By Julie Holliday
There are many skills involved in being happy despite chronic illness – skills that need active attention and practice: gratitude and appreciation of the little things in life, recognising small achievements and valuing them highly in recognition of the huge challenge it is to live with an illness like ME/CFS, fibromyalgia or Lyme disease, being present in the here and now and not dwelling on the unchangeable past or the unknown future, accepting the present moment for how it is and not comparing it or yourself to other moments or other people. With practice these skills become easier, especially when they produce the results we’re looking for, but sometimes the positive feelings just don’t get through.
I often find that when my health is at its worst, so is my mood. It’s not a brooding thing; I’ve taught myself not to do that. I’ve come to accept that during those times my brain chemistry just hasn’t got the right formula to allow those happy impulses through, even if I manage to be just as mindful with my thoughts. I can go out on my terrace and look at my wonderful view and tell myself how lucky I am to be living where I’m living, but the joy that I usually feel when I do such a thing just doesn’t seem to be accessible.
It can be hard not to feel guilty when happiness just doesn’t seem to reach you. I often hear people beat themselves up because, on one level, they can recognise that they’ve got things going for them, but they still feel miserable. Believing that you have no right to your misery just locks it in tighter.
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I deal with all of this with acceptance and persistence. I let it be OK that I can’t feel my joy. I blame my brain chemistry instead of my thoughts. I allow myself to feel miserable if that’s how I feel, taking care not to add to the misery by giving it unnecessary meaning. But I keep practising my happiness skills, even though they’re not really working for me at the moment. The reason for this, is that if I don’t, I won’t notice when my brain chemistry has fixed itself, because I won’t be creating the space for the positive feelings to fill.
Just like with any kind of healthy lifestyle habit (dieting, exercise, meditation etc.), it’s so much easy to keep up a regular established practice, than it is to get it started again after a long break. The more we practice happiness skills the easier it is to keep them going, so it’s important not to let them go when we hit a rough patch. And just like the other healthy lifestyle endeavours, if you’re just starting, it can take a while to see the results, especially if you’re brain chemistry has been stuck in a rut for a while. But with persistence and appropriate self-care, the joy will become easier and easier to come by.
After a couple of weeks of miserably struggling to get over a crash, I suddenly started to feel joy again this week. I’d been miscalculating my energy every time I was feeling better and then crashing again the following day, so I decided that even when I was feeling better I’d keep my activity at the same recuperation level for at least a week. My reduction in symptoms continued, my mood lifted and all of a sudden when I practiced paying attention to what I was grateful for I could really feel it again! Once again I could really experience the joy of appreciation and it felt good!
So keep on doing the things that can contribute to your happiness even when they don’t seem to be working. Keep your thought patterns in training so that when that joy is available to you again (and it will be) you have a well-trodden path for it to reach you.
Julie Holliday, ProHealth’s Inspirational Editor, is a holistic life coach and writer committed to helping people overcome their challenges and live a great life despite chronic illness. Writing as the ME/CFS Self-Help Guru, Julie shares tips on her weekly blog. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. To find out if Julie’s coaching could help you live a great life despite chronic illness, book your FREE introductory consultation here. (10 available each month).