Sleep & Relaxation: A few products to try

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I’m always looking for new ways to improve my overall health (and that I love to share my findings with all of you)! This week I want to explore a few items that can potentially help with sleep and relaxation. Sleep is incredibly important for your physical and mental health. Good sleep hygiene, in particular, can impact the quality of our sleep and improve our day-to-day functioning. However, what happens if your sleep hygiene is good but you’re still not getting a good sleep? Additionally, relaxation is important for Chronic Illness Warriors because if our mental health deteriorates, our physical health will as well (the body-mind connection). Pain increases with anxiety and depression, and there are lots of studies to support that, so relaxing (which helps anxiety) is another piece of the puzzle.

My parents dog was very relaxed there (and having a good sleep!)

I’m going to start with a product that I am currently using, which is the memory foam pillow. I first used one when I was visiting a friend awhile back and she had one. I found the pillow to be much more comfortable than what I was currently using. A few weeks ago I bought a memory foam pillow off of Amazon. Now, there are a ton of them on there. I bought a shredded one (again, going with what my friend had) but I imagine they have similar effects.

My memory foam pillow
  • What I like about it: It is extremely comfortable when lying on your back and the right balance between soft and firm for me.
  • What I don’t like about it: I’m a toss-and-turn sleeper, and it is much less comfortable when sleeping on your side and stomach (yes, sleeping on your stomach is bad and I try not to)
  • Would I recommend it?: Definitely if you sleep on your back, otherwise I’m 50/50 on whether it improves sleep.

The second product I want to talk about is the body pillow. I don’t have one but I’ve done reading on them and I’m convinced I want one. Also sometimes I line my spare pillows up next to me and use them as body pillows. They are apparently good for side sleepers, help back pain, and possibly release oxytocin in your brain (according to one article I read but I’m not 100% convinced by that). Apparently you have to be careful and get one that is the correct height for you. If someone uses one, please comment and let us know what your experience is!

The third product is weighted blankets. This is another product I haven’t tried but have heard amazing things about. I know a few people who use them and describe them as a “hug” and report that it does help their sleep. The thing to consider here is the weight of the blanket because you have to get one that is appropriate for your height/weight so you don’t get crushed but is also not just like a normal blanket. My former roommate had one that was too heavy for her so she gave it to her brother, whom it worked well for. Not only are they supposed to be helpful for sleep but also stress and anxiety, as they have some relaxation effects. If anyone uses a weighted blanket, a comment on this would also be lovely.

I have a birthday coming up so I’m likely going to buy myself either a weighted blanket or a body pillow (I’m not sure which one yet), so I’ll keep you posted on what I find. For now friends, keep making the most of it!

Cooking with Kels: Movie Night Snacks

All of these snacks are modifiable to meet your dietary needs… unless you don’t eat fish/seafood since the main ones are with those. However, another option is to just skip those two, have a nice big, fresh veggie tray, a fruit platter, and then whatever fun snacks you want to add. Remember, moderation rules the nation. If you haven’t checked out my podcast yet, here’s the web link. It’s also available on Apple and Spotify.

10 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health When You Have a Chronic Illness

When I was first diagnosed with a chronic illness, my mental health started to suffer. I actually tried to hide that, even from myself, but my anxiety increased over the first 7 or 8 months until I started seeing a therapist (and thus my journey to becoming a therapist began). The thing is, I’m not alone as far as my story with my chronic illness taking a toll on my mental health. Many, many chronic illness warriors have been through the same thing. So, if you’re reading this and you’re struggling, know that it is normal and it is okay to struggle. Also note that change is slow. I can give you these 10 ways to improve you mental health (as I did a few weeks ago with physical health) but you aren’t going to feel better overnight, or after the first time you do these. It takes repeated practice and effort on your part (I still practice all of these!). If you’re ready for that commitment then let’s get into it!

How’s your mental health right now?
  1. Support and Connection – this is pretty much the opposite of isolation, which is common with chronic illness, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Support and connection can come in the form of joining formal support groups (which are likely still mostly online due to the pandemic, but may be in person depending on where you live), or informally by talking with your family and friends, or connecting with others in the Spoonie community via social media. As we’ve seen from the pandemic, isolation is not good for our mental health so do what you can to stay connected. Check out this podcast episode.

2. Mindfulness – I know this comes up a lot but there are many, many studies showing that this has powerful effects on both physical and mental health. It can be formal meditations, but it doesn’t have to be. Mindfulness can be fully engaging in an activity, such as mindful eating or mindful walking. If you’re present you’re unlikely to be ruminating about the past (depression) or worrying about the future (anxiety). Take a listen to this podcast.

Being mindful take practice.

3. Assemble your healthcare team – that includes someone to help you with your mental health. If you can’t afford to see someone in private practice, check out community settings. I’m currently doing my internship in a community setting, where our services are free. There is a bit of a longer wait time, and is usually brief/short-term service, but it is definitely a good option for many people. Check out this podcast on depression and this one on anxiety.

4. Use holistic approaches – what I’m talking about here are approaches that utilize the body-mind connection. If you’re lucky you can find several practitioners that do so. For me, my physiotherapist has a BA in psychology so she always takes a body-mind approach (podcast with her here), and I also saw a naturopath before I moved, which is all about the body-mind connection. They can give you more ideas for how to take care of your mental health and understand it interacts with your illness. This podcast is with my naturopath.

Make sure your healthcare team is able to help you with all aspects of your health.

5. Get moving – movement, of any type, is helpful not just for your physical health but for your mental health to. There have been studies to show that exercise decreases depression. Even if you’re not super mobile, going for a walk, doing some yin yoga, or taking up Tai Chi (podcast here) are good options to increase those endorphins and other neurotransmitters in your brain.

6. Connect with your values – who and what is important to you? If you can figure that out, then try to brainstorm some ways you can continue to live by your values, even with chronic illness. I’ll give you an example from my life. It is important to me to have adventures. Obviously travel is harder with a chronic illness, but it’s not impossible. So my friend and I (pre-pandemic) went on an “adventure vacation” to Costa Rica and for every “adventure day” we did a “rest day.” Honestly, it worked out super well, and we both felt more mentally and physically healthy that trip then we had in a long time. Check out this podcast.

Connecting with my values and doing what matters to me.

7. Do what matters – this ties into this above, connecting with your values. Once you have done the brainstorming, it’s important to do the things that matter to you. So for me, it was travel. It might also be spending more time with family and friends, or being creative. Doing the things (what therapists call behavioural activation) actually decreases depression (lots of evidence here). Check out this podcast for more.

8. Find an outlet – this might tie in to doing what matters for you. My main outlet is writing (probably no surprises here), but I have other ones too, such as playing the piano and colouring. I know a lot of people use art or photography or music or dance. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a creative outlet, but creativity can be useful, because a lot like exercise, it gets those helpful brain chemicals to increase.

Being in nature also matters to me and is an outlet as well.

9. Distance yourself from thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc. that are “hooking” you – what I mean by hooking, is the ones that pull you away from your values, the ones you can’t stop thinking about and make your anxiety/depression/etc worse. If you think of it like fishing, when you cast, and then hook a fish, you immediately start to reel it in, and the fish struggles, flopping around. This is what some thoughts, etc. can to do us – make us struggle and flop around, doing things that are unhelpful. By putting some distance between ourselves and them can help decrease their power (this includes physical sensations of chronic pain).

10. Acceptance – whoa I know this is a big one because no one really wants to accept that they have a chronic illness. And yet this might be the most powerful part of the list for Spoonies. Not just accepting that you have a chronic illness, but allowing your to sit in the physical sensations of pain (without getting “hooked” by them), and allowing yourself to sit in feelings of sadness and anxiousness, etc. These are all adaptive for us. They are part of our evolutionary history. They are here for a reason, and we can learn to allow them to be without it stopping us from doing what matters.

Acceptance can feel peaceful.

I’m sure I’ve given you a lot to think about, so that’s all from me for this week. Keep on making the most of it!

And don’t forget, the self-care challenge starts for premium members on April 24. If you haven’t signed up yet, it’s just $5 CDN for 4 weeks of posts and check-in around self-care!

Daily Mindfulness: Mantra Meditation

Royalty Free Music From Bensound (www.bensound.com)

Though mantra meditations are often associated with religious meditation, I come to mindfulness from a secular perspective. My mantra, for example, is “I am, I can, I will.” Mantras have been associated with meditative practices in every major religion, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This 5-minutes meditation is meant to help you focus, become present, and remember what you believe in. I have talked about mindfulness in a few podcast episodes. The ones I would recommend you checking out are: Episode 6 Mental Health and Chronic Illness, Episode 22 How Anxiety and Stress Manifest in the Body, and Episode 31 Mindfulness and Health.

I hope you enjoy this meditation, and remember to keep making the most of it!

The Half Smile

The concept of the half smile is part of two things I’m passionate about: psychology/psychotherapy and mindfulness. But how can this help people with chronic illness? Surely smiling will make no difference on my health, so why force myself to do this half smile thing? If this is not your first time reading this blog then you know that I don’t write about finding cures, I write about ways to improve the overall quality of our lives. Health and mental health are so intrinsically tied together. If our physical health is poor, our mental health tends to suffer. If our mental health is poor, we are more susceptible to physical health problems. And so, I present to you a small way to improve your mental health, as part of this overall, holistic way of viewing health.

The Half Smile.

In psychology, we look at the half smile as a way to regulate emotions and improve mood. For one, it’s almost impossible to be angry if you’re smiling. Try it. Very unlikely that you can stay mad while having a half smile on. Same goes with many other emotions. Most people have a difficult time at some point in their lives, or just consistently, regulating their emotions. It can be difficult when you’re in the heat of the moment. And there are many, many aspects to learning how to regulate them if you’re currently struggling in that area (and these vary slightly depending on which form of psychotherapy you subscribe to). The half smile is one technique you can try out. It is probably most helpful with anger and frustration, but can work with other intense emotions. I want to caution you and mention that it is not meant to be a way to get rid of your emotions. Emotions are good! It is a way to help get them to be more appropriate in intensity to the situation you are experiencing. The byproduct of this is often mood improvement. Plus, as I’m sure many of you have heard before – it takes more muscles to frown than to smile.

The idea of the half smile originates from Buddhism. Now, I’m not religious, but more spiritual. So if the idea of this coming from Buddhism throws you, I get it. I personally practice mindfulness from secular approach. However, if you look at statues of Buddha, he does have a half smile. And actually, if you look at the Mona Lisa, she also has a half smile, which is interesting. When we are mindful of our emotions, body sensations, facial expression, thoughts, and all other cognitions, we have the ability to control our behaviour. When we are aware, we can be present. When we are present, we can find some peace. When we are peaceful, half smiling comes much more naturally. Sometimes when doing guided meditations, the person delivering them might even suggest a half smile. Notice how that changes the practice for you. For me, I find it helps me become a lot lighter. I also want to point out that there is a lot of research supporting mindfulness being helpful in lessening the intensity of chronic pain and other physical ailments. Here’s the podcast episode about it that goes into some of the research.

She’s half smiling too.

My suggestion here is to just try it out. Whether you’re struggling with mood, emotional regulation, chronic illness, or all of the above. There might be even a small improvement in your life, and we should celebrate all wins, including the little ones.

Don’t forget that I’ve got a self-care challenge coming up in a few weeks. It’s only $5 to subscribe to that content and will contain support, information, action planning, and overall upping your self care game!

Keep making the most of it!

Daily Exercises: Hip Strengthening

These are the exercises I’ve been doing to strengthen my hip post-op. They were all given to me by my physiotherapist and chiropractor (please consult with yours before trying new workout routines). I’ve found them to be really helpful, especially when I was learning to walk again after my surgery. All the exercises are 10 reps per set and 2 sets. Check out my podcast interview with Trachele for how you can get your exercising started again when you have a chronic illness.

Spoonie Stress

It’s not really a surprise that Spoonies have more stress than healthy folks. Chronic illness and chronic pain warriors just have a lot more to deal with. Coming up with ways to relieve stress is important, and something I try to pay attention to. As stress accumulates it can lead to mental health problems, and quite often, especially with autoimmune diseases, flares. Today I thought we’d focus on some causes of stress and I’ll give some ideas (that work for me) for you to try out to see if they help at all.

Stress is an evolutionary response.

First, I thought we’d start off with a few definitions. The reason I want to give these is that often as a therapist-in-training, I see that people don’t really understand the meanings of the words they use, nor are they aware of the difference appropriate emotional responses and ones that don’t fit the situation.

  • stress – normal, physiological reaction caused by the fight-flight-freeze response in our brains, alerting us that something needs our attention. It’s neither good nor bad, but is a signal telling us that we need to act on something. podcast
  • anxiety – “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (American Psychological Association). Anxiety is also not inherently good or bad. It’s another natural response of the fight-flight-freeze part of our brain. It’s also normal and part of what makes us human. There is no way to be totally free of anxiety. Fear, on the other hand can be extremely protective and it can be easily confused with anxiety. podcast
    • Anxiety disorder: anxiety that is out of proportion with the situation, and is long-lasting and severe can indicate an anxiety disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder has “recurring, intrusive thoughts or concerns” (APA)
  • depression: an emotional disorder that can include feelings of sadness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and low energy and motivation. Sadness is a common emotion that is important to our functioning. Depression occurs when sadness doesn’t just “go away” on its own. Both anxiety disorders and depression are helped with psychological treatments. blog, podcast
  • trauma – “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea” (APA). I’ve heard this one be misused often, so just be aware of whether you’re actually experiencing trauma. This can also be helped with psychological treatments.
Understanding mental health concepts can be helpful for managing it.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way. What are some common causes of stress in Spoonies?

  • physical symptoms – flares, pain, and basically any other annoying and/or debilitating symptom that comes with your chronic illness. blog
  • medical gaslighting – when a doctor or healthcare professional dismisses your pain and/or symptoms. podcast
  • interpersonal relationships – difficulties with your partner, family, or friends often stemming from a lack of understanding of your illness. blog
  • finances/insurance – even with insurance there is a cost of medications and other treatments that may not be covered or give you as much coverage as you need. blog
Side effect from my hip arthroscopy that definitely caused me some stress.

These are of course, just a few, and you may experience a lot of other stressors depending on your illness and overall life situation. The point out reducing stressors like this is to improve your overall quality of life. So, here are some suggestions that I’ve found to be helpful for each of these (I’m going to link some of my other posts and podcast episodes in case you want more in-depth information).

  • Mindfulness, exercise, sleep, and diet. This means daily practice of whatever way you stay present. Getting whatever type of exercise is accessible during the day (even if it’s a short walk). Practicing good sleep hygiene. And eating as healthy a diet as you can. podcast, podcast, podcast, podcast (yes, one for each of these).
  • Being a self-advocate when it comes to your health and knowing your rights. The medical gaslighting podcast episode I mentioned earlier goes into being a self-advocate. For disability rights check out this podcast.
  • Effective communication and emotional regulation. We can’t control other people but we can definitely control ourselves, even if our emotions are high. podcast
  • Budgeting, budgeting, budgeting. I am without health insurance for the first time in many years. And yes, I live in Canada where healthcare is “Free” (with the exceptions of medications, dentistry, and adjunct care such as physio/chiro/naturopath/massage/etc). Yet I’ve seen the chiropractor twice in the past 3 months (with another appointment today) and gone for a massage. I’ve very meticulously budgeted these in because they are so helpful. The blog post mentioned for finances incorporates budgeting.
There are lots of ways to decrease stress. I enjoy some light exercise in nature.

On top of all this, practicing self-care (podcast) is very helpful. If you don’t like the term “self-care” because it’s been waaaay overused in the media than maybe think of it is as “ways to improve my overall health.” It includes domains of : physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and work. It is also incredibly helpful in reducing stress levels. I’m going to be hosting a self-care challenge starting on April 24 on the premium blog. To sign up for the challenge it is only $5 and you get 4 weekly premium posts, motivation for the challenge, ideas and help with the challenge, and an opportunity to be featured on the blog and/or podcast! Stay tuned for more!

Until next week Spoonies, keep making the most of it!

Daily Mindfulness: Loving Kindness Meditation

This week we’re going to do a loving kindness mediation. I’ve done one of these on the podcast as well, in our self-compassion episode, which you can access here. It can greatly improve our mental health to show ourselves some self-love and self-kindness. This meditation is a way to do that. Many therapy modalities use loving kindness in their mindfulness practices. Though mindfulness isn’t for everyone, I discuss the benefits of it in another podcast episode, which you can find here.

Use this meditation as often as you need so that you can keep making the most of it!