The impact of anxiety – What is this like for you? Are you aware of when and how anxiety shows up in your life? How it slides into the driving seat in charge of your choices and actions? Do you know when it all started?
Many people have talked to me about the increase in anxiety after experiencing a serious health issue. A health issue tends to shatter our perception that we are totally in control – we realise we don’t have as much control as we thought. That and the resulting impact of not knowing what to do in this new place of not being well nor how long we will have to dwell there, anxiety can happen. In many cases, anxiety may have also predated the health issue but wasn’t as noticeable before the health issue’s onset.
I was reminded of the impact of anxiety the other week
Most mornings I do my exercise and physiotherapy first. That way it gets done. But I noticed myself thinking in a loop-like fashion, ‘I have so much to do! I don’t have time to exercise! I need to get to work!’ It was a very familiar feeling.
Anxiety and its impact has been a part of my life but became much more noticeable after having Transverse Myelitis 10+ years ago. The kind of anxiety I am talking about here is the anxiety that is in the driving seat in some areas of your life but not in every aspect of your life. It’s not pleasant and it can be frustrating.
But it’s also not severely debilitating, it’s not a clinical diagnosis of anxiety nor does it cause you to disassociate or lose yourself. If the anxiety you feel does cause you to do that, then please obtain the support of a person who is qualified to work with that such as a clinical or counselling psychologist or psychotherapist.
The anxiety I was feeling is the kind that slides into the
driving seat in some parts of my life particularly when I want to do something
for myself. The impact of anxiety is that my self-care plummets.
So this is what I did when I noticed my loop-like thinking. I took apart my approach and share it with you here to help you manage the impact of anxiety.
What the impact of anxiety
Back to that morning. I was sitting there just about to start my workout and the thoughts were going around and around in my head about not having enough time to work out and wanting to get to work at my computer.
A very busy period is starting for me where I will have two big
projects happening and other smaller ones going on in the background. Four of
them will be happening at the same time. (Trust me, this wasn’t planned.) This
will last through mid-June, quiet down for a week, and then things will get
busy again through mid-July.
The next thing I noticed was giving myself the suggestion to
start work, I could do my exercise and physiotherapy in the early afternoon as
I realised that I would probably end up not working out if I
did that. Because that is what has often happened in the past.
Then I made myself do what I have my clients do.
I made myself notice what
the anxiety was like
I sat still and just felt what the impact of the anxiety was like in my body. I felt the sensations in my body. From the waist up I was shaking a bit. I noticed I turned my head around to the right looking behind me. As if I was looking out for someone. I felt a little scared.
I was curious about me wanting to turn to the right and look
behind me so I did that again. I noticed I still felt scared. And kind of
young. Suddenly a childhood memory came up of my father telling me to get to
My internal response to this all was, ‘I must get the work
done. I don’t want to get in trouble.’
Rocket science doesn’t need to tell me when and where my anxiety started. And it’s interesting how it is still present to some degree 40 years on and how it can drive my actions if I let it.
What I learned about the
impact of anxiety on me
Two things were going on for me. The first trigger was the busy period and wondering how I would fit everything in. The next trigger was the loop-like thinking.
In this context I felt the anxiety as an internal shaking in me. (How you experience anxiety may be different.)
It was the movement of turning to look over my right shoulder and noticing I felt scared and young which really struck me. That and the childhood memory of my father telling me to get to work. He was an authoritarian father. He had a rota of chores for us to do and kept us busy doing them. As a young child, he more often barked commands and demands than words of warmth and gentleness. (He was dealing with his own anxiety but that is a story for another day. But interesting to note how anxiety can be passed on in families.)
This historical context turned out to be important
I’ll explain more about that in a bit.
My response to ‘get the work done’ felt familiar. It’s a
common response when I feel I have a lot going on, conflicting demands and desires,
and not a lot of time to do everything I want to do. I may want to workout and
do other things to look after myself and my wellness but historically work
would win out. That would calm the anxiety.
That nearly happened the other morning. Anxiety was sliding into the driving seat pushing me to work rather than self-care. Notice the black and white choice I was giving myself: work or self-care. I wasn’t allowing myself to have both or another option. That can happen when we feel stress due to anxiety, we give ourselves either-or choices.
I told myself I would be fine, work will be there and it was ok to do my exercise and physiotherapy first. Which I proceeded to do.
I went over this in a coaching session and learned that the
purpose of the anxiety wasn’t necessarily all bad. It enabled me to have inner
motivation to work and get a job done and strong focus on the task at hand.
However, the focus is so strong it means I get absorbed in
the task or project and hours can go by without me drinking water, eating, going
to the loo or taking a break. Self-care slides right off the agenda.
But I also said to my coach the anxiety no longer has a
purpose. The context has changed. My father is no longer with us. My mother
lives in the USA. I have no parents telling me what to do. I am my own parent
now. I don’t have any parents to please. I only have to please myself. The historical
context is no longer relevant. But I had been responding as if it was.
Much of the stress we experience can be due to blindly following outdated strategies. My strategy of ‘getting the work done’ had a purpose at one stage of my life, it served its role. But now it’s time to update the strategy. Here is how to do that when anxiety is trying to be in the driving seat of parts of your life.
How to manage the impact of
If the anxiety feels scary for you to deal with, please only do this with someone you trust, preferably a trained professional.
As you do this exercise, hold on to something that reminds you of the here and now. This helps to keep you anchored in the present.
There may be more than one. They may follow each other in a sequence or not. You will need to slow yourself down to do this. Sit for a time and take yourself step-by-step through what happened when you last noticed your anxiety. If you can do this as the anxiety appears, that’s a good time to do it too.
2. Really notice how anxiety affects you physically.
How does anxiety appear in your body? Spend time with it. And as you spend time feeling the sensations, gently remind yourself you do not have to unpack and live in the anxiety. You’re just visiting with it for a short while. Set a timer for 2-3 minutes if this helps you.
3. Notice what thoughts you have.
Write them down even. Doing that helps you keep one step removed from them so you don’t unpack and live in them.
4. Notice if you feel a compulsion to move.
And notice what that movement is like. Are you wanting to move away from something, reach or move towards something, turn and look for someone? It could be anything. Repeat the movement if it helps you to get a sense of what that movement is about.
5. Notice any feelings associated with the movement.
Are you feeling surprised, scared, numb, excited, young, weaker, something else?
6. Notice if any historical memories come up for you.
Make sure you are holding on to your here-and-now item.
Remind yourself you are in the present.
The historical memories I am referring to here are often not pleasant but they do not cause you to disassociate from yourself or to lose yourself in them. As you think of these memories, you realise you are still in the present and you can move on from thinking about them to focusing on something else.
But if you have a sense that something big is going to come up for you, that the historical memory was very traumatic for you and you do not feel ready to look at it yet, that’s ok. Stop and don’t continue with this exercise.
When it comes to dealing with anxiety due to very traumatic episodes in your life, I highly recommend you work with a psychotherapist or psychologist who is experienced in working with such traumas.
The historical memories can be from any period in your life. If other people are involved, notice what they are saying and doing if anything. And what you are saying and doing in return. Also notice how you are feeling about it all. This is about noticing the historical context of what may have kick started the anxiety.
7. Evaluate what is different about your current life as compared to your history.
How is your life currently different from the historical context? Who is no longer present in your life? Or they may be present but you don’t see them as often. What have you learned about yourself in the intervening years that contradicts whatever it was you thought about yourself in that historical context? What are your skills and strengths? Who else is in your life now who supports you to make the choices you want to be making?
This is key. Knowing the differences between your life then and now allows you to explain and reassure yourself that doing something different will turn out ok. This can help to quiet the anxiety a bit so you can get on with making different choices.
8. Develop a way to reassure yourself to calm the anxiety
Now that you know what is so different about your present life as compared to your history, develop a way to reassure yourself in those moments when anxiety wants to take over.
For me I have a conversation with myself. That morning I explained to myself that my father was no longer here to bark orders at me and it was more than ok to do things differently. I might not get as much work done but that wasn’t the point. The world was not going to end and my self-care is super important. I proceeded to do my exercise and physiotherapy. I still felt some anxiety but it eventually went away.
How you reassure yourself is unique to you. You may wish to journal your thoughts, draw, do another activity, whatever.
9. Keep practicing
You have to keep practicing making the choices you want for yourself rather than let anxiety dictate them for you. Don’t worry about perfection. Good enough is fine. You will respond as per the old strategy at times. That happens. It still happens with me from time to time. I even still feel the anxiety a little when I make the choices I want for myself. But the impact of anxiety does lessen.
10. Shower yourself in self-compassion
The reason you go back to old ways and still feel some of the anxiety when you make different choices is because you’re changing something that has probably been around for a few decades. So be gentle with yourself. Shower yourself in self-compassion.
What’s the impact of anxiety like for you?
When and how do you experience anxiety? And what has helped you to manage it? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).
If you are living with a serious health issue or are caring for someone who is, and would like support to manage an even transform the impact of anxiety, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
Know of someone who would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to spread the ideas, click on the icons to share.
When your recovery is uncertain, it can be a difficult time.
Scary even because you don’t know how much functionality you’ll get back and
how long that will take. That might make for uncomfortable reading.
I am mentioning this up front to acknowledge your or your
loved one’s reality and that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable about it, even
scared. I know, I’ve been there myself. It can be an anxiety-ridden place. But
there is hope.
It may feel like you have no control, but you do have some. It’s important to recognise that. And then exercise the control you do have, however much that is. I’ve come up with ten things you can do when your recovery is uncertain.
This blog is actually
for a friend who is in this position right now
I’ll call him Michael. And I have his permission to use him as a case study. Michael sustained a serious spinal cord injury a few months ago. High up the spinal cord as well so his whole body is affected. Initially he was paralysed but regained functioning and can walk. The doctor said he is very lucky.
Michael had an operation so the disk doesn’t impinge on the
spinal cord. It is to prevent becoming Michael becoming paralysed from the neck
down again due to the damaged disc if he were to ever have another accident.
As Michael can walk the impact of his spinal cord injury is invisible. The most difficult symptoms he has are fatigue and chronic neuropathic pain. When we talked about me using his situation as a case study for a blog, I asked him what is the one question he would like me to answer. He asked,
‘How long do I have
to wait until I recover and go back to the way I was?’
That’s a big question. The doctor’s prognosis figures into this. What did the doctor say to Michael regarding his recovery?
Recovery after a spinal cord injury, many neurological
illnesses, and other illnesses such as cancer, are not straightforward. Also,
you and your body hardly go back to way you were before the illness or injury.
You can be anywhere on this continuum of recovery.
No recovery and you live with the impact whatever that is. This may include permanent disability where a lot of functionality is affected.
Some recovery with residual symptoms that impact how you live your life to a moderate degree. It may include a moderate degree of permanent disability.
Good recovery with minor residual symptoms that do not have a great impact on how you live your life
And the recovery process can take time. For example, with the neurological illness Transverse Myelitis, the neurologists speak of a 2 year window of recovery. With some conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, you will have a periods of recovery after a flare-ups or relapses (depending on the variant of MS you have).
Michael is very aware of this and had this discussion with his doctor, so this blog isn’t the first time he is hearing this. So I move onto the first thing to do when your recovery is uncertain. These 10 things you can do are applicable to anyone in this situation. Some of them may not be easy to do, but they are important. And they aren’t an exhaustive list.
1. Learn to live with the uncertainty
Learning to live with the uncertainty of not knowing how long recovery will take and the degree to which your symptoms and issues will improve is important. When you can learn to live well enough with the uncertainty, you then free up your energy to focus on your rehabilitation and things that will give you meaning and joy. This can help the recovery process.
Linked to this is the relationship you have with your illness or injury. If it’s a fraught relationship full of fighting and anger, it can be harder to live with the uncertainty. I’ve seen people end up fighting it and as a consequence they end up not looking after themselves physically or emotionally very well. This is stress inducing which can exacerbate symptoms.
2. Take control of what you can
This is your physiotherapy (or exercise if you are not having physiotherapy), your medication and appointments, your diet, your mental health, your relationships, your return to work if you are working or volunteering, your hobbies and leisure time, finances, life purpose and values, and your physical environment.
This is all in your remit to control and influence, making any adaptations and changes to help you live well with the impact of your illness or injury. The next point suggests how you can take control.
3. Develop a rehabilitation plan when your recovery is uncertain
These days I don’t often hear of people leaving hospital with a care or rehabilitation plan. But there is nothing stopping you from creating your own plan.
Developing your own plan could be a blog in itself so I’m
going to quickly describe how to do this. For each category listed in point 2
ask yourself these questions for a start:
What do I need to do to do my physiotherapy for
example, or manage my medication and appointments, diet, etc.? What changes do
I need to make?
What are my goals for my physiotherapy,
returning to work, etc. Ensure these goals are concrete, i.e. based on
behaviours and have timescales attached to them.
What questions do I have? Is there a person I
know who has been through this or a charity who can help?
What specifically will I need support with? For
example, you may need someone to help you with your physiotherapy.
As part of this, it can be useful to keep a diary of your symptoms (particularly if they fluctuate), progress you are making, when you plateau or have an exacerbation of symptoms, etc. This can help you identify:
Patterns and themes in your recovery such as what may trigger an exacerbation of symptoms. This can help you manage the impact of the illness or injury.
Questions you have for your doctor and to prepare for your appointments.
Any improvements you have made over the longer term which can be motivating to look at from time to time.
Given recovery from serious health issues are rarely
straightforward, things won’t go to plan. Adopting a learning mindset will make
navigating this unknown terrain a lot easier and lessen the negative energy
spent when things are not going well.
Michael said it best, ‘Live and learn.’ He overdid it in the
garden the other day and realised it the next day. He now knows his current
limits for gardening activity.
So when you do something for the first time, or you are
increasing your activity levels, or something doesn’t go well, ask yourself:
What did I learn from this?
What do I need to do, think or feel differently
next time (if anything)?
Make a note of it if you need to.
5. Develop your willingness muscle to adapt
Develop your willingness to adapt and ask for help. Change
can sometimes be hard. Particularly in the context of an illness or injury
where things may be harder to do, take longer to do, and/or you’ve lost valued
levels of functioning and activities. This can include letting go of
pre-illness or injury expectations of yourself and developing new ones.
I am not saying you squash down any sadness associated with
this, not at all. Do acknowledge that because that is a psychologically healthy
thing to do. You can do this without unpacking and living there.
Developing your willingness muscle to adapt and change, gives you more options. When you have options, you have choice and more control. This can also help reduce black and white thinking where you only have either this option or that option (and neither may be what you want).
6. Ask for and say yes to help
Asking for help is important as you may want help but people may not be able to spot that, or they worry about imposing.
Also, asking for and accepting help does not mean you are
weak or a burden. Many times, the person has offered their help and is only too
happy to help you. You get to where you want to be faster and helping you makes
them feel good too. Win-win.
Sometimes though, as I mentioned at the end of this blog, you want to say no to help because you want to check what you can do now, if there has been some recovery. That is fine. If someone has offered to help you and you say no, let them know why.
7. It’s especially important to talk to your family when your recovery is uncertain
This is REALLY IMPORTANT. Don’t assume that they don’t want
to be bothered. Don’t assume they know what it is like for you. Ask them what
they want to know and the questions they have.
If you keep things bottled up out of fear of upsetting them
or making things more difficult for them, you inadvertently create the
conditions for people to come up with their own stories of what is going on
with you. And they may not be correct.
Those in a caring or supporting role are also affected by
what has happened to you. They are affected differently, but the impact can be
just as great.
Acknowledge what they have had to do. Chances are they have had to take on some of the stuff you did. Listen to them about how they are affected. Put feelings of guilt to one side and worries about not being able to ‘repay’ your spouse/partner/children/parents. Recognition in the form of a genuine thank you, a hug, a kiss, your time and attention is the most valuable ‘payment’.
Getting your children involved
Children often want to help so if there is some way they can
get involved in helping you with your physiotherapy for example, doing household
chores, or even in helping you set your rehabilitation goals, that can go very
far in helping the children know they matter. It can also help build their
confidence levels if they take on new chores and are recognised for making a
Regarding your children helping to set your rehabilitation
goals, ask them what they would like to be able to do with you and make a plan
as to what you need to do together to do that activity. Realising you may need
to make adaptations to how you do the activity and even the type of activities
you do together.
It is usually in these stressful times where pre-existing and sometimes unhelpful family dynamics can get in the way and cause issues. When the pre-existing dynamics come into play, you are both doing something that contributes to this dynamic so this isn’t about blaming one or the other person for what they’ve done or not done. Hence why I am emphasising the importance of talking with your family when your recovery is uncertain.
8. Limit comparison to others and your pre-illness/injured self
Comparison to others and your pre-illness/injured self can be a recipe for keeping yourself stuck. It is a natural thing to do. Just be mindful of it, how often you do it and how any comparison is making you feel.
I recommend you compare yourself to yesterday. That way your comparison is more fair and realistic.
9. Hold your wants lightly
When your recovery is uncertain and you’ve been dealing with a lot of unwanted changed, of course you may want to recover 100%. You want to be your pre-illness/injured self again. You want less pain, fatigue or whatever symptoms you are experiencing.
That is all a given.
Just be mindful to hold those wants lightly. If you fiercely cling to them, you can inadvertently limit your ability to adapt. You can end up continuing to fight your situation and remain stuck. Chances are that is not what you want for yourself.
10. Maintain a well-tuned sense of humour when your recovery is uncertain
There are times we laugh at our situation, but it is more of a gallows laugh, laughing at our misfortune. We do that from time to time but that is not what I am recommending here. Because gallows humour can be a subtle discount of ourselves and our situation.
I am talking about a well-tuned sense of humour. Sometimes
with people you know well you or they may find the humorous side to an an
aspect of your condition where it is truly funny to all those involved
Also, seek to laugh just for a laugh. It may be banter with
family, friends or colleagues. It may reading a book or watching a movie. It
may be following a comedian or funny social media account. (I recommend
@TheMERL and the libraries and museums on Twitter for that.)
I recommend a belly laugh a day because it brings joy into
your life. Put that in your rehabilitation plan.
When you look at all of the above, there is actually quite a bit you can do when your recovery is uncertain.
What’s it like for you?
What on the list above most resonates with you? What isn’t on this list that you think could be there? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).
If you are living with a serious health issue or are caring for someone who is, and would like support in dealing with any of the issues mentioned in this blog, then have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
Know of someone who would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to spread the ideas, click on the icons to share.
The impact of family on health and illness and vice versa
has long been an interest of mine. I was
reminded of the depth of this impact when working with a client last year. He
has kindly given me permission to use one of our sessions as a case study to
share what the impact can be like and what can help.
You are aware of the impact of family on health and illness
given you have most likely lived through or are living with a serious health
issue, whether yours or a loved one. There’s a practical, emotional, social,
and financial impact, and the impact on family relationships. And all this can
have a physical impact on you.
The impact of family on health and illness or injury can be wide and varied and I can write a lot about it. But in this blog I am focusing on how what we learn in our family of origin and how the family functions can impact our health.
The client, Anthony (not his real name), talked about his health issues. He had a badly broken leg which was still healing, back issues, and was ‘living on borrowed energy’. He also had a variety of projects in his professional life on the go and was wondering if he should put some on hold or even stop focusing on them so he could look after himself more.
Anthony spoke of his back pain and feeling something in his back pushing him forward, but also something pulling him back. He said he felt these sensations his whole life. He wanted to do something about it.
Anthony said, ‘I can be better, and get more work, but I can’t fulfil my existing commitments. I run around and do things. What is it in me that does this? But I do manage to take care of myself.’
I noticed Anthony described the pushing and pulling as not being done by him and that he had been experiencing it his whole life. To identify if Anthony felt that he had any role in this pushing and pulling, an ownership of sorts for it, I asked him, ‘Who or what is doing the pushing and pulling?’
The impact of family
on health and illness
Anthony started to talk about his father and uncle. They were the authority figures in his family. He felt he needed to live up to their expectations throughout his life. Anthony described himself as a ‘people pleaser’. He described their expectations as the pushing forward feeling in his back. He said it felt like a burden. Anthony felt the pushing forward sensation where the pain was in his back.
Anthony described the opposite feeling of being pulled/pushed back – the feeling of a cool breeze which balanced his energy, feeling more content and that he could let go. But he also said, ‘If I go too far, you (meaning himself) feel guilty and bad.’ (He leaned back as he said this.) He paraphrased what he told himself at these times, ‘Too weak. Don’t have a spine. Have to show up and be present.”
He talked of himself being in the middle of the pushing forward and pushing/pulling back sensations, not being able to please himself at a deeper level and not letting go.
The implications of this impact of family on health and illness
As in Anthony’s case, sometimes family dynamics can have a negative impact on our health. He was being caught between family expectations and wanting to do something different, between pleasing his family and pleasing himself.
This is a classic conflict – On the one hand, we want to belong to our family and be loyal to it even if the strategies we are using to do that are outdated. In Anthony’s case, he used the strategy of people pleasing to do this and continued to even though his father and uncle have died. On the other hand, we also want to be free of our family and be our own person.
Sometimes we end up seeing this belonging vs autonomy dynamic as an either-or choice – we can either remain loyal to the typical family dynamic or risk alienation. That pull to belonging can be very strong. But there can be a negative impact on our health in doing that which is also very strong. And after a time, you can no longer ignore the impact on your health. So what do you do?
Acknowledge how your
parents’ history contributes to your history
We talked a little about the history of his family that would have contributed to his father’s behaviour towards his wife and children. The father had lived through some very traumatic experiences in his own life. His first wife died in childbirth leaving a premature son (who lived).
The father followed family expectations to serve in the military, and during World War II fought through an intense battle where most of his comrades, who were also friends, died. He survived and lay with his dead comrades for 24-48 hours until he was rescued. As a consequence he suffered from PTSD and turned to alcohol to cope. He remarried and had several more children. He also fought with his second wife a lot.
All of the father’s experiences including the traumatic ones would have impacted how he related to himself, his wife and others, including how he parented his children. The impact of the traumas the parents experienced then filter down to the next generation.
Anthony was the youngest in his family and talked about the role he played in being the messenger between his mother and father. He also talked about how people pleasing was one way to deal with his father’s behaviour and to try and make things ok within the family. Trying to make things ok within a family is a lot for a child to try and do.
Not only was Anthony caught between meeting family expectations and his own expectations, between pleasing his family and pleasing himself, he was also caught in the middle of his parent’s relationship.
negative impact of family on health and illness
With Anthony I had him set up a visual map of his family. He used pieces of paper to represent his father, his mother, his father’s first wife who died in childbirth, his uncle and himself. We looked at the relationships between these family members.
I then had Anthony step into the shoes (so to speak) of these family members to gain greater insight into what their lives must have been like, and how they may have felt about that plus their relationships to the other family members.
During the exercise we also said a few sentences to the various family members to acknowledge everyone’s situation and the role they played in the family issue we were discussing.
A key thing when saying these sentences is not blaming or judging anyone for what they did. Even if their actions were wrong. The sentences acknowledge what happened and what you will do going forwards. This brings ease to your feelings and restores a sense of movement to your situation. But if blame and judgement remain in the content of the sentences you say or how you say them, then the conflict remains. That doesn’t help you to move beyond the issue.
To support the client to generate these sentences, a common question I ask is, ‘If that family member(s) were standing before you now, what would you want to say to them with no blame or judgement?’
Reframing and changing the impact of family dynamics on your health
For Anthony, the exercise brought a sense of calmness. He mentioned the pain had lessened in his back. His said his spine was straighter, he felt relaxed and quiet within himself. He was questioning whether he needed to continue with certain professional projects. He talked of ‘being welcoming and content with whatever we learn and how I am living.’
This work is called family constellations. It highlights the hidden dynamics within a family which can impact our emotional, mental and/or physical health. Revealing these dynamics and acknowledging everyone’s role, issues and needs, gives you greater understanding into what happened. (And not all family members need to be present or even alive.)
This wider perspective and awareness in turn gives you greater choice of strategies to deal with your family and manage your health going forwards. It also restores a sense of balance within you. Your internal foundations of your sense of self and where you belong in this world feel more aligned and strengthened. You have a new kind of energy which restores a sense of movement.
What’s it like for you?
Which dynamics in your family have or are negatively impacting your health? What contributes to those dynamics happening? What would you like to do about them? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).
If you are affected by a serious health issue and would like support to explore family relationships to improve communication and connection, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
Know of someone who would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to pass on the ideas, click on the icons to share.
A former client, Wendy H., has graciously shared her health coaching journey to give you a taster of what it is like and how it can support someone to live well with the impact of the health issue they have. Wendy starts her story before we started working together, sharing with you the serious health issue she lives with and everything she tried to help herself before trying health coaching. She then shares what health coaching was like for her.
I made very little changes to what Wendy wrote. I added in a word here and there and the titles, and moved some sentences. I also drew the pictures. At the end of this article I provide a link to the questions referred to by Wendy. They will help you think about your own situation and what you want to be different. There is also the opportunity to try coaching for yourself for free.
Return to wellness: My health coaching experience
When my life changed forever
It was 7 years ago – in another life – since I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis (TM), resulting in a weakened left leg with inevitable muscle wasting, dropped foot and a multitude of other symptoms associated with the condition such as bladder and bowel issues and fatigue.
I had always been sporty and active so over the past few years my rehabilitative journey took on a multitude of self-help strategies, importantly, finding out as much as I could about the condition. I read books on neuroplasticity, brain training and mindfulness. I joined exercise programmes, the gym, saw a sports physiotherapist, neuro physiotherapist, trained how to do Nordic walking, which led to me taking up hippotherapy (horse therapy, or simply put, horse riding).
I have been measured for orthotic insoles and used a Functional Electrical Stimulation device (FES). I even went to acupuncture for weeks. I was on the verge of sinking into depression so was referred to a clinical psychologist, resulting in a short course of anti-depressants.
Even after all this determination and sheer will power to get back to my previous life, it wasn’t really working. I did a reasonable job at maintaining my physical strength. However, it seemed I was fighting a losing battle and began to feel ‘exercised out’. I would put pressure on myself to exercise and scold myself if I didn’t.
I’d watch people running and walking in the street or on TV. I found myself analysing their gait. How do they do this simple activity…. automatically?
I obsessed about how TM had affected me, was consumed with frustration, anger, loss, depression.
Finally, a few months ago I realized I had become STUCK.
After all this effort.
Everything became a mammoth task or a hassle. I’d stopped exercising. I became anxious and tearful. I lost motivation, interest and confidence in almost everything. I couldn’t move on or come to terms with or adjust to how my world was now.
I still fretted about my past life. I was still angry and frustrated. This mountain was in front of me and I didn’t have the energy to climb it again.
Then it occurred to me – I had been focussing mostly on my physical state and been neglecting my mental health state. I really hadn’t learned how to adjust, accept or come to terms with this long-term medical condition Transverse Myelitis.
Wishing for your old life but starting a new one feels like a large mountain to climb
At this time, an article in a newsletter from the Transverse Myelitis Society reminded members about a bursary to provide health coaching, guided by Barbara Babcock. I did have some apprehension and wondered whether this would be another fruitless journey.
However, having plucked up the courage to contact Barbara, she reassured me about the process and that we would have telephone contact at times to suit us both. She also provided lots of preparatory articles and questions to think about prior to our first communication, so I felt somewhat relieved and prepared.
Health coaching journey – One of enlightenment, empowerment and self-awareness
Over the weeks that followed, my health coaching journey became one of enlightenment, empowerment and self-awareness. I was amazed with how comfortable it was talking to Barbara on the phone and I soon realized that she didn’t put pressure on me to fulfil her agenda.
This was totally me guiding the script and pouring out my anxieties, stresses, frustration and anger. And importantly, we tackled the obstacles in my way, with a much more energetic and positive attitude.
I learned how to recognise my feelings within my body, not just the negatives, but the positives too. It was frightening that I rarely felt these ‘positives’ because I had focussed on the negatives for so long. It took practice, but I now consciously recognise when something feels ‘good’ and that this is the ‘anchor’ I needed.
I became more attuned to acknowledging anger and anxiety and importantly, how to manage, process and take control. With Barbara’s guidance and simple strategies, I learned how to ‘feel’ where in my body the emotion was and what thoughts arose.
By simply giving the emotion a name and spending time with it, enabled me to process these thoughts and feelings. This may sound daunting, but the nature of talking about your underlying feelings, in this safe environment, or writing them down was incredibly powerful.
Health coaching empowered me to focus on what I can do
My health coaching journey has now ended, but my journey to wellness and normality continues. This is my new philosophy.
If you feel you have a mountain to climb or feel ‘stuck’ and have determination and the willpower to want to take your first steps, I would strongly recommend health coaching.
Be prepared to be open and honest and be aware that emotions may become overwhelming and distressful. And be prepared to work at it.
Barbara will pose unexpected questions and prompt when you are off your guard. If you expect Barbara to tell you what to do and how to do it, you will realise that this is not how it works and you will not reap the benefits.
I am learning to focus on what I can do now, and although I still have a mountain to climb, I can tackle it in smaller chunks. I am more positive and less fatalistic. I am able to recognise anger. I am now able to move on. I am managing fatigue. I have resumed physical activities and registered for a one-mile open water swim. I no longer feel ‘stuck’.
Wendy H, York
Finding your own path towards wellness and your new normality
What’s it like for you?
In what ways did Wendy’s story mirror your own or someone you know? How do you think health coaching could help you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
If you are living with a serious health issue, which may be a serious illness or injury or chronic illness, or are caring for someone who is, and would like support to return to a sense of wellness, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
You can also download the questions I sent to Wendy for her to think about ahead of our first session via this blog post.
Help with research on acceptance
If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more. And in exchange, I offer you a free 1 hour coaching session.
Pass it forward
Although this blog is written in the context of living with a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think someone you know would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to spread the ideas, click on the icons to share.
For Rare Disease Day, I am sharing my story of coping with a serious rare illness called Transverse Myelitis, which I got in October 2008. I realised I never shared my personal story with serious illness in any detail and given Transverse Myelitis is rare, it feels appropriate to share it today. I originally wrote this article in 2016 for the Transverse Myelitis Association in the USA and it first appeared here. I have made some changes to the original article.
About Transverse Myelitis
Transverse Myelitis, which I’ll refer to as TM, is a rare neurological inflammatory condition resulting in inflammation in the spinal cord. The inflammation can be at any point along your spinal cord and you will be affected in your body from that point downwards. For example, if you have inflammatory lesions in the cervical region, your arms, torso and legs will be affected. If the lesions are in the thoracic region, your torso and legs will be affected but not your arms.
It is an auto-immune disorder which means that your immune system attacks your body instead of the virus, infection or whatever it was supposed to be dealing with. So it is not an illness you ‘catch’ from anything or anyone; it’s not contagious or genetic.
Transverse Myelitis is in the same disease family as Multiple Sclerosis, just much more rare. Approximately 300 people per year are diagnosed with TM in the UK.
The onset of TM can be sudden over a few hours, or more gradual over days, weeks or even months. Red flag symptoms can include back pain (not just lower back pain), paralysis or muscle weakness in arms and/or legs (and hence mobility issues), bladder and bowel issues, sexual dysfunction, sensory disturbance (like a numbing sensation), and pain which can feel like a shooting, stabbing, crawling, freezing, hot or banding like pain.
TM is typically a one-off episode which can leave a person with ongoing residual symptoms such as paralysis, weakness, mobility issues, bladder and bowel issues, sensory disturbance, neuropathic pain, fatigue, and depression. The recovery process is a very uncertain one and doctors cannot predict how much functionality a person will regain and how long it will take. Recovery will start a few weeks to months after onset and can continue for more than two years.
Every person is affected differently by TM. Some people can be left with a lifelong disability, others can make a good recovery. For some people, TM is the first presentation of Multiple Sclerosis or Neuromyelitis Optica. For a small percentage of people, TM can be recurrent.
My story of Transverse Myelitis – The onset
Today is 13 October 2016 (when I originally wrote this article), 8 years to the day I was advised by my GP to go to A&E (Accident and Emergency) as soon as possible. I was feeling strong pins and needles, and shooting, stabbing pain all throughout the saddle area. Sitting for any length of time was painful. So was standing. I felt like I poo-ed my pants and was constantly checking whether I had. I hadn’t. Walking was painful. I was due to deliver a presentation that evening, but cancelled it as going to A&E took priority.
In A&E, a host of tests were done. Despite being in pain, I was pretty relaxed, chatting with my other half and making my way through a bag of Haribo sweets I asked him to bring me. (Learning: Do not eat sweets whilst in A&E. It wreaks havoc on your blood sugars, and the nurses ask you all sorts of questions about whether you are diabetic and may not be convinced if you tell them no.) They wanted to admit me. I was meant to fly to the USA in three days for my sister’s wedding, so I wanted to return home. They strongly advised me to follow their advice. I did.
Tests commenced. Long sessions in the MRI scanner. A lumbar puncture that required a longer needle than what the doctors were initially using, and 3-4 tries before they got a clean sample of my cerebrospinal fluid. I had to remind the very excited medical students that there was a patient at the end of the needle who was scared, in discomfort and needed to be looked after.
With each passing day, the pins and needles and stabbing and shooting pain progressed down my body. Banding pain joined the noisy party inside of me. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I could feel the panic rising. I finally figured out I could breathe and that what I was experiencing was some kind of pain.
Walking felt like pushing through the heaviest of treacle and my legs felt twice the size they actually were. I couldn’t walk more than 10 steps so acquiesced to using a wheelchair. I never made it to my sister’s wedding.
The pain, odd sensations and banding crept above my waist. More tests were ordered. Water hitting my skin and wearing clothes became very painful. I couldn’t sense temperature either. I still showered telling myself I was going to maintain a routine and be clean despite everything. Time feels plentiful in hospital so I laid there doing visualisations of a healing white light going up and down my spine and forced myself to walk as far as I could however badly I was walking.
A surprise for me and a highlight for the neurologist leading my case was accidentally discovering that I have another rare neurological condition in her area of expertise of movement disorders – geniospasm. It is a rare hereditary movement disorder where the chin shakes at random times and often for no reason. So I was discharged from hospital with two rare neurological conditions. I’ve had geniospasm all my life and never knew it was a recognised disorder and rare.
In relation to Transverse Myelitis, they didn’t tell me I had that. They only told me that I had ‘inflammation of the spinal cord’ with two lesions at C4 and C5, was seriously ill, should not work for several months and rest. I was worried as my job had been made redundant earlier in the summer and I had been actively looking for work.
After hospital – Learning to live with Transverse Myelitis
I returned home from hospital after 2 weeks. I had to rest a lot because of the fatigue and pain. A two block walk to the store and back would tire me out so much I slept for the rest of the day. As we were technically on holiday, my other half was able to be at home with me for a few days to make sure I could look after myself. The day he returned to work, he learned that his job was being made redundant.
When fatigue is present, resting is important
I learned of my diagnosis in a letter the neurologist sent to my GP, a copy of which was sent to me. In it was written ‘cervical myelitis’. So I naturally turned to Google and what I read scared me. I experienced so much anxiety and fear for my health, my future and my life. The quality of my sleep wasn’t great due to the anxiety, pain and geniospasm (for some reason the TM re-triggered the geniospasm and my badly shaking chin would wake me up at night).
I couldn’t do much at all and was bored senseless. So I started genealogical research. Although it was painful and slow to type, it was a good temporary distraction from my health issues. And I usually had an interesting piece of info to share with my husband about my family at the end of the day.
In time, I found the Transverse Myelitis Association in the USA and the Transverse Myelitis Society in the UK where I live. The information was limited at that time but a talk by a neurologist at the TM Society’s London support group answered some of my questions. I also had regular follow-up visits with the neurologist which helped too. I was one of the lucky ones to see a neurologist regularly post-diagnosis and I think the geniospasm had a role to play in that.
The months passed and bit by bit, I improved. The fatigue started to dissipate. I swam and did yoga. I started a new job and was thankful it was part-time because I was still experiencing fatigue and pain. I started studying for my first coaching qualification and that helped me immensely to come to terms with what happened.
A completely separate issue from the Transverse Myelitis was learning at this time that we would not be able to have children. Between the death of my father in 2007, caring for my mother after she had emergency heart surgery in Spring 2008, my job being made redundant soon after that, getting seriously ill in Autumn 2008, then my husband’s job being made redundant, that news felt like another blow and a particularly cruel one. People with serious health issues and particularly chronic ones often mention about not having a choice to go on, you just do. I get that.
Nine months later, I still had sensory disturbance, neuropathic pain, some fatigue, and didn’t have full sensory awareness in my hands. The neurologist said that might be it for the rest of my life. It felt like something finished when I heard that prognosis. A finality. On the outside, I looked and functioned normally. All things considered, my recovery was a good one.
Making meaning of my illness experience
I got involved with the Transverse Myelitis Society and offered my skillset of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), coaching and adult learning to use for the benefit of members through delivering presentations and writing articles. I had been using my skillset on myself and found it immensely helpful.
In 2010, I was asked to join the TM Society’s management committee. In 2011, I started a masters in coaching psychology and focused my research on the impact of coaching on the wellbeing of people living with TM and their primary caregivers. I included the carer, often a family member, as I saw how they are also affected. I was curious whether coaching could help people find a way to live well (enough) with the impact of the condition. I learned it can. You can read a summary of that research project here.
Even though I have stepped back from the Chair role and the TM Society’s management committee, I am still involved as a volunteer. Separately, I am helping a neurologist design a research project on TM and we hope it will get the necessary funding. I have studied Acceptance Commitment Therapy because I wanted to learn different approaches to helping people through the process of acceptance of difficult situations. I’ve also been studying Systemic Constellations to help people resolve issues relating to family dynamics and illness. This all feels like good work to be doing. It is also work I very much enjoy and wonder if ‘work’ is the right word. I am grateful for the opportunity.
So I think back to 9 years ago and to the day I felt like something finished when I was told my prognosis. I notice how my body is now. The constant pins and needles in my hands and hence reduced sensory awareness. How anything I touch feels like sandpaper, and the cramping in my fingers during the winter months. The random sensory disturbance which happens throughout my body. Some bladder and bowel issues which are manageable. The buzzing I feel in my spinal cord whenever I bend my head forward. These symptoms are all invisible and are manageable. I use the symptoms as a reminder to look after myself and live my life well.
What we think is broken can actually nurture beauty
When I reflect on my involvement with the TM Society, the healthcare profession and charity sector in the UK, and my coaching work, I think of Kintsugi bowls. They are Japanese bowls that broke and are mended with gold seams. It’s about honouring the wound and beauty from the brokenness. It is a symbol of rebirth, that nothing is ever truly broken beyond repair.
So our bodies may have been wounded. At times we may feel that they are broken. But beauty can spring forth from the brokenness. And that is my hope for all of us affected by a serious health issue, including our children and families: may we nurture and grow the beauty that we still hold within us.
What’s it like for you?
What has your experience with a serious illness or injury been like? What have you done differently in your life as a result? What would you like to do differently? Share your story in the comments below.
If you are living with a chronic illness or the after effects of a serious illness or injury, or are caring for someone who is, and you would like support to rebuild and renew your life, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
Help with research on acceptance
If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more. In exchange, I offer you a free 1 hour coaching session.
Pass it forward
Although I wrote this blog in the context of living with a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are often applicable to everyone. If you think someone you know would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to spread the ideas, click on the icons to share.
Accepting a serious health issue can be hard so for the past few weeks, I’ve been describing strategies you can implement to transform that struggle into acceptance. The strategies have focused on mindfulness, how to be the fly-on-the-wall of your life, dealing with unhelpful thoughts and what acceptance really means. These strategies come from Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). This week I explain the final two strategies: how taking Committed Action aligned to your Values are integral to getting to a place of acceptance with your health issue.
This is incredibly important. When we know what is truly important to us, we can more easily make decisions and take action in line with that. And that leads to living a meaningful life, which is what we all want for ourselves.
I’ll recap the ideas of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) here and its benefits so you can see how all the strategies hang together. If you wish to read the series in full, you can find the first post here and the second post here. In fact, I encourage you to because it has useful ideas and strategies you can start implementing immediately. It will also give you the full picture of ACT thereby demonstrating the benefits of this talking form of help.
The official definition of Acceptance Commitment Therapy, referred to as ACT (say it as the word ‘act’), is:
‘The goal of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility: the ability to contact the present moment and the psychological reaction it produces, as a fully conscious human being, and based on the situation, to persist with or change behaviour for valued ends.’ (Harris, 2007; Mindfulness Training Ltd., 2017)
Or to put it simply – To create a rich, full and meaningful life whilst accepting the pain and suffering which goes along with it.
You may read ‘accept the pain and suffering’ and think, ‘I’ve already got accepting this serious health issue to deal with!! What the hell is she on about?!’
Let me explain. Of course, we want to be happy more than we are sad or upset, yet sometimes life throws unpleasant or downright awful things our way. Sh*t happens as they say and it’s not fun. So when I say ‘accept’ this, I am not advocating saying ‘yes, this is such a great thing to have happened!’ It’s about acknowledging that yes, this sh*t thing has happened, this is how it has impacted me, this is how I feel about it.
As a society, we tend to push away and suppress bad things which happen to us or ‘bad’ feelings. So much so, anything ‘bad’ has become stigmatised. It is as if we ‘should never’ feel bad and ‘should always’ be happy. Yet when we suppress the ‘bad’ feelings, we don’t acknowledge them. And the ‘bad’ and unpleasant feelings so want to be acknowledged, they will leak out. The strategies used in Acceptance Commitment Therapy help you to visit with those feelings and acknowledge them so they become recognised as a normal aspect of your life. This all helps the process of accepting a serious health issue.
You don’t have to unpack and live with overwhelming feelings.
The key aspects of ACT are referred to in the above definitions:
The ability to contact the present moment is being able to bring our attention openly, non-judgementally and with curiosity to what is happening in the here and now to ourselves, to others around us, to the situation. This is also known as mindfulness.
Another side to contacting the present moment is being able to step outside of and observe ourselves. This is the first step in learning how ‘to stand in another person’s shoes’ and experiencing empathy with and for another. This can be learned.
Become aware of our psychological reactions to the present moment and identify whether these are helpful to ourselves or not.
Pain and suffering is a normal part of life, including unpleasant reactions we have to our here and now experiences, and it is important that we accept that. And accept the good things too.
If our reactions are not helpful, then we may wish to change our behaviour.
We change our behaviour to obtain what it is we value and want, i.e. our valued ends. But we need to know what it is we value to ensure our behaviour and actions we take align with that.
The following diagram shows these themes:
The Key Components of Acceptance Commitment Therapy
Let’s move on to talking about the last two principles of ACT, Values and Committed Action.
What you believe and value in life like learning, having integrity, fairness, security, etc. You may make decisions based on our values. For example, some people preferred to be employed because they value the security of the pay check every month. Others may prefer to work for themselves because they value freedom of choice. When you make decisions which aren’t aligned with your values, there can be that sense of disquiet that something is not quite right.
What you want for yourself in various areas of your life, the direction you want your life to take. These are the implicit or explicit goals you have for yourself regarding your:
Psychological/ Emotional health
Occupational – Your work, career, education whether paid or unpaid
Relationships with family, friends, your social life
Hobbies, personal interests, fun
Where you live – home, town, city, state, county, country
Spirituality, religion, faith
This values exercise in this picture will help you learn more about what you value in life.
Clarifying your values so you can take action which aligns with them can help in accepting a serious health issue.
And to identify the direction you want to take in various areas of your life, get the Wellness Assessment which will help you do just that.
Get your free Wellness Appreciation workbook here
It helps you identify your levels of wellness in those areas of your life important to you and what you can do to increase them.
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Committed Action means to take action to help you move in a valued direction in your life. Action can be something you say or do, a behavioural action for example. Or something you think or feel inside.
The Wellness Assessment I just mentioned will help you to start identifying some early action you can take in important areas of your life.
This is about committing to something for yourself. And that’s a lovely thing to be doing!
It is not about being perfect. Or expecting everything to happen perfectly.
It’s not about achieving everything by tomorrow. Small, even tiny goals that build on one another over time are great.
You will make mistakes, go off track, etc. That is part of life. It’s about learning from that and getting back on the track of your valued direction in life.
So taking action which aligns with what you value will result in you living the meaningful life you want even with the health issue you have. And that helps so much in accepting a serious health issue. I often find when clients do this, the good things in their life take priority.
What’s it like for you?
What is most important to you in your life? If you were living your life as you wanted whilst still having the serious health issue, what would you be doing?
If you are living with a chronic illness or the after effects of a serious illness or injury, or are caring for someone who is and would like support identify what is important to you so the action you take in 2018 aligns with that, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
Special offer for Christmas and the New Year – 20% off all coaching packages between now and 31st January 2018. Quote code #XMAS17NY18
Have a happy, relaxing and joyful holiday season and all the very best for your 2018!
Pass it forward
Although this blog is written in the context of living with a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think someone you know would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to spread the ideas, share using the icons below.
If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.
Get a free Wellness Appreciation Workbook to sense check your levels of wellness in the various parts of your life. And practical strategies weekly on managing the impact of a serious health issue and living well.
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Only your name and email are collected and used for this purpose and not sold or given to third parties. You can unsubscribe at any time.