Over the last week, stress levels have skyrocketed. As a society, our bodies are experiencing higher cortisol (the stress hormone) than ever before. Our current reality does not discriminate, everyone is affected in some way. Anyone facing an illness has even more potentially stressful considerations than the average healthy person, and yet, it’s crucial to reduce stress so that your symptoms aren’t exacerbated.
After 18 years of living with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS), I want to address the most important aspect of anyone’s physical well-being: psychological health.
Research shows that our emotional state greatly influences our physiology. When we experience fear, our breathing becomes shallow. When we are frustrated or angry, our heart rate and brain waves become erratic. When we are stressed, the hormone cortisol increases, which weakens our immune system and alters our nervous system response. These are just a few examples of how the feelings you might be experiencing right now can impact your health and exacerbate a dis-ease. This is why it is so important to shift to a state of ease, now more than ever.
Prioritize Emotional Support
A first line approach to maintaining wellness is to immediately make sure you are meeting once a week with a mental health professional. This might be in the form of a support group, a psychologist, or a coach. This should always be a priority even when there isn’t a worldwide pandemic! So make sure to start now; it’s just as important as taking medications on time and going to doctor appointments regularly.
Support groups can also be helpful, but it’s important to choose wisely with this outlet. Online forums can tend to be a place for venting. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “where focus goes, energy flows,” I’m here to tell you it’s true. When I started my healing journey, I had to become aware of what types of support were actually a focus on wellness rather than illness. Tune into this subtle difference when joining an online support group. Choose a group that feels positive and uplifting, and ideally a setting with weekly or monthly live video meetings. You do not need another reminder of how unwell you are, so do your best to avoid a group that uses the forum to complain all the time. Everyone needs a place to vent but once you get it out, it’s important to leave it out and move forward.
Another crucial component of wellness is shifting your focus to things that further cultivate health and positive feelings. Gratitude is a powerful feeling that brings our body’s systems into alignment and allows our cells to function optimally. Create a daily gratitude practice and challenge yourself to see how long you can stay in it. Studies also show that those who regularly focus on gratitude have a stronger immune system. You really can’t go wrong on this one! A gratitude journal is a great place to start- write at least 3 things you are grateful for each day. You can also involve your family on this- make a commitment to each other and yourself that any time you feel stress, fear, or anxiety, you will pause and say three things you are grateful for. The most important kind of gratitude right now is for your body. Thank your body for what is working, for the things it is doing right, even if it has its challenges. Studies show that the more you do this, day after day, the better your body will begin to function.
Expressing gratitude might require conscious effort in the beginning because you are actually creating new neurons. Every time you interrupt fear or stress and replace it with gratefulness, you create new neurology, which in time will naturally reduce your stress response and make gratitude your automatic mindset. Stick with it until it becomes natural and you will have literally rewired your brain.
Focus on Wellness
Shifting from a focus on illness to wellness is harder than ever at the moment with the focus on coronavirus. Though it may require some practice, try to limit how often you watch the news and change the subject when your friends bring it up. Replace the time spent on the news with practices that feel nurturing to you and also cultivate wellness. Everyone is different but you might find some of these helpful:
- Listen to or play music
- Use aromatherapy with essential oils
- Spend time outdoors
- Read a book
- Get a massage
- Exercise and dance
There are many ways to cultivate a wellness mindset and one of the most powerful (and often ignored) practices is visualization. The brain does not differentiate between what you visualize and what is actually happening in the moment. Spend time every day visualizing yourself feeling fantastic. Get into as much detail as possible by visualizing things you may have never believed you would do before. When you are visualizing, feel it like it’s real, and you’ll convince your body that it is in fact that healthy. This will boost your immune system and jumpstart illness recovery of your symptoms as well. To learn more about this approach you can read You Are The Placebo by Dr. Joe Dispenza.
I can tell you both from my own experience and that of my clients that these techniques powerfully impact health and wellness. But, the most important thing to remember during this time is that you are already very strong. You have had to overcome so much in living with illness. You have had to adapt to a new lifestyle and develop powerful coping mechanisms- you are already extremely resilient! Remember that this isn’t the first time you have faced challenges.
You’ve gotten through it before and you will get through this too.