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Chronic Illness and Action–An unlikely duo?

Posted Aug 18 2010 6:46am

Do you tell yourself your chronic illness  would be more manageable if  you had more control over the rest of your life?

Do you believe that if  you could find a job, influence your boss or be more effective at work, you’d feel better?

Yet, do you feel  powerless  to take action, worried it might not be the right one?  Do you believe that the only thing you have control over are your own emotions,  so you focus on only that?

Chronic illness can do that.  Even the most determined people can feel powerless to impact their lives when unpredictable and difficult illness gets in the way.

But I humbly disagree that there’s nothing you can do.  I fall frequently.  Poor balance and numb feet (from living with multiple sclerosis all these years) must contribute.  Last night I took a really nasty fall – the 3rd in 6 months. This morning the pain was so bad I was sure I  had broken something. But experience told me it was muscle not bone pain.   I forced myself to exercise lightly (stretching, small steps, shorter time) to get  blood moving.  Reading my email, I forgot how painful it is to move my right arm.  Writing a note to a client, I realized I could even type with the arm, although I didn’t think so when I woke up!

I’m not healed – the bruises will grow and I’m limited.  But I don’t feel disabled (from these injuries at least!) or sorry for myself.

Now I’ve read (through a fellow traveler, Kathy Ibettson, who produces a terrific newsletter about  multiple sclerosis items of interest) about a study that examined the coping mechanisms of MS patients living in Northern Israel during the Lebanese War affected their disease course.

The results show that those who used ‘direct coping and planning’  – preparing shelter areas, adjusting medication appointments, stocking up on food and medicine – did better than those who focused on the situation on an emotional level, using relaxation techniques, support from others or prayer.

“Patients who focused their coping on emotional well being when a more direct approach was necessary, suffered more flare-ups of the disease than patients who identified the challenges that the falling missiles were presenting, and regarded the situation as an opportunity for planning and direct action,” noted Professor  Eli Somer, study author.

This means that people who took action to improve their situation did physically better than those who relied on internal, “transformative” experience.  Although this research was on patients with multiple sclerosis,  I suspect we’re safe  generalizing this to all chronic illness.

Are you trying to figure out a new career, find a new job, tell your boss you can’t work at this level?  Do you wake up thinking:  Today I’m going to do something about this“?  But instead, bury your head under the covers.

How is that going for you?

You might ask yourself, “What action can I take?“  And if you can’t figure that out or get motivated to do that, consider this  research from Stanford Medical School that shows that people with chronic illness experience significant benefits from coaching.

What works for you when you’re in a difficult,  dis-empowering situation?  How is it going?

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