A chronic illness can create a challenging relationship with your body.
Many chronic illnesses are caused by autoimmunity, which is sometimes described as "the body attacking itself." Cancer can be chronic and this is when a person’s own cells become malignant and start overpowering healthy cells. Other chronic illnesses cause slow debilitation over time as the body fails you. All of these factors can make you feel like you are at war with your body.
But what if it didn’t have to feel like a battle?
Here are some ways to reframe the way you think about your body to help disarm negative perceptions:
1. Think of the Body and Mind as One.
Your body is you. When a person has a chronic illness there is often a splitting that happens. The body is disconnected from the mind. The mind (or brain) interprets the body as flawed and separate. The deeper truth is that the body-mind-spirit is all one being—you. Work to align your thoughts with the idea that you are not separate from your body.
2. Work to Calm the Nervous System.
Research points to a link between illness and stressful life events. Traumatic life events shift the nervous system into a chronic stress state otherwise known as "fight, flight, or freeze." The nervous system is the mastermind of the body. Calm the nervous system and all of the other systems will benefit. For example, in autoimmune disorders, the immune system is overactive, so calm the nervous system and the immune system will follow.
Calming the nervous system is a challenging endeavor after years in a chronic stress state. Psychotherapy modalities, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or somatic therapy can help, as well as, meditation.
3. Move Your Body if Possible.
Sometimes due to pain or paralysis it isn't possible to incorporate movement into your daily life, but if you are able, walking, yoga, and light exercise can help you feel connected to your body. It can also help keep joints supple and improve circulation. Bring awareness to the ways that movement benefits you in your daily life.
4. Practice embodiment.
Embodiment is a healing practice that helps integrate the body and mind. As a side benefit it also helps calm the nervous system. Many people live from the "shoulders up," especially those who have discomfort and pain in the body. Embodiment means to experience the physical sensation of being in your body. Start by bringing your attention to your big toe. Notice the shift in your awareness. Notice the feeling of embodying your toe. Body scan meditations are one of the best ways to practice embodiment. You can find thousands of them online. A body scan leads you through noticing and feeling into every part of your body.
5. Celebrate the healthy parts of you.
Every person with chronic illness or disability has body parts that function and some that don’t. As often as possible express gratitude for what is well. What senses do you have? Sometimes the only place you can identify is a tiny cell somewhere in your body—feel into it and send it love.
6. Learn to love the broken parts.
This is perhaps the most difficult to do. Remember that your body is fighting for you in the way it has adapted to know how. Inflammation is a sign of healing. Where it hurts your body is working to heal. In the practice of mindfulness there is a concept called "acceptance." Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up, it means accepting where things are in the present moment. Work on accepting and loving what is.
Every day your chronically ill body is creating miracles. It is working to keep you alive in microscopic ways. Call a truce and make your bodymind a team to face chronic illness together.
"Simplify, simplify.” - Henry David Thoreau
It took me 38 years to acknowledge I am a sensitive soul. It is now a badge of honor, but like any other badge of honor it was hard earned.
First, let's talk about what it means to be a sensitive soul. Sensitivity has many definitions, but it means to be reactive to sensory experiences (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell + others) and capable of detecting minute changes in the environment. In relationships, it means to be highly attuned to both your own feelings and the feelings of others. Sensitive souls sometimes describe themselves as empaths or intuitives. Simply put, to be a sensitive soul is to deeply experience everything.
I used to hide the sensitive parts about me behind defense mechanisms, like humor and avoidance. I didn't realize in doing this I was suppressing my soul. The soul (or true self, authentic self, essence, etc.) desires two things—to be expressed and to be seen. If the soul doesn't feel safe to show itself for whatever reason, it hides in the body as stuckness.
The biggest part of tending to your sensitive soul is to express it and allow it to be seen. When you need to cry, cry. When you are touched by something, let it wash over you and really feel it. When you want to wear your grandmother's necklace as an outward expression of sadness, wear it.
There is a popular book called The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron, PhD. In this book there is a self-test to determine if you are highly-sensitive. The book is full of helpful information, but I never resonated with the words "highly-sensitive." I typically replace it with the phrase “highly-empathetic,” which I like better, but don’t think it encompasses all that it is to be a sensitive soul.
Find the words that works for you and tell people who you are:
"I am sensitive."
"I am an empath."
"I am intuitive."
"I notice everything."
These terms avoid the word "highly," which implies there is a level of sensitivity which is "too much." To be a sensitive soul is to be sensitive at the soul level, not just when the ego is bruised, but to be a person who resonates deeply with pain and joy.
What are other ways to tend to who you are?
1. Consider your sensitivity your superpower.
Not everyone views the world through this lens. According to The Highly Sensitive Person it's only about 20% of the population. See your sensitivity as an advantage. You are experiencing the world in a deep and profound way. Live into it.
2. Know your challenges.
The world can be too much sometimes and different things are challenging for different souls. What are the things that overwhelm you? Crowds? Loud music? Identify what they are and either avoid them, prepare yourself prior to being exposed to them, or spend time regulating after you've experienced them. If you don't like horror movies, don’t go to them. If the news is too much, don't watch it. If you are feeling uncomfortable, rest, rest, rest.
3. Increase your capacity.
You may always be sensitive, but that doesn't mean you will always have to be insulated from the world. You can increase your capacity by playing at the edges of your comfort zone. When you do something that is just outside of your optimal arousal, it gives you evidence that you can do it. The more evidence you have that you can do things that are uncomfortable, the more likely you are to do it in the future.
4. Find your "soulmates."
Sensitive souls sometimes feel different or alone. It's important to identify the other sensitive souls in your life. These are the people you might turn to when you need empathetic understanding. They will be able to relate to what it's like to feel deeply and help normalize your feelings.
5. Envision a strong backbone.
Visualization exercises are an effective tool for sensitive souls. Whenever you need to do something, such as call a person you don't want to call, visualize your backbone as strong and powerful. It will help you rise to the occasion and build more evidence that you can step outside your comfort zone.
6. Listen to yourself above anyone else.
Sensitivity and intuition go hand in hand. Everyone has intuition, but not everyone is able to tap into it like a sensitive soul. Therefore, it is important to listen to yourself and trust yourself. You are attuned to your life and only you will know what is best for you.
A sensitive soul is also a brave soul. You experience the world like a typhoon, but sometimes when you're around others you might pretend like it's a light drizzle. This takes a great deal of courage.
If you are sensitive soul consider somatic psychotherapy, which helps "desensitize" the challenging parts, while celebrating the beautiful parts of being sensitive. Most importantly try not to wish your sensitivity away. Honor it—It truly is your superpower.
"Dream wider and experience deeper horizons and bliss. When you’re sensitive, you’re alive in every sense of this word in this wildly beautiful world. Sensitivity is your strength. Keep soaking in the light and spreading it to others." - Victoria Erickson
Note: This article was originally published on ProHealth on March 24th, 2019.
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness, but did you know it's one of the most useful treatments for depression and anxiety? Mindfulness is not just having a moment right now—it's an ancient practice that's here to stay. It's time for you to learn how mindfulness can improve depression and anxiety symptoms and overall mental health.
Through treating clients in my therapy practice, I've learned that the simplest strategies for coping with depression are often the most effective. Mindfulness is a simple tool that is always available to us. It's about learning how to live in the present moment and practicing non-judgement and acceptance. It costs nothing but time and patience, and the benefits are endless.
Depression and Mindfulness
Depression can be defined as a manifestation of living in past regrets, whereas, anxiety is a fear of future events. Either way, you are not living in the present moment. With depression and anxiety, ruminating thoughts often come along for the ride. When you are focusing on the present moment, you are more likely to be aware of your thoughts—giving you the opportunity to talk back to them. For example, you may say in your head, "Thoughts are just thoughts," or "I'm noticing my thoughts again." Then, you can move forward and not get caught in the rumination spiral.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are two formalized ways to learn mindfulness in a therapeutic setting. MBCT is typically done in individual therapy, and MBSR is an 8-week group commonly found in hospital or therapy office settings. Both have a large body of research backing them up. Many therapists of all backgrounds are starting to incorporate mindfulness into therapy sessions.
If you're not ready to commit to therapy or a group quite yet, consider engaging some of these mindfulness exercises and see what you notice in your daily life:
1. Daily Mindful Practice.
A good place to start when working on mindfulness is by choosing a mundane task per day and trying to remain present while doing it. Brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, or folding laundry are all easy options. As you are doing the task, notice all five senses. If you are brushing your teeth, notice your face looking back at you in the mirror, the sound of birds outside the window, the minty taste of the toothpaste, the smell of the air freshener, and the feel of the toothbrush in your hand.
Once you've practiced a mindful task multiple times, try having a mindful meal. Pay attention to every bite, the taste and smell of the food, and the environment around you. This is a great way to only eat until you are full and not add extra calories because you weren’t paying attention.
Finally, try a mindful walk around your neighborhood. Notice things you haven't noticed before: a patch of daffodils, vibrant graffiti, a dog enjoying a stroll, ivy crawling up a building. Leave your headphones behind and be present with the world around you.
2. Non-judgement & Acceptance
Non-judgement and acceptance are skills to become aware of our thoughts and then productively interact with them. If practiced consistently, these two concepts can significantly reduce suffering.
Simply put, non-judgement is not labeling things "good" or "bad." To use a common symptom of depression as an example, consider insomnia. Our first inclination would be to label insomnia as "bad." However, if we adjust our thoughts to label insomnia as "is" or "present" without a qualifier, we may still have nights without restful sleep, but we are not adding to our suffering by thinking about how bad it is that we have sleepless nights. Over time, you will start catching yourself using qualifiers. The non-judgemental qualifier I use in my own practice of non-judgement is, "interesting."
Acceptance is seeing things just as they are, not as you believe it should be or wish it were. Accepting the present moment, even if there is pain, allows us to give up resistance and become aligned with life. Part of acceptance is noticing your intrusive thoughts, accepting they are there, and then observing them as they pass. To practice acceptance, you must come back to it over and over again.
Meditation has a profound effect on the nervous system that researchers have studied for years, but starting or maintaining a meditation practice can be difficult. Some of the fear comes from the expectation of sitting in silence with your thoughts for a long period of time. People with depression often have uncomfortable thoughts and don’t want to be alone with them, which is a valid concern.
Instead of sitting in silence, I encourage my clients to start slowly and use guided meditations. For example, start with 1 minute a day for a week and then increase to 2 minutes a day for a week. You can find thousands of guided meditations of all lengths on the Insight Timer app. Working up in this way will ease you into the practice of depression and mindfulness, and you will be more likely to stick with it. Your goal should be to work up to 10 minutes a day, which is about how long you need for your body to get into a relaxed state.
Experiment with different times of the day. For me, if I don't meditate first thing in the morning, I tend not to go back to it. Others find meditation helps them decompress after work or relax before going to bed. Find a place in your home that has pleasant surroundings and is quiet. For parents, consider meditating while your children are asleep, or as an alternative, you may even meditate with your children and help them to develop this healthy habit.
Mindfulness isn't a one-time thing, it's a way of life. The sooner you start using these practices as part of your depression treatment, the sooner you will see the impact on your mental health. All moments spent in the present are an opportunity to focus directly on the gifts that are right in front of you—gifts that depression may otherwise rob you of.
"Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment." - Deepak Chopra
I'm Kerry and I am a licensed therapist, writer & speaker. This is a positive space focused on how to thrive in any situation and the transformative power of suffering.