Medical conditions, illnesses and injuries can place added strain on our already at times stressful lives. When we have a medical condition, it usually places limitations on our capabilities and causes disruptions to our lifestyle. These limitations and disruptions can range from simple restrictions and changes to our normal routine through to major changes to our basic living pattern and lifestyle, including areas of diet, work, family, recreation and leisure.
In managing medical conditions there are several factors related to our lifestyle that can impede our recovery or cause an increase in symptoms. These factors include worry and anxiety, stress and tension, diet and exercise, sleep, and social support.
Negative thinking – worrying
The problem of worrying
Worrying or negative repetitive thinking about possible adverse situations is one of the most destructive and harmful ways of thinking. People who worry a lot tend to experience high levels of anxiety and tension that adversely affect they physical health. This can add further complications when combined with a medical condition.
Trying to stop worrying about things can be a seemingly impossible task. Your psychologist is highly skilled in this area, having been trained extensively in the management of anxiety and worry. Some initial strategies to get you started are outlined below:
When you find yourself worrying about things, don’t try to stop yourself initially but rather systematically write down the likely consequences or concerns on a piece of paper. Make sure that in doing this you not only write down the possible negative outcomes but also the positive outcomes, no matter how likely or unlikely. Next, look at each scenario and think about any possible good points, and remind yourself that thought you may not like it you can and will be able to cope.
If you are lacking any information about issues (e.g. prognosis or likely outcomes and timeframes of medical conditions) then pursue further information and education through appropriate sources (e.g. medical or clinical specialists).
Try to assess realistically your worries and develop other areas to think about. Find a good friend or talk to (or better still, see your psychologist) to pursue this process.
Increase the amount of activity and variety in each day to provide other things to focus on, such as reading, walking, watching a movie, listening to music or any other activity that does not advertly impact upon your medical condition.
Stress and tension
Negative effects of stress and tension
Stress and tension refer to physical arousal in the form of muscle tension and contraction. Stressful muscle can be experienced in a variety of areas including the eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders, lower back and abdominal area. Prolonged muscle tension can lead to aches and pains, ranging from mild headaches to stiff back to chronic migraines and muscular spasms and injury.
Reduction of physical tension and stress
Reducing the physical sign of stress through recognising and relaxing muscles in the body is not as easy as it sounds. First, you have to learn to recognise when you are stressed and which muscle group is most tense.
Then you need to develop skills in systematically relaxing all your muscles particularly those that are most tense. This area takes a lot of practise and skills to master, and your psychologist can provide expert training in relaxation and stress reduction. The following information provides some starting pints to assist you in reducing stress and physical tension.
Learn to recognise the signs on physical tension in your body. This is done by stopping and carefully thinking about how all the different muscles in your body are feeling at regular intervals every day. By doing this you will identify the muscle groups that hold the most tension when you are feeling stress.
Practise regular slow and deep breathing. Do this at regular intervals throughout the day, particularly when you begin to feel tense and stressed. As you exhale say the word ‘calm’ to yourself in a soothing manner.
Begin learning to relax. Develop pleasant imagery (e.g. scenery or pleasant memories) and music which you find soothing and calming, and invoke these images and sounds when stressed.
Learn a form of progressive muscle relaxation. This is where you systematically contract and relax all the muscles in your body to induce a strong feeling of physical relaxation. It is generally best to see your psychologist for initial training and instruction in this area.
Make sure you eat regularly throughout the day. Choose foods that are nutritious and preferably enjoyable to eat. If you don’t feel like eating then continue to nibble at foods you can tolerate. If you are restricted in food choices then make sure that no inappropriate foods are accessible (e.g. throw them away so you can’t be tempted). Also, if possible advise family members of friends of what your diet should be and get them to prompt you regularly.
Keeping your body active is essential for both injury prevention and health promotion through the release of body chemicals which assist in making you feel good.
Maintaining activity is vital to promote wellbeing. In many cases, your medical condition may restrict your ability to engage in previously enjoyed exercises. In this case it is vital to learn other alternate exercises and engage in these regularly. See your medical or clinical specialist for advice on which exercises you can do and develop a regular schedule of activity.
Ensuring you get enough sleep is critical when you have a medical condition. Make sure you maximise your potential for a good sleep by:
• Minimising naps during the day
• Not consuming stimulants such as tea and coffee in the evenings
• Exercising during the day so your body is physically tired and ready for sleep at night.
Loss of social support
When you have a medical condition it can often be a stressful, frustrating, isolating and lonely experience. Often when you’re not feeling well your opportunities for social contact are reduced through both your own limitation, restrictions (e.g. unable to work with colleagues or engage in social recreational activities), and lack of motivation.
Getting the social support you need
When you are coping with a medical condition social support has been proven to be an effective form of assistance in maintaining your quality of life. Whist often previously available forms of support such as work colleagues and recreational friendships may not be available, other sources of social support may still be accessible. The following points provide some suggestions for cultivating quality sources of social support and ensuring these needs are met:
Take the time to think about all the possible people you still have contact with and develop plans to contact some and catch up.
When you do have contact with friends advise them of where you’re at and give them some hints on how they can best support you. Remember if you don’t tell them how to support you appropriately, then they’ll never know!
Keep regular schedules of contact throughout the week. Book regular lunches, coffees and catch-ups with people. Plan ahead to avoid unpleasant isolating gaps through the week.
If your available social support is inadequate then think about new sources of support such as support groups, hobby and interest groups and volunteer opportunities. Your psychologist can assist in developing and implementing a plan to explore and develop more social support opportunities for you.
Access social support networks through Get Helpon our website, which provides a list of ways that you can engage with other people in a similar position as you.
Article originally printed in the Synapse the official journal of The.< The Brain Injury Association of Queensland/em>