By David Spero,
Adapted from the book, The
Art of Getting Well: Five Steps to Maximizing Health When You
Have a Chronic Illness.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.