Though many of us living with chronic illnesses can’t manage a thorough spring cleaning of our homes, we can all undertake – and benefit from – a spring cleaning of our spirits. Think of it as a mental health scrub, clearing out the old “dirt” in our minds, like resentment, envy, anger, and loneliness, and replacing them with healthier feelings like joy and connection. Stress and negative emotions can actually make us sicker physically, so this is a worthwhile pursuit for both mind and body. What better time for a mental clean-out than this season of renewal and hope?
Here are some ways to get started:
Release old feelings of bitterness, resentment, and anger.
Although this is easier said than done, it is so important for our mental well-being. When corrosive emotions like these are held inside, they eat away at us and often make our physical symptoms worse. Just recognizing that the old anger you are holding onto is hurting you can be a step forward.
First, make sure you have fully acknowledged and accepted what you are feeling – denial is even more harmful. Writing can be very therapeutic. Try to write out your feelings – of hurt, abandonment, and resentment – to get them out of your head and onto paper. Be honest and allow yourself to grieve. Then tear up or even burn the paper, as a symbolic way to say good-bye. You can’t change the past – and you can’t change other people – but you can let go of old hurts. Your own response is the one thing you have control over.
We all want compassion, so begin by showing empathy toward others. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really try to see the world from their perspective. When I did this with a family member, I realized that she sincerely thought she was doing what was best for me. She did see how sick I was, but she thought she needed to get my mind off it and cheer me up. Once I recognized that her intentions were good, just misguided, then we could start over from the same place of understanding, and I could explain how I experienced her actions and what I needed.
You can also empathize with other people’s difficulties. Everyone has challenges in their lives, and they are often invisible, like our illnesses. By showing interest and concern about your friend’s child’s learning disability or your sibling’s divorce, you are not only showing them that you care, you are also modeling the kind of compassion you would like. Avoid comparing suffering – that’s a contest no one can win. Show others that you care about what they’re going through, and you will receive caring back.
Reach out and make the first move to contact family or old friends.
If you are feeling abandoned by friends and family, turn those negative feelings into positive actions. First, as mentioned above, recognize that their intentions were probably good – perhaps they were afraid of disturbing you or saying the wrong thing, so they said nothing and stayed away.
Instead of waiting for someone to call, reach out yourself to a friend you’ve lost touch with or a family member who has seemed distant. Ask how they’ve been and show genuine interest in their lives, as well as being honest about your own. Even a text message or a comment on Facebook could start the ball rolling. Some people won’t ever feel comfortable with your illness, but most want to do the right thing and just need some encouragement to re-establish a relationship. Take the first step.
Find your people, online or in person.
While our relationships with healthy friends or family may require some work to heal and find common ground, interacting with others in your same situation is immediately supportive. What a relief it is to chat with others who “get it”! Look for local support groups (search online for your illness and location or try meetup.com) or ask your doctor(s) to pass your contact information along to others with similar conditions.
Online, check Facebook for groups related to your illness or search for your illness + forum or discussion. Yahoo Groups, Groups.io, and Google Groups all offer a wide range of e-mail groups on every topic imaginable. You can even use online groups to connect with others who live nearby. Look for groups that have a positive tone, with supportive and kind discussions between members. Finding your people can enrich your life – we all need that sense of connection.
Focus on joy and gratitude.
Becoming aware of your mental habits and focusing on the positive (once you have dealt with the negative feelings openly) can provide a huge boost to your mental health. Try to notice your speech and thought patterns. Do you spend a lot of time complaining or feeling sorry for yourself? Do you think constantly about what you’ve lost?
Writing can help again here. Try some stream-of-consciousness private journaling. You may need to grieve first and accept those darker feelings so that you can release them. Noticing things that make you feel joy or gratitude can make you far more aware of positive aspects of your life. Keep a joy journal or write a daily gratitude post on Facebook or Twitter (I use #GratefulToday on Twitter). After a few weeks, you will find yourself just naturally noticing joy and gratitude more. Lots of small moments of joy can add up to a lifetime of happiness.
Get professional help, if needed.
If these suggestions seem insurmountable or you are struggling with intense anger or sadness that you can’t work through on your own, consider professional help. I have found counselors very helpful at two different points in my 16 years of chronic illness. Benefits vary by policy, but therapy is usually covered by health insurance. If you or your spouse works, check to see if the company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – I used my husband’s EAP both times to find therapists with chronic illness experience who were a good fit for me. Psychology Today magazine also has an online database, as does findapsychologist.org. If you are unable to leave the house, there are now plenty of online therapists – search for “online therapy chronic illness” for options.
Spring is in the air, with sunny days ahead. Take advantage of this season of renewal to focus on your own spiritual growth. Sweep out the cobwebs of abandonment and loneliness, and scrub out the harmful effects of anger and resentment. Focus in on your own mental well-being and make a fresh start with relationships, old and new. Your mind and body will thank you.
Suzan Jackson is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for 16 years and also has Lyme disease. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS 14 years ago, but one is now fully recovered after 10 years of illness and the other is in college, with ME/CFS plus three tick-borne infections. She writes two blogs: Living with ME/CFS at http://livewithcfs.blogspot.com and Book By Book at http://bookbybook.blogspot.com You can follow her on Twitter at @livewithmecfs.