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Mind Games: How I Cope During a Chronic Illness Relapse Using Brain Exercises

Around the holidays a couple of years ago, I got a bad cold which left me exhausted. Of course, I assumed that once I got better, my (limited) energy would return. It didn’t. I spent months in a state of brain fog and fatigue. By the mid spring, the relapse gradually began to ebb, although I still didn’t return to pre-viral levels for several more months.

The next holiday season, my pelvic pain increased substantially.  As I wait for more procedures, I worry about how I will cope with this ‘new normal’, which is interfering with my sleep and sometimes restricting my movement to the length of my heating pad cord!

I felt completely overwhelmed at the outset of my fatigue relapse last year.  First, there was the emotional reaction to a new situation: anxiety about whether it was here to stay, frustration that life was about to get more difficult, and grief at the prospect of losing what abilities I still had.  Secondly, there was the practical challenge of figuring out how I would cope, like what new treatment options to try or how to manage my daily routines and responsibilities.  Lastly, I faced the impact of a relapse on my relationships, such as the increased caregiver burden on my partner, and feeling less able to be present with family and friends.

My relapse brought me back to the beginning of my illness journey and how I coped after my diagnosis. I was able to use many of the lessons that had been learned the hard way the first time around. Now that I’m facing a similar situation, yet again, I wanted to write them out for myself –  I hope they may help someone else out there too. In essence, what I have learned is that I have the power of choice over what I focus my attention on each day. Through challenging negative patterns of thinking, being present, taking in the good, and pursuing an enjoyable hobby, I try to emphasize what enriches my life and let go of what doesn’t. Of course there are always bad days and I don’t believe any amount of positive thinking frees us from ever experiencing difficult times. I personally have found, however, that changing my worldview has dramatically lessened the amount of suffering I go through during relapses and has improved my quality of life.

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1) Challenge Patterns of Negative Thinking: About a year after my diagnosis, I participated in a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program for pain management. One of the core parts of the program was learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves”.[i]

For example, if you think in “all or nothing” terms – a cognitive distortion – you might believe “if I can no longer pursue my career, I am a failure” (click here for a list of other cognitive distortions). A common belief among the participants in the group (me included) was: “Since I don’t work during the day, all I do is sit around the house wasting time”. The facilitator asked us to challenge this belief by making a list of all our daily activities. I was surprised to have a long list that included, for example, preparing my meals, going for a walk, reading a book, writing a blog post, doing my strengthening exercises, etc. I actually do quite a few things each day, and I rarely waste my time.

Now I try to identify when a negative thought is actually just a distortion and then challenge it with the reality of the given situation. I use a great app called ‘What’s up?‘ that lets you journal your thoughts and feelings, rate your mood and then connect them to any unhelpful negative thinking patterns (not an endorsement, just an honest review). It helps to get my head right instead of jumping to the worst-case scenario, which in turn helps me to feel better!

2) Be Present: One of the most powerful tools that has helped me to cope with my illness setbacks is practicing mindfulness, usually defined as “non-judgemental, present moment awareness”.

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I attended a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at my pain clinic that introduced me to how cultivating presence could help me manage my pain.  Much of our anxiety comes from worrying about the future or reliving difficult moments from the past, rather than from anything going on directly in front of us at this moment in time.  Through mindfulness meditation, I have become better at recognizing when my mind as dwelling on the past or projecting into the future, and bringing my attention back to the present.

For example, I’m currently waiting on nerve block to treat my undiagnosed pelvic pain. I have a lot riding on whether this treatment will work – including being able to come off medications while my partner and I try to conceive. Just thinking about it makes me feel anxious and upset.  However, I won’t know anything until after the procedure, which is several weeks away.  Worrying about it now only makes me suffer more.  It’s better for my quality of life if I return my focus to the next best thing I can do for myself in this moment.

One reason I like the What’s up? app is because it includes several grounding exercises that ask you to identify things in your present moment environment, and bring you back to earth if you feel like you’re getting really caught up in a negative train of thought.  As my grandma used to say, worry about crossing that bridge when you get there!

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Between spending time on your phone or binge-watching Netflix, it’s easy to become too distracted to enjoy the small moments in life. Meditation can help us relearn to stop and smell the roses. This is especially important for people living with chronic pain. Even during pain flares there are small moments of enjoyment if we stop and notice them — the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favorite hobby. Intentionally taking in the good moments by staying present while experiencing them is a powerful way to counterbalance the negative experience of feeling worsened symptoms during flareups or relapses. [i] http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/

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