stress of the program and my fear about not being able to meet expectations, as well as not being able to understand what was happening to me, pushed my body past the point of no return. After that I developed more of the classic fibromyalgia symptoms, like insomnia, fatigue and digestive problems.

I was fortunate to have been referred previously to a pain clinic for pelvic pain. This meant I was able to see a pain specialist for my musculoskeletal pain within the same year all my fibro symptoms exploded. In March 2012 he diagnosed me with fibromyalgia.

Part II: Change, Anxiety and Trying to Cope

I was so relieved after my diagnosis that my symptoms had been validated – and given better medication than NSAIDs. I was given tramadol, which reduced my pain, and doxepin, which helped me to sleep. But I still hadn’t absorbed yet what this diagnosis would mean for my future. After my diagnosis, it became obvious that even with treatment, no amount of accommodations would allow me to continue my PhD. I had tried everything I could think of so I could stay – withdrawn from my TA position, put in place disability accommodations to allow me to submit work late, bought expensive adaptive devices and installed voice recognition software.

Feeling like my life was spinning out of control, I started having panic attacks on campus. When the spring term ended, I went back home to move in with my fiancé, and decided to withdraw from the PhD program.

With huge relief, I  went on medical leave from my studies. However, I was immediately confronted by the problem that my days were empty of activity or responsibility. I remember dragging myself out to a local cafe in the afternoons while my fiancé was at work. I wanted the anonymity of a public place, where I could feel ‘normal’ for awhile. It was the only cafe I could go to because the chairs were sensible rather than funky.  Still, I had to bring my back-rest with me, which generated stares from other patrons.  I would cover it with my coat in order to try to hide it from attention. I could no longer type or hold a book due to pain, so I was embarrassed to be sitting at a table without a laptop or reading material, like everyone else. I listened to audiobooks or free online course video lectures instead. I would set up my tablet so that it looked like I was working, rather than listening and staring around. I envied all the other people my age, surrounded by papers, purposely tapping away on their computers. The goals that I had been pursuing were on pause, indefinitely. I grieved for my old life. I pushed myself to go to the cafe, even on days I experience brain-fog or fatigue, because staying home felt like giving up. I spent that year in a state of shock. I was always someone whose identity was wrapped up in my work. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Part III: Learning Self-Care Skills to Manage my Fibro

Gradually I started trying to put the pieces back together. When I got diagnosed with my chronic condition all the information about exercise seemed so out of touch with the reality of my life. At the time, I had trouble bending forward, which meant I needed help with basic tasks like shaving my legs. I had trouble getting up or down from sitting on the floor. I rarely took the stairs and had trouble walking or standing for longer than ten minutes. Since I was already tired, sore and busy then I wasn’t going to be able to go to the gym. I couldn’t afford a personal trainer. With my back pain there was no way I could participate in the group yoga classes I used to take in university. Even more frustrating was the fact that all the research I came across proved how beneficial exercise is to health. I knew that I should exercise but I felt like I couldn’t.

I found two at-home instructional DVDs in yoga/pilates and tai chi that I was actually able to do, which helped me to improve my physical functioning. I started seeing a physiotherapist who put together a thorough stretching routine for me to do daily. Without doubt, this is the single most effective thing I tried to improve my health and well-being. My pain decreased and my quality of life increased.

I was fortunate to be referred to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program by my pain clinic. I found participating in the course very valuable for learning tools to  manage the negative thoughts and feelings that accompanied my fibromyalgia. 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 learned that I tend to think in “all or nothing” terms – a cognitive distortion. I would say to myself things like “if I can no longer pursue my career, I am a failure in life”. In CBT, I learned to challenge these distortions with the reality of each situation. For example, in response to the statement above, I challenged it by saying “While being in pain means I have to do less, that does not reflect on my personal worth, nor does it mean what I can do is meaningless”.

I was also referred for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course by the pain clinic. In this course, I learned to be more mindful of the present moment. I learned that worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, only makes me suffer more in the present.  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. Critically, the MBSR course reminded me that, even with pain and flare-ups, there are small moments of enjoyment, if I only stop and notice them – the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favourite hobby. One of the key lessons I learned through mindfulness is that my thoughts, feelings and sensations, no matter how difficult, are changeable, like the weather. When I hold on to the fact that even my darkest moods will eventually lift, I feel calmer and more in control.

Part IV: Coping with Relapse

In 2014 I started a part time distance program for social work and completed the first year. But it wasn’t to be. I got a cold over the 2015 holidays and suffered the worst fatigue and brain fog I’d ever known. At the time I was just starting to look for a social work practicum placement. There was no way I could commit to working 15 hours a week out of my home. For the second time I had to withdraw from school.

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. 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. I spent that winter using the time to learn new things. I taught myself calligraphy, I read, and I wrote more often on my blog.

Part V: Moving Forward, Maintaining Balance

That spring, my energy began to slowly improve. I found a kind of peace in accepting that whatever I do next, it needs to allow me to work with my body and not against it. I think that’s why blogging and writing has ‘clicked’ more for me now than when I first started. I have found that grieving for your old life and finding acceptance in your new life is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done kind of thing.

Being at home allows me to respond to each day as it is. I’m fortunate to be able to stay at home. I sleep in late because without ten hours I am a brain-fogged zombie. I can’t type because of shoulder pain but I can use speech recognition software. I stretch, do gentle exercise, walk, and make sure I move around during the day. I balance my activities with self-care, which is how I am able live more fully, even with fibromyalgia.

In the summer of 2015 I felt well enough to finally plan my (fibro-friendly) wedding. On a beautiful August day I married the man I’d fallen madly in love with eight years earlier and who has been my saving grace through this whole journey.  He didn’t blink when it came to assuming care-giving responsibilities – he does the housework, the laundry and the dishes on top of his full time job. He is always understanding when we have to change plans or just stay at home. Most of all he is so supportive. He celebrates the small accomplishments of my life without ever making me feel ‘less than’.

I’m grateful for how I’ve grown through encountering all of the challenges that come with chronic illness. Learning mindfulness meditation and focusing on the present has given me a more helpful perspective. I’m a happier person when I remember to ‘stop and smell the roses’. I feel like I’ve become more patient, more adaptable, more assertive and more accepting than I was before fibromyalgia.  I’m proud of making it through every day, especially on the tough days where no amount of self-care stops your symptoms, and you just have to hold on to the knowledge that it will pass. Everyone living with chronic illness should be proud of the strength they have developed to manage daily life.

My new motto is something I read shortly after my diagnosis –  “It’s not the life you imagined, but it’s a good life nonetheless.” It’s something I hope for myself and everyone who lives with fibromyalgia.

National-Fibromyalgia-Awareness-Day-May-12

Self-Care for Chonic Illness: Research Round-up

Research Roundup

Part of being a health nerd means enjoying reading research. As a health nerd and a blogger I figured I should start a series of the most interesting recent research on chronic conditions. Learning about self-care has been an important part of my health journey, as well as a source of enjoyment for my inner nerd. So here is the first installment of my Research Roundup series, organized by self-care skills – Lifestyle, Exercise,  Attitude, and Nutrition. I hope this encourages you to make self-care part of your health journey! #SelfCareMvmt

  • Lifestyle: A recent Australian study investigated the most effective strategies for improving sleep among an elite women’s basketball team. The results may help you prioritize which strategies to try if you suffer from insomnia or poor quality sleep. The most effective bedtime routines were: turning off all electronic devices at least an hour before bed (that includes your phone), practicing mindfulness or meditation, and sleeping in a cool environment. These strategies were found to improve sleep and performance on the court.
  • Exercise: A New York Times editorial recently argued that moving more, not weight loss, is the cause of the dramatic health benefits of exercise demonstrated in hundreds of research studies. From arthritis, to cardiovascular disease, to Parkinson’s, to chronic fatigue syndrome, to depression, a massive meta-analysis found that exercise improved health and well-being among all these chronic conditions. It’s no wonder that the Academy of Medical Roil Colleges calls exercise a ‘miracle cure’. But moving more, as the editorial pointed out, does not require shedding blood sweat and tears. Instead, researchers recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. This could involve walking your dog or walking laps around your living room, cycling at the gym or gardening at home, doing seated tai chi by following an instructional DVD or vacuuming your house.
  • Attitude: Forgiveness can protect your health from the negative effects of stress, according to a new study. Researchers assessed 148 participants in terms of stressful life experiences, mental and physical health, and their tendency to forgive. As expected, high levels of lifetime stress correlated with worse health outcomes. Unexpectedly, a high tendency towards forgiveness eliminated the negative impacts of stress on health. In other words, forgiveness of yourself and others acts as a buffer against stress, eliminating the connection between stress and mental or physical illness. Interestingly, forgiveness is a trait that can be cultivated. Prior research has demonstrated that briefly praying or meditating on forgiveness can increase your ability to be forgiving in close relationships.
  • Nutrition: A new study weighs in on the debate about whether eating grains is good for you. You may be familiar with the paleo diet. Its proponents argue that the human digestive system has not evolved beyond the hunter-gatherer diet. Grains, they argue, are a modern invention evolutionarily speaking, and wreak havoc in the human body, whether through causing inflammation or exacerbating autoimmune conditions. On the other side of the debate, researchers argue that grains provide necessary nutrients, fiber and energy. This study comes down on the latter side of the argument. An international team found that a higher consumption of whole grains correlated with a lower risk of chronic disease and premature death from all causes. Three servings of whole grains per day (90 g/day) was associated with a 22% reduction cardiovascular disease risk, 15% reduction of cancer risk and 51% reduction in diabetes risk. It is important to know that no benefits were associated with intake of refined/processed grains or from white rice. (If you are interested in how to differentiate whole grain from refined grain products, follow this link).

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Photo by Lukasz Zajac

Shared to Fibro Friday Link-up at the Fibro Blogger Directory and Chronic Friday Linkup

Thoughts on Chapter 1, Mindfulness Solution to Pain

This is blog post number two about my journey reading The Mindfulness Solution to Pain by Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix and Lucie Costin-Hall. In the first chapter the authors try to answer the question: why are some people more prone to disease, chronic pain or poor healing than others? The key take away from this chapter is that a combination of genetic predisposition and childhood stressors increase the probability that challenging life events in adulthood can activate illness or prolong healing. The underlying mechanism is the stress-response system, which is an important part of the mind-body connection.

Nature: Some of us are born with genes that predispose us to certain diseases, such as psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis. However, we  may not “express” those genes unless adverse life experiences trigger them. Others may be born with a genetic makeup that makes them a “highly sensitive person”. This is based on the work of Elaine Aron, who has demonstrated a biological basis for a highly sensitive personality trait, which includes having a sensitive nervous system, being aware of subtleties in the environment and being overwhelmed in very stimulating surroundings.* Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix argues that being highly sensitive can also mean being more sensitive to pain (supported by genetic research that shows that variations in the COMT gene can produce higher pain sensitivity in certain individuals). Furthermore, highly sensitive persons may be more negatively affected later in life by adverse events in their childhood. This discussion completely resonated with me – all my life people have told me that I’m too sensitive. Sensitive to too much light, too much noise, too many people, lack of sleep, lack of food, criticism, other people’s suffering, and now pain and touch… After I finish this book, I’d like to go on and read Elaine Aaron’s book, because I think it might explain a lot (I’m sure other chronic pain patients identify with this personality trait too).
Secondly, the authors talk about the negative physical effects of chronic stress. The stress response cycle includes increased heart rate, breathing, tensing muscles and increasing energy, while also slowing down the immune system and the gastrointestinal system. Stress can then slow healing, disrupt sleep and eventually disrupt your body’s ability to restore itself – leading to anxiety, depression, muscle tension, diarrhea and/or constipation, weight gain or loss, headaches, fatigue, and poor concentration, among other problems (Caudill, pg. 46). In turn, all these consequences of stress can worsen the perception of pain. In particular, I think that the stress – immune relationship is really important for fibromyalgia patients to keep in mind, in light of recent research that shows that people with fibromyalgia have immune depression at the cellular level.

Nurture: This book emphasizes that childhood stress is an important contributing factor to chronic pain in adulthood. This section was hard for me to read because it forced me to go back and re-examine difficult things that happened while I was young. The authors argue that childhood stressors can even affect gene expression, cause a weakened immune system or sensitize your nervous system to go on high alert “easily and frequently”. Challenging life events in childhood, parental deficiency, or poor parental role modeling can all affect a person’s ability to cope with stress as an adult. One of the core reasons is that negative emotional patterns or highly stressful thinking trigger the nervous system, and can cause a cascade of negative bodily effects through the stress response system. In my own childhood, my parents had an ugly divorce before I was five, which was characterized by loud,  angry fights, betrayals, and ultimately, nervous breakdowns. Although my parents each went on to recover and start over, the uncertainty and hostility left lasting scars. I thought I had left that all behind, and went on to become what Dr. Jackie calls the “superwoman high achiever”, determined never to make the same mistakes my parents made. Dr. Jackie says that a critical childhood caregiver can lead to this pattern of behavior. She says that the decreased function caused by an injury or disease in adulthood can, in turn, lead to anxiety about not getting ahead, causing greatly increased anxiety and heightened stress response, which can further prolong disability. This almost exactly describes my last year in which I went from starting a difficult graduate school program to crashing and burning because I tried to stick it out, even though my body was slowly falling apart due to my worsening fibromyalgia. I definitely made things worse by continuing, and causing more damage to my body – eventually getting to the point of having panic attacks because of the growing gap between what was expected and what I could do. Now I know that the high degree of anxiety was probably affecting my immune system, and impairing my ability to heal.

The book explains that mindfulness can help to repair the mind-body connection by helping you to manage stress and overcome negative emotional patterns of thought. I can’t wait to begin to learn these tools and a little bit more about what mindfulness means. Hopefully my blog post will be more about my personal experiences, and less about summarizing in the near future!

Caudill, Margaret A. (2009). Managing Pain Before it Manages You. TheGuilford Press: New York, New York.

Gardner-Nix, Jackie & Lucie Costin-Hall. (2009). The Mindfulness Solution to Pain. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, CA.