How to Experience Joy in Illness
Joy can be very elusive when living with a chronic illness like Lyme disease. Our days and thoughts become consumed with the pain and difficulties of the illness. When you don’t feel good, you will naturally be consumed with thoughts of not feeling good. There are great losses that we experience when a chronic illness takes over our lives. These losses can cause sadness, anxiety, grief, and depression, among other things. Most of the time, these emotions must be dealt with before we can experience joy.
However, you can break out of the chains these emotions wrap around your soul. Don’t ignore the emotions that make you feel uneasy. Instead, allow yourself to feel the emotion, whether it is sadness, anger, or depression. You might be feeling anger at your circumstances because you lost your job due to sickness, or grief because of the loss of the lifestyle you were used to living. These are very valid emotions.
The five stages of grief, as defined by Elizabeth Kublher-Ross, are normal processes that we go through when experiencing a loss in our lives. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It takes time to work through these feelings, but it is vital to realize that the emotions will not go away simply because you try to ignore them. It is worth the effort to tend to the feelings that bubble to the surface, no matter how unpleasant at the time.
Don’t be afraid of these “negative” emotions, as they are not “bad,” in the normal sense of the word. Emotions are tools that help us look under the surface and find the hurts that we might not be aware that we are experiencing. Identify the emotions you are experiencing and their cause, and then allow yourself to feel them, even though they are unpleasant.
You may want to write out your emotions in a journal, or talk to a counselor to help you process the experiences in your life. As you allow yourself to work through the hard emotions like anger, grief, and depression, your capacity for joy will increase little by little.
Negativity is one emotion we can get stuck in because of the difficulty of life with pain and illness. In order to increase your capacity to experience joy in spite of the difficulties of chronic illness, try a few of these ideas:
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1. Begin by writing down every thought that has a negative connotation. After you have written down several of these, examine each one, and then turn each negative into a positive thought. For example, the thought, “I am in so much pain” could be turned into “I am so glad I am still able to continue ___________.” The next time you find yourself thinking the negative thought, quickly turn it into the positive thought. Changing your thoughts in this way enables you to have a new perspective as well as an attitude of gratitude.
2. Speaking of gratitude, begin a habit of thinking of 3 things you are thankful for at the end of each day. Consider writing these thoughts down in a gratitude journal or daily planner as a way of helping you remember to do this each day.
3. Plan activities that bring you joy. When living with chronic illness, we often become socially isolated as we naturally choose to “opt out” of activities because we don’t feel good. You will have to be intentional about doing things that bring you joy. Go out with friends occasionally even if it causes a few hours of physical discomfort. Find a creative outlet that helps you relax, such as coloring or writing.
4. Daily self-care is an important part of enabling yourself to experience joy. If you are not in the habit of prioritizing daily self-care, try adding a few of these things to your routine so that you will feel more rested and rejuvenated: a daily bath, an occasional massage, a 20 minute rest period (even if you don’t use it to sleep), time to read a book you enjoy, a diet with whole foods instead of processed food (as whole foods will give you more energy), a new habit of drinking 6-8 glasses of water each day to give yourself more energy and prevent sluggishness caused by dehydration.
5. If your schedule is too full, joy will continue to evade you. Examine your schedule for ways you can slow down the pace. If you have children, consider limiting their activities to one per semester. Discontinue those activities that continually drain your energy without giving you any positive benefits. Don’t participate in things just because you think you are “supposed to” or just to satisfy someone else. These activities will drain the energy you might have used to participate in another activity that brings you joy. Consider stopping those activities that are not truly important or meaningful to you.
6. If you are experiencing feelings of depression or hopelessness that persist longer than two weeks, discuss this with your doctor, as antidepressants may be beneficial. Supplements such as St. John’s Wort or kava kava can also help to improve your mood and relieve anxiety. Check with your doctor before mixing supplements with prescription medications.
As you begin to incorporate some of these ideas into your daily routine, joy will begin to come back into your life. It might not happen all at once, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t notice it right away. It is your daily practices that will increase your joy, so by continuing these new habits, you will create a greater capacity to experience joy. Your circumstance of chronic illness may not change, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still experience a life filled with joy.
Laurie Miller is an author wife, mom, registered nurse, and patient with chronic illness. She enjoys spending time with family, reading, and blogging at godlivingwithchronicillness.com. Join her at www.facebook.com/godlivinggirls for an upcoming women’s online study on “Finding Joy and Purpose in Chronic Illness” starting Feb 1, 2016. Contact her at email@example.com to join.