In autoimmune disease, we often learn the hard way that the decisions we make—about what we put in our body, when to go to bed, which activities to participate in, you name it—have a direct impact on how we feel.
We can go years not giving a rip about any of these things, only to realize as we become aware of our disease that they’ve been playing a major role in how we feel. It’s a huge shift in perspective and it can be so empowering to know that we can make choices to make ourselves feel better.
I’ve noticed a common theme emerging among my clients, though, as a sort of “dark side” to this perspective shift: they get caught up in analyzing every single choice they’ve made and how it makes them feel, worrying that it was “right” or “wrong.” They’re looking for clear cut answers to the questions like:
“I’m experiencing diarrhea today, what did I eat to bring this on?”
“Ugh, I feel bloated. What’s that about?”
“My skin is itchy. Why???”
They get stuck in this obsession, and it can be really problematic. In addition to the Monday morning quarterbacking everything they ate, did, wore, or experienced yesterday, they become fearful of the choices they are making TODAY. They become terrified that eating or doing the “wrong” thing is going to have consequences, and they start keeping score.
“Well, I went out to see friends and didn’t get as much sleep as normal, that’s why I feel like crap today. What should I say about this party I’m invited to tonight?”
“I felt super lethargic this week, I wonder if it’s because I ate shellfish last week. Should I stay away from ALL seafood?”
“I haven’t worked out this week but I’m really tired. Should I go to the gym today, or keep resting?”
Multiply all these by 1,000 and you start to get the idea. Autoimmune message boards and groups online are full of this kind of hand wringing. And while it starts out in the wonderful intention of healing our bodies, this kind of obsession can be based in fear. It’s misleading to think that there is anything black and white about autoimmune disease, as is the idea that we can make 100% right or 100% wrong decisions for ourselves.
Fortunately, we can prevent ourselves from falling into this fear-based “analysis paralysis.” I’ve found a few strategies work really well to bring my clients back down to earth and get them rooted in confident decision-making again.
- Check the shame and self-aggression. When you notice problematic symptoms, take a deep breath before spiraling into self-flagellation. (“GAH! I knew I shouldn’t have had a drink after work—now I feel like shit. This is what I get for trying to have fun with my co-workers! I should have known better! I’m so stupid!”…Sound familiar?) My clients are so quick to judge themselves when they make certain choices. Many of them are high achievers who see perfection as the goal in most pursuits, and when they don’t reach that bar with their health (because how can you?) they spiral into guilt and fear. Build your self-awareness in these moments, and simply notice that you’re beating yourself up. Pause. Then:
- See your life as an experiment. File your crummy symptoms away as purely information, not some kind of verdict about your character. I encourage clients to take the, “How interesting!” approach when they notice a symptom. We’re all learning as we go, and this is simply another bit of information you can use to inform future decision making. If you see your healing process as a learning process, then you’re doing everything right by coloring outside the lines every once in a while.
- Take note of recurring themes and ask for support. Sometimes it’s consistently challenging to make a certain choice that supports healing. For example, every single day I have a hard time going to bed early enough to get adequate rest! It’s an opportunity for me to ask for support to help make the decision I want to make. My spouse can lovingly lend a hand with this, as can my friends. It’s always helpful for me to let others in on these sticky situations, so they understand why I might want to wind down earlier and help me stay accountable. And don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support as well—ask your medical providers, healers, and health coaches to help you make lifestyle changes that will help you reach your goals from a place of love, patience, and commitment.
- Trust yourself. My clients are often seeking any means to control their health because they’re coming from a place of having felt so confused and chaotic in their disease process. But there’s a lot to be said for just making a decision—“I’m going to enjoy just one helping of my grandma’s famous potato salad at the picnic, and fill the rest of my plate with foods that make me feel good”—and sticking with it. Don’t spend more time than necessary sitting in indecision. Embrace that you may not know the outcome of a certain choice, and that’s okay. You’ll feel better from making decisions in a place of peace and calm than hemming and hawing endlessly and making the choice from a place of stress.
Longtime readers in the Autoimmune Wellness community won’t be surprised to hear me draw connections between this process of decision-making stress and the healing power of the nervous system. When we approach our choices from a place of fear—instead of love and compassion for ourselves—we sabotage the body’s power to heal because we throw the autonomic nervous system into a sympathetic (stress) response. When we meet choices from a place of love, trust, acceptance, and abundance, we harness the healing power of the parasympathetic nervous state.
This provides powerful motivation to get clear in our decision-making process. When we don’t stress endlessly about our daily choices, we not only get to experience less stress, but we also promote our body’s ability to heal itself.