Living with Illness

Our main metaphor for dealing with illness is one of battle. But rather than seeing yourself as a warrior, a better image might be that of a farmer. Living well with serious illness is like tending a garden in which you’re planting seeds to feed your soul. You may not have control over your physical condition, but you can direct the kind of inner experience you want.

Although illness can be daunting, you can decide to become an intentional creator of your best possible life under the circumstances. Learning to cultivate nourishing inner experiences is a doable mission statement that no illness can take away from you.

We all live with the life-threatening illness called being alive. Serious illness just puts this in sharp focus. Too often we feel that losing control to an illness means we have lost control of our life and identity. But the ultimate challenge of illness is to appreciate life in a way that doesn’t require having control every step of the way. You may not control the length of your illness, but you can grow your psychological resources through mental discipline, emotional management, and finding meaning.

Human beings all have a built-in negativity bias, meaning that fear tends to rule our minds. This bias helps ensures our survival, but it makes things worse when you are facing a long-term challenge like serious illness. If you let your mind wander, it will drift toward fear like a car out of alignment.

Fear lives in the future, not the present moment. You can reorient yourself to the present instant by repeating the phrase, “Right this second.” Each time you say it, you will experience a brief oasis of mental rest. Another good one to ask yourself is: “Is anything horrible happening right this minute?” The honest answer will always be no, and that realization is deeply relieving. By repeating these deliberate shifts in thought, you learn to manage your fearful mind.

Mindfulness and meditation take you to your central core, where illness and worry can’t exist. This has tremendous physical and emotional benefits, calming your adrenals and lifting your spirits. You practice mindfulness every time you immerse yourself in seeing something as if for the first time. This deep attention pulls us into the present moment that stills the mind. You can practice mindfulness with the most mundane activity, such as washing the dishes, walking, or waiting at a stoplight—anytime when you release time pressure and just be present.

Meditation empties your mind, rests you in stillness, and stops you from taking your thoughts seriously. By focusing on your breathing and letting your thoughts drift by without attachment, you experience a new dimension of yourself. Somewhere under your mind’s obsession with control, there is a still, interior spaciousness that you will find refreshing. If you would like to try meditation, has a series of free 10-minute meditations that give you a feel for it. With these practices, you farm your inner resources into nurturing calm and energy.

When you have an unexpected health challenge, remember that it costs energy to suppress feelings or even to judge them. Let your feelings have their cycles; they are an important part of your body’s healing. Jotting down your fears can be very freeing and stops the thoughts from spinning in your head. By putting fear on paper, it shrinks into a form you can deal with.

Once you have poured out your worries, you are ready to cultivate warm, positive, and energizing emotional experiences. In neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness, he explains how amplifying good experiences increases your well being and peace of mind. Taking a few extra seconds to prolong and savor a good experience lays down neural tracks in your brain that make it easier to rebound into positive feelings whenever you get low. Every time you become deeply aware of a good feeling, you are fertilizing happiness.

When illness diminishes the power and self-determination you’ve always taken for granted, you can restore it in other ways. If you can find some meaning—some good thing—in your illness experience, you will feel less like a victim. Victor Frankl’s  Man’s Search for Meaning is an inspiring read that explains how a sense of meaning supports survival under the worst circumstances.

Finding meaning takes you from victim to participant, from randomness to significance. Just be sure that the meaning you discover is one that steers clear of guilt or punishment. Your true meaning will always have a strengthening quality.

As you put structure on your experience of illness by building these skills, you will feel better. If you choose to become a farmer of peace and contentment within yourself, your experience of life will be back under your control.

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