Over the years, I have found that physical illness involves three aspects of self: body, mind, and emotion. It is not just about the body healing itself. It is also about the health of the ongoing dialogue that occurs between the body and the mind, and the resulting emotions. Of course, the body heals in its own time, but our thoughts can also assist in how healthy we perceive ourselves to be and ultimately are. This is what might considered as “thinking our way to good health.” Visualizing a healthier version of ourselves can do wonders to begin or continue the process of actual healing. However, the reverse is also quite true. Beyond whatever factual illness we may have, our minds can contribute a hefty dose of additional symptoms, with which we must also contend. Some might refer to such occurrences as psychosomatic symptoms. For example, depression is not just something that impacts the mind. It impacts the body’s ability to function effectively as well. Depression is associated with physical symptoms, such as chest pains, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, digestive issues, headaches, weight loss and gain, and even back pain. Add to that sleep disturbances and sexual problems, it might seem as though I have been describing fibromyalgia because the symptoms are quite similar. These physical symptoms of depression are temporary, however, while fibromyalgia symptoms are chronic.
For a long time, the general consensus among doctors was that fibromyalgia was all in the mind, that it was merely psychosomatic, that it was not real. Although there are still some who maintain disbelief, research has shown that fibromyalgia, the second most common rheumatoid disorder, is “now considered to be a lifelong central nervous system disorder, which is responsible for amplified pain that shoots through the body of those who suffer from it.” Fibromyalgia is not something that you can just think away. No amount of visualization will permanently remove the impact that fibromyalgia can have on its sufferers. That is the reality.
As the illness progresses, daily life can feel quite surreal. Perhaps you felt great yesterday, but today you feel as though you are broken in many places. It may feel that there is no way to hold yourself together. It is not just the pain that hurts. It is ever-increasing isolation, diminishing self-sufficiency, and the loss of words that comes with the fog that overtakes the mind. It is also the ongoing disappointment as you begin saying “no” to work, loved ones, and even yourself. Having fibromyalgia means being broken, being scattered into tiny fragments of self that you try each to recover and bind together
S0, how does one overcome this?
Until there is a definitive cure found by medical experiences, there is no way to overcome fibromyalgia. At least, not in the sense of the illness ending.
Instead, see overcoming fibromyalgia as a daily process. For example, on days when you wake up to a flare, challenge yourself to do more than you think you can–perhaps that might be sitting up in bed, or talking to a friend on the phone. On days when you feel great, challenge yourself to do less than you think you should–perhaps that might be leaving work on time or a little early (if you are still working), instead of staying late because you are trying to make up for lost time. This is basically opposite to emotion action, a DBT skill that asks practitioners to 1) acknowledge and allow for their emotional state, and 2) act in the opposite manner than their emotional urge would prefer. For example, if you are angry and your emotional urge is to hit someone, opposite to emotion action would have you choose an action that is opposite to your emotional urge, so perhaps hug someone.
When we allow ourselves (mind, body, emotions) to give into illness, we allow for that illness to have enormous control over how we experience life. Yes, you may feel ill today, but instead of focusing on feeling physically ill, try focusing your mind on what can you can do (in spite of your illness). Contrarily, you may feel physically great today, but instead of focusing on feeling great, try focusing your mind on what you can do to ensure that you feel better tomorrow (this may mean holding yourself back a bit).
If we acknowledge our limitations and challenge our thinking, then this may be helpful in avoiding compounding our physical illness with our emotions. Depression can be resulting factor of chronic illness. For those of us living with fibromyalgia, learning how to cope with feelings of depression is vital to our survival. Thus, finding ways to celebrate ourselves and the steps we take to feel better is key. Every day try doing to following (in no particular order):
- Create an action plan (a.k.a. To Do List) based on your current physical state
- Journal about your physical symptoms and your emotional state
- Exercise in whatever way possible, whether that is doing a light stretch or going for a walk.
- Eat well. Avoid foods that exacerbate symptoms.
- Talk to someone, whether in-person, on the phone, or online.
- Smile for no reason. Trust me, it helps.
- Be mindful in each moment. Be aware of your thoughts and how your thoughts are influencing your emotions and actions.
- Pay attention to the calendar. Know the month and day you are in. It is very easy to lose track of time.
- Set long-term achievable goals (but challenge yourself). What is it that you believe you can no longer do/achieve because of fibromyaglia? Try to find ways to modify what you wanted to do so that it accommodates your illness.
- Feed your spirit. This does not mean join a religion. Do something to help others.
There is no guarantee that the above will work for you. These are just the steps that I have found helpful along the way. Yes, every day, I find that fibromyalgia diminishes some aspect of me. Sometimes it is very difficult to see the positives in each moment. Still, if I do not try to make my reality better for me, then who will?
I hope these words offer comfort to anyone who is having a hard time today.
Until Next Time,