This type of practice can be deep and quite healing when you have chronic pain and illness. I do highly recommend you only do this if you have strong grounding skills and preferably if you’ve done this type of practice before and/or are able to debrief this with a licensed mental health professional in your area. For other mindfulness practices, check out my YouTube channel.
It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint… No, just kidding. But it has been at least 2.5 years (possibly longer) since I had the common cold. Clearly the social distancing and masks and everything not only helped protect me from Covid (which I have managed to avoid thus far) but also the cold, flu and everything else. Then, on May 2, I caught a cold. Sore throat and all. And it was pretty bad. For me, it’s worse because of one of my chronic illnesses.
Getting any kind of additional illness usually sucks when you have a chronic condition. Example, if you have an autoimmune disease and you’re on immunosuppressants, that can also make you much more vulnerable to more severe illness and symptoms. It’s one of the reasons most people I know with chronic conditions have been so careful during the pandemic. Lucky for me, I’m not on immunosuppressants (I take antimalarials) so I don’t have to worry as much about that part, but still. What I do have that makes catching a cold particularly rough for me is glaucoma. Glaucoma is a degenerative eye disease that can eventually lead to blindness (luckily there are amazing treatments so the chances of going blind if caught early and treated are fairly small). My paternal grandmother had glaucoma and was virtually blind by the time she died. Both of my parents have glaucoma. And when I was 29 I was diagnosed with glaucoma, which is incredibly young (most people are 50+ when they develop it). The leading feature of glaucoma is high eye pressure.
So on May 2, before I started having cold symptoms, I actually happened to have an appointment with my new ophthalmologist. My eye pressure was pretty good and there was no degeneration. He actually made two comments that I found quite funny. First, “You are extremely near-sighted.” Yes, I know (that’s literally how I responded too). He actually informed me about possibilities of retinal tears, and what to look out for. His second funny comment, “Well, I guess we’ll be seeing you from now until indefinitely.” Yep, pretty much true. So, why is catching a cold worse when you have glaucoma. Well, over-the-counter cold medications actually increase your eye pressure. Therefore, I can’t take cold meds (other than cough drops).
Okay, so what happens to me when I can’t take cold meds and have a bad cold is that I get extremely wimpy. Basically life sucks for a few days. Unless I catch myself in these thought patterns, which is what I did recently. I know that “this sucks” and “everything is terrible” thoughts leads to more negative mental and physical health outcomes. It increases body aches and pains, it can keep me sick longer, and it can make me feel depressed (and there’s lots of research out there to back all of this – just type a few key words into Google Scholar and you’ll find it). To be effective I had to “manage my mind” (which is a phrase a life coach who’s podcast I listen to uses). I notice the thoughts, place them on a leaf and let them go. Or I notice and name the thoughts or name the story my thoughts are trying to tell me to create some distance. And then I take comfort in pleasurable activities that I can do. For example, I love movies and being sick is an excuse to watch them. But I don’t just pick any movie. I have some favourites that I used to watch all the time as a kid when I was sick… and then continued to watch into my adulthood when I’m sick. My favourite is Jurassic Park. So that’s what I did. I created distance between myself and my thoughts, acknowledged any emotions I was experiencing, made some tea and watched JP.
The other thing I did recently that was helpful, was talk to my ND about natural cold remedies. Now, I’m lucky in that I work at the same office as my ND (we actually share a room, just work on different days), so for me it’s a quick text and I realize that’s not the case for everyone. But if you see a naturopath, it’s worth asking about. Here are some suggestions she gave me for the common cold (sinus and cough):
Vitamin C: amount can depend on your bowel tolerance – I bought the chewables and used about 3g per day.
NAC supplement – I think you have to go to a natural health store to find these. I didn’t try them this time, but I’m keeping it in mind for the future.
Peppermint tea – which I love anyway, and interestingly it’s the only type of tea she recommended
Eucalyptus inhale: basically boiling water with some essential oils and inhaling with a towel over your head – I found this extremely helpful
wet stock treatment – I did not try this because my feet hate the cold, but apparently it is very effective.
Alas, I survived my first cold in 2.5 years and realized that the best things for me to do is use some natural remedies paired with some psychological coping skills. If you’re like me and unable to take cold medication, I hope this helps you to keep making the most of it!
What are values-based activities? They are actions, activities, hobbies, practices, etc. that align with our values (how we want to treat ourselves, others, and the world/what is important to us). Colouring may seem like a silly one, but here me out! You can also check out this podcast episode I did on values-based living.
Try out a values-based activity for yourself so that you can keep making the most of it!
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. -William Berry
I think this is an absolutely beautiful poem for many reasons. Two main thoughts came to mind when I first heard it as I was attending a Compassion in Therapy summit in April (yes, I know I do a lot of these types of summits, they’re terrific). The first, is that it does remind me of self-compassion practices, and second, that nature has ultimate healing powers. While I’ve blogged about these topics before, I want to write about them in the context of this poem, as a way for me (and you) to remember why they are so important, especially if you have a chronic illness.
Self-compassion is comprised of 3 elements: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. In the poem, Berry describes mindfulness of his thoughts in the first part, and then just being present with full experiencing in the second part. “I come into the presence of still water” and “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” These are very mindful phrases and experiences. Then there is the phrase, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I see this as relating to common humanity as it suggests that all human “tax their lives” with these thoughts and feelings – in contrast to wild things, which (as far as we know) don’t have the cognitive abilities to have these thoughts that can consume us. Thinking is part of being human. What I think represents self-kindness in this poem is that (a) Berry doesn’t judge himself for having these thoughts, and (b) he makes the decision to take care of himself in the moment and give himself what he needs – a reprieve into nature. Now, I’m personally left to wonder, what can I do today that is self-compassionate? Maybe lay a kind hand on my chest, maybe imagining breathing in compassion for myself and out compassion for others, or maybe it is literally going outside into nature. What do you need?
Ecotherapy and forest bathing are totally a thing. I actually talked to a client of mine about this recently because they mentioned that they feel good in the forest, literally touching the trees. Me too. So much research supports being in nature. I recently listened to a podcast that suggested even just eating outside is good for us (which I immediately told my parents about because we ate el fresco all summer long when I was growing up). Near my apartment, there is an inlet with beautiful hiking trails along it and tons of big, beautiful trees that are ever-so-present in British Columbia. The air is so refreshing, especially if it’s recently rained. Everything about this trail (and really a lot of trails in this province) makes me feel good. Both physically and mentally. I had the same experience in Costa Rica. My friend and I would touch the trees and vines, really connecting with the beauty and nature, and all of the healing properties of it. When’s the last time you spent time outside? Is there a park near you that you can go to? Can you eat outside on your patio or deck?
Sometimes we can find inspiration to improve the quality of our lives (with these easy and gentle practices) in the most interesting places, like The Peace of the Wild Things. I hope this inspires you to keep making the most of it!
This is a metaphor I found at this website. I love what the writer of it did here. It’s an alternative to spoon theory, where the biggest different is that spoon theory only focuses on energy, and this metaphor – a knight in battle worn armour – looks at all aspects of having chronic pain/illness. At the end of the day, you can prefer whichever metaphor you do, but I like to bring some psychoeducation and alternative methods of thinking to you, because I like when they are brought to me! Stay strong and keep making the most of it!
This is a metaphor I often use when explaining anger. It has a specific purpose and function for us, but there is almost always something beneath anger. I hope this piece of psychoeducation helps you to understand yourself better. Remember, the content on this blog does not replace seeking help from a licensed mental or other healthcare professional in your area.
For a meditation on working with anger, click this link.
There is a Taoist parable that tells of an old man who fell into a river that swept him toward a dangerous waterfall. There were people watching who feared for the old man’s life. By some miracle, the old man came out of the water at the bottom of the falls completely unharmed. The onlookers asked him how he managed to survive, and he replied, “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.”
If the old man had struggled against the water, he may not have survived the fall. At least that’s how he sees it and is what the parable is suggesting. This is non-contention. I came across the parable when I was… well if you read this blog regularly then you can probably guess it… meditating. I was doing a guided meditation and at the end, the meditation teacher told this parable. It really spoke to me because I have heard this idea spoken in many different ways already, and it’s something I have been practicing for sometime. I notice that in my day-to-day life, when I am swept up by my pain or symptoms of my illness or thoughts about my pain or emotions such as anxiety that arise, when I struggle with these things, it just makes the day worse. It makes the pain (physical and emotional worse) and I feel less resilient. When I do the opposite – accommodate – then my days are pretty good. Thankfully I’ve gotten good at accommodating.
While I’m sure some of you are also good at accommodating, there are probably many of you who are not. It takes a lot of work and practice to be able to do this. It’s way more natural for our minds to struggle because our minds think that it’s the best way to survive – I mean, thousands of years of evolution have told them this. Yet in modern times, the struggle often ends up being less helpful (but try telling that to the primitive part of your brain). I find that meditating is helpful for accommodation but I totally get that it’s not for everyone. I also find similar mindful practices like body scans, observing-breathing into-making room for-and allowing my feelings to also be helpful. And engaging in those values-based behaviours that I love. That doesn’t mean I push through my inner experiences. There is a delicate balance between pacing and going to my edge. And on days that I go to far and do too much, I offer myself some compassion because it is hard to be human, and it is hard to be a human with a chronic condition.
So, here’s what I suggest:
try out some mindfulness practices, like the ones found on my YouTube channel
incorporate more self-compassion into your life: kind words, soothing touching, remembering that it is human to have pain
engage in values-based activities that allow you to pace and don’t take you past your edge
seek mental health (and physical health) help from a licensed professional as often as needed.
Curiosity and nonjudgmental awareness are important tools for healing when you have a chronic illness. I’m not saying, cure the illness, but rather to increase our pain tolerance, decrease our stress levels, and heal from any associated wounds from our illness. This becomes even more important if you have a trauma background, which as we know from all the research on the subject, is very common when you have a chronic illness. Myself included in that statement, “little t” trauma that lasted for 5 years in elementary and junior high, something I initially scoffed at as possibly being considered trauma until I learned more about what trauma is, and how it has contributed to my current health. I didn’t process any of it until I was an adult, seeking psychotherapy for pain and stress, and it eventually came out because I was having difficulties in adult friendships… all stemming back to the “little t” trauma from my childhood (let me know if you want more information on little t and big t trauma, I’ve written about them before but can again).
What should we be curious and nonjudgmental about?
I mean a part of me just wants to say EVERYTHING! Because there are definitely huge advantages to approaching life this way. However, it is completely unrealistic to think we could experience life this way all the time. We’re human and it’s totally normal to make judgments (evolutionarily, it helped our species stay alive!) When it comes to chronic illness there are 4 things I think are really important to be curious and nonjudgmental about (this is, as always, based on my own lived experience as well as what I’ve seen in clinical practice).
Our Thoughts – even the ones that are “judging” in the first place. Can you notice your thoughts without thinking about them or getting swept away by them? I find it interesting to see not only the content of my thoughts but also how they come and go, with some being more sticky than others.
Our Emotions – like our thoughts, they tend to come and go, but typically can stick around for longer periods of time. Not only should we explore what we are feeling, but where we are feeling it in our bodies. All emotions have related sensations. What can we notice about them by just sticking to the facts?
Our Behaviours – why do we do the things we do? It’s fascinating to notice how I act in certain ways or do certain things and how that changes with time or on a different day. It’s equally as fascinating to observe how my behaviours change when my thoughts and feelings are in different states.
Our Sensations – not only the ones associated with our emotions, but all the sensations in our bodies – hunger, fatigue, pain. Noticing the quality, where it is, what it feels like, even what we imagine it looks like.
How can we become more curious and nonjudgmental?
There are a lot of ways we can learn to become curious and nonjudgmental. I think of myself as being a curious child, discovering something new for the first time, and approaching whatever it is – thought, emotion, behaviour or sensation – just in that way. But I’ll be more specific:
Describe it – using only facts, not your interpretations or judgments. Here is anxiety. Here is a sharp sensation in my leg. Here is a worry thought.
Notice and Name it – I am noticing the thought that… or I’m noticing the feeling of…
Send your breath into it – rather than judge the sensation or emotion as good or bad, see if you can just pause and send your breath to the area of you feel it the most, giving it some room.
Practice meditation – in meditation all you’re really doing is noticing your experience as it comes and goes. This can be a good way to learn to interact with your thoughts, feelings and behaviours nonjudgmentally because the whole point is to be open and nonjudgmental. Check this one out.
Do a body scan – this is another way to really be open to any feelings and sensations present in your body. We often notice that the intensities change and that sensations do often come and go. Find a short version here.
Offer yourself some kindness – it’s so easy to be harsh and judgmental about your experience. Kind self-talk or kind self-touch can be useful to counteract what our minds are doing. Check out this kind hand exercise.
It can be hard to think that things can get better, but I’ve had the first-hand experience of my life improving from doing these kinds of practices and really just changing my experience of life. I hope this helps you to keep making the most of it!
When we learn to make room for our difficult emotions, we give ourselves the opportunity to react in different ways. Often with anger we yell, swear, throw things (including punches), etc. and typically don’t act in ways that align with our values. When we make space for anger we can clearly communicate that we are upset without doing any of those things.
I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago and the guest was talking about the physiology of our fight-flight-freeze response and how it can specifically relate to certain chronic illness. The guest used the following examples: lupus as being the fight response, and CFS/ME as being the freeze response. I had never thought of it this way and it made me interested in this topic. (The podcast is called Therapy Chat if anyone is interested but I can’t remember the specific episode number, sorry!). Fight-flight-freeze is also known as the stress response, which is a product of evolution that kept our species alive for a long time, however, if you ask many people with chronic illnesses (especially autoimmune diseases) you’ll have a lot of people tell you about chronic stress, trauma history, and attachment issues, all of which can dysregulate our stress response. Usually this occurs in childhood, and I can specifically remember 5 years where I had chronic stress (at school only, due to a traumatic friendship).
I’m going to try to explain the stress response in the easiest, most non-technical way possible (because honestly my eyes glaze over when I have to read about brain anatomy, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in that). So there are a few different parts of our autonomic nervous system, most notably the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) and our parasympathetic nervous system (freeze). There is also our vagus nerve which is really important in understanding the nervous system but I’ll leave polyvagal theory for another time. Sympathetic activates us to either fight or run away in order to survive, whereas the parasympathetic suppresses everything in order to keep our bodies alive when we can’t fight or flight. The problem is that when our stress response is chronically activated, it can impair our physical and mental health. I want to put a caveat here for the rest of this post, correlation does not mean causation, however, most theories do point to chronic stress as being causation (at least partially – biopsychosocial approach) for a lot of illnesses.
I think it’s also important to talk about stress-related disorders, because they tend to also be diagnosed in people with autoimmune diseases. Examples include acute stress disorders (same symptoms as PTSD but only lasting between 3-30 days), posttraumatic stress disorder (which most people seem to have a basic understanding of), and adjustment disorders (occurs during major life changes). Attachment disorders can also contribute. One study I looked at found that people with a stress-related disorder were more likely to not only develop an autoimmune disease, but to actually be diagnosed with multiple ones, and had a higher rate of them if they were younger when having the stress-related disorder.
Let’s talk about chronic stress – when our stress response is activated for a long period of time (i.e., daily stress as opposed to one major stressor) – because a lot of research has been done in this area. Here is a bunch of things that chronic stress can do:
contribute to high blood pressure
contribute to anxiety, depression, OCD, anorexia nervosa, and substance use disorder (and withdrawal)
contribute to obesity (increase appetite, leading to weight gain)
suppress or dysregulate immune function (leading to inflammatory disorders and hyperactive immune systems such as in RA and lupus)
suppress the reproductive system
suppress growth in children (lots of studies of children in orphanages)
switch off disease-fighting white blood cells, increasing risk of cancer
worsen symptoms in lupus patients
contributes to malnutrition
contributes to poorly controlled diabetes
contributes to hyperthyroidism
So that’s a lot. I mentioned ME/CFS as the beginning of this post as well, which is associated with the physiological state of freeze, as examined by metabolic changes. Some research indicated that people with ME/CFS are “wired,” meaning a combination of both the fight/flight and freeze responses, leading them to feel wired and tired at once. I hope this gives you some understanding of what is going on with you if you have any of the illnesses mentioned in this post. Understanding is one thing, but what can we do to help ourselves, especially if we are in a chronic stress response? While there is no right answer, there are definitely things we can try (and a bunch have worked for me!)
Deep breathing (into the diaphragm) – for many people this lowers stress (it sometimes increases anxiety for me, so I personally find it more effective to do mindful breathing)
visualizations and guided imagery – try this one out.
Prayer – this is a mindful activity that many people find helpful
Yoga and Tai Chi – mindful movement can be very grounding – listen to this podcast episode about it.
Walking (and other forms of exercise) – for many people this lowers the stress response, for some people it can increase it due to heart rate increases
Journaling – you have to like to write/journal for this one but it can be helpful to get your thoughts out of your head
Biofeedback – this is a technique in which you can learn to control some of your bodily functions (i.e., heart rate)