by Julie Ryan
Spring is a time of new beginnings. For me, it’s a time to shake off the cold weather and gray days that can make my chronic pain worse and bring on winter blues. As the flowers bloom and the weather gets warmer, I’m ready to get outside and begin enjoying life to the fullest again.
This past year has been full of new beginnings for me, a major time of transition and growth. And spring continues to be all about change, as I learn how to be single again for the first time in a long while, and how to better handle life on my own. I’m on the cusp of making some big choices about what comes next for me, from where I will live to what I will do financially moving forward.
As we head into the season of rebirth and new growth, I encourage you to join me in making fresh starts and renewing personal commitments to things that are important and can help us grow. Here are seven things to start anew this season that I believe can bring anyone with chronic illness more health and happiness.
1. Pursue your personal needs.
Too often, those of us living with chronic illness spend most of our time thinking about others’ needs. I know that’s true for me: I often worry about how much extra work my illness is creating for those around me, and how it may be keeping them from living the life they want.
But all this worry creates stress, and stress only serves to enhance the illness. So rather than focusing on how your illness is a burden to your loved ones, consider what you need in order to feel better—and then go after it. After all, the best way to lighten the load of chronic illness for everyone is to find ways to outsmart it.
2. Focus on healthy habits.
You might have made a few resolutions for better health at the beginning of the new year, and perhaps you’re one of the few who stuck to them. But if you’re like most of us, you tried and slipped. That’s okay! Spring is a great time to refocus your energy on healthy habits, especially eating right and exercising.
Warmer weather means we can enjoy some fresh outdoor air with our exercise. For some reason, exercise feels a lot less like work when I’m also enjoying the sun on my face. Spring also signals the return of farmer’s markets (at least in my area), and access to a much larger variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Plus, I can get outside and grill again, which opens up even more options for cooking fresh foods and experimenting with a variety of flavors.
3. Spend time with the right people.
Last year, I got divorced. I realized that I was spending too much time around someone who regularly brought me down and left me feeling worse. This past year, I have focused on spending more time with those who lift me up and make me feel good about myself and about life. I’ve brought new people into my life who bring me joy, and I’ve removed those who do not.
This has been a huge learning experience for me as I realize that it’s okay to be happy, and to ask for what I need. I’ve spent so much time trying to make others happy; I had to discover that there are others who want to do the same for me. Those people exist for you, too.
4. Be honest with yourself.
I used to lie to myself a lot: About how I felt mentally and even sometimes physically; about how happy I was in my marriage; about having the life that I wanted. I needed to make changes that I wasn’t ready to make, and so I ignored my stress, aches, and pains—which only made everything worse.
Thanks largely to a course I took on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), I’ve learned how to sit with my thoughts and feelings, so that I can understand why I feel the way I do and potentially do something about it. MBSR helped me see how I was contributing to my own distress, and it taught me how to really be honest with myself.
I now know to ask myself if I’m doing something because I really want to, or if it’s because I think it’s what someone else wants me to do. Too often, it’s the latter, and then I have to really question whether it’s the right choice. I may ultimately decide to stay on the same path, but I’m much more at peace with it because it’s a decision I’ve made consciously.
5. Practice gratitude for all that you have.
It’s so easy to get hung up on what we are missing, especially when we live with chronic illness. Our illnesses often cause us to give up so many things we love to do.
But we still have so much: There are those who love us, and so many ways we can have a positive impact on this world. Focusing on the positive helps us keep a positive attitude, and while that won’t heal you, it will make you feel better mentally—and that counts for a lot.
I am so grateful for so much right now, especially for my mom, who has been here for me through everything. In the last two years, she’s had cancer twice, and I was so afraid I was going to lose her. But because of my recent life changes, I was able to be there for her in a way I couldn’t have been in the past. I’m grateful that the choices I’ve made enabled me to focus on her when I needed and wanted to most.
In the spirit of cultivating gratitude, take a little time at the end of each day to list out a few things that have brought you some happiness that day. They can be as small as your cat cuddling up to you when you felt bad, or as big as a great day out with friends. It doesn’t matter what’s on the list, only that you have one and are making an effort to think about positive things.
6. Find ways to give.
I believe that there’s really no such thing as selfless giving, because you get such wonderful feelings from the act itself. It’s also a great reminder that you are still an active and positive part of the world. If you can get out of the house, consider finding a way to volunteer. But even if you’re stuck at home or in bed, you can give back by interacting with others online who need connection just as much as you do.
Blogging has been my way of giving back. Sometimes it’s a struggle to think of things to write about, and often I choose a topic that’s something I personally need to hear in that moment. Ultimately, my blog has allowed me to connect with so many people, many of whom have helped me more than I’ve helped them.
7. Believe that you are more than your illness.
I know firsthand how hard it can be to feel you have anything to offer, especially when chronic illness keeps you homebound or bedbound. But, you are still everything—and more—than you were before your illness. You can still improve yourself and the world around you.
If you don’t believe that, ask the people closest to you how you make their lives better. You’ll be amazed at the answers. Write them down, and reference the list whenever you have trouble believing in yourself.
Don’t let this spring pass you by without making a commitment to a fresh start. Don’t allow your chronic illness to take over your life. Believe that you can feel better, and start focusing on what you can do to make that happen. You are more than your illness. What will you do to give yourself a fresh start this spring? Share it with us on Facebook, and inspire others to start anew, too.
Julie Ryan is a patient advocate. She has written for Answers.com, HealthyWay.com and regularly shares on her blog CountingMySpoons. She lives with fibromyalgia, migraines, endometriosis, cluster headaches, and thyroid disorder, but she chooses to live positively, despite her illnesses, and encourages you to do the same.