If you appear to be highly functional and have your shit together, but suffer with chronic symptoms, this post is for you. Let’s talk about the connection between your type of stress response and your illness.
In the world of chronic illness, there’s a peculiar irony that it tends to strike the ones who appear to ‘have it all together.’ If you’re that high achiever who seemingly juggles work, family, and life with remarkable grace, yet secretly battles chronic symptoms behind the scenes, then you’re not alone.
What does this curious link between chronic illness and the ‘freeze’ or ‘appease’ stress responses look like? Picture this: under the ‘freeze’ stress response, you might be grappling with decision paralysis or fatigue, all while keeping a brave face, ensuring the world sees you as the competent, composed individual you’ve always been.
Meanwhile, the ‘appease’ response has you bending over backward to maintain peace, potentially neglecting your health in the process. Perhaps you’re the CEO constantly overworking to please stakeholders or the parent forsaking personal health to cater to family needs. Sound familiar?
It’s not a coincidence that the same people often labeled as ‘overachievers,’ also wrestle with perfectionism and the ever-looming cloud of imposter syndrome. Striving for the impeccable and fearing exposure, you exist in a perpetual state of stress. This relentless cycle amplifies your vulnerability to chronic illnesses like ME/CFS, Lyme disease, mold illness, or long Covid.
Here’s the catch though: the very resilience and determination that bring you success also serve as your barriers to healing. You’re caught in the paradox of ‘functional suffering,’ always pushing through the pain, disregarding your needs, and internalizing the belief that you don’t deserve to rest.
One of the key pieces to healing chronic illness is using practices that create a baseline experience state of love and safety. Imagine feeling that the world and people in it are safe, ready to support you in whatever way you need, and are waiting to tell you how proud they are of not only your achievements, but who you are as a human being.
One of the best ways to start doing this is through mindfulness and meditation. These tools help you stay present, recognize and challenge destructive thought patterns, and soothe physical and mental stress. Together, they’re your secret weapons to foster an environment of safety, acceptance, and love, ultimately setting the stage for healing.
So, dear high achiever, if you’re open-minded and believe in the mind-body connection, give mindfulness and meditation a shot. Don’t let your chronic symptoms be the plot twist in your success story. Instead, let your healing journey be the empowering sequel where you redefine success, not just in terms of achievements, but also personal well-being and self-love.
- Mindful awareness and communication
Your body has a ton of intuitive information to share with you, all you have to do is listen. But how do you do that? A big piece of that puzzle is learning how to bring your attention mindfully to that spot and seeing what arises. To do this, bring your gentle attention to the body part you want to talk to and notice what physical sensations or emotions come up. The key is to be still and notice without trying to interpret, figure out, or make a story about what is happening. Start to notice any sensations or feelings and simply watch them. If anything sticks out to you, you can open a communication about it by gently asking your body, “Tell me more,” and seeing if there is a response or a change.
- Ho’ponopono (forgiveness and gratitude)
There is a Hawaiian practice of forgiveness and gratitude that can absolutely change your relationship with your illness and the energy around it when you practice it on a daily basis. It’s a simple 4 sentence mantra that has profound power. When you are mindfully sitting with your illness say the following: “I’m sorry. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”
“I’m sorry” is about taking responsibility for the way we’ve mistreated ourselves throughout this illness. Perhaps we push ourselves too far, or don’t ask for help when we need it. Perhaps we blame ourselves for getting sick and our inner critic pops up and says things like, “If you’d only eaten better and exercised more, this wouldn’t have happened.” Regardless of what it is, this gives you an opportunity to make amends with yourself and apologize for being anything other than understanding and supportive of your body, whether it’s healthy or ill or anywhere in between.
“I forgive you” is about allowing yourself to feel okay about whatever you were sorry for. You are doing your best and learning as you go, and that’s okay. Forgive yourself for any way you have not treated yourself with the utmost care and respect.
“Thank you” can be used here to appreciate your body and all it’s doing. Even if you are ill, there are parts of your body that are working well and you can send appreciation toward those parts. And even the parts that are ill or out of balance are trying their best to heal, so send appreciation their way for all they do to try to bring you back to health.
“I love you” is all about sending unconditional love to our body, no matter what state it’s in. Just like I can be frustrated with friends or family but still love them, we can feel upset or frustrated with our body or illness and still love our body at the same time. When we sit in the energy of unconditional love, magical healing can occur.
- Look at your relationship with your illness
It’s almost impossible to have an illness or chronic injury and not have it affect your daily life in some way. We all develop coping strategies, feelings and make meaning out of having an illness in order to get by. In order to heal, we have to not only address the symptoms, but also let go of the coping strategies, emotions and other ways we’ve incorporated that illness into our lives. This may sound strange — who would want to keep the coping strategies and emotions around their illness? But our brains are hard-wired to stay with the familiar and avoid change, and if healing also involves a change to how we live our lives, there may be some resistance in our bodymind to that change. This is especially true if your income, type of work or relationships revolve around your illness. For example, if most of your close friends are also people with the same illness, what will that mean for your support system if you get better?
- Understand you’re part of a larger quantum field
There are numerous studies showing that when people become aware that they are not in this alone and that in fact they are part of a larger field of consciousness, miraculous healing can occur. Take some time to sit in the awareness that your body is not separate from all the energy of the universe, it’s a part of it. So, even if you don’t have all the answers, you’re connected to the “worldwide consciousness web” that has more wisdom than you do. Allow yourself to feel that expansion, feel how you are greater than just your mind and body.
One of the most important parts of healing is accepting where you are. If you can think, “This is where I am right now, how can I be more accepting and compassionate towards my body and illness?” it can do a world of good. We all know that no one ever makes lasting changes out of shame, guilt or feeling like they should be somewhere they’re not, and the same is true for your health. Practice having an intention of feeling better without attaching the desire to get there in any particular time or fashion. You are where you are, and you will probably be in a different place tomorrow, and the best thing you can do today, tomorrow or at any point in your life is to be compassionate and accepting, right now.
Want to know why you’re still stressed out despite all of the stress reduction techniques you’ve tried in the past? If you’ve taken 500 bubble baths and go to yoga every day and you’re still stressed out, here are 4 things you need to consider to find more ease and balance in your life.
PEO stands for “Person, Environment, Occupation” and it’s a concept that comes from the world of Occupational Therapy. (BTW — “occupation” here refers to anything that occupies your time, not just work. So it could be your occupation as a mother, or a crafter, or a student.) When looking at stress reduction through the PEO lens it’s important to consider three factors.
The “person” part refers to who you are as a person. What are your skills, strengths and relative weaknesses? What are your preferences and dislikes? What’s your personality like? (Something like the MTBI, enneagram, human design, or Gallup strengths finder can be useful here if you don’t feel like you know this info well enough.)
“Environment” refers to the place you’re in when you’re trying to function. Maybe your home environment feels more relaxed than the office (or vice versa). Or you prefer the mountains to the desert. Why is that? What is it about the environment that’s a better fit for you? Different environments are also better for different tasks, for example, an energizing environment would be better for work, while a calming one would be better for sleep or meditation.
The big “O” is the occupation you’re performing. What are the demands of the task at hand? Do you have the resources for that task? Do you have the skills? The right tools? Proper instructions, guidance, and support?
Try looking at one of your routine tasks (either at work or home) through this lens of PEO and see if you can make any adjustments to the environment or the occupation in order to make it easier for you. For example, maybe you work better in a bustling environment full of energy. Or maybe you function better when you don’t have access to your phone to distract you. Maybe you can only fully relax in nature, and so the crowded yoga class in the gym doesn’t help you de-stress.
Take a look at your daily occupations and see how good of a match it is between who you are, the environment you’re in for that task, and the task itself.
- Sensory Profile:
Every single human on this planet has a unique sensory profile, it’s like a fingerprint. Your sensory profile looks at each of your 8 senses and your preferences and awareness for each. Do you like bright, vibrant, crazy designs? You’re probably a visual sensory seeker. Do you like calm colors and less clutter? You are probably visually sensitive. There are quizzes you can take to find out your specific sensory profile, but you can also think about each of these and ask yourself if you’re a seeker (you like it big and bold), avoider (you’d rather stay away from too much of this type of input), sensitive (you don’t hate it, but too much will grate on you) or low registration (you’re not even aware of those types of sensations).
- Visual (sight) like bright colors and busy environments
- Auditory (hearing) like music and talking and louder environments
- Olfactory (smell) like strong scents
- Gustatory (taste) like bold flavors
- Tactile (touch) like strong touch or softer touch
- Vestibular (sense of head movement in space) like swings, rollercoasters
- Proprioceptive (sense of body position in space and feedback from joints and muscles) like dancing, moving around, lifting weights
- Interoception (sensations related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, and more) like needing to pee, being hot or cold, or ASMR tingles.
If your environment is not a good match for your sensory system, it can cause some serious nervous system dysregulation. Your body will release cortisol, you’ll have trouble concentrating, your emotional regulation system will become depleted and you might get cranky or depressed, and you’ll be exhausted at the end of the day.
- Interoceptors and Mindfulness:
Interoceptors are the sensations we feel related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, etc. When you’re are stressed, your body shuts down information from the interoceptors (who needs to know that they’re hungry when a lion is chasing them?!) and you become what’s called “low registration” for that type of sensory information.
If you’re chronically stressed at home or at work, your interoceptors can become permanently set in the low registration setting and you lose touch with what you may need on a basic, physiological level. This is why mindfulness doesn’t work for so many people. If you aren’t aware of what your body is feeling, how can you pay attention to it? That’s like giving someone noise-cancelling headphones and then asking them to tell you about the noises in their environment. If you can’t hear it how can you pay attention to it?
Personally, I love mindfulness as a stress reduction technique, but before I got any benefit from it I had to heal my interoceptors from years of stress and shut down. Only after slowly cultivating my awareness of these types of sensations was I able to really tune into myself and be fully aware in the present moment.
If you think you may be low registration for interoceptive sensations, start by concentrating on one sensation, like the feeling of your belly moving in and out as you breathe, and observe it with gentle curiosity, not trying to change it, just trying to befriend it and bring it back to your awareness. Once you start to be able to feel that sensation, try another one, like tune into your thirst and see what it says. Is it there at all? How intense is it? How do you know – what does that feel like in your body? From there you can start to play and experiment with other sensations and emotions and see what they feel like in your body.
Oh, how I love boundaries! Boundaries start with an awareness of what we like, dislike, will tolerate or won’t. It’s a compendium of the things that make us sing with joy, the things that trigger us, and the things that are neutral. As you learn this stuff about yourself, putting boundaries in place means communicating compassionately and firmly with yourself and others about what works for you, what your needs are, and what will set you off. Having your boundaries ignored or not tended to, by either yourself or others, can be a major cause of stress.
The first step is to get clear on our boundaries through observing what stresses us out or triggers us, what brings us joy, and what we don’t really care either way about. The next step is to learn to feel comfortable (aka not ashamed, bad, unworthy or fearful) about communicating those needs to yourself and others. Some examples could be giving yourself a 10 minute break when you feel overwhelmed or asking a coworker not to come by your desk for a chat when you’re working on a project.
Boundaries are a life-long project, both because we get to know ourselves better over time but also because our joy and triggers change over the years, in different environments, with different people, and different tasks (Oh look! We’re back at PEO, where we started.) Having a practice of observing and identifying our boundaries can be a huge step towards a more joyful, stress-free life.
Honestly, I could write SO MUCH MORE on all of these topics. If you’d like to learn more about these, please comment with your questions and I’ll do my best to write about them in a future post!
It’s been an angry week for me (both feeling my own anger and being on the receiving end of someone else’s) and I’ve been thinking a lot about the two types of anger, healthy anger and trauma response anger. Let’s look at ‘em, shall we?
Healthy anger moves you forward in a positive way, one of my mentors even called it the most spiritual of all emotions. In the five-element cycle, anger is the Wood element and it precedes Fire, which is joy. This means that in order to get to joy, we have to go through anger first. What does this look like in real life? I’ll give you a personal example from this week. As you probably know, this week a draft of a supreme court ruling that would end access to abortion in the USA was leaked to the press. I could go on and on about why this is horrific both in terms of women’s control of their own bodies and in how this is a huge step towards the crumbling of personal freedoms in the US, but there are people who can speak to that much better than I can, so for the sake of this post, I’ll stick to talking about anger.
When I heard the news, I was furious. It felt like a slap in the face to everyone who has been working on social progress in the last 50 years. I felt an anger welling up inside me and I knew I had to take action to change this. This is the hallmark of healthy anger, it drives you to change something for the better, it makes you strive to create a world for yourself and others that contains more joy, acceptance, compassion, freedom, or understanding. This anger drives you forward to do something that is in alignment with your highest values and that makes a positive change in your world. Positive anger leads you to create positive changes that lead to better things.
Trauma anger feels very different. Earlier this week, I was on a call with a client and I sensed she was repeating a trauma response pattern (appeasing) that I had seen before, so I voiced my concern. Pretty quickly, she got angry and said she didn’t like what I was accusing her of and she felt attacked. She let me know she didn’t like being yelled at and was done talking about it. It was pretty clear this was a trauma response — I was not yelling and hadn’t attacked her at all. By the end of the call, she was able to see how her anger had been a trauma response, how it had clouded her judgment of what I’d said and how I’d said it, and process through it.
Trauma anger isn’t driving you to take action towards a better world, it’s purpose is to shut down an uncomfortable situation that reminds you of a similar, traumatic situation from your past. It could be a situation where you felt misunderstood, or like you were “bad”, or unheard, or trapped. Trauma anger is a way of derailing the conversation and making it about something else — your anger — instead of the issue at hand. It’s an escape, and works quite well to get us away from traumatic situations. But now that you’re not in a dangerous place anymore, it’s preventing you from being present with uncomfortable situations, even if you are with safe people that can give your body mind a different, safer experience and help you grow.
The way to identify trauma anger is to check in with your body and ask, “is there fear or shame beneath this anger?” (To do this, you must be familiar with what the sensations of fear and shame feel like in your body, so doing mindfulness + somatic work is a vital prerequisite here.) If you can answer yes, then it’s trauma anger. Another sign is when, after the event you think, “Wow. I was really angry. I’m not sure why that made me so mad.” There’s a saying “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical” and the awareness that you were more angry than the situation warranted can be another good clue that it’s trauma anger.
I want to stress that neither type of anger is bad. Heathy anger drives, inspires, and motivates us to create a better world. Trauma anger helps us see areas where we still live in shadow and illuminates where we can do more healing work with ourselves. It’s through our own healing work that we lessen the harm we do in the world and simultaneously act as a model for others of what healing looks like. As Ram Dass says, “I am arriving at that circle where one works on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn’t create more suffering. I help people as I work on myself and I work on myself to help people.”
With gentle noticing and acceptance, take a look at your anger when you are able to be present with it and ask, “Is this healthy anger or trauma anger?” If it’s healthy anger, go out there and change the world! (Or at least your small corner of it.) If it’s trauma anger, know that you made it as far as you have today because you were smart enough to protect yourself this way. But now that you are safe, you can work on doing it another way, if you’re ready.
It’s been a chaotic last couple of years, hasn’t it? Global pandemics, the rise of fascism, and disconnection from so many of the people and things that keep us sane and grounded. So many familiar things are falling apart, and I know that I’ve had to figure out new ways to find happiness and connection in these unpredictable times. As with anything new, it’s been a bit of trial and error.
But there are 4 things that I know will help and that I keep coming back to over and over.
- Mindfulness. The ability to be in the present moment and have the ability to access two parts of me (the part that is having the experience and the part that is compassionately observing the experience) has been invaluable. When things are rough or when things are good, I can witness myself having that experience from a place of wisdom and compassion. When I am feeling scared I can be scared and at the same time, send compassion and love to the past of me that’s scared. When I’m feeling joy I can actually register that joy and make a mental note of how happy I am, which rewires my brain to seek happiness. It’s sort of like a magic trick – being two places at once – and it’s one of the best tools I know for coming back and caring for yourself in hard times. It can create a new perspective that’s different from the trauma reactions you’ve had in the past.
- Learning to love your pain. I know, I know. That sounds terrible. But hear me out. I know mental anguish sucks. Anxiety, loneliness, feeling out of control, it all sucks. But those places where we feel pain are signposts to where we need to let in love. Doing shadow work and finding the places where you’ve been hurt can also be seen as finding the places where you can open up to love. This can be self-love (goodbye inner critic!), love from others like friends, pets, etc, or a connection with source, the ultimate field of unconditional love. It’s not easy, and we often put up barriers in those shadow places because we’ve been burned in the past, but as Rumi says, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
- Being kind to yourself. I don’t know about you, but I say horrid things to myself that I would never dream of saying to anyone else. Years ago, I made a vow to myself that I would not say anything to myself that I wouldn’t say to my best friend. I’ve found that when times get tough and we feel like we’re not doing a good enough job, those voices can get stronger. Anyone feel like they’re not doing enough when really, it’s a pandemic + past trauma + late-stage capitalism + a society focused on disconnection under the guise of hyperindividualism? Coming to love ourselves takes work in the face of all of this is an intentional act and takes patience, love and care.
- Having a spiritual practice. You can call it God, source, the universal field of consciousness, or the flying spaghetti monster, but the ability to tap into this energy and feel it in your bones and feel how much love and support there is for you out there is key. No one can do it alone. But sometimes we don’t have the perfect people around at the perfect moment to help us. That’s when a spiritual connection and a deep knowing that all of this will be okay can come to the rescue. You are part of something so much larger than whatever is going wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a pit of despair and the only thing that gave me relief was the sense of grace I get when I meditate and intentionally connect to that field of consciousness. We’re all just little holograms of God, running around having incarnate experiences. And those incarnate experiences can feel BIG and overwhelming at times, but it is not all that we are. We are so much more than that and you can access that expansive feeling anytime you want through your spiritual practice.
If you want to know more about any of these 4 tools or want help learning how to use them in your own life, I’m teaching a course all about them and it starts next week. If you’re curious, drop me a line or check out the webpage here: https://megancaper.com/uth