From Victim to Empowered: Create Your Life, Even with Autoimmune Disease

Have you tried shifting your diet, rebalancing your microbiome, detoxing, and everything else under the sun but nothing seems to work? Take a look at your nervous system. Are you living in a fearful, anxious, victim state most of the day?

In 2017, we dove into some of the nuts and bolts of the connection between cortisol (the stress hormone) and our body’s ability to heal. We learned that we prevent our body from healing itself when we don’t support a parasympathetic response of the autonomic nervous system. Over the next three months, we’re going to explore more of its complex role with autoimmune disease and its key place in the autoimmune puzzle. From my experience, you can’t heal effectively if you skip over the nervous system.

Many of my autoimmune clients feel powerless, like they have no agency in how their body is behaving. They’re fatigued, itchy, in pain, unhappy, anxious, can’t think clearly or articulate their thoughts—you name it. They conclude that because they can’t control their symptoms, their body must be broken and they may never feel normal again. Sound familiar? It is so common! In the depths of illness, we fiercely fight for our bodies to be different, and in the process, completely abandon our own power to heal.

The Trapdoor of Victim Mentality

At face value, it’s easy to see “victim mentality” as something that happens to other people—not us!. No one likes to think of themselves like Eeyore, moping around hopelessly, or that co-worker who outrageously blames the world for all his problems. Victim mentality can be sneaky and less obvious, though. It takes courage and introspection to see how it slips into our mindset and sabotages our efforts to heal.

It has been helpful for me to reframe victim mentality from a shameful character trait to a coping mechanism that we slip into when we react to the world from a place of powerlessness. We all slip into victim mentality every now and then (to be honest, I slip into it daily—but I’m learning to catch myself). I even did it this morning. I looked at my calendar and realized I had a full work day, my kids are getting out of school early, I am in charge of getting them to and from activities all while carrying the burden of preparing a warm, nourishing dinner for us all. Did I mention that my husband went pheasant hunting for the day? I felt anxious and resentful, then overwhelmed and helpless at the thought that I was in charge of it all and there just wasn’t enough time in the day. Overwhelm is a sure sign that victim mentality is lurking.  

A victim mentality is when we see life as happening to us. When life happens to us, we are powerless, at the mercy of whatever life might throw at us, and can’t see that we have choice in how we respond. We are merely surviving. Most often, we feel like we are at the edge of drowning:

“Somebody help me!”

Making a Shift to Empowerment

On the other hand, empowerment is when we can see that life is happening for us (even when we don’t like it or would not have chosen the hand we have been dealt). When we are empowered we understand that in every moment, every day, we have a choice in how we respond to our reality. These choices actually determine how we show up in the world. Are we choosing to show up anxious, fearful, lonely, disconnected, angry, distrusting, insecure and small? Or are we choosing to show up connected, vulnerable, brave, trusting, honest, surrendering, powerful, confident, and loving? The way we choose to show up in illness and in life has both a powerful effect on how we feel about ourselves and a critical role in our autonomic nervous system’s impact on the healing process.

All humans have a desire to be whole, confident, powerful, trusting, honest. Yet most of us, in some form or another, have picked up some limiting beliefs over the years that we unconsciously hold onto. In fact, I’ve found that anxiety and fear nearly go hand in hand with autoimmune disease. And, it’s no wonder: anxiety and fear are super triggers for the sympathetic nervous system which keeps our bodies in a chronic stress response, causing and perpetuating disease and literally preventing the healing process from taking place.

So: our mindset dictates our body’s ability to heal. Let’s take a look at some of the emotions that go with each mindset. When overwhelmed and feeling like a victim of autoimmune disease, it’s easy to feel frustrated, anxious, fearful, lonely, and misunderstood, in addition to the slew of physical symptoms. We’re aching for the solution—really, we’re just craving the way of being that supports us. Our sympathetic autonomic nervous system response is nearly always engaged. The good news is that the opposite is also true! When we take responsibility for our role in healing we can choose the empowered mindset. Humor, confidence, optimism, abundance, wholeness, peace, trust, and connection with friends and family are all at our fingertips. Turns out, they just so happen to promote healing, too. To review:

Victim Mentality

Anxious

Disconnected

Unworthy

Insecure

Cowardice

Dishonest

Fearful

Misunderstood

Mistrusting

Resentful

Hateful

Unforgiving

Overwhelmed

Powerless

Separateness

“I am not enough”

Supports sympathetic (stress) response

Empowered Mentality

Courage

Kindness

Honesty

Authenticity

Hopeful

Openness

Abundance

Peaceful

Trusting

Secure

Connected

Loving

Nurturing

Forgiving

Powerful

“I am enough”

Supports parasympathetic (healing) response

 

Change Your Mind, Heal Your Body

I have a dear friend who was doing a ton of work to figure out her autoimmune disease over the past ten years. Over the last three years, it became such a focus in her life that the fear of not healing took over, causing her considerable anxiety. She was obsessed—I doubt she went an hour in the day without thinking about her disease. Her mindset wasn’t helping her get any closer to the answers. It was exacerbating them! She knew something had to change.

With some serious effort, she took ownership of her role in her autoimmune disease. Sure, she didn’t choose to have it in the first place, but we all get to decide how we respond to the hand we’re dealt. By taking a hard look at her life and actively removing the things that were perpetuating her anxiety, she estimates she was able to reduce her stress by 50%—and guess what? Suddenly she’s healing her autoimmune symptoms faster than ever! She’s even weaning herself off of medication. She learned that once she could exercise trust in her body and relax (bringing on the parasympathetic healing state) her body would actually begin to heal itself.

Many of my autoimmune clients are high achievers, holding themselves to nearly impossible standards in their work, community, and home lives. The focus of perfection, performance and fear of failure are cornerstones of victim mentality. These ways of being put something outside of ourselves in charge of success and happiness and we spend our waking hours trying to prove ourselves. My high achiever clients make leaps and bounds in healing when they begin shifting from victim to empowerment and make decisions that activate their vagus nerve via the parasympathetic nervous system. They begin to see themselves as having choice regarding how many hours they work, what expectations they put on themselves, who they get to connect with, what they say yes to and what they say no to. They see how they have chosen anxiety and fear in their pursuit to do it all and do it all well.

So, this morning, I caught my overwhelm. I reminded myself that I have a choice to show up in my day overwhelmed, anxious, and resentful, or I can remind myself that I am a connected, loving, worthy and peaceful woman. When I committed to living my day in the latter ways of being, I was present, calm, and forgiving. My “overwhelming” day gave me the opportunity to practice ways of being that I feel proud of and that I know support my body in thriving and healing. I refocused my day from all the stuff I have to manage to how I get to show up and “be” in my day. Shifting from victim to empowerment requires us to shift our focus from “acts of doing” to “ways of being.”

We have choice in every single moment in every single day. What we choose is a reflection of what we are committed to creating in life—will it be anxiety or peace? When we are clear about who we want to be and we’re empowered to choose ways of being that support healing via the parasympathetic nervous system, we are not only living our life more fully and abundantly but our body is given the support to heal.

In the comments below, please share—how does your victim story show up? What ways of being are you committed to creating in your life that will support healing and a life well lived?

About Sarah Kolman

Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN is an AIP Certified Coach, Registered Nurse, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Contemplative Psychotherapist, wife, and mom of three boys. Sarah offers unique one-on-one health coaching that blends her nursing and psychotherapy experience with holistic and nutrition-based health concepts. Learn more about Sarah’s coaching services by visiting her website, www.this-one-life.com. Her book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World is available on Amazon and her website. You can follow Sarah on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

15 comments

  • Anna Samsel says

    Hi Sarah!

    I started having pretty terrible joint pain about 6 months ago. Initial tests ruled out a few things and now it’s a waiting game to see if it fades (indicating it was virus related). It’s been a hard 6 months and when I have my day ahead of me with 3 girls (8,3, and 1) and it hurts just to get up I fall into exactly what you are talking about. Anxiety/overwhelmed being my number one feeling. I have made some strides in this and sometimes I capture peace and feeling like what I’m able to do is enough. But, know I have a ways to go. Wondering, “Is this my new life? My new normal?” can all by itself weigh me down. Thank you for the atricle! It hit home and I do feel hopeful regardless of what lays ahead. I love even more that it comes from a sweet old friend.

    • Anna!
      How great to hear from you! I had no idea you were living with joint pain. Have you tried making changes to your diet and/or lifestyle in an attempt to lessen the pain? Has anything helped? Isn’t it easy to get trapped in the fear and anxiety of “is this really my new life?” We can fall victim to life happening to us and believe that all we get to do is wait to see how bad it’s going to get. It is possible to feel empowered and in charge in your situation. What support would be helpful for you right now? I’m so committed to you feeling strong, powerful, healthy, and in charge of your life.

  • Joleah Kunkel says

    Awesome, this was just what I needed to hear. I have had hashi’s since I was 12 (now 36) and Im only now learning about the autoimmune part, and that I have control. I believe I have been in autoimmune flare up for the past 4 years, before that a nearly vegan diet with lots of home grown and fermented goodies held my health through my 20’s. Then I had kids and my activity level decreased significantly and took on a carb heavy diet, with all im learning now, i see how all these things lead to flare up. Overwhelm, fear, anxiety and depression have been my state for almost 2 years (I have a 5 and 2 yr old). These were NEVER part of who I was in the past, and it felt so good to understand what was happening (Thank you Autoimmune wellness crew for bringing light to this for me). In figuring all this out a few months ago, I have been allowing myself to grieve in a way, but being careful not to stay there or get stuck. I kept having this vision of curling into my own womb and staying there to heal. Well now that just isnt possible, and I have to get on with the protocol…i keep putting off the date because we are strapped for cash and I want to buy some supplements to support liver cleansing. This is a good reminder that I need to lift myself out of that place, I can see how I am choosing the victim role and perceiving blockages as bigger than they are. Starting is the hardest part right?!! I have experienced the snowball effect more in relation to an upward/positive momentum than to the downward momentum…This was the nudge I needed, THANK YOU!! xoxoxo

    • Joleah,

      I’m glad to hear you got a much needed (loving) nudge to dive into an aspect of health that you have been yearning for. You are right, getting started can be tricky! Any time we are changing habits, thought patterns, and beliefs we meet bumps in the road. It is like learning to ride a bike or even learning to walk–expect the bumps, expect the falls, and expect a learning curve. We think we should just be able to do it, and do it perfectly–when we don’t meet our expectations then we are tempted to give up and throw in the towel (more victim mindset sets in!) Changing our mindset and choosing empowerment is a PRACTICE. Learn tools, be persistent, be committed, and be gentle with yourself in the process. The time is NOW, my friend, no more putting it off. What can I do to support you in this shift?

      • Joleah Kunkel says

        Thanks for asking how you can help….I would say keep sharing your words, they are an act of service and with the internet, so far reaching! I have been really aware lately of how lucky I am to be part of a generation that is allowed to speak up about our suffering and that there are practitioners out there that can help address the root cause. I have been holding space in my heart for my mother, grandmothers and beyond for all the silent suffering and misery they endured. As I take on this journey, I am healing for them too! xoxo

  • Susan says

    Wow. “Overwhelmed, anxious, and resentful.” That really hit home. Thanks for sharing this in such a readable, relatable way! I’m eager to learn more about this.

    • Thanks for sharing your feedback Susan. Let me know how I can support your eagerness to learn more about this topic. It is one of my favorite topics! So juicy and so dang powerful.

  • Jenny says

    This article is spot on! Articulated so well! Thank you! Absolutely can see how this has played out in my process of illness and healing and have come to this conclusion too. My mind, my way of thinking- is my own worst enemy! The desperation of wanting to get well, – leading to the obsession itself which was keeping me unwell. The lack of trust in everything, everyone and especially in myself. I also see that I did have a part to play in what I was dealt- I dealt some of it to myself- not valuing sleep, working to excess, partying to excess, seeking adrenaline, not choosing the right foods for years, always trying to prove myself, comfort eating, drinking too much alcohol, basically living out of balance for years- of course there have to be repercussions! So the body swings to the opposite extreme of fatigue etc – seeking rest and attempting to restore balance… slowly the body will come back to the middle. Yes definitely I did these behaviours as said as a coping strategy due to what I was dealt! Now through this experience I am learning new healthy strategies and I can take charge to help myself!
    Meditation, letting go,asking for help and not doing it all (especially not perfectly) have helped a great deal but trusting that there is a much bigger plan and knowing someone up there is helping me every moment if I allow them!
    Beautifully written article!

    • What a thoughtful and well articulated comment. Thanks for sharing Jenny. I enjoyed reading the powerful way you took responsibility for your reality without shame or guilt. We often marry taking ownership of “a problem” with self-disgust and guilt. But, they don’t have to be entrenched with each other. I appreciate how you can own your choices and behaviors that may have played into your current health, AND….you see the unique opportunities and teachings you get to take from your reality–learning new health strategies, prioritizing meditation, letting go, asking for help and I absolutely love that you are learning how to trust the bigger plan. Really amazing work! I’m grateful to hear about how your journey is unfolding for you. Keep choosing empowerment!

  • Vicki Barber says

    I’ve been saying for two years that I want to simplify, want to have time to read a novel, see a movie, just sit and visit with a friend. But I spend most of my free time reading about psoriasis, listening to podcasts about autoimmune disease, searching the web. Want to talk about AIP? I’m your gal. Want to talk about the latest cream/therapy/doctor de jour? I’m your gal. I’ve become so one-dimensional (read: boring), consumed with eating the “right” things, not eating the “wrong” things. But the last two weeks, recovering from a necessary surgery, I’ve had to slow waaaay down, take naps, not drive. And as I’ve radically simplified my to-do list, I’ve been able to see my driven behaviors, my sense of guilt “doing nothing.” I’m more deeply exploring my need to be responsible, be relevant, be “count-uponable.” And I’m realizing how satisfying it is to just read a novel, skip some of the blogs and podcasts (not this one!) and unplug from the news. I’ve wondered for some time what my skin is trying to tell me, and maybe it’s just saying, “Stop.” Just stop. Thanks for this post, and for the work of Louise Hay and John Sarno. Maybe….

    • Your article gave me chills. You said, “I’m realizing how satisfying it is to just read a novel, skip some of the blogs and podcasts and unplug from the news.” Isn’t it amazing how simple and enjoyable life gets to be if we let it. It can be as simple as a novel! Yet we choose to feel guilty and lazy and unworthy when we break the cycle of performing, proving, and producing. I appreciate your honesty about obsessing over foods and researching. It can be such a temptation to get pulled into “root cause madness” (where fear, anxiety, and obsession are at the forefront of finding the root of the problem) and in the process, the stress response dominates and ultimately sabotages all of our hard earned knowledge and efforts.

      I loved reading what your skin might be telling you. My hope for you is that you listening to your skin more than you listen to that loud inner critic inside your head that’s trying to convince you that you aren’t responsible, relevant or reliable. 🙂 Your skin sounds pretty wise.

      You got this!

  • Joleah says

    Excellent article, just what I needed to hear right now, Thank you!

  • Emma says

    Such a relevant, important and inspiring article that couldn’t be more perfect for me at this time in my life. After years of trying so hard to improve my Hashimoto’s and skin issues, I could see my journey to health had become a rigid, tight and controlling regime bubbling with anxiety and lacking in joy. My world had become so small and overwhelm, adrenaline and negativity had become my natural default. I’d stopped allowing myself to consider that I could rise up and face the day in a way that didn’t involve struggle. A recent series of events mean that I’ve been forced to literally stop and reevaluate everything, learning to live in the moment again, be grateful for the little things, accept help, open my heart to new people and laugh in the face of things that used to send me into a panic. It’s going to take time, but I know in my heart that this really is the path to healing.

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