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.
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!
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)
I know this is a bold statement, but honestly it’s not one that I’ve come up with. It’s one that’s been studied, and it came to my knowledge through the form of a book – When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate. Now, I have done a whole post giving my review of that book awhile back, so that might be something you want to check out before or after reading this today.
First things first, I want to reflect on my own life. As an adult I wouldn’t say I repressed my emotions. Well, sometimes, when I was in my 20s, I would repress anger until it boiled over and spilled out like. Then I was accused of having ‘anger problems’ but really, looking back I was just not expressing it as it came about. On the other hand, sadness, joy, etc. all seemed to come out appropriately. Diving further back, I know there was a time between the ages of 8-13 that I repressed emotions – again, usually anger. Through those 5 years I had a group of friends at school, and one girl in particular was good at manipulating the others into not talking to me for periods of time. Like I mean I had no one to hang out with at school when they did this. It started as just being a day, then a few days, then a week, sometimes a month. It was honestly unpredictable of when it would happen and how long it would happen for. I never knew what ‘I was doing wrong’ and was always only told by them, “If you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you.” I think this was actually a traumatic experience for me. Actually, my therapist told me it was. However, this post isn’t about that trauma, it’s about repressing me emotions. I think the only way I could get through 5 years of elementary and middle years schooling was to repress. Not show any emotion about it at school. I remember crying myself to sleep at night, but certainly not every night. Luckily, I was enrolled in a ton of extracurricular activities which probably helped me too.
What does repression of emotions have to do with chronic illness? Well, in When the Body Says No, Gabor Mate explains that repression of emotions – particularly anger – has been linked to several illnesses. These include autoimmune diseases, cancer, and ALS. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean EVERYONE fits the bill, but certainly, in my conversations with others, people readily admit they have difficulty expressing anger in an appropriate and healthy way. Very interesting.
Why does repression of anger cause chronic illness? Well, in and of itself, it does not. However, when we look at illnesses from a biopsychosocial standpoint (this is the mostly widely accepted view in the medical community – both Western and holistic), it is a contributing factor stemming from the “psycho” portion. Bio stands for biological – so any genetic or epigenetic (meaning our genes were changed by our environment) – contributions to illness. Psycho stands for psychological contributors, which can also include personality, management of emotions, how we handle stress, and so on. Social usually relates to the environment, which often includes factors like traumatic events.
What can we do with this knowledge? For me, the best thing I’ve learned to do is appropriate and consistent expression of emotions. This means I don’t ‘boil over’ with rage but rather can notice and accept the feelings of anger, expressing them through words. This is sometimes referred to as emotional regulation, and in my practice it definitely falls under acceptance. There are many ways to learn to do this. The most effective would be going to see a therapist. There’s also the self-help section of the bookstore or library. The practice of mindfulness. Just to name a few. Will doing this help heal our illnesses? Well, not exactly, but it can help lessen the severity and impact of our symptoms on our lives. I think it is a part of the healing process we often neglect, but really shouldn’t. This week’s episode of the podcast talks about acceptance (find it here). If you have questions about it, feel free to DM me on Instagram (@chronically.living_)
If you read last week’s blog post then you know that I recently attended the World Pain Summit, put on by the Alberta Pain Society. I did this as both an allied healthcare practitioner (as a clinical counsellor) and as a person with lived experience. By the way, this event is apparently always free to people with lived experience, so keep an eye out for it next year. The summit was 3 days and had so much info, that this is going to be part 2 of a 3-part post, and focuses on the content of Day 2. Without further ado, here’s what I learned.
How Living with a Dog Can Improve Quality of Life and Well-Being in People with Persistent Pain. The first bit of interesting info was a bit of an aside – only 1% of the curricula for healthcare professionals is on pain, which means if your doctor doesn’t understand (and isn’t attending these kinds of conferences) that is likely why (definitely not an excuse – all healthcare professionals should be attending conferences/summits/etc throughout their careers). The most interesting parts of this session was the statistics on dog/pet owners (cats and other kinds of pets count):
they report lower pain
less depression and anxiety and loneliness – i.e., better mental health
improved well-being and meaning/purpose in life
Having a pet also gives you a non-judgmental listener whom you can talk to, and petting an animal releases oxytocin in our brains, which has a calming effect. Yay for pets!
Is Supported Pain Self-Management Your First Choice or Last Resort?: 5 Key Coaching Support Skills.Thiswas present by Pete Moore, a person with lived experience, who wrote a book on the subject. The 5 key skills he talked about were: (1) goal setting and action planning; (2) practicing daily activities – I know ADLs can be hard for some people but they are important to well-being; (3) problem solving; (4) keeping active, moving, including stretching and exercise; and (5) knowing what to do if you have a set-back (i.e., planning for that in advance). Much of this involves having a support team, pacing, prioritizing, being patient with yourself, learning relaxation skills, tracking your progress, and resilience.
How a Pain Doctor is Using Social Media to Spread Knowledge About Chronic Pain. This was a session more for healthcare professionals on how to start a YouTube channel (and why they should). But some interesting factors for Spoonies: the current quality of medical information on YouTube is very low, so please be careful and look for trusted sources (i.e., trained healthcare professionals in different areas).
Trauma, Illness, and Healing – Dr. Gabor Mate’s keynote. I’ve written a ton about Dr. Mate’s work in the past, and there was obviously some repeat in content about trauma, childhood abuse, insecure attachments and stress and their relationship to chronic pain and illness. A couple of things I will share:
mind body practices (like yoga) should be included in chronic pain treatment
a lot of back pain is associated with psychoemotional stress (tension, stress, trauma)
Go to a physician for what they can do (prescribe medications, perform surgery, etc.) and find other practitioners to help you with the other parts of treatment
diagnoses are descriptions, not explanations
psychological and spiritual support is important
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Mate’s work, check out When the Body Says No (I also did a post about the book awhile back).
Challenging Chronicity Thoughts: Words Matter. So this was a mental health session, if the title isn’t clear! It emphasized that psychological factors are an important component of pain experience and are the most powerful psychological predictor of adverse health and mental health outcomes associated with pain – they even affect our treatment responses to medications, injections, physical therapy, and most other treatments. Recovery is not just about talking (to a therapist), needs and activity but also about ways of thinking. Two important notes for my fellow Spoonies: (1) pain is perceived by your brain (all in your head) but it is real; and (2) the word pain takes you right to thinking about/feeling pain (check out this podcast episode I did on externalizing language and pain/illness).
Next week I’ll bring you a post on the information from the final day of the summit. I hope that you find some of this helpful when thinking about illness and well-being. Keep making the most of it everyone!
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This past weekend I attended the World Pain Summit ’21, which is put on by the Pain Society of Alberta, and has speakers and attendees from around the world. I attended as an Allied Healthcare Professional with Lived Experience (the options were: Physician, Physician with Lived Experience, Allied Healthcare Professional, Allied Healthcare Professional with Lived Experience, and Person with Lived Experience). By the way, this was free to attend for non-healthcare professionals with lived experience (only about 150 people with lived experience only attended out of 1600ish attendees). The summit was 3 days, had incredible expert physicians/allied healthcare professionals/researchers, giving the latest and important information on treating chronic pain and chronic pain research. I attended a lot of sessions, so I decided to make this into 3 posts so that I could relay as much as possible. Part 1 is a recap of Day 1 of the summit.
Social Media & Pain. There were 3 presenters on this one – a researcher, a physiotherapist, and a person with lived experience. Much like last week’s blog post, they went over the good and the bad of using social media, both as a person with lived experience and as a healthcare practitioner. The good includes learning, community knowledge, knowledge construction, combatting isolation, raising awareness, and validating common experiences, among others. Again, they recommend not using social media for medical treatment and to be careful when sharing personal information online. The part of this that I want you to take away is when they talked about this: “Pain is normal. If you expect to be outside of pain 100% of the time, you’re wrong.” Because that’s impossible. Pathologizing pain to the extent we do (especially online) is like pathologizing blinking. It’s not something we necessarily can (or need to) fix but rather live alongside. We need to view our normal responses to an abnormal situation (chronic pain) as just that.
Head Injuries & Migraine/Migraine Disease Management. These were 2 separate sessions, with some overlapping content so I decided to talk about them together. Post-traumatic headaches from head injuries often resemble migraines, and migraines themselves can be considered a disease because there are changes in both brain structure and function. There are some non-modifiable risk factors for migraines (female, low SES, head trauma, genetics/epigenetics, childhood abuse) and some modifiable ones (these are important): obesity, medication overuse, caffeine overuse, and depression/anxiety. There were several recommendations for treating migraines, using the acronym BRAINS. Biobehavioral therapy/biofeedback/mindfulness/CBT/physical therapy; (which includes coping sills like self-monitoring, pacing, relaxation, self-talk, connection, and treatment of trauma/mood/cognition). Risk factor modification and lifestyle (diet, exercise, sleep). Adjunctive therapies (neuroceuticals, neurostimulation). Injection therapy/onabotullnumotoxin A/extracranial nerve blocks. Neuropharmacology. Support and Education. AND SLEEP HYGIENE is important (check on my podcast on that here.)
The Painful Implications of Psychological Trauma. There is, as I’ve written before, a strong correlation between trauma and chronic pain/illness. This was an important session for my as a psychotherapist. Mental health treatments for chronic pain & trauma should include healthy coping skills, CBT for pain, radical acceptance, trauma-focused therapy/exposure therapy, mindfulness, trauma processing, body awareness, somatic treatments, and behavioural activation. Two really important pieces came out of this. The first was for physicians: the most powerful thing you can say to clients is “I believe you.” I hope that they take that seriously. The second is for those of us with lived experience: pain is a psychological phenomena but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. The example given was how temperature is experienced by different people differently (for example, my mom is always hot and my dad is always cold). Our brains are involved in everything we think, feel, sense, etc. But all of that is also real.
How Our Brains Make Unconscious Judgments and What We Can Do About It/Social Innovation on Equity and Diversity Inclusion. There were 3 sessions in the afternoon. I attended two of them and watched the Q&A. This session was presented by a trans woman. The other two were by Indigenous peoples. This was the social justice, diversity, and inclusion part of the weekend. There was so much great information that I hope all healthcare practitioners learned from. The part of this particular session which is helpful for everyone are the strategies to reduce our bias (because we ALL have bias – unless you literally without a brain). Avoid blame or guilt. Focus on the impact, not the intent. Choose a positive attitude. Recognize bias in action and take action. Micro-affirmations. Active listening. Be intentional. Avoid generalities. Question the reliability of sources. Treat people as individuals, avoid assumptions. Get to know people who are different than you. Practice the Platinum Rule – do unto others as they wish to be treated. The last session had to do with patterns of change and what some healthcare organizations are doing to make these changes.
Okay, so that was a lot of information (and that was just Day 1). I will likely be doing more individual posts and/or podcast episodes about some of this information in more detail as it might be relevant to chronic pain/illness warriors. If you have any requests from anything from this post, let me know by commenting or DM-ing me on Instagram. Part 2 comes next week. Keep on making the most of it!
I attended a few sessions from the virtual Collective Trauma Summit last month. I’m always looking to further my knowledge and professional development, especially as I start to practice as a psychotherapist. There is an overlap between trauma and chronic illness, which I think can also be important for us to understand. And by us, I don’t just mean healthcare professionals, but also persons with lived experience. Why do I think it’s important? Because I’ve seen a lot of people (mostly online in support groups) wonder about the whys. Does knowing why actually help? I think that can be a difficult question to answer. For some people yes, for others no, and some fall into the “kind of” realm. Regardless, there was some information that I gathered that can be helpful to us all. So, without further ado, here it is:
Application of Polyvagal Theory for Safety and Connection with Others – Stephen Porges and Deb Dana For those of you not familiar with polyvagal theory or the vagus nerve, I don’t do a great job explaining it, but check out this YouTube link featuring Stephen Porges explaining it, and for more on the vagus nerve, check out this podcast episode with Melanie Weller. This session of the summit spoke a lot about embodiment. We can learn to coregulate each other – connection is essential for humans. Learning to both sit still to feel our bodies (without a narrative) and how to come back to our bodies is important for healing – but also a slow process and should only be done with a trained professional. Building an awareness of what’s happening in our bodies, as well as what we are thinking and feeling is important. Trauma can be passed down intergenerationally through our nervous systems. They also have a Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) that sounds super interesting and I’m going to probably learn more about. If you’re in therapy, it can be good to find out whether your therapist is “polyvagal-informed” because of the amount of research backing the theory.
How Our Nervous System and Real Connection Are the New Frontiers to Healing Trauma – Daniel J. Siegel This session also focused a lot on embodiment, which I’m a huge fan of anyway (especially for chronic illness/pain). Dr. Siegel talked about resonance between people (again, connection is important) and also the ideas of intraconnectedness (wholeness of everything) and interconnectedness (with others through our bodies). As a species we tend to be disconnected from nature (and thus why we have some many environmental issues). He talked about how integration is health – not just at an individual level but also at a collective level, and what trauma does is impair that integration. He suggested that the plane of possibility is achieved through connectedness (with each other and nature), open-awareness, and love (compassion). Self-compassion and developing awareness is something I talk about a lot both on the blog and the podcast (and I have a few meditations for both on my meditation channel), again because of the amount of research supporting them for both physical and mental health.
Returning to Ourselves After Trauma – Gabor Mate Okay, we all know by now that I’m a huge fan of Dr. Mate’s work, so of course I attended this session. He gave some interesting statistics that I’m going to share with you. (1) Women with severe PTSD have double the risk of ovarian cancer; (2) Indigenous people have 3 times the risk of rheumatoid arthritis than non-indigenous people; and (3) with Covid-19 with see that indigenous people, POC, and the elderly are most at risk because they are the most oppressed and traumatized. In other words, we’re looking at the sociological issues of disease which are often ignored. He also talked about embodiment in his session. In this case he referenced how we often are split between an intellectual awareness of things and an embodied awareness, which can be a traumatic imprint (in other words, the body remembers). Again, we should be asking ourselves “what does this feel like inside my body” instead of just “what do I know intellectually.”
So, what can we do with all of this information now that we have it. For one, if you don’t see a mental health professional to help you with your struggles with the mental health components of illness, that might be something you want to look into. Alternatively there is a lot of self-help out there (including by all of these healthcare professionals who have written many books on these subjects) and do things like build awareness, self-compassion, and embodied experiences (again, I offer these on my meditation channel but you can also find them by others various places online). Healing is possible. Healing is slow. Take care and keep making the most of it everyone!
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If you haven’t heard of this book and you have a chronic illness you need to get in the know. And to be fair, and I hadn’t heard of the book until about a year ago, and I didn’t actually read it until recently. The author I had heard of. Dr. Gabor Mate. He has written several books over the years on topics ranging from chronic illness to substance abuse to ADHD, and he’s quite well-known in both the self-help and medical communities. So, now that I’m done reading this (must-read) book, let me share some thoughts and opinions, and hopefully help encourage you to also give it a read.
First, for those of you unfamiliar with Gabor Mate, he is a Canadian (now retired) doctor who spent his career in family practice, palliative care, and working with people who use substances in Vancouver’s East End. And he’s touted as being an expert in these areas. The book, When the Body Says no is about how “stress” influences chronic illness. Now, stress encompasses a lot of things here, which is why I put it in quotations. It includes life stress, attachment, coping styles, trauma, adverse early childhood experiences, adult relationships, and so on. Basically a lot of stuff, though Dr. Mate posits that it’s our early life stresses that have the greatest impact on us. The book takes a biopsychosocial approach. This means it includes biological, psychological and sociocultural influences on health and illness. This is the approach that science is backing when it comes to both physical health and mental health (literally my first class in grad school was “A Biopsychosocial Approach to Mental Health”). What’s interesting, if you go online to research most illnesses (come on, we’ve all googled our actual illnesses, as well as other potential ones) usually only biological causes are listed. And I will agree with Dr. Mate, that biological causes don’t tell the whole story (and neither to strictly psychological or sociocultural). For example, he writes (based on scientific research) that some people with biological markers for illnesses never actually develop one. Why? If it was strictly biological then everyone with the biological markers would clearly develop it. Again, there is more to the picture.
Like I said, I agree with a lot of the content in the book. I mean, many autoimmune diseases are diagnosed after a person has gone through a stressful experiences. It makes sense that the body would take on what our minds don’t want to – such as a repression of emotions. And clearly trauma can manifest in many, many ways (illness, substance use, psychiatric disorders, etc.). Many people will read the book and find themselves very well represented for whatever illness they have (and he covers a lot of illnesses from cancer to a variety of autoimmune diseases to Alzheimers and so on). My only problem with it is that he asserts that attachment issues (to parents) are the #1 determinant of illness, and that virtually all people with illnesses have more than one of these issues. And this is where I didn’t find myself represented. My attachment style with my parents has always been healthy. My early childhood experiences were really good. In fact, the first trauma I suffered was ongoing between the ages of 8-13 (being bullied at school). At the time, yes, I did probably repress a lot of my emotions, but as I got older, and certainly by the time I was diagnosed with my illnesses, and I was not repressing emotion (at least as often) anymore. Now, that being said, maybe all it took was that experience to account for the psychosocial part of my illness. I can’t say either way, but regardless I don’t feel I perfectly represent the picture Dr. Mate paints in his book, though I can appreciate that a lot of people do.
All of that said, I do highly recommend reading this book if you have a chronic illness OR if you have a loved one with a chronic illness. It gives insight into the causes, which some people find helpful. And if you’d rather live in the here-and-now, rather than try to decipher what caused your illness, the last chapter is called the “Seven A’s of Healing” and it really resonated with me, because for the most part, it is exactly what I work on with clients, and it is strongly evidence-based. So, go read When the Body Says No, it’s definitely worth it.
My podcast episode this week is on Creative Hopelessness, so if you’re finding it difficult to make changes in your life and/or you’ve been feeling hopeless, please check it out. Until next week, keep making the most of it!
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Today I want to talk about some of the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, because, well, I find it quite interesting. Dr. Mate is an addictions specialist, who has also worked as a family physician and in palliative care. Much of his work and research has been on that body-mind connection between mental health and chronic illness and substance use. He has a lot to say about stress, trauma, and coping and their relationship to chronic illnesses ranging from autoimmune diseases to neurological conditions to skin disorders to cancer. While I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with everything he says, a lot of it does make sense.
The work of Dr. Mate I had heard of before but never looked much into. At my practicum, the other student at my site brought it up. She was interested in his work as someone who wants to work with people who use substances, and she thought I might also be interested as someone who is specializing in working with people with chronic illness (which is currently 40% of my case load!). She was correct that this would be interesting and helpful for my work as a psychotherapist. So let’s talk about some of this work. Dr. Mate asserts that there is a “pathway from stressful emotions, often unconscious, to physical disease” or to break it down slightly differently, “emotional stress if a major cause of physical illness.” Again, he’s talking about a wide range of illnesses, including autoimmune diseases and cancer. There are two parts of this that I found interesting doing some research (and there’s a lot more I want to do yet – there’s a whole book of his that’s on my to read list).
The first part is emotions themselves. For instance, Dr. Mate connects repressed anger to the development of autoimmune diseases. Basically, if you’re not letting your anger out (in an appropriate way of course) and instead, you’re holding it in, it bursts out, not in a fit of rage, but in a chronic illness such as RA or lupus and so on. Tied into this is emotional repression in general. So if you’re disregarding your emotions, whatever they may be, and holding them in, this can lead to illness as well. On his website Dr. Mate gives the example of Lou Gehrig and ALS (and according to Mate, every patient he has seen with ALS), who often disregarded both emotional and physical pain he was in throughout his life.
The second part is trauma and trauma response. It is pretty well documented that people who endure trauma, especially early in life, will make adaptive changes either physically or psychologically, in order to survive. Childhood abuse is one often cited with this. It is also well documented that childhood trauma has a huge impact on adult physical and mental health. Dr. Mate states that trauma in another cause of the range of chronic conditions I’ve mentioned.
So wait, does this mean that every person with pretty much any chronic conditions has either a history of trauma and/or a history of emotional repression? Not necessarily. I watched an interview with Dr. Mate, where the interviewer asked just that (because it’s a rather big claim). The response was that of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to a large portion of this population. Interesting. So my thoughts on it are this: I have an autoimmune disease. I did not have any kind of significant childhood trauma (I have maybe what I’d call minor trauma) and I have usually been good at expressing my emotions (though I have gone through periods where I’ve been less likely to, those are usually short-lived). Basically, I’m not sure I fall into this category. I also know many other Spoonies who would not fall into this category. That being said, especially through my work as a therapist, there are many people who this does make sense for.
My main takeaway from this is that to help heal from chronic illness (and I’m not saying cure), one really has to take care of their emotional health. See a therapist. If there’s trauma in your background, that likely needs to be worked through (also just in general for your mental health). If it’s emotional repression, then you need to start to learn to open up (part of my work as an acceptance and commitment therapist is to get people to allow their emotions to be there). The body and mind are connected so we need to treat them as such.
That’s all for this week. Until next week, keep making the most of it.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!