“When my body finally feels good…
“When I have energy again…
“When I lose 20 pounds……
“When I can think more clearly…
“When I’m not so overwhelmed and stressed…
“When I can exercise again…
…that’s when I’m going to be happy.”
This concept, or a version of it, is a trap that we can easily get caught in—and it’s easy to understand why. We convince ourselves that we’ll experience health, vitality, and happiness when our illness is gone: “When I heal I will be happy. When my autoimmune disease is gone I will be healthy and I can finally start living again.” Sound familiar?
As you may recall from my other posts, part of my journey as a healthcare professional includes the 12 years I spent as a hospice nurse. I helped folks live comfortably at the end of their lives so they could spend their last days, weeks, and months living well, connecting deeply, and focusing on what mattered most. Commonly, I’d hear patients look back at their lives with regret that they hadn’t lived from a place of meaning and purpose—and this often spurred some really inspiring actions in the time they did have left.
It is the ultimate wake up call to be told that you might not see next month or next year. I learned again and again through my patients that our time is limited and I have a choice to live life now, not putting off until tomorrow what I desperately yearn for today. In my last post, we talked about the key to healing from autoimmune disease: a mindset of empowerment. Today, I want to share how that kind of healing is within your reach right now.
Ways of Being vs. Doing
Avoiding the victim attitude and embracing a mindset of empowerment is all about choosing your way of being. We always have a choice in how we show up in the world—and deferring our happiness to our future selves is an active decision not to be content now. Contentment and joy are NOT equivalent to health and wealth. We can still tap into joy even while we’re grinding through a tough diagnosis or dealing with problematic symptoms.
Okay, but how???
Connecting the Autonomic Nervous System with Living Life Now
I recently worked with a client who—even though she was following the Autoimmune Protocol and had eliminated problematic foods from her diet—continued to experience some nagging symptoms of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Her fatigue was so intense and persistent that she struggled to get out of bed most mornings. She was so overwhelmed with fatigue that she felt like a stranger in her own body, and the constant anxiety caused her to frequently break down in tears. She was very career-focused and all her energy was devoted to proving her worth at work. She came to me wanting help alleviating her symptoms so that she could live her life again. When I asked her, “If you died tomorrow, would you be satisfied with your life?” her answer was a resounding “no”.
The cocktail of increased work hours and increased work stressors combined with reduced sleep and reduced time for connection with friends and family had created a vicious cycle, exacerbating her symptoms. She was always anxious, working early and late hours, often seven days a week. Her body was spending too much time with the autonomic nervous system in a sympathetic state and not nearly enough time resting and recuperating for her body to be able to heal itself.
To review from previous articles: when we’re in the flow of life and living from a place of trust, freedom, possibility, passion, and confidence, our bodies naturally spend more time in a parasympathetic state. This is the place where our body can recuperate and heal. When we are fighting against life in resistance, fear, anxiety, worry, scarcity, and frustration, we trigger our autonomic nervous system’s “fight or flight,” or sympathetic, state. Cortisol (the stress hormone) and inflammation abound in this state because our body is doing everything it can to survive against perceived threats. Being stressed and anxious actively sabotages your attempts to physically heal.
Accessing the parasympathetic state and making your current life better reflect your values can look a lot of different ways: Not settling for status quo, applying for your dream job, finally going back to school so you can work towards the career you yearn for, slowing down and smelling the roses—simply watching your kids play, or snuggling with a partner can all fall under this umbrella. It’s about following what brings the most joy to your heart, what lights you up. Consider how you’d reshape your schedule if you were given a month to live. Why doesn’t your life look more like that right now? If your daily existence is filled with negative self talk, anxiety, fear, and stress, the autonomic nervous system is working against your healing process.
My client and I worked together to identify life priorities—including thriving in relationship, feeling proud and happy at work, and having clear job expectations—and then built a strategy so that she could start to decrease her work hours and reshape priorities. These were systemic shifts, which took commitment and were difficult to implement. They required trust in herself and vulnerability with those around her. I’m happy to report that this client is continuing to crush at work and remains a reliable and effective team player, but is working much less and spending more time in the week doing other things she loves. She took action to make her life count now and stopped waiting for her countless symptoms to be managed first. This directly led to the biggest improvements in her disease process—she began healing when she chose to live life NOW, like every moment matters.
Another client was dealing with eczema, chronic diarrhea, and digestive issues including gas and bloating. She was also living a high-intensity work life with inconsistent hours. At one point, when she was experiencing uncontrolled symptoms, she went on a family vacation. On vacation she was connecting with people she loved and was completely unplugged from her job. She was shocked when she realized that her symptoms had quickly dissipated, even while indulging in many foods that had been problematic before! When she returned to her daily life, so did the skin problems, diarrhea, and digestive troubles.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to “choose happiness” when you’re dealing with chronic diarrhea. But this client was up to the challenge after her vacation proved to her that her physical health depends on it. She knew she needed to take action and find a way to create more peace in her life. For her, that meant finding another job and moving to a geographic location she could connect with. She has learned that suffering her way through a miserable life was preventing her body from healing.
Finding Your Agency in Order to Make Change
Once a client has that “lightbulb moment”—whether it’s considering the legacy they want to leave behind or experiencing relief from a change of pace, or something else entirely—it’s important to keep up the momentum. When I’m trying to create change in my own life, I often need the outside perspective and guidance of a trusted friend, family member, or coach. It can be so hard to identify action steps all on my own!
However, through this process of supported transformation, I always end up feeling more solidified in my mindset of empowerment. Whether the change is internal, like reshaping my mindset, or external, like a job shift or move, the result is the same: my agency in the process is reaffirmed and I’ve shifted the negative vicious cycle into a positive, generative one.
My hospice experience forces me to keep mortality and quality of life at the forefront of my thinking, and I’ve watched the power of purpose, meaning and full-on showing up for life actually catapult people with autoimmune disease into healing they never experienced before. My clients report the same transformative shift when they’re able to tap into the parasympathetic state by reducing stressors in their lives, even in some cases sharing that this process has saved their lives.
I’m curious: what are some ways that you’ve actively chosen happiness in your present, rather than deferring it to your future self? What were some of the physical and emotional benefits of that shift? Share in the comments below!