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?


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)

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