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!

Mental Strength & Resilience for Spoonies

My mom actually suggested I do a post on mental strength and I thought about it for a bit because I find that it is very similar to resilience, which I’m fairly certain I’ve posted about before. However, I did some research and found that while there are similarities there are differences as well and to be honest, both are pretty essential when you’re a chronic illness warrior and can increase positive mental health. I’m going to give you an overview of each concept and how they tie together and some ways that can help you increase them (many of which I have personal experience with) so that we can all grow stronger together in our own separate battles.

It’s not easy to find strength in illness.

First, let’s define resilience. Resilience is our ability to respond positively and to adapt to negative, traumatic, and stressful events, in a way that is constructive. Now let’s define mental strength. Mental strength is our ability to effectively handle stressors and challenges in our lives the best we can despite the situation we find ourselves in. As you can see there are similarities, what I think the biggest difference in is that resilience occurs in the face of significantly impactful events such as trauma, whereas mental strength helps us with less significant (yet still impactful) stressors. We often hear of mental strength in regards to athletes and their ability to practice the same thing over and over. People who are mentally strong like adversity because it’s a challenge not a threat.

Kids are the most resilient of us all – me as a baby circa. 1986/87

The great thing is that both resilience and mental strength can be learned! According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the thoughts, and behaviours involved in resilience can be learned. They state that what makes up resilience includes:

  • your ability to make “realistic plans” and accomplish them
  • self-confidence and self-esteem
  • problem-solving and communication skills
  • emotion regulation

How does this apply to chronic illness? I see it as (1) making realistic plans is including limitations you do have because of your illness but not letting your illness limit you; (2) you can still have self-confidence and self-esteem with a chronic illness; (3) problem-solving and communication actually become more important when you have a chronic illness; and (4) emotion regulation is essential for everyone.

Everyone can build resilience and mental strength.

What are some ways we can build resilience? Let’s break each of these down further:

  • making realistic plans & accomplishing them: includes gaining skills (like going back to school or just learning something new in general); and taking action toward the goals you make for yourself while keeping a positive and hopeful outlook on your ability to accomplish them!
  • self-confidence and self-esteem: accepting change because nothing stays the same, including your illness; engaging in activities that help you learn more about yourself (try something new, be creative, get as active as you can, etc.); view yourself in a positive way (stop the negative self-talk and write down things you like about yourself); and of course, self-care!!!!
  • problem-solving and communication: setting goals for yourself; and making connections with friends, family and colleagues because support is important.
  • emotion regulation: controlled exposure (I would suggest with the help of a therapist); taking a realistic view of crisis situations (I like the phrase, “if that happened, then what would I do?”); and activities such as journaling, meditation and other spiritual practices can help with emotion regulation (I’ll probably do a longer post on emotion regulation at some other time).

So if that’s how we build resilience, what can we do to build mental strength? Turner (2017) states that the elements of mental strength include having a sense of control and purpose of your life and emotions; making a commitment by setting goals for yourself; challenging yourself when necessary; and having that self-confidence. Very similar to what we just talked about for resilience. I’ve got to say that I possess all of these, and I’m not sharing that to make anyone feel like they aren’t enough because they are currently not mentally strong. I’ve had times when I haven’t been strong, it takes a lot of work to get here. My point in sharing is that you can come from a place of anxiety and stress over your health condition and get to a point where you can deal with most things that come your way (I say most because no one can deal with everything perfectly). It just took me a few years of hard work to get here. Here are some ways you can develop your mental strength:

  • gratitude – write down 5 things every day that you are thankful for. I also recommend taking the free Science of Well-being course offered by Yale University. Here’s the link!
  • practice mindfulness – in whatever way you like. I prefer meditation and body scans, and throw in the occasional mindful walk.
  • act “as if” – this is an interesting concept developed by psychologist Alfred Adler. He stated we should act as if things are the way you want them to be (essentially you get to reauthor your life). This one is a bit more complicated and may also deserve its own post.
Image from the Science of Well-Being course.

Before I wrap up this very long post, I want to share research by Pickering & Holliday (2010). They stated that “mental strength contributes to resilience processes and resilient behaviour.” So basically develop your mental strength and you’ll develop your resilience. I mean as we’ve seen there is a lot of overlap between the two so it totally makes sense!

Also, from the Science of Well-Being and I thought it’s great to end on.

Let me know what you think of mental strength and resilience! Comment on the post or shoot me a DM on Instagram (@janeversuspain). I would love to hear from my readers! For now, keep making the most of it!