Updated: Oct 10, 2019
Climbing one step at a time with autoimmune disease
Are you someone who thinks and feels that you need to earn a rest?
This belief serves as a major hurdle for those who are used to pushing themselves and accomplishing several tasks a day. It often prevents guilt or feelings of laziness when a rest finally becomes necessary, because it is obvious that it has been "earned".
If you have an autoimmune disorder, this belief and the following behavior of pushing through until a rest is made mandatory by failing adrenals, creates a cycle that results in less and less getting done. Where you used to be able to push through, stay up late, and push through again the next day, you now find this almost impossible.
I found this happening in my life shortly after my diagnosis. In my capacity of a program manager for a mental health agency, I would work one-on-one with the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging cases. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I love a challenge and looking back I always gravitated to the really "tough", high stress positions. My schedule began at 5 in the morning when I worked out at the gym, went to work, went back to the gym for another workout, got home just in time to begin my shift as a mom to three boys which involved a great deal of meal cooking, sports events, and chore negotiation. On the weekends I would schedule a long hike, often about 8 hours, or a long bike ride where I would come home and crash on the couch for a "well-deserved" movie night. My family would make bets on how long I would watch before I fell asleep. Ten minutes was record breaking.
After a while of this, though, I was becoming too tired to work out hard on the weekends. I would find myself in bed from the time my shift ended on Thursday until Monday morning when it was time to work out again. To compensate, I would work out harder on the weekdays, knowing that for some reason, I was going to be too tired after work ended on Thursday.
What I found out later, was that I was living off of adrenaline and cortisol Monday through Thursday and as soon as the trigger for fight-or-flight (work, mom duties, things I was accountable to others for) was gone, I no longer had that keeping me running, and I would crash until the trigger was back on Monday morning. This was flooding my system with cortisol. So, so, so hard on the immune system. And what happens when the immune system is overworked? I got sick and tired. So around and around and around I went.
I found it necessary to do 3 things:
Be willing to let some things go.
Be open to fatigue as a signal.
Ask different questions.
1. Be willing to let some things go:
The first thing to go needed to be the idea that I had to earn some rest. If I could give myself permission to rest before it became imminent, I found that my energy began to come back.
I had to let go of the idea that my body was something I needed to bring into compliance. I always assumed that if I didn't push myself, I would stop or slow down. What I found is that this just isn't my nature. If I listened to my body's signals to rest, as soon as I got the rest I needed, I naturally wanted to go.
On the flip-side of that coin, I had to let go of the idea that I needed to spend all of the energy that I had when I had it. It took a while to find the balance between going and stopping. I noticed that when I had energy, I would be so excited, I would go hard like I used to. It would feel so good!....until it didn't. My reserves were shorter than they used to be, but I found that if I eased off before I got too tired, I would need less time to recover. It took some trial and error to see where my threshold was, but I found that as I listened and actively kept track of what my signals were, I became pretty good at balancing things. You can too.
2. Be open to fatigue as a signal
I had to stop doing things that stopped the signal for fatigue. Rather than seeing it as another obstacle that I needed to get through, I needed to see it as a signal, like a check-engine light for low oil. Especially for those of you who are athletes, we know how to bypass fatigue. It may look like distraction, setting a finish like (I'll rest after _____ is done), caffeine, keeping busy, guilt, whatever it is, it's keeping us from paying attention to what is actually going to gain us more energy in the long run. It just feels like stopping or giving up. It's not. It's a way of loving this body of yours.
3. Ask different questions.
When moving through a physical challenge, there is always a mental challenge. The mind is programmed to keep us safe, and often goes to the worst-case scenario. If you are anything like me, I found myself thinking things like, "What if it is always like this?", "What if I can't be available for my kids?", "What if I can't work out anymore?". If you have found these kinds of thoughts in your head too, it's okay. It's natural. You can thank your mind for trying to keep you safe and move to another line. One that serves you better. Other questions that served me better were, "What can I do for my family today?", "What can I do to enjoy today?", and "What can I do to be active today?"
The mind is also made to search for conclusions. If I am wondering how this will end, it will come up with something, probably pretty depressing. And so I gave it an ending so it would quit wondering. I told it I was going to be active and healthy again and then gave it a new focus. I began asking, "How does someone with autoimmunity get things done?" There is no question anymore that it's not going to happen. Now it has a new bone to chew on and I can sit back and watch my mind, this amazing, efficient, calculating tool, get to work. And it does! Next week I'll share some of the strategies that have helped me get things done in a new way, and be thinking of yours too. I'd love to know how you have figured things out along the way.
We don't need to do things alone. We are all learning and can help each other along.
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