How Can I Become More Resilient?

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about resiliency on this blog. The truth is, it’s a topic that comes up often. I see it on online support groups, on Instagram, and hear it in conversation with people. I also read it on other blogs, and many healthcare organizations post about it on their sites. Here’s the thing, if you have a chronic illness and you’re not feeling resilient, just know that you are not alone. A lot of people feel that way. Are people born resilient or do we develop resilience? I think it’s an interesting question and possibly a bit of both. Children tend to be more resilient than adults, suggesting we can lose some resilience as we age. In one of my courses for my graduate degree we had to more-or-less do a family tree. Except this family tree was supposed to trace something like a mental health or substance use issue. I chose to trace resilience, and found that going back just to my grandparents generation (that was the requirements for the project) there was a strong theme of resilience (my maternal grandmother/baba faced abuse, neglect, lost 2 children, and she and my mother were trapped in Siberia for a week during the Cold War – I know it sounds too crazy to be true). Yet she not only survived but was a loving parent to her other children and an amazing grandparent. Had my mom not shared my baba’s history I would not have know. She was that resilient.

Three generations of resilience in my family.

The good thing is, that even people with chronic illness can develop resilience. Warning: it does require work on your part. Luckily, some of the work may not feel like work at all… it just requires consistent commitment to it. I want to add, that many of these suggestions overlap with what the National MS Society suggests, in case you don’t want to just take my word for it.

  • finding meaning and committing to that action: what is the reason you get out of bed in the morning? If you don’t have a reason it will be difficult to do so. Is it your family? Or work? I know a lot of people with chronic illness go on disability, but work provides meaning and purpose for people. If you are on disability what is your purpose going to be instead?
  • improvisation/adaptability/problem solving: I think these all kind of overlap and go together. We often have to improvise in order to do things we enjoy. Maybe we can’t go on the 5k walk with our friends, but we could meet them for coffee afterwards. How flexible and adaptable are you to changing plans? Or asking others to? What’s an alternative way you can participate or do the things you like to do? I would go as far to make a list of ideas (remember when brainstorming there is no such thing as a dumb idea) and try out some to see if they work.
  • Self-care: we all know I love self-care, and this includes the basics (getting out of bed, making breakfast, taking a shower) and then doing activities like relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation, or prayer. What hobbies do you enjoy that you can participate in? Pick one a day. Reading is an example of something that is low energy and can be fulfiling.
  • Being able to tolerate “negative” emotions: I personally don’t categorize emotions as negative or positive. All emotions are important because they tell us very important things. If you’re not used to be able to just sit with emotions, try out this mindfulness practice that aims at helping people do just that.
  • Self-efficacy: I did a post on this recently, and you can read it here. Do you believe you can cope with your illness? Part of this is being a realistic optimist, being hopeful.
  • Using skills such as curiosity and humour: When is the last time you laughed? Are you able to have fun and joke around (and not in a self-deprecating way)? Do you get curious about your situation or feelings or sensations or emotions? What are you noticing about them right now as you read this? The noticing self is a helpful skill to develop. We touch on it in this podcast episode (about half way through).
  • Radical acceptance: This is a skill from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and essentially the same used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is about fully accepting your situation/thoughts/feelings/sensations/etc. Fully. Accepting. It doesn’t mean you have to like it. It’s hard to do a lot of the above without this kind of acceptance.
My curious, nonjudgmental, accepting, “what am I noticing” face.

I hope this helps give you some ideas for building resilience some more. Well-being and a good quality of life do require us to be resilient, and trust me, it is possible even with chronic illness. Here’s the link to the MS Society page on resilience. Take care, and keep making the most of it!

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What has your pain taught you?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with quicksand, but probably most of us have seen it in the movies or on TV. Our hero is on an adventure in some kind of jungle and they (or someone in their party of merry men and women) falls into what turns out to be quicksand. And they struggle and struggle and sink faster and faster. Usually in the movies the hero saves the day. Struggling in quicksand is a lot like what we do with our pain – both physical and emotional. We fight against it, struggling more and more, sinking deeper and deeper. But do you know how to actually get out of quicksand in real life? Like if you fell in it? Struggling makes you sink, and doing nothing – literally putting yourself into the floating position (arms and legs out, with zero resistance) will help you float to the top. From there you can take very slow, gentle strokes and get yourself out.

What the quicksand metaphor shows is that if you do the opposite of what you think you should do, you can often get to safety. In the case of pain, it means looking at it differently, changing your relationship with it. So that brings me to the question, what are your pain taught you? The answer can be many things. Maybe it’s taught you something about yourself. Or your relationships. Or your values/what’s important to you. Maybe it’s taught you something about the meaning of life. Or helped you set goals. Before straight off answering this question, really take a moment and ponder it. Because often the immediate answer is NOTHING! or THAT LIFE SUCKS! or something to that extent. But is that true? Is that all it’s taught you? Those answers often take us back to the struggle. You’ve fallen in quicksand by responding quickly with the first thing that comes to mind, rather than taking some time to really explore if there is something more you can get out of your experience.

Look, I get it, there is nothing fun about physical (or emotional pain) but that doesn’t mean it can’t do something good for us.

I’m going to use my experience as an example. And trust me, there was a time I was struggling in the quicksand and those would have been my answers. But here is what it has actually taught me, when I’ve taken the time to think about it:

  • I’m stronger – both physically and emotionally – then I thought I was, but it took a lot of work to get here.
  • Being treated with love and respect in romantic relationships and friendships is incredibly important to me.
  • I can do anything that I put my mind to, even if that means I have to adapt some things to what I can do.
  • Loving myself is the most important thing to me.
  • I want to have as many life adventures as possible despite chronic pain.
  • Everything I need is in the present moment, and sometimes the present moment isn’t great and sometimes it is, but that is how life is for everyone.
My first adventure after my diagnoses was to Vienna in 2017.

I’ve probably learned more lessons than that from my chronic illnesses and chronic pain, but should give you a picture of what it can teach you. Your answers will likely be different from mine. This is a key piece to acceptance, and if you can’t accept, you can’t really improve your well-being and quality of life. I want to make a few additional things clear with this post. First, I am not saying that your loss of health is a blessing or that you should be grateful for it. Sometimes as we move through illness grief, gratitude does appear, but that doesn’t mean you have to start looking for it. Also, meaning is not found in loss – it’s what you do after the loss. So the things I listed, are really about things I’ve done after I got sick. This is also not an exercise I’d recommend if you’ve just been diagnosed, because you won’t have had a chance to go through enough to be able to do it.

If you’re interested in contacting the present moment, check out my YouTube channel. This week’s podcast episode is on externalizing language, which can also be quite helpful – find it on Apple, Spotify, and everywhere else you get podcasts. Until next week, keep making the most of it!

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How to Self-Esteem & Self-Worth Effect My Chronic Illness?

Back when I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I noticed that my own self-esteem dropped. The person I was in a relationship with at the time didn’t help that, but then again, it wasn’t really up to her to help it. The disability I had from my illness was also very intense at the time. I missed a lot of work, I couldn’t go on long walks, I felt a lot of pain, and that all definitely hurt my self-esteem and self-worth. And that’s where my story ends…

That was then (June 2016).

Just kidding, if you’re reading this then you know that is not where my story ends! Actually, it’s where it begins. I was reading something a few weeks ago about self-esteem and chronic illness, just a brief paragraph, and it got me interested in doing a little more research on the topic, because, well, I noticed a correlation between my own self-esteem and self-worth and disability in my illness. I can’t be the only one, right? First of all, let’s define self-esteem and self-worth so we are all on the same page.
Self-esteem: our individual universal positive and/or negative feelings about ourselves.
Self-worth: basically another word for self-esteem.
In general, self-esteem effects our quality of life, which includes our overall life satisfaction as well as how much positive and negative affect (emotion) we experience.

On the journey (June 2017).

When we are looking at chronic illness, there are some important considerations. First, how we evaluate and view our own bodies is important, often because of the changes our bodies go through because of illness (and/or medications we have to take). Having a perception of body-self unity and positive thoughts about our illness can improve self-esteem (we’ll get to how to do this in a minute). Second, acceptance of disability is related to self-esteem in people who have disabilities (chronic illness is a disability). Acceptance doesn’t just include accepting the diagnosis, but acceptance all that comes with it (pain, lifestyle changes, loss, etc.). The better we are at accepting… the more we are able to do? (Well, yes, but that would actually be another post, so back to the main topic)…

It continues (June 2018).

People tend to use different coping strategies when dealing with illness. Though none of these strategies should be categorized as “positive” or “negative” I prefer to think of them as “toward moves” (helping me live a good life) or “away moves” (taking me away from the good life). Away moves would include things like catastrophizing, which has been linked to pain-related disability (yes, it makes your pain worse), higher levels of depression, and overall lower health and well-being. Other away moves include avoidance strategies, like using drugs or alcohol to cope, denial of illness, or staying in bed all day everyday. If you do these things, understand that no one is judging. These are probably natural coping strategies for you as they are for many, many people. However, if we want to improve self-esteem (and thereby improve quality of life with our illness) we want to look at toward moves.

I can even see the change in these pictures, can you? (June 2019)

These toward moves coping strategies include hope (goal-directed energy plus planning to meet goals), humour (reframing distress), psychological appraisals (meaning of the stressor, ability to cope, and emotion-focused coping, such as seeking support), and approach behaviours such as seeking social support and positively reframing the situation (yes, the research supports mindset). These are all associated with better well-being, better mental health, and better illness outcomes. This all comes from the cognitive adaptation to chronic illness theory, which in addition to self-esteem, looks at making meaning of illness, and regaining mastery.

Just last year (June 2020).

I think it’s important to assess which coping strategies you are using, and make changes if needed. If our self-esteem improves, and therefore our disability decreases, then our quality of life is also better. Sounds good to me! To finish my beginning story, I did a lot of personal development work, that led me to starting this blog, and along the way my self-esteem and self-worth drastically improved again, and my levels of disability have shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. My illness may not be cured, but my quality of life is so much better. This experience is also known as posttraumatic growth, which happens when positive change results from adversity, giving the individual better mental health.

I continue to use “toward moves” coping strategies to this day (June 2021).

New season of the podcast (totally revamped show!) coming June 28. Check out the trailer here.

Keep making the most of it!

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Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning

This month I read the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The book is actually one of the top selling “self-help” books of all time. I put self-help in quotations because I’m not sure if that was the original intention behind Frankl writing it, but it seems that he might have recognized what it became between the years it was first published in 1946 and his death in the late 1990s. The first half of the book chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in concentration camps during the second World War, including Auschwitz. While this could be just read as an intense, heart-breaking story (and it is), the way that Frankl writes about his life experiences doesn’t come off that way. Instead, you can see his reflection and growth in his writing. It’s kind of hard to explain how that works, unless you read it for yourself. The story is also not chronological but instead jumps back and forth across his timeline in the camps to highlight pieces of the story that are connected to each other in some way.

While I don’t want to give away too much from the story, because I highly recommend that everyone read it, there were two main takeaways that I had from the first half of the book. First, is that if we believe our lives have no meaning, then we are more likely to give up when faced with difficult circumstances – and that meaning doesn’t have to be grand or anything, as the beauty of a sunset or holding the hand of a sick friend can bring some meaning for that day. Of course, as Frankl admits, in the concentration camps there was a huge element of dumb luck that you ended up in this line instead of that line (whereas that line led you to the gas chambers and this one didn’t), but for those with that luck, meaning became important. The other takeaway I had is that meaning is created by each other us, and is different for each person. It is solely up to us what that meaning is.

The second half of the book is about Logotherapy, which is a psychotherapy modality that Frankl (who was a psychiatrist) invented. It was kind of based on psychoanalysis, but with a heavy emphasis on existential philosophy, particularly meaning-making. During the second half of the book, Frankl does tell more stories from his time in the camps, integrating it with his theories about human existence and how helping people find meaning can aid with the treatment of many mental health problems. Frankl is considered one of the leaders of existential psychotherapy. Though logotherapy isn’t really used anymore, as there isn’t a huge amount of empirical evidence supporting it, it has influenced many other existentially-based therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which I practice. My personal beliefs are that life meaning is incredibly important, as are other existential concepts, which all humans ultimately deal with, and our ability to deal with contributes, at least partially, to our overall well-being.

Even if you aren’t interested in psychotherapy or existentialism, I highly recommend giving this book a read. There’s a reason that this is a best-selling self-help book. Many people struggle with finding meaning in their lives, especially at transitional periods, and this book can really open your eyes on how to find meaning, even in incredibly difficult circumstances. There are so many amazing quotes from this book, but I’m going to leave you with this one: “The helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself – he may turn personal tragedy into a triumph.”

For a podcast episode on meaning making with chronic illness, check out this one. Everyone, thank you as always for reading my posts. If you end up reading this book, let me know what your takeaways were. For now, keep making the most of it!

Choice, Growth, Freedom, Values & Acceptance

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

For those of you who are not familiar with Viktor Frankl, he is a psychiatrist, author, existential philosopher and Holocaust survivor. His belief system, which was seemingly helpful to him while he was in a concentration camp, is that life can have meaning even in the worst possible circumstances (like he himself faced) and we are motivated to continue to live when we find that meaning. Like many other existentialists, Frankl believed we had the choice to do what we wanted with the circumstances we are given, even if we don’t always get to choose the circumstances ourselves. When it comes to chronic illness – physical or mental – it can be hard to always see the choices available to us, and sometimes those choices may be more limited, but they are still there. If I am in pain today, I can choose to lie on the couch or I can choose to do some stretches. I can choose to do nothing, or I can choose to sit at the computer and write a blog post that will hopefully help someone else. Depending on your situation, your choice options will look different than mine and that’s okay. The last part of Frankl’s above quote says that “In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Personal growth, and healing journeys (check out my podcast about healing here and personal growth here) are difficult but necessary if we want to live full and rich lives, if we don’t want to give up and into our circumstances. There is so much overlap between chronic physical illness and mental illness and feelings like hopelessness and helplessness play into both. Breaking ourselves out of the cycle is the key. That often takes the form of reaching out for help, and/or using our own self-help and self-care skills to propel us forward (for example, reading self-help books about these topics can be helpful if you don’t want to or can’t afford therapy).

Meaning, choice, freedom – even with chronic illness.

Recently I have been learning a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as that is what I would like my practicum to focus on (I have to pick something that is CBT – cognitive behavioural – focused and ACT is “third-wave” and combines a lot of mindfulness). Here is a quote from the ACT training I’ve been completing.

“In this moment I’m holding my pain so that I can choose to do the things I care about.” – Timothy Gordon

Values and meaning look different for each of us.
(Vienna, 2017)

ACT is very values focused and as you can see values are closely related to life meanings which stem from growth and freedom, which stem from choice. This is a therapy with a lot of efficacy for chronic pain and chronic illness because it asks us to acceptance our pain, and helps us to move toward our values. I personally accepted my pain and my illness a long time ago. That acceptance has allowed me to do more with my life, like go back to school and start a new career, travel, exercise, write a book, and help others. These are all values of mine and they all bring my life meaning. But I didn’t have to choose to move toward any of these. I could have stayed where I was, but truth-be-told, I wasn’t happy. That realization of unhappiness sent me down this growth path which in many ways started with the acceptance piece. If you’re not happy, or you don’t know what your life meaning is or what you want it to be, I would suggest just starting with your values. What’s important to you? And then what your life would look like if you were living for those values. Now, this work is of course best done in the context of therapy, but if you’d rather some reading on the subject I would say check out the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

Acceptance can lead to new realities.

Your pain and illness don’t have to control your lives if you don’t want them to. Keep making the most of it everyone.

Positive Psychology and Physical Illness

Before everyone starts hating on positive psychology, I’m going to give you a bit of a break down of it. As some of you know, I’m doing my Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology so I’m learning a lot about the different theories of counselling. Though I want to take an integrative approach in my practice, positive psychology is something that interests me. Here’s why:

  • the focus is on strengths, positive experiences, positive emotions (i.e., what’s good in life, not just what’s bad)
  • optimism and gratitude are encouraged (however, if you’re not an optimist then you shouldn’t be coerced into being one)
  • unrealistic optimism isn’t healthy, and neither is too much pessimism
  • emphasis on finding meaning in life and being authentic as it will lead to less stress and anxiety
  • there needs to be balance between positive and negative feelings and experiences
  • you can learn to shift your perspective from negativity to positivity
  • focus is finding ways to foster hope in your life
Word-ArtImage from: https://condorperformance.com/positive-psychology/

So what does this have to do with physical illness. Well, if it isn’t obvious already, positive psychology can help us shift our view of our illness(es) from being something that is terrible and completely disruptive of our lives, to something that we can draw strength and resilience from. Regardless of whether we are sick or healthy, we all have strengths (I would say mine are perseverance, optimism, and communication). We all still experience good things (fun times with friends and family for example), and positive emotions (unless you’re truly unhappy 100% of the time, you do experience happiness, love, contentment, etc.). This doesn’t mean we can’t have bad days or be unhappy, it means that we can choose to acknowledge the good days and the good things that happen as well.

XD0OdKzwQF2hBF41kefPEQEngaging in self-care kind of goes hand-in-hand with positive psychology.

I like the idea of meaning making (if you read my post on existentialism you’ll know this about me). So my original goal was to make movies and entertain. As my health deteriorated, I sought out new meaning and found that I want to help and inspire people (thus this blog, my podcast, and my new degree). The other part of this is finding ways to foster hope. I think that for people who are very sick, finding hope is difficult. I volunteer at a crisis text line for kids and teens. One of the articles I often send texters is on fostering hope. Here are some suggestions from the article: positive thinking, focusing on the future (and changes that will happen), look at the big picture rather than the details that are easy to focus on, remember your successes (however small – did you go for a walk around the block today? that’s a success), be patient with yourself because you’re doing the best you can, and reach out for support when necessary.

WsZ19goHSlyhimnYpy5C9QPursuing more education was an important step in finding my new life meanings.

Is positive psychology the only way to improve your mental health when you have a physical illness? Certainly not, but hopefully this was some food for thought.

Also, in case you haven’t heard, I have a podcast! It’s call Chronically Living and how to make the most of it. It’s available on Apple Podcasts! Check it out and please leave me a rating and review!

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Reference:

https://kidshelpphone.ca/get-info/8-ways-foster-hope-your-daily-life