Archive for December, 2009

What small New Year’s Resolution Can You Make To Improve Your Life?

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Those of us who have chronic illnesses usually want to change our lives in major ways. We want our pain to go away, we want to be able to eat a normal diet, and we want the fatigue to go away so that we have all the energy we used to have. In short, we want all of our symptoms to go away so can have the quality of life we had before we became ill.

Most people with chronic illnesses spend a lot of time thinking about all those changes we want, which is completely understandable since so many of us have symptoms that are very painful and difficult to live with.

But in doing that, we can-and often do-overlook the many small things we can do to improve the quality of our lives. And some of those small things can result in big improvements.

One experiment I’ve read about that was carried out many years ago made me realize the difference small things can make. Researchers Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin divided the residents of a nursing home into two groups, and introduced very small changesĀ  into the lives of those in the experimental group. They were given the option of seeing a weekly movie and a choice of two nights on which to see it. They were given the choice about whether to see visitors in their rooms, the lounge, or outside, and they were given the responsibility of taking care of a houseplant. Only one change was introduced into the lives of those in the control group: they too were given houseplants, but they were told that nursing home staff people would take care of them.

The difference in the quality of life between the experimental group and the control group was dramatic. Those in the former were much happier, and their mortality rate for the 18 months following the experiment was half that of the other group.

The results of that experiment don’t mean you should stop wanting your illness to go into remission, but they do demonstrate that small changes can lead to big improvements.

Since the new year is only a few days away, I will leave you with this question: what small New Year’s Resolution do you want to make – and keep?

How You Are Isn’t As Important As How You Feel

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

If you are reading my blog, chances are you have a chronic illness. And if I asked you how you are, you would likely tell me that you’re sick, that you’re having a flare, that you’re in pain, or something like that. Because I’m a life coach for people with chronic illnesses, I have asked many people that question and have gotten many answers similar to the ones I just mentioned.

But when I ask people with chronic illnesses how they feel, I get answers that aren’t at all the same or similar. Some people say they feel bad, depressed, upset, or sad, while others say that they feel good, positive, grateful, optimistic, and things like that. I find myself wondering why some people with chronic illnesses feel good while others don’t, and wondering even more about what those who feel those negative emotions can do to feel more of the positive ones.

Before I continue, I want to say that I don’t consider it to be a sign of weakness for a person to feel bad or sad when he or she has a chronic illness. Since having a chronic illness very often means 1) living with pain and fatigue, 2) not being able to things that we enjoy and used to be able to do, and 3) not being able to explain to others what living with our illness is like so they understand it, it’s completely understandable that a person with a chronic illness would feel depressed, upset, etc.

But even though feeling negative emotions is understandable, I have no doubt that most of us who live with a chronic illness would choose to FEEL better if we could. And the truth is that we can. There are many things we can do – so many that I could write a book. Actually, I am writing a book, and I’ll let you know when it’s available so you can get it if you want to.

In the meantime, here are a couple of ways you can FEEL better even though you have a chronic illness and aren’t well:

The first is to recognize that feelings, including negative ones, are transitory. They come and they can go, but only if we let them. One thing you can do is to imagine that you’re a house, and that feelings come in with the wind through an open window. If the window on the other side of the house is closed, the feelings will stay, but if you visualize yourself opening that other window, the feelings will pass through and leave.

The second way is not for everyone, but many of you will find it very helpful. That is to schedule a time each day for negative feelings – for example, from 2:00 until 2:15 every afternoon. If you notice yourself having negative feelings before that time, just set them aside until then. And any negative feelings after 2:15 are to be set aside until the following afternoon.

While these ideas won’t directly improve your health, they can be a great help in lifting your feelings. I will share more ideas in a later post. If you would like some suggestions for your own challenges, you can sign up for one of the limited number of no cost introductory “How to Have a Better Life” coaching sessions I offer.

I’ll close by saying Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and Happy Holidays everyone!

Have You Given Your Symptoms Names?

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Have you named your illness symptoms? That may sound like an odd question, but there are some very good reasons for giving your symptoms names. One of them is this: when you give one of your symptoms a name, such as Gertrude or Elmer, you separate yourself from it. When you do that, you are much less likely to identify with it, which makes it possible to step back and see ways for dealing with it and managing its effects on your life that you otherwise couldn’t.

Here’s an example of what I mean: if you have a severe migraine, you may say to a friend or to yourself that you’ve been having awful migraine pain. But when you do this, you can easily feel like a victim. If instead, you tell your friend or yourself that “Sylvester” has been acting up and making himself felt, you don’t make it personal, so you are much less likely to feel like a victim.

A related benefit of naming your symptoms is that it allows you to communicate with them. You can write to them and tell them how they’ve affected your life, and you can tell them how you have felt, and continue to feel, with them them. When you do that, you will probably find that you feel a sense of relief and even freedom.

You can also talk to and even have a conversation with “Sherlock” or “Agnes” (or whatever you’ve named your symptoms). When you do, besides telling them how you feel about them, you can ask them if there is anything they want you to know. You can ask them what are the things you do and the situations that make them worse and you can ask them what changes you can make to lessen their severity and minimize their impact on your life.

You can learn about other ideas for living your best possible life when you have a chronic illness in my free report: “How to Have a Chronic Illness Without Letting it Have You.”

Do You Have an Identity Crisis?

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Many of the people I work with have told me that besides taking away some–or many-of the abilities they had when they were healthy, and besides bringing unpleasant and painful symptoms into their lives, their chronic illness caused them to question who they are.

Before their diagnosis, they saw themselves as competent, active, productive, and engaged partners, spouses, parents, and friends. Then they become ill and lots of things changed. They couldn’t do all the things they formerly could, and they often become dependent on others. Also, they sometimes grieved for the person they no longer were and wondered, sometimes for a long time, who the person was that they became.

If any of what I’ve described also applies to you, the first thing I will say is my mantra for everyone with a chronic illness: give yourself LOTS of compassion – compassion for yourself for any grief you have for the person you no longer are, as well as compassion for all the difficulties that having a chronic illness has brought into your life.

Here’s some information that may surprise you: there is another group of people who often go through identity crises when their lives change. I learned from a prominent chronic pain doctor, who has a revolutionary method for treating certain kinds of chronic pain, that many of his patients resist getting well. They resist because they have gotten used to, and have identified with, being a person with chronic pain. This doctor has found that his patients usually need lots of counseling or therapy in addition to the treatments he gives them.

From the stories that doctor told about his patients, it’s clear to me that people have a hard time, i.e., an identity crisis, when their life circumstances and their roles change. But I’ve learned, both from my own life and from working with my clients, that our true identity goes much deeper than our being healthy or sick, being “productive” or disabled (I put quotes around the word productive because I think it’s a quality that is often overrated), or being self sufficient or dependent on others.

But changes in our lives and circumstances, such as having a chronic illness, give us an opportunity to examine our identity that we otherwise wouldn’t have. For example, we often discover more compassion for others within us than we realized was there. We may discover that the things that are important to us are different from what we thought they were.

I could say a lot more about the identity crisis that many go through when they have a chronic illness, but for now I’ll close by saying that I would love to get your thoughts and experiences about any self-identity struggles and changes you’ve had since you’ve had a chronic illness. If you go to share your self identity thoughts, I will include your comments in later post about this topic.