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

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

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

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

Being mindful take practice.

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting with my values and doing what matters to me.

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

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

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

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

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

Acceptance can feel peaceful.

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

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

The Power of Words

I know most of us are probably familiar with the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I definitely think that is true. Not just because I’m a writer (I love to write everything – this blog, self-help books, fiction novels and short stories, poetry, screenplays/teleplays) but because there is research that shows that writing (and very specifically journaling) is good not only for our mental health, but our physical health as well. This is one reason Chronic Illness Warriors might want to jump on the journaling bandwagon.

Apparently I’ve always been a writer.

So the whole reason I wanted to write about this is because I was re-reading a textbook for my practicum (basic counselling skills, etc) and one of the interesting things that I read was that a researcher named Pennebaker found that people who record “troubling experiences in diaries showed better immune system responses and significantly better health than those who did not.” Now, I’m not saying I think that any kind of writing is going to suddenly magically cure any of us and we’ll just feel 100% better by doing so. The research though is super interesting. I think that most people can acknowledge the mental health is helped by sharing our story – through therapy, support groups, and writing/journaling. I personally find it just good for my mental health to do any kind of writing, including creative writing, whether or not it directly has to do with my struggles (let’s face it, every writer has a character who is more like them). It can feel good to journal because it can allow you to process, be reflective, and just get something off your chest, and it’s particularly effective if you are struggling with your mental health on top of your physical health.

This kind of journaling has many benefits including self-compassion.

In terms of physical health, researchers have found journaling to help with viral infections such as Hepatitis (so yes, potentially even Covid-19 as well). There was also a study that looked at gratitude journaling by those with heart failure, and found that morbidity was decreased and inflammation was reduced in the majority of patients. Now obviously more research always needs to be done but it is an interesting and promising start. How exactly does it all work? Well, that’s not 100% clear but journaling can lessen overall stress (for those reasons I stated for mental health) and stress and immune functioning are related, so it kind of makes sense that like some other mindfulness activities, journaling (or perhaps other forms of writing) can be helpful. I’m all about the “even if I just feel better today” (or for a few hours) attitude. Why not help ourselves in the present moment? All we really have is this moment, because the next one doesn’t exist yet, and the last one has passed. In this moment, if journaling helps me feel better and potentially helps my body and mind function better, than maybe that’s a good reason to make today the day you start a journal.

I think this tattoo of mine really sums up how important I think writing is (because why else would I have tattooed it on my body!)

Have a good week and keep on making the most of it!

Summertime Self-Care

Every time I say the word summertime I start singing: “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.” I think it’s from playing it in high school jazz band many moons ago, and actually when I pulled my sax out in the spring it was an easy song to get back into and play. Yes, here in Canada we are already half way through summer because let’s face it, summer is June, July, August, and if we’re lucky, September. That doesn’t mean we should talk about some summer-related self-care we are all hopefully engaging in, and if not, then it’s not too late to start!

IMG_7450Hot town, summer in the city.

Obviously this year is a bit different due to the pandemic which is spiking and second waving in certain parts of the world, while other parts (ahem USA) haven’t finished their first wave yet. But there are still some activities I’ve found to do this summer that have been great for my body, mind, and spirit – three important aspects of self-care. Personally, I think spending as much time as possible outside is really important for my mental health. If you live anywhere that gets a long, cold winter (Canada, northern US, Russia, Scandinavia, etc) then you understand how much needed the summer sun is. Whether it’s sitting in your back (or front) yard, on your porch, your balcony (apartment dwellers), a bench in a park, or wherever, getting outside for at least an hour a day can make you feel a lot better. And many other favourite self-care activities can be done outside – meditation, yoga, reading, etc.

IMG_7827Backyard chillaxin’ with Spike!

If you’re looking for something a little more physical, I’ve talked about hiking and kayaking, but really any outdoor sport you’re capable of doing is great, even just going for a walk. If it’s safe to do so, having dinner or a drink with a friend on a patio (social distanced of course) can be a good way to get some social self-care in, which many of us weren’t able to do (other than Zoom) during self-isolation. So if you’re in a place that is a little more open and not currently spiking, and you’re safe to do so, getting out with a friend or two might be a good idea.

IMG_7671I always aim to get a little movement in!

Whatever you decide to do for summertime self-care, just make sure you’re staying safe, wearing a mask, and continuing to social distance until the medical professionals tell us it’s safe to do otherwise. Yes, this year is different, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be taking care of ourselves.