As a health journalist who shares my story of recovery from a chronic disease in hope of encouraging others, it can be tempting to only share the highlights of my whole-health life, and to engage in the hashtag-driven, insta-world where wellness icons and lifestyle gurus post moment-by-moment mythology about their unblemished lives. And although I’d probably sell more books if I did, as anyone who’s been following my blog will tell you, that’s not what I’m about.
While my message to those looking for ways to get healthy or stay healthy is that there is a solid foundation of evidence from which we can build reason to hope, I’m also conscious of being genuine about the inevitable highs and lows that come with having a chronic disease.
Shortly after I released my film, The Connection, I had a routine blood test that showed no sign of autoimmune disease. The news truly blew me away. It had been 10 years since a specialist doctor told me he suspected I had lupus, and here was yet more evidence that taking the whole-health approach (sleeping well, eating well, regularly exercising, managing my stress and emotions, and nurturing my relationships) was actually working.
Given that I felt the best I had ever felt in my life, and given that I’d breezed through my first pregnancy with nary a mishap, there was no reason to suspect that I’d have trouble when it came time to have a second. But in the following 12 months, I had three miscarriages and faced some of the biggest challenges to my emotional and physical health ever. We so deeply wanted to become a family of four and it’s painful to recall the emotional rollercoaster of expectation and hopefulness, of disappointment and loss, and of grief and despair.
In truth, 2015 was a tough year, but it wasn’t my toughest, and I’ll probably face tougher yet because the reality is, suffering goes hand in glove with being human. Although we tend to think of distressing events as rare, studies consistently show that over the course of a normal lifespan most of us are exposed to at least one thing severe enough to meet the criteria for “psychological trauma.” In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to experience multiple traumatic events. Loved ones die, health gives out, accidents happen, money disappears.
Bad things can and do happen and when I sat down last week to write this blog post, I wanted to provide you with a neat list of check boxes that science shows can help us to cope when things take a turn for the worse. But the more I looked into it, the more I learned that psychologists who study these questions don’t even agree on the definition of resilience, or what the “rate of resilience” (the percentage of people who usually bounce back) is. What I thought would be a simple weekly blog post, turned into an epic two-week deep dive.
We do know that there are many variables at play, from your personality and genetics, to your childhood experiences and social world, to your levels of stress before the potentially traumatizing event. While it’s true that most people are able to get through tough times without any lasting psychological damage, for others, the emotions that follow can be debilitating and lead to post traumatic stress disorder. Some people even experience post traumatic growth and find new meaning and purpose in life. Indeed, in the last few years I’ve met and heard from countless people who have been diagnosed with a chronic illness or faced adversity and who tell me that they’re grateful for what happened because of the good that came out of it; stories of how a sudden heart attack brought on a change in career, or how a cancer diagnosis triggered a relationship renovation, or how autoimmune disease prompted an entire family to come together and learn about mindfulness.
Having come through the other side of a very difficult 2015, I’m aware that the messages “science shows setbacks are common” and “you’ll probably come through it” and “coping is different for everyone” are unlikely to comfort someone in the grip of despair. But one thing that we do know is that resilient people have developed coping techniques that allow them to effectively navigate through a crisis. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share some of the tools I reached for throughout my rough year.
1. I turned to gratitude
In my darkest moments, the last thing in the world I wanted to feel was grateful, but I was also aware that the relentless testing, waiting, and wondering that comes with wanting to have a baby and not being able to, could have easily become all-consuming. I knew that noticing and appreciating the positive in the world is strongly related to wellbeing and that studies show that gratefulness is linked with good physical health too, so I wrote down three things that I was grateful for in a journal every night. The gratitude journal prompted me to take stock each day and to notice how good my life is. It helped me to shift my focus from being inwards, to being outwards, and my experiences, hard as they were, stayed in perspective.
2. I reached for mindfulness
Mindfulness is a technique – well, a way of life really that has been instrumental in my efforts to find good health after I first became ill. Although I often wanted to try and escape my pain by letting loose or by “running away”, mindfulness gave me the courage to lean in the fullness of my emotions, to observe them moment by moment, non-judgmentally, and to accept them. It’s interesting that studies on trait mindfulness suggest that strong pre-trauma mindfulness skills may help prevent ruminative thinking, thereby counteracting the development of depression and PTSD symptoms following trauma.
3. I found meaning through writing
When my emotions threatened to overwhelm me, I used journaling, a technique shown by University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker to improve health and bolster coping and wellbeing. It’s important to note that his research shows that it’s not just what we say that matters but how we say it. I took care to not only record the breadth of emotional experience – the good, the bad and the ugly – but to also try and make sense of my feelings. As Pennebaker told CNN "If you're telling the same story over and over again, you won't benefit and your friends will go crazy. It's putting things together, the cause and effect, the self-reflection that makes a difference." By exploring the meaning in my emotions I was able to see how my challenges fit into the greater story of my life, and how my life intertwines with the lives of those I love. Writing helped me to know that my life was more than my setbacks and to not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances.
4. I performed rituals
While there was some comfort in the knowledge that medical testing indicated that my miscarriages were not related to my autoimmune disease and that, as my doctor explained, they occurred because it was just “nature’s way,” the news also gave me feeling of helplessness. I’d spent the previous ten years discovering all the things that I could be doing for myself that had made all the difference in my health, and now I was being told there was nothing else I could do. It was during this time that my small health habits and rituals became even more important – meditation before bed, Friday night Japanese take-away with my family, walks along my favourite cliff-top boardwalk – these all gave me a sense of control and that I was able to do something. I wasn’t surprised to come across research showing that rituals help people overcome grief by counteracting the turbulence and chaos that follows loss.
5. I reached out to people
As I wrote in my blog post How Loneliness Led To My Chronic Disease, researchers believe that strong social support is “one of the most well-documented psychological factors influencing physical health outcomes.” Knowing this, I drew my loved ones closer. Despite it not being talked about often, miscarriage is a common experience and it was my conversations with others who had been through it that comforted me the most. I learned that while the sense of loss would likely last forever, the acute grief would not.