For most individuals, illness is something that comes and goes throughout their lifetimes, but there are long stretches of unquestionable good health in between. You get a virus, but then your body clears the virus. An infection occurs, but you get some antibiotics, and it goes away. Most people get to enjoy long periods of time when they have what we call a “clean bill of health.” Everybody wants that clean bill of health because it means you can stop worrying about being sick. And some would argue that’s the hardest part about illness: the mental component. “Don’t worry. You’re all better” is what everybody wants to hear. But not everybody gets to hear that. In fact, some individuals never get to hear that.
If you live with a chronic condition that can’t be cured and must simply be managed, it’s hard to shake that feeling of “Something is wrong with me.” There can be an icky sensation that stays with you – like a cloud you can’t get out from under – that always makes you feel like something isn’t quite right. Even on days when symptoms are mild or absent, you know the condition lurks within your body. Those with chronic illness can feel it’s very difficult to live in the moment, and not constantly worry about their health. So we consulted a special expert who has a lot of experience helping people with chronic illness. Recie Munson (IG: @WalkWithRee) is both a registered nurse and a yoga instructor so she approaches care from a practical and holistic standpoint. Here is some of her advice on how to be present and still enjoy life, even with a chronic illness.
You are not your body
If you are diagnosed with a condition, your mind may replay thoughts of, “Where did I go wrong?” and “What can I have done differently?” But Munson makes a good point on why those thoughts aren’t very useful. “A diagnosis of chronic disease is not always within the body’s control. Many factors contribute to illnesses such as genetics, environment, lack of access, and systemic issues. The body isn’t connected to your self-worth, value, or wholeness.”
You are also not your illness
When you do live with a chronic condition, you might feel that you are that condition – that it’s a cloak that envelops you completely, and is a part of everything you do. But, that doesn’t have to be the case. “You are not your illness. Think of yourself as someone living with the illness and not the illness encompassing you. Developing a healthy relationship with the body is important to achieve wholeness,” says Munson.
Stop rejecting your emotions
Many of the greatest Zen masters will tell you that most of life’s pain comes from resisting what’s happening, and, according to Munson, that could also be what’s happening with your feelings surrounding your illness. “Practicing mindfulness isn’t always met with joy. It also means sitting with uncomfortable feelings…cultivating a healthy relationship with the heightened emotions can foster acceptance. Digesting a new diagnosis is challenging, and allowing it to unfold is part of the journey.”
How to get comfortable with your feelings
“There are techniques that support being present, including guided meditations (which can foster acceptance, anxiety relief, and connecting to the inner self), questioning the thoughts about existence with intentional journaling, and holding space for the emotional distress by setting time limits to express those emotions.”
Stay positive and breathe deeply
Munson also recommends focusing your attention on what you do have a grip on and practicing mindful breathing when you feel out of control. “I also highly recommend practicing replacing limiting thoughts. Instead of, ‘I can’t,’ try focusing on what can be done. Lastly, breathe. Taking conscious breaths through difficult moments can be grounding to the mind and body.”
Focus on what is within your control
The stress caused by knowing you have a chronic condition can lead to its own negative consequences. Stress is shown to be difficult on the body, so managing that is an important part of protecting your health. To do that, Munson advises, “Gratitude writing, and focusing on the factors that are modifiable like diet, activity level, and reducing stress load, and finding out triggers for stress.”
Get a support group (that includes you)
“Showing compassion, grace, and appreciation for self…being your biggest cheerleader,” are other actions Munson says can help you feel whole and energized, even with an illness. She also encourages you to seek out support from people who know what you’re going through.
”Participating in support groups is proven to reduce stress, improve coping skills, and promote interpersonal connection.” Sometimes, simply seeking information about your condition or calling your doctor can be too exhausting. Get support there, too. “Have an accountability partner or healthcare advocate to provide support and receive information if it gets too overwhelming,” says Munson.
“Sleep is where the body recovers and resets for the day. It’s important to receive seven to 10 hours each night,” says Munson. In fact, research shows that sleeping less than five hours a night increases one’s chance of death from all causes by 15 percent. We cover practices for a better night’s sleep here.
When you’re awake, be active
“Maintaining an active lifestyle releases feel-good endorphins to create a positive balance within the body,” explains Munson. “Yoga is also a great activity for physical, mental, and spiritual health. Asanas like legs up the wall, child’s pose, chair yoga, and savasana at the end of the day are great tools to relieve stress. I also recommend mood-boosting exercises like boxing, brisk walks, painting, and going outside in nature.”
Don’t be shy around your doctor
Though there can be feelings of, “I don’t want to bother my doctor too much,” Munson reminds us that it’s your doctor’s job to communicate with you. “Develop a trusting working relationship with the healthcare provider and express if you have hesitation or resistance to certain treatment options. The relationship with the healthcare provider should be healthy, like any other relationship. Ask your healthcare provider questions about your chronic illness to ease the mind from worrying.” As for days that you know will be challenging, Munson says, “Prepare for those days that are stressful (Lab results, office visits, and procedure days) by scheduling a self-care activity before or after.”