Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - August 2007
Living Well is the Best Revenge
Stand up to a chronic illness that threatens to disrupt your life.
|"Take two funny movies, one comedian, and some humorous stories shared with friends as needed." That may not sound like a prescription your doctor would write. But perhaps it should be, especially if you are living with a chronic disorder. In fact, humor is just one of a host of surprising strategies that people facing long-term illness have come to find helpful.
Lynn Duvall, an amateur perfumer and jewelry designer in Birmingham, Alabama, uses laughter as one of the ways she copes with her fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes widespread muscle and joint pain and debilitating fatigue. "It's just a must," Duvall says of humor. "The harder you can laugh, the better. Laughing until you cry is the best of all." She finds it helps her feel better, takes her mind off her troubles, and helps her focus on the good things her life has to offer.
Certainly, not everything about her illness is a laughing matter. "The first thing I did when I was diagnosed was to find out everything I could about the disease," Duvall says. I bought books, went to the library, and read articles." She was determined to learn all about her symptoms.
Fibromyalgia still prevents Duvall from participating in some activities such as traveling and swimming. However, armed with the twin tools of education and humor plus other coping strategies honed over time, she has learned to enjoy many new activities.
IT NEVER ENDS
Getting the flu and being miserable can be a real drag - for a week. A chronic illness, on the other hand, usually lasts a lifetime. "Flares of my rheumatoid arthritis often feel exactly like getting the flu," says Peggy Person of Des Moines, Iowa, who was diagnosed more than 30 years ago. "Sometimes I'm not sure at first which it is. The problem is, unlike the flu, a flare may not go away for months or years."
|Obviously, the coping skills needed for a long-term condition are different from the go-to-bed, eat-chicken-soup approach you might take to a brief illness. But the good news is that living with a chronic illness such as diabetes, arthritis, or multiple sclerosis doesn't have to keep you down. As medical director of community health at Duke University Medical Center, Kimberly Yarnall, M.D., works with people dealing with chronic, sometimes debilitating, illnesses. Her patients are generally very upbeat. "They're survivors," she says.
And although newly diagnosed people find it hard to believe, confronting a chronic illness is an opportunity for personal growth that can enrich their lives. "I've developed patience in spades, and I learned very early on to prioritize what's truly important in my life," says Person. "I even overcame my greatest fear - speaking in public - in order to talk about arthritis issues."
CONTROL, NOT CURE
So what's the secret to being a survivor? "Be as well as you can be, both in body and mind," says Charles Raison, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Though there may be no cure for your illness, there are strategies that can help you control your symptoms and your life:
Get informed. Knowledge is power and even comfort. Knowing the challenges that face you makes it easier to talk with your physician and health care team and empowers you to take part in decisions about your care. It also helps reduce anxiety and worry.
Stay connected. When you're ill and your energy sags, you may not feel like keeping in touch with friends and family. But maintaining social ties and nurturing relationships is especially important when struggling with a chronic illness. Social isolation worsens the depression that often accompanies chronic illness and may even make the illness worse, Dr. Raison says. You don't have to hit the party circuit; keeping up with friends by email is an option when you don't feel like company. "The old telephone works wonders, too," says Duvall, whose best friend lives across the country in San Francisco.
|Seek support. Support groups are a way to connect with people going through a similar experience. "The friendships you form there can be valuable in a way that friendships with people who don't have chronic illnesses can't," says Duvall. "Most close friendships are based on shared experiences." Dr. Yarnall adds that support group meetings provide an opportunity to see how others cope and give fresh solutions to old problems.
Exercise. If you don't feel like having coffee with friends, it's a pretty sure bet you won't feel like popping out to a Pilates class. But it's well-established that exercise can be an effective antidepressant, Dr. Raison notes. You may not be able to jog around the block, but there's probably an exercise out there you would enjoy, in spite of pain or physical limitations. Many gyms offer exercise or aquatics programs tailored to people with specific medical needs. Before beginning an exercise program, be sure to ask your doctor what kind of exercise would be safe for you.
Eat well. Problems with pain or energy may prevent you from regularly preparing home-cooked meals, but there are healthier alternatives to a fast-food drive-through. Stock the freezer with organic frozen meals, available at your neighborhood Publix. Or stop at the Publix Deli for a rotisserie chicken or other nutritious options. Use days when you're feeling well to cook double or even triple batches of healthful foods and freeze the extra.
If depression is a problem, add some fish to your diet or take a fish oil supplement. A study in the October 2002 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who took an omega-3 fatty acid supplement daily with their regular antidepressant treatment showed significant improvement in symptoms such as anxiety, sleeping problems, and sadness.
See your doctor. Even when you aren't aware of changes in your condition, it's important to see your doctor regularly. The better your physician knows you and the ups and downs of your illness, the better he or she can adjust your care. If the visits or prescribed treatments don't seem to be making much difference, don't give up. Peggy Person recalls that some of the treatments that proved most effective for her in the past took up to six months to kick in. "Finding the right treatment program for chronic illnesses is never easy, but hang in there," Dr. Yarnall says. "It may take a long time to get you better, but your doctor can't help you if you don't come in."
Laugh. Finally, don't forget Duvall's therapeutic prescription for focusing on the good things in life. You may have a chronic illness, but you can still have the last laugh.
LEARN MORE: For more information about all types of chronic illness, visit the National Institutes of Health at www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus and search for "chronic illness."
Journal Your Way to Health
Psychologists have long known that writing about stressful events is good for the mind. And it turns out that what's good for the mind is good for the body, too.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (April 1999) found that when patients suffering from arthritis and asthma wrote about the most stressful event of their lives, they felt better, and objective measures of their disease also improved. The study's lead investigator, Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D., of the Center for Health and Behavior at Syracuse University, points out that there is a large body of evidence indicating that chronic emotional stress can create chemical changes in the body that contribute to a worsening or flare-up of existing illnesses. "Our emotional states are deeply and fundamentally connected to physical states," Smyth says.