I’ve written extensively here at Autoimmune Wellness about the impacts of stress on our autonomic nervous system and the challenges this can pose for healing. In my practice, I’ve developed a laser-like focus on this topic because it comes up with my clients so consistently. And having an autoimmune disease is in itself a stressor. The progress I see in my clients when they can zero-in on their biggest stresses and work to understand and reduce them is nothing short of remarkable.
One theme I’m noticing with clients lately is the progress that can be made when we focus energy on optimizing our primary relationships. Too often we approach our health with a siege mentality, laying out extensive battle plans to get our food, diet, supplements, and exercise on track. Like military generals, we endlessly strategize over which tactics will work here, what attack we might pursue over there. In the meantime, a critical area of health goes completely neglected, and often suffers: our relationships.
The science is clear: when we are in thriving, connected relationship—and this is not exclusive to romantic relationship—our bodies release oxytocin and promote healing. The inverse is also true, of course. High-tension, disconnected relationships create anger and anxiety, exacerbating our body’s stress response, which in turn prevents healing.
There are all kinds of reasons why stressful emotions go hand in hand with autoimmune disease. Here are some common stressors that I find directly impact our relationships:
- You feel out of control. Talk about bewildering! You don’t feel good physically, and it’s hard to pin down the solutions that could alleviate your symptoms.
- It’s so frustrating! You may even feel pent-up rage due to years and years of not feeling good and not knowing how to navigate your illness.
- You experience grief. Many of my clients report acute sadness that the life they used to enjoy has been stolen from them. They can’t take part in the food, activities, or lifestyle that they used to, and (understandably) they mourn that loss.
- …not to mention chronic anxiety. It’s very common to feel on edge. This makes you less tolerant to conflict, more prone to fear-based reactions, and as though small things can set you off easily. Minor problems quickly balloon into bigger drama and the cycle continues to feed itself.
- You feel insecure and unworthy. “I hate the way my body looks and feels. If I’d done something different this wouldn’t be happening. I’m such a drag, my partner really got the short end of the stick. I’m not worthy of their love…” Any of that sound familiar? When we don’t feel worthy, that emotion plays out in our relationships. It’s easy to spiral into victim mentality from here.
- You experience low sex drive. It’s hard to feel connected and get fired up for intimacy with all these other emotions running amok and unbalanced hormones sabotaging romantic efforts.
- You’re ashamed. Of not being healthy, for taking up time and other resources, for being a drain on the family. Many of my clients tell me they even feel disgusted with themselves.
It’s natural that we look for support from the people we love when experiencing this level of stress. And often we take our emotions out on our loved ones. I think this is because we trust them and we feel safe with them. In turn, I’ve noticed some themes in how partners of those with autoimmune disease react.
Here are some emotions your loved ones might be feeling:
- Confusion and even skepticism. Because autoimmune disease can be sneaky! They may believe you but also be frustrated with the lack of visible symptoms.
- Disconnected from you. They know you aren’t feeling good, and you know you’re not your best self. Even though it’s no one’s fault, the disconnect is still there, and it can cause loved ones to feel lonely.
- Unsure what they can do for you. It can be hard to know when to just listen and when to kick into high gear and try to help find solutions. Also: often, people with autoimmune disease have imbalanced cortisol, which can contribute to lots of crying, without the ability to stop. Not easy to experience, and not easy to console! I often hear that loved ones feel like they have to walk on eggshells and can’t do anything right.
- Financially stressed. Although of course they want you to be well, so many of the treatments and practitioners that can help with autoimmune disease are not typically covered by health insurance. Many of my clients report their spouses feeling stressed out about this aspect of the illness.
All of this emotional upheaval is a very real, very normal part of the cycle with autoimmune disease. If you and your loved ones feel all these things and more: you’re not alone. It makes sense that relationships can be challenged when navigating autoimmune disease. OF COURSE these emotions play out in how we connect with our loved ones! But we can’t overlook the importance of caretaking that connection. In fact, it’s critical to our health.
Tips to navigate relationship stressors and promote healing:
- Practice vulnerability. Most of us would prefer to wear a mask and pretend that everything is okay, but when we do that we don’t allow people into our real experience. We also displace our emotions in other ways, like kicking the dog when you’ve had a bad day at work. It takes some effort, but when you can get in touch with your deep emotions and explore them with a partner, two things happen: you reduce the burden by sharing it, and the sharing itself helps you physically heal. (Remember: emotional connection = oxytocin release = healing!)
- Take responsibility. When you do notice that you’re taking out your pain on your partner, try to pause and identify what’s really going on. For example: “I’m blaming you for being disorganized, but really I’m feeling out of control and anxious today.” It can help to let them know it’s okay to ask you how you’re feeling (particularly if they’ve been having that walking-on-eggshells feeling).
- Ask your partner how they feel. It works both ways! Sit and listen without being defensive. Reassure your partner that they are allowed to have their emotions and that you want to hear them. This practice of empathy paves the way for connection. Try to put yourself in their shoes without getting down on yourself. Remember, the tricky spot you’re in is not your fault.
- Believe in your fundamental worth and value. It’s common to believe that your treatment isn’t worth the time or money or that you yourself aren’t worth healing. Be open and honest if you feel like a financial or an energetic drain. By expressing it, you can release the energy around the issue and both of you may begin to feel better. Never lose sight of your inherent worthiness and value.
- Seek support, both personal and professional, both alone and with your partner. It’s so important to bridge the gap in understanding. We often wait way too long before we ask for professional help. Get help early and don’t feel like a failure for asking for support.
- Take time to just be together. For Pete’s sake, you have to spend some time focusing on what’s going well. So often, autoimmune disease can end up taking over the focus of the moment—but it is important to set it aside sometimes and remember the love that brought you together in the first place. Give compliments that are from the heart. Receive them, too.
- Practice self love. When we obsess about what’s wrong with us, we reject our core selves, which couldn’t be more damaging for our relationships. You’ve heard the old adage that we’re only able to love another person as much as we love ourselves, but it’s true! How does your inner critic talk to you? Would you let ANYONE talk to your spouse or kids that way? Slow down and catch the stories you’re telling yourself. In this way you can start to embrace a narrative that supports you better. And the same goes for the partner, who often neglects their needs in the constant effort to support you.
- Act now. Beware of the tendency to believe that your relationship will be repaired when your autoimmune disease is “healed.” Instead, see your relationship and connection as part of the healing journey. Be proactive. Don’t wait! And, prioritize this support and connection above all.
Need technical assistance? Check out the principles of nonviolent communication. This four-part framework is a great roadmap for getting started, if some of these concepts feel challenging.
I can’t underscore the importance of relationship health enough: it’s absolutely critical for healing. This isn’t a “put it off until I get my diet figured out” kind of thing. It’s foundational to who we are—human beings thrive when connected to each other.
Please share: How do you find ways to put energy into connection and relationship, and reduce emotional stress? I’d love to hear some strategies in the comments from folks who have tried different things. Have you noticed improvement in your symptoms? Share with us!