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A few months ago, I shared some of the lessons on wellness and whole health that I learned from my time as a hospice nurse, renewed through the experience of my cousin Jim’s passing. In conversation with Jim as he was ailing and grieving the loss of a life cut short, I was reminded how important it is to fill our days with activities that reflect our core values. I remain grateful for the lesson that no matter how closely we watch our diets and exercise routine, to neglect our emotional and spiritual needs leads to poor health.
That article sparked some interesting comments and discussion with readers, particularly with regard to a positive mindset around autoimmune disease. As one reader with Hashimoto’s told me, her diagnosis led to living in a state of fear: “I found I lived in my head all the time. Worried all the time. I saw everything as a possible trigger. Everything was toxic. I looked in the mirror and saw Hashimoto’s, not myself. My environment became my enemy.”
It’s a natural response, even though it certainly sounds miserable to say it out loud. After diagnosis, we want so badly to find and fix the problem in order to live a happier and healthier life. The best defense is a good offense, we reason, so we become expert tacticians to isolate what’s harming us and cut it out of our lives. But as this reader found, fear—in addition to the physiological damage caused by stress—can throw powerful mental fuel on whatever may be ailing us.
When we spend our time focusing on fear-based questions—“Am I always going to feel this way? What if I can’t solve this? Am I strong enough to follow my diet? Can I trust this advice? How can I spend time with my friends now, if I can’t eat what they eat?”—we create the perfect environment for inflammation in the body, allowing disease to thrive and exacerbating the very symptoms we’re trying to combat.
Fortunately, there are some simple antidotes to this process. It takes some effort, but we can step off the hamster wheel and zero in on a sense of optimism, creating the ideal mental state for healing. One reader shared some books that inspired her to live a more rich and vibrant life while managing her Hashimoto’s, including Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani. This memoir chronicles the author’s journey through fighting cancer, surviving a near-death experience, and healing her body with the power of acceptance, surrender, and self-love. While that may sound a bit far-fetched or woo-woo, hear me out. Many of my health coaching clients have benefited from variations on the themes contained in her advice, and I think they’re particularly applicable for folks dealing with autoimmune issues.
Here are some of the pieces I found most valuable:
Tune into your true self.
One of the things I notice with my health coaching clients is that they often cling to routine and structure because they are afraid of their disease. And no wonder! No one wants to exacerbate their symptoms, and it’s easy to see a heavily-regimented diet or schedule like a life raft in stormy seas. The problems occur when this fear-based structure becomes priority number one over everything else we’re trying to balance in life, and it begins to stifle the passions and interests that bring us the most happiness. Before we know it, we’re still clinging to our life raft in calmer water, eyes squeezed shut and blocking out the beauty all around us. We survive in our heads, from a place of fear, and forget to feel, create, relax, and trust. Before long, life becomes monotonous, stiff, rigid, and predictable. Spontaneity and joy become strangers. [Insert sad trombone noise here.]
My take away: Don’t let your disease overshadow the things you’re truly meant to be doing in this life. We can still be committed to health, but release the death grip that our rigid routines can have on our life. Breathe deep. Listen to your inner voice. See your truest self as more than your diagnosis. Spend time in your day not thinking about what’s wrong with you, but focusing on what is right and well with you! Assess how you’re spending your time and energy and try to decide if your daily routines add up to a full, fulfilling life. Ditch the expectations (yours and others’) and tap into the things, people, and activities that bring you the most joy. My clients see mental and physical health benefits almost immediately when they begin tapping into and living from their truest selves.
Autoimmune disease is incredibly frustrating. It’s easy to internalize this aggravation and blame ourselves for the discomfort we feel. “This must somehow be my fault. I’m no fun to hang out with anymore. I can’t trust my body—I’m such a failure. I am broken. I’m ugly.” Any of those thoughts sound familiar? If they do, it might be because our culture places a high value on self-criticism. We’re taught at a young age that we need to live up to the expectations of others, and when we perceive that we don’t, we have to punish ourselves. We put ourselves last, and we look outside ourselves for solutions when we feel off track.
My take away: Cultivating a loving relationship with ourselves can help short circuit all these unhelpful habits. There is nothing we need to fix about ourselves. This radical acceptance is quite the mindshift from the “I need to fix my body” perspective that is most common. Now, this does not mean I’m opposed to setting health goals and seeking self-improvement. I’m talking about loving ourselves as we are right now, and knowing that whoever we are is enough. There is always room for learning, reflecting, and striving for balance, but that harsh inner critic that can often accompany our efforts is degrading and damaging. Work to recognize when you’re critiquing yourself, and pause. Replace the statement with an affirmation—it’s the oldest trick in the book, but it’s powerful and it works.
Grow your self-awareness.
When faced with a diagnosis of autoimmune disease, it’s tempting to see the world in black and white. “This is good for me. This is not. There is no gray area.” A rigid worldview can cause us to be much less open to possibility in all aspects of our lives. We stop thinking critically and with curiosity, turning to others, the internet, books, and magazines to tell us what our body and spirit needs to be well. In truth, our reactions to foods can change over time and it’s even okay to try things (in small quantities) again that may have given us trouble in the past. The act of continually checking in with ourselves allows us to be in tune with what we need at any given time.
My take away: It can be shockingly easy to lose touch with an awareness of what we need and how our needs impact our behaviors. I have a client who experienced extremely painful premenstrual symptoms, and we identified that she had a hard time setting boundaries with friends, family, and co-workers. Rather than listening to her own needs, she focused on the feeling that she would be judged if she ever said “no” to a request, or at the very least feel guilt for letting people down. We worked together to develop a plan where she could say “yes and” or “yes but” to folks who needed her help, allowing her to accommodate her own needs first. Her physical symptoms cleared up almost immediately once she started taking care of her emotional well-being in this way. When she could fill her cup first, she had more to give others—and now, she says she notices her symptoms return when she slips back into neglecting her own needs. Talk about a powerful reminder! How often do we find ourselves living from a place of “shoulds,” versus a place of self-awareness that shines light on who we are and what we need?
Have you struggled with personal identity post-diagnosis? What are some of the strategies that help you maintain a sense of self and a sense of optimism? I’d love to hear.