You might be struggling to manage your daily life with all of its distractions, stresses, and not to mention, chronic and/or mental illness— I get it, it’s hard. You’re swamped at work, your kids are screaming all the time, insurance companies devalue your care, doctors aren’t quite sure what to do with you, and your naturopath just keeps giving you supplements that collect dust in your medicine cabinet. Life is stressful — but there are things you can do to minimize stress and take control of your life instead of letting life happen to you.
Perhaps a loved one suffers from a chronic illness and you’re looking for ways to help them. That’s really nice of you — you should probably send them this article instead of telling them what to do. Say, “I saw this article and thought of you. Hope you’re smiling today.”
I’ve been struggling with varying degrees of chronic or mental illness since I was an adolescent. First, it was depression and anxiety, then a series of viral illnesses that lead me to a Fibromyalgia diagnosis. Fibromyalgia is disorder in the central nervous system that causes my brain’s “fight or flight” (aka stress) responses to always trigger, which causes chronic, widespread pain (read: my entire body hurts all the time), and other fun things like chronic fatigue and migraines. It’s impacted my day-to-day life; I struggle to keep a full time job, having friends is exhausting, traveling isn’t a leisurely affair, and my relationships feel the brunt of it. I also have a strong “workaholic” streak, because I love distracting myself from the pain of being a human.
The more stressed you are, the worse you feel. The key is to manage stress before it manages you.
It’s not an easy existence by any means, but I’m managing “pretty well.” Often, friends come to me and ask what I do to manage so well despite having a chronic illness. This is how I manage the stress of day-to-day life, mental and chronic illness, which may also be helpful to soothe the pain of the human condition.
Note: I am not a doctor. Please consult your doctor before doing anything.
The Energy Tax… Aka “the Spoon Theory”
One of the most popular theories in chronic illness nomenclature is “the Spoon Theory.” You may have seen the term “Spoonies” in relation to chronic illness fighters. Coined by a blogger, Christine Miserandino, the Spoon Theory essentially says that you are only allotted a finite number of “spoons” per day. Spoons = Energy.
Christine explains, “most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire. They do not need to worry about the effects of their actions.” For a chronic illness sufferer, the most universal symptoms are profound fatigue and lack of energy. Doing normal daily activities, like showering and getting dressed, can exhaust a person whose body is battling a war from the inside. If you wake up with only enough spoons for a shower, you need to anticipate the rest of your day before you do anything. This requires identifying your energy capacity, which takes a lot of practice.
I use the Spoon Theory as a guide but instead, I like to refer to it as my Energy Tax, because I hate fun and love spreadsheets. I imagine my energy levels somewhat akin to a bank account.
Imagine every morning you open your bank account app to see how much money you’ll get for the entire day — some days it might be $500, and some days it might be $5. Every action costs money.
You won’t be able to earn more money today and the funds don’t roll over to tomorrow, so you need to be thoughtful about where you spend your funds. If you go into the red, deduct $20 from tomorrow’s bank. If tomorrow’s bank starts out in the red, then you’re shit out of luck — enjoy being broke!
Imagine that today you have $100; how much are you going to spend at the coffee shop, for lunch, for dinner? Will you need anything between these times? Do you have enough to #treatyourself?
Okay, now imagine that’s how much energy you have for the day. Every day is different. I have a running balance sheet in my head to keep track of my energy loads. Showering uses a large amount of energy; commuting takes about 50% of my energy for the day. If I go “into the red,” I’ll be in too much pain to continue and will likely end up bed-ridden the next day.
Now, try to apply this to your daily life to manage your stress levels. If you know a certain activity causes you stress — like, a meeting with a colleague you don’t care for — balance your day by adding activities that decrease your stress levels or don’t use too much energy.
A few tricks to “game the system” and stretch energy for longer time: slow down, learn your limits, use time as your interval and take more breaks than you think.
Learn Your Limits
My mom, a reformed workaholic and a breast cancer survivor, also has Fibromyalgia amongst other issues like ulcerative colitis, also refers to this as “pacing.”
Pacing is finding a good balance of activity and rest for your situation. With pacing, you’ll learn to plan accordingly to live your life rather than living life responding to stress and symptoms. Knowing how much and what kinds of activity you can do without exacerbating your symptoms is the first step to pacing. When you do any kind of action, check in with yourself and rate from 1 to 10 on three measures: activity level, energy level and symptoms.
Pacing means planning, deciding in advance what you are going to do, and then sticking to it. Doing a similar amount of activity, then also taking similar amounts of rest. Be realistic with what you can do.
Instead of endlessly scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, I’ve got a better idea for you. Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing your attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present. Mindfulness can be developed through basic meditation, but I like to refer to it as “stop thinking about everything else and focus on right now.”
Dan Harris, anxiety sufferer, ABC News anchor and author of 10% Happier, introduces mindfulness meditation in this excellent way: “despite its PR problem, mindfulness meditation is a simple, secular, scientifically validated exercise for your brain.” In his book, Dan Harris outlines basic mindfulness meditation:
- Sit comfortably.
- Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly or chest. really try to feel the in-breath and then out-breath. Try making a soft mental note like “in” and “out.”
- Every time you get lost in thought — which you will, thousands of times — gently return to the breath. Forgive yourself and return to focusing on your breath. Beginning again and acknowledging the present is the actual practice.
- Try to meditate everyday for a short amount of time. Set a timer. Start small, like 5 minutes.
Eventually, the hope is that you’ll do this whenever you get stressed out or when you have downtime, like on the bus. There is increasing acknowledgement of the link between mindfulness, decreased stress, and healthier psychological functioning.
This is a big one. Nicholas Petrie, in an article titled “Pressure Doesn’t Have to Turn into Stress” writes: “rumination is the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events, while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts… Rumination is ongoing and destructive, diminishing your health, productivity, and well-being. Chronic worriers show increased incidence of coronary problems and suppressed immune functioning.”
Stressing out literally makes you ill.
Nicholas Petrie recommends four steps to overcome rumination:
- Wake up. People spend most of their day in a state called “waking sleep,” which is basically like being tuned out of real life. Use the mindfulness tips I discussed above. Movement also redirects your attention: stand or sit up, and move your body. The idea is to reconnect with the world.
- Control your attention. Redirect your attention to areas in which you can take useful action.
- Put things in perspective. Use these three steps: contrasting (comparing a past stress to the current one), questioning (asking yourself “How much will this matter in three years’ time?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?” then “How would I survive it?”) and reframing (looking at your challenge from a new angle: “What’s an opportunity in this situation I haven’t yet seen?” or even “What’s funny about this situation?”)
- Let go. First accept the situation you’re ruminating on, find the lesson in it, then take action to change the situation.
By using pacing, mindfulness the Energy Tax theory, you are moving toward a life which is controlled, consistent, and happier — rather than ruled by stress, symptoms and disease.
What tactics do you use to stay afloat and manage your stress? Let me know in the comments.
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