As a kid when something happened we didn’t like, particularly if it was something you really had no control over, it was common for adults to say, “It’s like the weather. Don’t like it?” Wait a bit and it will change.”
The knowledge that changes can and will continually happen, can be comforting. It can also be terrifying and cause considerable fear and anxiety. There are times we become frustrated with how slow a change is coming and other times, it seems like we are trying to ride life with the brakes on in an effort to keep things constant.
Whether the change is good (your blood work comes back with excellent results), bad (you have a flare in your chronic condition), outside your control (the doctor you like is leaving the center where you receive your care), it’s a normal part of life (the transition from summer to fall), or it’s major (the death of a loved one) adjustments need to be made. Sometimes it’s easy and other times it feels like it will knock you to the ground.
Good or bad, change is a source of stress, and stress, while having both good and bad components, can have major implications for someone with a chronic condition.
In 1967, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of over 5,000 subjects as a way to determine whether stressful events (all involving change of one sort or another) might cause illness. Research indicates a correlation between a high score on the Holems and Rahe Stress Scale and illness.
While an interesting tool to gage how changes in your life could be impacting your health, note that this stress scale is weak in certain areas. They list the number one stressor as being death of a spouse, but don’t list the death of a child at all. There are also cultural differences, let alone individual variations. Still it’s an interesting way to see what might be contributing to your emotional well being. A score of 300 suggests a very high risk of becoming ill.
So what does it take to get to 300? Let’s take the scenario of Jane, not a real person, who happens to be living with multiple sclerosis (MS). At Christmas (12), she is having difficulty sleeping (16) because she just moved into a condo (28) due to a divorce (73). To make things even more difficult, her mother is sick (39) and she’s started a new job (39). Even though the job pays more, Jane is worried about making payments on her new mortgage (31), since she alone will be responsible for it. Her former mother-in-law, who she once really liked, is sending nasty e-mails (29)-“How could you be so mean to my son!” The new job requires longer hours (20) with more responsibilities (29) and consequently Jane’s diet consists of a bagel for breakfast and little else until dinner time, when she pigs out uncontrollably (15). To top it off, Jane got a speeding ticket (11), because she overslept and was rushing to get to work on time. While she doesn’t normally stay out on “school nights,” she had a late dinner with her best friend Paula, whom she normally talked to almost daily. She hadn’t seen her in a month because of all the changes in her life (18). So if my math is correct, Jane has a stress score of 360 and chances are quite high that a flare of her MS will be greeting her in January.
Using Jane as the example, here are some ways to deal with change so it doesn’t make you sick
• The serenity prayer is a good one to keep in mind. “Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Jane can’t change that it’s Christmas or that her Mom is sick. However, she can change how she reacts to them. For example, instead of trying to be the most devoted daughter possible, she can work with a sibling to set up a “Lotsa Helping Hands” website so family and friends can help with appointments, rides, meals etc.
• The courage to change is huge for some, while others are totally addicted to it and can’t stand it if things are constant for too long. While there are all sorts of stress scales out there, doing something like the Holems and Rahe Stress Scale can help you recognize there are reasons for why you may be feeling so overwhelmed.
In Jane’s case, of the more than 10 stress factors in her life, half are things she could change- she has a choice in whether she takes a new job and the host of new responsibilities that goes with it, stays out late when she knows she has to work the next day, doesn’t adhere to a healthy diet, doesn’t stay connected to friends and makes a large purchase-the condo- when she’s unsure of her finances. For the remaining stressors, she may or may not have choices in their happening-such as the divorce itself or an irate mother-in-law, but again she does have choice in how she responds.
• An outsider might view Jane’s life and say, “what chaos.” However, if we asked Jane’s best friend Paula, she might reply, “Oh that’s Jane. The more drama and chaos the happier she is. She wouldn’t know what to do if she wasn’t having a fight with someone or didn’t have some crisis to deal with.” Interestingly, her other close friend Anne has a totally different take. “I haven’t heard from her in months and I know she’s under a lot of unusual stress. That’s just not like her.” Regardless of what makes Jane tick, she’s clearly on over load and heading for a major flare of her MS, with significant consequences on multiple fronts.
• To reduce the impact of change and drama in life, consider the following:
- Identify the stressors-What can you change? How can you respond differently to those you can’t change?
- Maintain social relationships. Even if it’s just a few e-mails, stay connected and surround yourself with people who are positive and upbeat. Eliminate or minimize contact with “energy vampires,” those people who drain you of spirit and energy.
- Stick to a healthy routine (Eat regularly and be mindful of food choices; Exercise, even if it’s a 10 minute walk three times a day; Sleep between 6-8 hours each night and take naps when you need them.
- Get professional help if you need it
- Read Healing the Whole Person: Ways to Increase Well-Being as there are lots of tips that might be helpful.
Don’t hesitate to remind yourself that change is a normal part of life and that you have dealt with it quite successfully before and you will again. Think back to other situations in your life where you have had to adjust to change. How did you cope?
Keep in mind that your brain is wired to be resilient and try to work with it and not against it. Things like being present in the moment and not obsessed with what was or could be, let’s the brain do its job.
Every Wednesday is “take a break day” at this blog and if you don’t like that day’s take a break, there are plenty archived ones. If you haven’t read the post “Why Take a Break,” do so as it explains how creative work helps us relax and become more mindful. From this vantage point, you will have more insight in ways to deal with the changes and stressors in life and ultimately make choices that are more likely to increase healing, well being and contentment.