As this time of year brings us around to discussions of fibromyalgia awareness, I’d like to address a point of view that’s not often shared. How does awareness of our chronic health conditions change who we are? How does it challenge us to consider who we can become?
When I do interviews, I always make a point of stating how grateful I am to have fibromyalgia. I say it for two reasons. First, I do hope to grab the attention of the listeners so that they eliminate their distractions and tune into the information I’m about to share. And, secondly, I want to make it clear that while I may still have fibromyalgia, I’m neither defined nor confined by the diagnosis.
Have you ever felt grateful for fibromyalgia?
It’s possible that you haven’t, so let me share what I mean by that. One of the things I hear quite often is this, “I just wish I could go back to being who I was before I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.”
I wouldn’t wish for that at all.
Before my diagnosis, I was a completely different person. Sure, I was pain-free and I thought I was care-free. But, I really wasn’t. I had no idea that the thoughts that ran rampant in my head were a reflection of the pain to come.
I was a different person then.
I was stressed out, trying to care for everyone and everything. I had a deep sense of always trying to do things “right,” yet never succeeding. I had a vague notion of what I thought things should be like, and I was acutely aware that I didn’t feel I measured up.
Maybe you feel or have felt this way, too.
On the outside, it appeared that I had the world on a string. I had wonderful children. I had a good job. I was super active in my church and community. I looked okay. But, that’s how things appeared from the outside. On the inside, I was a jumbled mass of stress and anxiety. In today’s vernacular, I was a White Hot Mess.
But I had no idea that I felt that way. Feeling anxious or stressed had become my “new normal.” Like the proverbial boiled frog, I didn’t notice the increasing feelings of stress creeping up on me. I was simply used to it. I felt it was just part of my personal DNA.
This should come as no surprise, but a stressed-out person is not likely to implement good self-care routines. I rarely slept, grabbed packaged food snacks often, and prided myself in being a “get it done” person no matter the physical cost. I powered my way through the days and my body complied. I thought I was getting away with my behaviors.
unhealthy lifestyle took on my body’s resources.
The journey I followed to heal from the devastating symptoms of fibromyalgia changed all that. I started off with the limited view that I just needed to heal my body. I ended up learning so much more. I learned that I had to find peace in many parts of my life – which then resulted in healing.
Now that I can look back on my journey with a bit of distance an objectivity, I can clearly see four distinct ways in which fibromyalgia has shaped and transformed my life – for the better. I’m grateful for these changes and wouldn’t turn back the clock even if given a time-warping magic wand.
My experiences with fibromyalgia have fostered an acute awareness of the following four categories:
1. The Physical Impact
It took quite some time, but I finally figured out that what I eat, wear on my skin and breathe into my body all have an effect on my body and symptoms.
I started with diet. This changed occurred when I decided to prove my doctor wrong. That’s a good enough reason isn’t it?
At that time, I was still in search of a diagnosis. My doctor handed me dozens of prescriptions and sent me off to various specialists, all to no avail. Finally, he assured me that he had an answer regarding the horrible pain and fatigue that plagued me. His answer? Cholesterol.
Even though at the time I was completely ignorant of the facts about cholesterol, I knew that wasn’t “the” problem. I left his office feeling defeated. That later turned into frustration and even a bit of anger. I decided to make nutrition my main treatment plan so that I could prove that cholesterol wasn’t causing my pain. I had no real plan other than to eat some lean proteins and salads. I just wanted to lower my cholesterol.
Instead, I proved so much more.
First, my stiffness in my hands and wrists disappeared. The nighttime swallowing and choking problem completely vanished. My IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) went away. My mental clarity improved. My overall pain levels diminished and continued to improve.
I experienced much of this physical progress in the first few weeks and all of it within a few months. Later, I added fitness routines to my regimen and improved even more. I then increased my awareness regarding the health and beauty products I used, what cleansers I allowed in my home and so on.
Here’s what I understand now.
I recognize the connection between fibromyalgia and chronic health challenges and food sensitivities. I understand why the immune system is compromised when the digestive system is impaired. I grasp exactly how leaky gut happens. I get why processed foods and chemicals impact the body in a way that results in pain.
I know how fitness and body movement programs can help the body to strengthen, detoxify, and generate an emotional sense of balance and wellness. I learned that the skin is the body’s largest organ and everything we subject it to has an impact on our health.
In a nutshell, here it is: What we eat, do, and apply topically matters.
2. The Emotional Impact
I discovered this crucial fact: The body feels and reacts to every thought we have.
By improving my health physically, I noticed the difference between feeling anxious and peaceful. I learned through practices such as tai chi and yoga that I was able to feel calm and relaxed – at least for a time.
I vividly remember catching myself in the middle of a tai chi class thinking about nothing. Me, with an idle thought? What a concept! That was a first for me. I was always planning my day, my next event, or my family obligations in my head. I remember having a sort of weightless feeling as I watched my hands move slowly in front of me when I did the “Moving Hands Like Clouds” exercise in class.
This experience showed what the absence of stress felt like. Since I now had a comparison, when I went right back to my frenetic thinking, I noticed how it felt in my body. I took note of this reaction and wanted to read more about this connection and learn what I could do. Putting it simply – feeling relaxed felt good. I wanted more.
I learned that mind / body activities such as tai chi, yoga, walking, and getting out in nature, etc. are particularly good for generating the relaxation response. I became an eager student looking for healthy ways to help me achieve this feeling of relaxation. Prayer, meditation, EFT Tapping, massage, guided imagery, and, of course, humor have become mainstays in my healthy routine.
I decided that if my body was going to feel and react to every thought I have, why not make them healing thoughts?
Nowadays, we know so much more about the connection between our thoughts and the reactions felt in our bodies. You may be interested to view this article which illustrates, via Heatmaps, the reactions that the body has to a variety of emotions.
3. My Social Impact
I was surprised to discover that even my relationships and social environment impacted how I felt.
Of course I knew that certain people stressed me out and made me feel worse, but I had no idea that I had a choice in how I perceived everyone and the circumstances around me.
This took some effort and study on my part, but I learned that while I couldn’t change others, I could change how I chose to view them. This external awareness was a real eye opener. I had no idea that I could get a “vibe” from people – even strangers – and that their “stuff” could become my “stuff.”
Have you ever paid attention to how groups of people make you feel, and vice versa? Your mood can spread to others as well. Can you feel tension or distress when you walk into some homes and peace and calmness in others?
Recognizing how I was affected by other people’s drama gave me some control over the situation. It increased my awareness and once I was aware of someone’s influence, I could choose to do something about it. I couldn’t always avoid a negative person, but I learned ways of coping that worked for me.
Key tip: Others may want to drag you into their drama, but only you get to decide how, when, or if you’ll join.
Learning to see the issues and struggles of someone else – with a supportive, yet objective, viewpoint – is a worthwhile skill to develop. Now I have far more insight regarding my own feelings when I fine-tune my listening skills.
This insight translates to a greater sense of peace, which in turn leads to a greater sense of physical wellbeing.
4. My Life’s Purpose Impact
The lessons learned from fibromyalgia have revealed a deep and powerful sense of purpose for me and for my life.
This fact came as a complete and utter surprise to me.
I was busy minding my own business. I wanted to be a children’s book author. I scribbled stories with earnest. I climbed up the ladder of knowledge in my chosen field – all while researching and learning more about health. I had to figure out my health issues so that I could get back to writing creative books for children!
But as I healed, I was asked over and over for the same information. It felt like a derailment from my plan. My solution was to write a quick pamphlet I called, “My Health Book.” Just a short three years later (ha!) it morphed into what’s now known as my book, FibroWHYalgia.
Even when my book was first released, I had no idea of the possibilities of where it could reach. I have readers in dozens of countries and now have website visitors from all over the world.
One thing is clear:
chronic pain are global concerns!
This wonky world is a busy and oftentimes unhealthy place in which to live. However, there are steps we can take to set things straight (or at least, straight-ish).
In my eagerness to help others to heal after my own success, I discovered two interesting facts. 1) No matter how often I sit down with someone, listen to their story, and offer healing suggestions, this line of conversation never gets old. In fact, my desire to learn more and offer more grows each day. 2) The more I give the more energy I have to continue doing what I desire.
Desire, therefore, is a powerhouse of energy. Back when I was in total body pain 24 hours a day, I couldn’t have imagined a burning desire for anything but getting out of pain. Because I acutely remember feeling this way, I now consider it an honor to help steer others to discover their greatest passions in life.
It’s always my goal to educate in a way that leaves readers feeling encouraged, supported, and inspired to take action.
Taking action – any action – is where healing begins. Taking that first step is challenging, for sure. But who knows where that step will lead? Perhaps you’ll gain clarity and a greater awareness of your own healing journey – one step at a time.
Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.
Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.
Would you like to find out more about the effects of STRESS on your body? Download Sue's free Is Stress Making You Sick? guide and discover your own Stress Profile by taking the surveys provided in this detailed 23-page report.