By David Spero, RN
Adapted from the book, The Art of Getting Well: Five Steps to Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness.
Health problems and symptoms, with the possible exception of pure genetic disorders, carry a signal to change. Even the flu tells us to rest and take Vitamin C. The message can be as obvious as, "get better shoes," if our feet hurt, or it may be hard to decipher. It can relate to an internal issue, like a headache that means, "Stop trying to be the perfect mother, already!" Or it could be telling us about an external change, like asthma that means, "Get the mold out of this apartment or move away!" Changing such harmful situations makes it possible to achieve higher states of wellness.
We usually think of health changes in terms of diet, exercise, rest, and a few other areas, but a whole range of life factors come into play. These modifications can be huge decisions, like leaving a miserable relationship, or simple choices, like a better mattress to sleep on, or cutting down on coffee. Even small changes can have large payoffs. By giving us a sense of control, they set the stage for further growth. It doesn't always matter much what change we decide to make. Just doing something, anything, for ourselves, for our bodies, makes a huge difference.
How change works
To help us survive when life was much more dangerous than now, our brains learned to like things they've gotten used to, even if they're awful. So it's normal to fear change to some degree, but the actual process of change is pretty straightforward. Here are some guidelines:
1. The best changes are things you want to do, not things someone else tells you to do. In Stanford University's Arthritis Self-Management Program, each participant has to make a weekly action plan. One woman, Martha, planned three weeks in a row to do more walking, and never did it. Finally, the truth came out. She said, "I don't really like to walk; I just thought I should." Substituting another form of exercise got her going.
2. You need to believe that the change you plan will actually help. If you need convincing, talking with others who share your issues, reading books and articles, or listening to your doctor can provide evidence of effectiveness.
3. Changes should be realistically attainable. People tend to want things to go too far, too fast. They turn self-care into a form of self-abuse. "I will run on the treadmill an hour a day." "I want to lose 100 pounds in three months, like that person on the TV ad." Good luck! We have much better chances if we make changes that feel good as we go along, and set realistic timetables.
4. Start small, breaking large goals into achievable chunks. It is far better to start with a less ambitious goal and achieve it, then to shoot for some gigantic transformation and fall short. The first pattern leaves you feeling good about yourself and ready for more; the second makes you want to forget the whole thing.
5. There will be ups and downs. The great leap to fitness, the steadily improving ability to speak up for ourselves, or the sudden, permanent adoption of a healthy, natural diet; these things do not happen often. In real life, there are good and bad days, good and bad weeks, even months. Coming back from the bad patches is part of the process.
6. For change to be worth the trouble, our lives have to be worth living. If we don't have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, it really won't matter how healthy we are, will it? So look for ways to get more pleasure, more purpose, and more fun into your life. Some people say that being healthy means giving up everything you like. They have it completely backward. Give up the things you don't like, and appreciate the heck out of the things you do. One good place to start is by rewarding yourself when you do something positive for your health. For example, after you exercise, you might want a long, hot bath, just to enjoy.
6. Change happens when we're not looking. We work and work toward getting in shape, say, or being more disciplined about finishing what we start. Nothing seems to happen for the longest time. Then one day, we notice that we are not getting tired nearly as fast. We're breathing easier, feeling better. When did it happen? Probably, it happened when we stopped watching. When we give up the need for miracles is when miracles happen. And in the field of self-motivated behavior change, miracles happen every day. If you keep these guidelines in mind, they can happen for you, too.
David Spero, RN is a 51-year-old nurse, journalist and health educator living in San Francisco. In 1989, as a father of two young children, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He struggled for years before beginning to absorb the lessons of his illness. Continuing to work part-time and raise a family, he utilized such practices as yoga, swimming, meditation, psychotherapy, and guided imagery, and made several other life changes to optimize his physical, mental and spiritual condition.