There is no doubt that chronic illness involves a lot of suffering, a lot of soul searching, and a great deal of loss, both of one's capacity to continue doing all the things that bring enjoyment and of self-esteem and fulfillment in life. But what if chronic illness could be turned into a positive experience?
This summer I completed a bachelors degree in nutritional health and was awarded first class honours by the University of Greenwich, London. At 31 I was beginning to think I would never obtain a degree after being forced to drop out of a computer science course at the University of Sheffield aged 19 due to ill health - this was therefore a great achievement for me. However, the degree was supposed to be followed by a year of clinical training to become a nutritional therapist/nutritionist. A recent downturn in my health as forced me to re-evaluate my current direction and it has become clear that in my current state of health I would be unable to complete the clinical work...and in any case, would be unable to cope with working as a full-time nutritionist after qualifying.
Paying close attention to my thoughts and emotions after making the decision to withdraw from the final stage of my course, I was pleasantly surprised. In the past I would undoubtedly have seen this as giving up and suffered a loss of self-confidence. My reaction here however has been the exact opposite. I feel like I am thinking more clearly again and starting immediately after making my mind up to withdraw from the clinical training I began having a flurry of ideas for re-developing The Environmental Illness Resource and writing my first book. These are both forms of work I can tackle at my own pace without the stress of deadlines and appointments but which are very rewarding, and importantly, fulfill my ultimate goal of helping others suffering from the chronic illnesses that have come to shape my life.
The issue of my ultimate goal is an important point here. It may be a cliche but there really is more than one path to a destination. I wanted to become a nutritionist to help relieve the suffering of others in a similar situation to my own but I now realise I can do this in so many other ways that are both better for my own health and are likely to reach more people in need.
I believe my regular practice of meditation over the past 6 years has helped to reshape my view of the events in my life and illuminate them in a more positive light. I now find it much easier to see the positive in any situation, no matter how negative it may seem on the surface. I therefore don't dwell on what might ave been but rather look to what I might do in the future.
Serendipity seems to have been at work today as just before beginning to write this blog entry I happened to check my email and in my inbox was an update from the Stress Management at About.com about a process referred to as 'reframing' by psychologists...which it turns out is exactly what I have been doing subconciously without knowing the theory.
What is Reframing?
An important observation of human behaviour is that different people react differently to the same event. One person may be sent into a spiral of depression by something "bad" that occurs in their life while another person who encounters the same event may simply shrug it off, forget about it, and get on with their lives.
Reframing is the term used to describe the process of changing how we look at something and, therefore, our experience of it. In the example above, the second individual was able to reframe a negative event as a minor obstacle to be overcome, thus reframing it in its proper context. The first person was not able to do this and as a result the event had a much greater impact on them.
Reframing can change a negative event into a learning experience and represents a tool that can be utilised to alter our perceptions of stressors and, thus, relieve significant amounts of stress. It is therefore possible to enjoy a more positive life even before any positive changes are actually made in our circumstances.
Reframing and the Stress Response
It is of great benefit to be aware that the body reacts to perceived stress, rather than actual events. It is our mental response to stimuli that results in the initiation of the body's fight-or-flight stress response. This means that by conciously reframing events in a positive way we can reduce the frequency with which our stress response is triggered as well as the intensity and duration of this response when it is.
This is very important for both physical and mental health as chemical messengers such as hormones, neurotransmitters and pro-inflammatory cytokines are all damaging if chronically elevated. Pro-inflammatory cytokines may trigger chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, adrenaline raises blood pressure and may put stress on the heart and circulatory system, and chronically raised cortisol is implicated in depression and mood disorders, to name but a few.
It is clear then that reframing may be a powerful means of reducing the stress and suffering that accompany chronic illness while also potentially reducing the risk of other chronic illnesses. Above all, reframing offers the potential to make life more enjoyable.
The following are a few basic methods of reframing that anybody can implement:
Learn About Thinking Patterns - educate yourself about some of these negative thinking patterns that may exacerbate your stress levels.
Notice Your Thoughts - catch yourself when you're slipping into overly negative and stress-inducing patterns of thinking.
Challenge Your Thoughts - As you notice your negative thoughts, an effective part of reframing involves examining the truth and accuracy (or lack thereof) of these thoughts.
Replace Your Thoughts With More Positive Thoughts - When you're looking at something negative, see if you can change your self talk to use less strong, less negative emotions. When you're looking at a potentially stressful situation, see if you can view it as a challenge vs. a threat.
Learn more about Reframing
If you have your own reframing techniques that you would like to share then please use the comment box below...