Care for Any Symptom Like a Hopeful Researcher

Under the weather

Have you ever felt hopeless after receiving a physical or mental health diagnosis? When people receive a diagnosis, it is often assumed that the condition is both lifelong and fixed, meaning it can’t change. This assumption creates a dark cloud of hopelessness on top of the diagnosis.

This hopelessness came over Janice, a married woman in her mid-thirties and mother of a 4-year-old son. For the past 6 months, Janice has been struggling with aches, pains, and fatigue. She loves being active but is finding it difficult to keep up with her exercise routine due to the pain she feels almost daily.

Janice decides to consult her physician who runs routine lab tests. When the results come back normal, her doctor diagnoses her with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome. He recommends daily medication, and Janice leaves the appointment thinking she is too young to have a chronic condition.

Diagnosis Stirs Learning Opportunity

Some people stay in this hopeless place, but Janice uses it to learn more about herself. When Janice thinks about her pain, she realizes it varies from day-to-day. She is motivated to better understand her pain.

While you may not be experiencing pain like Janice, maybe you have been diagnosed with depression, panic disorder, or a different physical syndrome. Or maybe you struggle with stand alone symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, irritability, or overeating. Whatever your symptom, I imagine it varies by day, week, or month too.

Making sense of the variability is the key to managing the symptoms that accompany the diagnosis. In doing so, the diagnosis doesn’t define you, it becomes  a messenger. Most symptoms are trying to tell us something. Instead of feeling hopeless, you can see it as an opportunity to learn something new.

Think Like a Researcher Observing Symptom Variability

How would a researcher look at this diagnosis? Think about the questions a researcher would investigate to get a better understanding of what it’s like to be you living with your diagnosis.

Step 1. Identify the problem/symptoms you want to observe : Pick one symptom, such as pain, fatigue, insomnia, overeating, irritability, etc to rate each day from 1-10. Make sure it’s a problem or symptom that is very important to you.

Step 2. Make a hypothesis : There may be many factors that contribute to symptoms increasing or decreasing in intensity (exercise, nutrition, external stress, loneliness, over-functioning, etc) Make your best guess at the variables you want to observe as possible contributing factors.

Step 3. Record daily observations with no judgement : Use a private mobile app or small notebook to rate your symptom daily for at least 30 days. Also rate at least 2 other variables daily, using descriptions and numbers. Record both good and bad days in your journal with no self-criticism – it just is.

Step 4. Interpret your evidence : After at least 30 days of noting the symptom and variables, read through all your notes at one time. Based on your evidence, did you prove your hypothesis right or wrong? What is your symptom trying to tell you?

Step 5. Determine what helps manage the symptom :Identify what helps improve the symptom as well as what makes it worse. Now you can write your own treatment plan. You have gathered invaluable evidence, so decide what to do with it.

Usefulness of Self-Observation

Wondering what happened to Janice? She is still rating her pain on a daily basis, including before and after exercise. She also records: length of sleep at night, external stress level, and degree of connection/anxiety in relation to others. Janice hypothesized that it was exercise or poor sleep making her feel more pain.

But what Janice observed tells her something different about her pain. She learned that her pain isn’t a marker of how well she sleeps nor whether or not she exercises. Sometimes she feels great after exercising and sometimes she feels moderate muscle tension. In fact her pain level isn’t fixed, it is different every day.

The biggest predictor of a higher pain level was how well Janice did at defining herself when faced with tension, stress, and pressure. When she takes others distance or negativity less personally, she would feel less pain. Or if she held still when others pressured her to be responsible for them, she could actually decrease her pain level. Janice’s pain is literally trying to tell her to keep her relationships, but get better at defining her boundaries.

While she still has occasional hopeless thoughts, Janice is caring for her pain without medication, experiencing more good days than bad, and enjoying being active with her son again. In Janice’s case, her observations were more hopeful than the diagnosis. What about with you?

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Marci offers face-to-face counseling services in the Kansas City, MO area. Schedule an appointment today to explore what your symptoms are trying to tell you.

Note: All names & identifying information have been changed in this article. This post is for educational purposes only, not a case study. (Photo Credit: “Under the Weather” by Shena Tschofen)

Myths about Communication

Most couples come into my office thinking they have a communication problem. Then most say their partner needs to listen better or be more open.

It can be a challenge to see our part in the “communication” problem. We are usually so busy reacting to what our partner is saying that we aren’t really hearing them. Instead we are listening to our assumptions, putting up walls, or formulating our next point.

What if you were better able to manage your own emotional reactions with your partner? The challenge isn’t getting your partner to listen, it is getting yourself to stay interested in your partner without defending, attacking, or withdrawing.

If you are looking for a different perspective on opening up couple’s communication, then I invite you to listen to this video from The Bowen Center’s Family Matters interview series on “Myths about Communication.” As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Kathleen Cauley shares her thoughts on common communication challenges among couples:

In the video, Kathleen shares common assumptions many couples have about good communication. She also proposes a new way of thinking about communication that involves calming yourself down instead of getting your point heard. I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions to this video in the comments section.

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Subscribe to Family Matters on You Tube to hear more videos. The mission of the Bowen Center is “to assist families in solving major life problems through understanding and improving human relationships.”

Use Feeling Lost to Spark Motivation

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“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” ~Helen Keller

I’ve always loved a good adventure, especially exploring trails off the main path. That is, unless I get lost. Like the time I got lost deep in the woods with two friends when I was 15.

An Adventure in Getting Lost

I remember it perfectly. We are exploring uncharted land behind my friend’s apartment. (There are worse things a teen could be doing!) The sun is getting closer to setting, and my friend wants to take a “short cut” back to the apartment. Yet, instead of getting us back quicker, we find ourselves surrounded by a wall of trees – in a forest we never knew existed.

Darkness begins to fill the spaces between the trees. Thorny plants pierce our legs with weeds halfway up our bodies. We can’t see what we are walking on, but know we need to keep moving. Hours pass, fear sets in, and we have absolutely no idea how to get out of the woods. Everything looks exactly the same in the dark.

After walking many miles away from home, we see a faint light in a clearing. It is a house sitting on a long driveway. We bravely knock on the door and ask how to get back to the main road. (After all, cell phones hadn’t been invented yet!)

We are surprised how far we have traveled in the dark and discomfort, but we are proud of the scars from our adventure.

Usefulness of Being Lost

Have you ever been really, really lost? I don’t mean lost physically, but lost as to how to solve a problem or face a challenge. Did you freeze in fear or renew your determination to keep moving?

I find feeling lost and unsure very frustrating, but I also find it very motivating. My discomfort activates me to push myself and keep moving. I reflectively search myself for answers until I am back on track.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Feeling lost helps us retreat, reflect, and restore. In fact, some researchers describe “depression as a natural restorative process after a sustained stress response” (Dr. Daniel Papero). In this way, feeling lost is a time to recharge by taking extra good care of yourself.

Turn Feeling Lost Into Motivation

Let the dark-woods seasons of life restore you. If you feel lost, let your fear and frustration motivate you instead of paralyze you. Instead of getting angry at feeling lost, you can:

  • Look after your body with enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition
  • View feeling lost as part of the journey
  • Remember that you hold the answers, even if it’s hard to find them
  • Know this too will pass
  • Connect with others along the way
  • Focus on sureness (goals) more than your unsureness (anxiety)

You don’t need to have all the answers to free yourself, or to find your way back. But, you do need to believe in yourself just long enough to see you can and you are.

When has feeling lost motivated you to keep moving?

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If you would like to spark your own growth journey, try free introductory coaching session with Coach Marci!

Photo Credit: “Evening Sun in the Woods” by Per Ola Wiberg