The importance of developing a resilient mindset when healing chronic illness
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
What is resilience?
Resilience is about how you respond (think, behave and act) when you encounter an adversity, stress or challenge in your life. This can be anything that doesn't go as planned - for example failing an exam, being made redundant, or being diagnosed with a debilitating or life-threatening illness.
Many people may get the wrong idea about what being ‘resilient’ is. Some people think it’s being ‘tough’ and bottling up emotions, continually telling yourself ‘you’re fine’, never saying how you really feel, and pushing yourself even though you are not fine. For example, somebody who is feeling really unwell but refuses to take any time off work, continues to go in each day feeling dreadful whilst drugging themselves up with painkillers and ‘getting on with it’. This is definitely not being resilient as this only a short-term strategy. Their illness is giving them a sign that they need to rest, and they are ignoring that need. This person worries that if they admit they are not fine, it will be seen as a sign of weakness by others. But as a result of suppressing their needs (for rest and health), their illness goes on for far longer than it should have, effecting their mood and leading to negative behaviours such as outbursts and arguments with their partner. Someone who bottles up their emotions and ignores their needs time and time again is only going to make matters worse for themselves in the long run. Someone who can show vulnerability is actually the strongest of all. It is so important to listen to what our body is telling us and being present with it. It is about accepting what is, and sitting with that - no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Resilient people acknowledge the situation, learn from their mistakes and move on. It sounds contradictory, but it really is about going through the struggle whilst also looking at how you can improve your situation and move forward.
Ultimately, resilience refers to your capacity to deal with discomfort and adversity and in developing this mindset, you will be stronger and feel like you can make it through anything.
How developing a resilient mindset helped me to heal Hashimoto's
I had to develop resilience when being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s. It was very hard for me at the start as I felt like I didn’t have many resilient qualities. I hadn’t been taught much about resilience as a child, and I had parent’s who showed very little resilience and struggled with mental health problems and always refused help (not their fault - they were just modelling what they had themselves been taught as children). Therefore my automatic mindset and childhood programming was usually a victim mentality: Why does this always happen to me? What have I done to deserve this?
Before the diagnosis, whenever a difficultly would arise, I would usually spend most of my time dwelling over these questions and focusing on how bad it all was and out of my control. However, this diagnosis (and how debilitating the physical and mental symptoms got) literally woke me up and shook me out of this mentality. I was literally forced to create resilience or if not, give up all together. That really was the only other option. There’s a really good quote in Michael Neenan’s book Developing Resilience (2018:3) which I loved and really resonated with me:
‘Some people have relatively uneventful lives - no traumas or tragedies - and their characters are not cracked open for inspection, as usually happens when adversity strikes. When it does strike…you surprise yourself by how well you rise to the challenge of tough times and find unimagined strengths within yourself. Once these times have passed you take stock of your life and move it in a previously unanticipated direction such as training for a new career.’
It has led me to reflect on the fact that I am now taking my life in a whole new direction - I am training for a career in holistic health and wellness. I want to help other people who are going through such suffering when being diagnosed with a chronic illness and then told by conventional doctors that there is nothing they can do. I am proof that there are things you can do - its called lifestyle medicine. If only doctors knew more about this. I believe so many people could be helped with lifestyle medicine and it is my goal to spread this message as much as I can.
4 resilient mindsets that helped me have the strength to begin healing Hashimoto’s
1. Taking care of myself
Firstly, I realised that I hadn’t previously been taking care of myself and therefore I had no ‘energy’ left to deal with the stress of this long-term health journey. I constantly felt overwhelmed and reactive. I was going to bed late, I was addicted to carbohydrates, sugar and caffeine, I wasn’t exercising, I was saying ‘yes’ to social events that I didn’t want to attend and I wasn’t allowing myself any time to quieten my mind and connect with my body. I never allowed myself to rest or get adequate sleep as I didn’t want to be feel or be perceived as ‘lazy’. I realised that this limiting belief was not helping my recovery or my mental health, and that if I wanted to get better, I had to give my body and mind time to rest. I decided to give myself an early bedtime and also allow myself to have naps at the weekend if I needed it. I went to a nutritionist who helped me to make dietary changes to reduce inflammation and multiple symptoms. Next I introduced gentle exercise into my routine in the form of walking and yoga. I went for a walk every lunchtime at work, and did at least 10 minutes of yoga a day before bed. I started learning to say ‘no’ to things that I didn’t want to go to, and began to be more aware of the people I was spending time with and if I felt that they were emotionally-draining me I would spend less time with them. I began meditating in the mornings in order to quieten my mind and connect to my body which helped me to feel calmer and less reactive throughout my day.
2. Developing mindfulness
Developing mindfulness has been revolutionary for me and my healing journey. I gave myself 15 minutes everyday to just sit and be present, allowing myself to feel any emotions that came up. I let myself ‘shut off’ from the loud noises outside and brought my attention within. This practice enabled me to observe my habitual patterns that were sabotaging my healing. It also helped me connect much better with my body and helped to develop my intuition so that I would be able to make choices for my body to promote healing. For example, this practice made me realise that there were certain individuals in my life who were not good for my health at all as I was constantly being put down by them and ‘dragged’ into their own unresolved emotional trauma. I set boundaries with our relationship, and when these were ignored and overstepped, I asked for some space and time apart. This was a significant moment in my healing and made me feel so much lighter and free and gave me the mental space to continue on my healing journey.
3. Developing gratitude
In addition, I developed a daily gratitude practice. I bought a journal, and at the end of every day I would list the top three things that happened that day that I was grateful for. I would look for the simplest of things such as the beautiful sunrise in the morning to my hot cup of chamomile tea. I felt a lot of resistance to this at the beginning as I felt like everything was going against me and I was in such a negative state. But as I practiced it repeatedly, my brain got used to it, and after a few months I would find that I was naturally looking for things in my day to be grateful for. It always lifted my mood, and I found that thinking of something I was grateful for was the best way to get out of a bad mood. I also tried Mel Robbins’ ‘no complaining challenge’. The challenge was to get through a day without complaining, and if you do complain, you must find something about that thing to be grateful for. An example of this was when I was given a really difficult task to do at work which was way beyond my job role. However, as soon as I complained, I stopped myself and then looked for something positive about the situation. I realised that tackling this difficult task would actually push me to develop new skills and therefore be even better at my job. It would be great to put on my C.V.
4. Using challenge as an opportunity
Finally, I developed the mindset of using challenge as an opportunity. Last year, I began to see the positive affects that this new way of living has had on my life. I realised that going through this difficult time has made me into a better person. I have changed much of my questioning from judgmental: ‘Why is this happening to me?’, to learner questioning: ‘What can I learn from this?’. I now feel like I have been through this challenging experience so that I can help others who are in a similar situation I was in and who are feeling lost and don’t know who to turn to. It has led me to reduce my autoimmune symptoms by 75%, to increase my self-worth, to have more meaningful relationships, and be inspired to follow a new career path in holistic health and wellness. For the first time in a long time I can say that I am so grateful for this challenge as it has opened up so many doors for me and shown me my true purpose on this earth.
To conclude, developing a series of resilient mindsets has personally helped me to (and continue to) cope with challenging situations, and has been crucial in getting me to where I am today. I have discovered inner strengths I didn’t know I had and I now feel better equipped with these series of tools to deal with life’s challenges.
I hope that this has made you feel hopeful that there is a way through life's challenges and there is so much that we can do to help ourselves through. It is a life-long process to keep practicing the skill of resilience - it is like a muscle and if not used, it will get weak. Whereas if we practice resilience daily, even on smaller challenges, we will be more prepared for the bigger ones that come our way. Always know that you have the power within you to get through anything. It is totally possible to heal with the right mindset.
Neenan, M. (2018) Developing Resilience: A cognitive behavioural approach, 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge