Taking a Break from Focusing on My Illness – Doing Less versus Doing More
By Jeff Evilsizor, M.C., PA-C
Restoring health requires effort. No matter the particular condition, whether it be pain, fatigue, inflammation, gastrointestinal/immune dysregulation, hormone imbalance, or cancer – healing will require effort. Shifting lifestyle patterns, improving nutrient levels, cleaning one’s environment of toxins, changing thought patterns, clarifying relationships, or altering sedentary patterns to enable the body to heal – all may require an all-out, laser-focused, well-implemented plan.
By the time most patients get to integrative medicine, they have already been on a long journey of seeking the right care. Many are tired from the journey. It has required effort just to maintain hope. There have been enough disappointments along the way that there is usually some degree of distrust that accompanies their exhaustion, when first arriving to the integrative or alternative care practitioner.
Patients choose to pursue yet another visit because their condition has persisted. The condition didn’t go away on its own when doing nothing. The previous treatment approaches haven’t yet resolved the condition. Logic develops something like this: Incomplete knowledge and/or incomplete action must be the reason the condition has persisted. A clear plan needs to be re-created jointly with those with specialized knowledge, and then the plan needs to be executed flawlessly. The belief is that more is needed. The more testing the better. The more data the better. The more specialty consultations the better. The more appointments the better. The more supplements the better. The conclusion is that in order to heal, one obviously must do more. Or…maybe not.
What if stress was an underlying cause of the illness? Add to that the compounded stress caused by the limitations of the illness itself. Then, there is additional stress from the hunt for the cure. In the ongoing pursuit for the right cure, there are additional demands on one’s time, mental energy, finances, relationships, and physical energy. Sometimes the stress of seeking the cure is enough additional stress that healing is slowed or prevented altogether.
Have you ever had the experience of wanting something very badly? The more you try to make the wanted thing happen the more elusive it is. Finally, you stop trying to make it happen, and then the desired thing comes to you. Think of the stories of couples trying to get pregnant. Think of the single person desperately trying hard to be in a relationship. Think of trying to make an animal come to you. Sometimes trying too hard works against us. The universe seems to work by the law of request and not the law of demand. Demanding wellness is different from anticipating, trusting, and moving toward wellness.
Sometimes “the something different” that is needed to promote healing is a shift to a more relaxed state. Could accepting what currently is, though not ideal, work in our favor? Some will feel a great resistance arising within them when thinking of letting go of the focused fight for help. “If I don’t make it happen, it won’t happen.” “Nobody will care about me more than I do.” “I won’t accept this.” “I have to keep looking.”
What if the next steps to healing involve not focusing more on the illness itself, but re-engaging in living now? Often the intuition of the right next step comes to us indirectly, only when we are relaxed and focused on something other than the illness itself.
Let me clarify what I am not saying. I am not encouraging resignation. Instead, I am speaking of acceptance of what is now, while remaining peacefully confident that what is now will not always be. I am not recommending letting go of the desire for something more or different. In fact that would be negating what is truthfully now. It would be disingenuous to not be in touch with good desires, the longing for removal of current limitations. I am not saying to not make ongoing inquiry for something more or different. It is good to always be inquiring, watching, listening, aware and attentive to the next good steps. I am not saying that there is not to be any ongoing effort. Most good that comes to us involves some degree of effort that has opened us up to and created space within us for that next good thing.
I am recommending that the pursuit of wellness originate from a relaxed and confident place.
It is clear that each person has limitations. The Olympic athlete wants to run faster than he or she runs. The person in the wheelchair wants to get out and walk. We all have financial limitations. We all live within time limitations. We even have spatial limitations, we are unable to be in multiple locations at the same time. We have relational limitations. We have knowledge limitations.
Wellness involves completely embracing what is (our present state, though limited), while simultaneously exploring what may be. It is good to be moving toward more, but from a content and confident state. Notice that limitations present in past generations are not currently encountered in the same way today.
So how do I know when I need to do more and when I need a therapeutic holiday? When would a day off or time out actually help me heal? When do I need to get off the hamster wheel of my recovery and relax?
If you have stopped living, loving, enjoying…
If you have stopped creating…
If you have stopped contributing…
If you have stopped connecting…
And have instead become defined by your illness, STOP. You have lost your way and likely may impede your recovery by trying to do more.
That is a bold statement that may offend. It is not intended to offend, but to re-orient. It matters that we are engaged in living and not allowing illness to limit life. Illness should not limit loving, enjoying, creating, contributing, or connecting.
When frantically driven to get better at all cost, you are likely sympathetic dominant (that is the fight or flight part of the autonomic nervous system). Interestingly, the parasympathetic nervous system plays a big role in repair, healing, and absorption of nutrients. Think of the parasympathetic nervous system engaged and active when we are calm, when we rest, when we are relaxed, and at peace. Think of that same parasympathetic nervous system helping with absorption, growth, and repair. Think of children and how they delight in the universe, how they play, and how often they laugh. Think of the same child whose body is energetic, building, growing, and which repairs quickly. Is there something about entering into play, joy, delight, wonder, and creativity that spurs healing and repair? There is. Working from a place of rest is different from working from a place of stress. Applying effort and action to overcome an illness from a relaxed place is different than action from a stressed place.
If you must do one more thing in order to get well, I would encourage you to go to nature and watch ducks swim on a pond or watch trees blow in the wind. Go to a childhood place of good memories and enjoy the smells and relive the laughter and joyful moments. Tell your grandchildren you would like to play a game with them. Play within the limits of your disease. Keep the Sabbath. Consider activities of rest that may include solitude, meditation, playing music, yoga, tai chi, worship, and deep breathing.
Hopefully the encounter with your Riordan medical team will help you see yourself and your situation more clearly, whereby you will know what next steps are best.
Often healing does require doing more or doing differently. Likely additional effort is appropriate when you are continuing to embrace your life and are not solely defined by your illness. Do more when you have additional capacity and remain balanced pursuing additional help. Continue when you can imagine physical, emotional, mental, and financial resources with which to continue to explore. Continue effort when you have a treatment plan that makes sense to your situation, you are acting on that plan, the plan can be added to, you are in agreement with the next steps and you can do the appropriate next steps. Then, boldly step with confidence toward the more.
Sometimes it is okay to do less because symptoms are improving. You are already at a better place than before. Healing has already partially taken place. You need to celebrate that healing and let it continue its work. New lifestyle patterns have been established, are becoming natural habits, are already changing you, and are sufficient.
Sometimes it is okay to do less, even when symptoms are actually worse. Assess whether those symptoms are being fueled by your fears, your compulsivity, or current stressors. It would be better to accept the present limits, focusing energies on living and loving within those limits. Focus on knowing that within those limits you can make adjustments and still experience fullness of living. Once regaining a measure of contentment or vitality (in spite of the limits of the illness), having re-experienced love, having re-engaged the parasympathetic nervous system, you can again direct energies on the lessening of present limitations.
Let me reiterate that sometimes it is okay to take a break from treatment. If time and resource constraints are increasing, if complexity is overwhelming, if stress is debilitating, if progress is not happening in spite of herculean efforts, then step back. Instead, continue the fundamentals of good food, good hydration, regular bowel movements, healthy relationships, movement, and as much sleep and rest as you need. Re-embrace living. Let your experience of delight and love increase. Re-discover joy and laughter in your relationships amidst your physical limitations. Focus your energies again on living. You may start getting better.
This Article was referenced in the the July 2018 Health Hunter .