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Is there Positive in an Exacerbation?

Ask yourself this: is there anything good that comes from a chronic illness exacerbation? The obvious answer is no. The hidden answer is yes.

Exacerbations do a number on our bodies and psyche. They are physical and mental setbacks that leave us feeling stuck in place until they are over. They can cause long-term damage or help progress our disease farther along.

Stating that an exacerbation can be “good” is unconscionable. As people coping with a chronic illness, we want to avoid them at all costs. Absolutely. But that isn’t always possible. I am aware that I could become a Zen Master and banish all the stress I feel in life, and still get hit by an MS exacerbation without warning. That is the very problem with a chronic illness: the unpredictability.

The key is to find a silver lining in the middle of each exacerbation as much as possible. There will be moments where maintaining optimism is near impossible, and that is fine. But in the moments we can find a ray of sunshine, we should embrace positivity.

The Frustration of an Exacerbation

Exacerbations slow us down. They can land us in the hospital for treatment, and they can leave us searching for more answers on how to best approach our treatment.

I hate exacerbations because of how much they set me back. Before I managed my MS, I would be in the middle of an important project, and an exacerbation would slow me down for several weeks while I recovered. My usual MS symptoms, like fatigue, often cause me to take a day “off,” while I recover in bed.

I often wonder if my body coordinates the timing of the exacerbation as a form of self-sabotage. I get ahead, and my exacerbations/symptoms pull me back.

There might be some truth to that conspiratorial belief. I am pushing myself so hard that I do not listen to my body, so my body has to get my attention. Fatigue, L’Hermmittes Sign are red flags that I am not taking care of myself.

And if I continue not to listen, the exacerbation comes along to stop me in my tracks and take a break. But by then, it’s usually too late, and I may not know the extent of the damage done by the flare-up.

Gratitude in the Lowest Moments

We know that exacerbations are annoying, we know that they can be damaging, so how can I find the positive in these adverse chronic illness events? What follows is what works for me, so your own experience may not reflect my own.

I learned that an exacerbation is an excellent opportunity to practice gratitude. Sometimes the flare-up affects my depression, so finding appreciation might be impossible. Literally, because the exacerbation is the source of a mental block. If this happens to you, try to remember not to feel discouraged because it is out of your control.

But in the moments where this isn’t the case, where the exacerbation impacts your body, where you can recognize what is going on, we can practice gratitude. This isn’t something you will be able to whip out on the first go, it will take practice. A lot of practice. Gratitude and positivity are hard to be the first thing we reach for in our lowest moments.

What would gratitude during an exacerbation look like?

Take time reflecting on the points I’ve listed below and try to find gratitude in at least one of them. If one of the points don’t fit or bring on further negative thoughts, move on, and find another aspect that can help.

When you find a point that works, take time to examine it thoroughly. Reflect on each part that you are grateful for, each positive experience you’ve had relating to it. This will serve as a healthy distraction from your exacerbation.

  • Your medical team. How quick are they to listen to you and respond to your needs?
  • Your support team. This might be your family, professional nurses/helpers, and beyond.
  • Your social network. Both online and offline. How well do they listen, respond to your needs, and help you through your tough times?
  • Your financial situation. Is it favorable or not? Do you have the means to care for yourself?
  • Your overall health outside of the exacerbation. What are you usually able to do and looking forward to once this resolves?
  • Your professional situation. Are you satisfied in your professional life, and do you find validation there? Are they supportive of your case?
  • Overall survival security. Do you have a home, food, ways to clothe and take care of yourself? Ability to get around, even if it’s less than ideal?

Hopefully, you’ll find plenty of things to be grateful for running for this list or have a starting point for your own gratitude list. It’s essential to find things you do have in your life, despite this low point, and focus on them as a means of distraction. The idea is to help uplift you until you recover.

Searching for Positive

I will acknowledge that it’s privileged to say that there can be a silver lining in almost every situation. Certain fundamental conditions need to be met before taking a step back and look for the positive. I am sure a number of my readers are in that position of privilege, but I won’t make a sweeping generalization.

That said, try and look for the positive even in the middle of your exacerbation. Finding the positive does feel futile at times, so don’t feel pressured if you can’t find it. There are going to be good moments, and there are going to be bad. When you first start off, there will be more bad moments until you get more practice.

The key is to retrain your brain to not focus on the negative, but be receptive of the positive. This will be an uphill battle, as our biology steers us towards the negative. We are no longer running from other apex predators when we walk in the woods, so take time to retrain the primitive brain.

Exacerbations, while overall, are not a positive experience, they can give us a chance to find the positive in our lives separate from the negative experience. They give us a chance to slow down, appreciate what we do have, and find a way to retrain our brains to focus on the positive aspects of life. It’s not ideal, it never is, but it’s one way to cope with an uncontrollable situation.


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Engaging in Positive Self-Talk

Back in May, I wrote about the negative internal talk I experience. For a long time, it was the loudest voice in my head. We all engage in self-talk daily. All day; every day. The self-talk can be positive, or in my case, it can be detrimental. When it takes a negative turn, it brings our mood and motivation down. When we engage with positive self-talk, we embrace a loving relationship with ourselves.

It’s hard to shift our negative self-talk into a more positive one: when we are used to the talk being a particular way, especially when it’s become background noise, it’s hard to know how to change the internal narrative. What this requires is a mindful practice, self-compassion, and gratitude for the moments we’re able to shift to a positive dialogue.

It’s going to take time and practice. But we can do it because we have the desire to have a healthier inner life.

Shifting Negative Self-Talk to Positive

As John Gary Bishop wrote in Unf*ck Yourself, engaging in positive self-talk isn’t going to be last stop on your self-improvement train. Rather, it’s positive actions that get you to improve, not thoughts. But, I would argue that shifting away from self-defeating talk helps motivate us into those positive actions.

If you walk around believing you can’t do something, chances are you won’t take the risk to try it, or set yourself for failure from the beginning. You fall into the trap of confirmation bias: I believe I can’t do this, I don’t succeed as I thought; therefore, I am right. I can’t do this.

So how do we shift away from the negative self-talk? One way is to be aware that it is happening. My negative self-talk was such background noise that I don’t think I was fully aware of it happening at the moment. I had gotten so used to it buzzing in the back of my mind that when something confirmed the negative noise, I would say, “of course, this happens. Of course, I messed up.”

When we take a more mindful approach to our internal dialogue, the thoughts that operated in the background come to the front of our mind, loud and clear. I sat for thirty seconds, engaging in mindful practice when no fewer than five separate negative thoughts popped into my consciousness that I wasn’t even aware of. I was able to address each of them with loving kindness so they would quiet down before the next set popped up.

Now that I knew these negative thoughts existed, I could hear them more clearly when they popped up again during non-mindful moments. I could address them directly again until they eventually quieted down altogether.

By having a heightened awareness of the thoughts and what they are trying to say, we can find the best ways to counter them. The quieter the negative thoughts become, the louder the loving thoughts get. Those, we want to encourage as much as possible.

The Advantage to Openness

When you grow more open to yourself, you become more open to your deepest thoughts and feelings about yourself. You create a more realistic image of yourself, and hopefully can see yourself as others see you.

Which can be a terrifying thought in of itself, but if we want to change, we want to have the self-awareness to know what needs to change. By being open to your inner life, you can see how it affects your external life on an unconscious level.

You may surprise yourself with what you learn. That leads me to an important question.

What do you Want to Learn about Yourself?

It’s an easy enough question, but we don’t often ask it because we might not be willing or ready for the answer. But the answer is important if you want to change your internal narrative from negative to positive.

I asked this question of myself back in January, and I did not like the answer: I am an echoist. This means I struggle to express my own opinions, I don’t want to be a burden to others, and I have an intense fear of coming across as selfish. I had a weak sense of identity, which leads me to engage in toxic relationships because that’s what I thought I deserved.

It was a blow to my ego, but it was so enlightening. It placed my internal dialogue, life decisions, and behavior in relationships into proper perspective. I was finally able to see myself as others saw me.

Because I answered this question and worked with all the associated implications of that answer, I finally addressed the negative dialogue in my head. I could start nurturing my own identity, which is confident and independent and does not accept the negative internal talk.

I unraveled one of the final pieces of my personal puzzle. Healing could begin.

So, what is it that you want to learn about yourself?

You may not arrive at an answer right away, it will take time as you peel back the layers, but you might be able to find a temporary solution until another one pops up. The answer will be different for each of us, and what you do with that answer will be different too.

Engaging in Positive Self-Talk

For the rest of this week, take time to address your negative dialogue and flip it into positive self-talk. See what it feels like when you engage in the positivity. Do you feel better? Do you feel calmer?

Hopefully, you’ll arrive at a positive place which can help you make healthier decisions for yourself and push you forward in your wellness journey.


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How to Love Myself

I would love to wave a magic wand over everyone and say, “Poof! You now love yourself and embrace all that you are.” But I know that’s not how it works. It’s not something that happens instantaneously or over even a short period. My personal journey to self-love began two years ago when I learned that my brain lesions were gone and I had a new lease on my health. I had the opportunity to make important life changes, and part of that was figuring out how to love myself.

This blog is my chronicle towards self-love and self-acceptance, even if I haven’t overtly admitted to it.

It isn’t an easy journey, and I am still in the beginning stages of self-acceptance. It’s been easier to focus on my exercising, food, and self-compassion than admitting to what I love about myself. I will spend the rest of my life contending with myself over whether or not I am worthy of my own love.

I think it’s like any other relationship we have: loving someone takes work. We have to constantly reaffirm that love, engage with it, and nurture it. Our love is no different.

Love, Don’t Just Like

We can all find things we like about ourselves, but can we find something we love? If you did the exercise from Monday, listing of five things you love about yourself, how many of them are really just “likes?” Be honest.

Sometimes it’s easier to approach ourselves from a slight distance like implies less depth of feeling over love, and that is a fine place to start. But we do want to work towards turning some of those “likes” into “loves.”

Any new relationship is based on “likes” that develop into something more, so this is very similar to that. Look over some of the qualities you like about yourself, are any of them worthy of your attention? You may appreciate how you handle your exacerbations, but you may not celebrate that perseverance to the degree it deserves.

Take a moment and see if a particular quality is worthy of an internal appreciation upgrade. Embrace those qualities and start to look at them with love. Embrace what makes you unique and amazing. You are worthy of your love.

The Science of Loving Yourself

Science backs up the importance of loving yourself. When we focus on our negative qualities, it impacts our relationships, health, and ability to overcome adversity. When we engage in self-appreciation, we give ourselves a chance to cope with stress and any mood/anxiety disorders we might have.

While this won’t cure our depression, it may help you lessen symptoms or get you to a space where you can ask for help.

I found that when I take a stand to care more about myself, that I am able to back away from negative relationships. My drive to be healthy is greater, and I find that I self-assess my abilities as a mother to be higher.

When we engage in self-appreciation, we are more open to making healthy medical decisions. This isn’t necessarily about eating right or exercising, we are more open to fighting for what we need to manage our chronic illness.

Speaking of chronic illness…

Chronic Illness and Loving Yourself

When you have a chronic illness, you’re stuck with it. Until they find a cure for our particular illness, we are biding our time managing the best we can with what we have.

Chronic illness is an obstacle in our wellness journeys. I’ve said this before on the blog: it’s so hard to want to get well when our bodies betray us. It’s hard to love ourselves if we view our bodies flawed beyond repair. Asking someone with a chronic illness to take the steps towards self-love seems unreasonable, but it’s not.

I will be honest, if someone who didn’t have a chronic illness tried to tell me that, I would probably give them the biggest eye roll possible. Even today. Why? Because it’s usually said to make themselves feel better, not me.

Because we cannot change whether or not we have a chronic illness, there is a level of self-acceptance that must happen. When we fight against the illness, via ignoring it or caving completely to it, we signal to ourselves that we are not worth caring for and we signal to the illness that it wins. Patients with negative attitudes, tend to fare worse than patients who are positive with their healthcare approach.

It’s easy to get lost in our illnesses. It’s part of the grieving process, which is perfectly healthy on its own. But it’s a process, which means there needs to be forward movement in our journey, not stalling for an unhealthy length of time. We sometimes forget that we aren’t alone in this world, even though it often feels like it.

We have to fight to love ourselves and keep on fighting despite our health setbacks, lest the illness wins. Chronic illness takes so much away from us, leaves us feeling helpless and worthless, but why let it? Why allow it to take more from us? We have to give it permission to leave us feeling unloved, and we can revoke that permission at any time.

How to Love Myself

So how do we begin loving ourselves? Very slowly, as mentioned in Monday’s post. We’ve been slowly building up to this point throughout the year:

Find ways to start incorporating self-appreciation in your daily life. Get a workable morning routine that allows you to feel good about yourself. Include affirmations if that works. Find some way to exercise to boost the feel-good hormones.

Tell yourself that you are worth fighting for.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton


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Recognizing Self-Doubt

In my most profound moments of self-reflection, I find that I am riddled with self-doubt that stops me from achieving personal goals. Self-doubt tells us that we are incapable of doing something and serves as discouragement disguised as good-intentions. When making significant life changes, we must recognize self-doubt for what it is, a possible road block, and find a way to cope with it.

We define self-doubt as a lack of confidence in ourselves and what we are capable of doing. It isn’t always an accurate assessment of our abilities but meant as a form of self-handicapping to protect our egos from possible failure. This is reductionist, as there are other reasons why people fall into self-doubt, but that’s what we’ll be focusing on.

We engage in self-doubt as an excuse to prevent us from moving forward in life. It’s important to recognize when this happens because sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Self-Doubt after Self-Reflection

I have a voice in the back of my head that pipes up after I’ve reflected on a situation. The situation may have ended unfavorably, where I behaved in a way I am not proud of, so I’ll start to reflect on what I could do in the future. The voice comes in after I decide my next steps and tells me that I won’t achieve it. It loudly proclaims that I still haven’t made the positive changes, so why would I begin now?

Obviously, it ignores all the times when I succeed in making positive changes in similar scenarios.

I think this self-doubt voice comes in after an emotional self-reflection because I am vulnerable. Vulnerability isn’t a negative trait to possess, but my self-doubt comes in to take advantage of it. It works to sabotage all my hard work.

I believe self-doubt is our unconscious form of self-preservation. In our minds, we’ve created a specific persona for ourselves. It’s how we see ourselves interacting with the world and how the world interacts with us. It doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, but it’s the reality we’ve created ourselves.

When we start to change this persona and bring our perspective in line with reality, self-doubt seeps in because often the gap between our reality and actual reality is painful. Many years ago, I thought about how I was in High School. I had a brief thought that I was a difficult person to get along with, which was completely counter to the fantasy I created about being bullied.

The moment I had this thought it was so painful that my self-doubt and denial quickly flooded in to soothe the wound I gave my ego. I have since taken more time to self-reflect and found that while I was bullied, it had a lot to do with me painting a target on my back. I was unnecessarily confrontational, so the “bullying” was a response to that.

When we see something we don’t like about ourselves, we are working in direct defiance of the persona we’ve built up over a lifetime of experiences. Self-doubt works to preserve that personal for our emotional well-being. It’s well-intentioned, but it can keep us from moving beyond what keeps us stuck.

Self-doubt only serves to keep us within an unhealthy comfort zone.

The Danger of Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is the motivation killer.

We have many motivational killers out there, but self-doubt is one of the greatest ones. It’s the voice we listen to when we think we’re not good enough for something, or try and eat healthy, or what keeps us from striving for more.

Self-doubt is a voice that we listen to because it is always with us. I believed my self-doubt was some otherworldly voice responding to my requests for help on something. I thought it was an inspired voice speaking to me with omniscient wisdom, so when it said for me not to do something, it clearly knew what it was saying.

No, it was my self-doubt masquerading as the supernatural to keep me from trying harder or stepping outside of my comfort zone.

You may not have an otherworldly voice speaking to you, but there’s a good chance you have some internal voice telling you what you can’t do. When you engage with this voice, it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Looking Ahead

This month will be working to address the moments of self-doubt directly. Those times where we want just to give up and not move forward because we don’t think we can. This will be last month we focus on negative things in our self-improvement journey for this year. Stick through it so we can take a couple of months of appreciating ourselves and celebrating ourselves. It will be worth it in the end.


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Changing Physical Appearance with a Chronic Illness

I’ve avoided addressing the elephant in the room since I started the year making personal wellness changes. It’s a sticky subject and somewhat challenging to address when it comes to a chronic illness. Chronic illness and/or disability make any meaningful physical changes difficult (if not impossible). If you are unable to move for more than a few minutes a day, then dedicating that time to exercise is furthest from your mind. Priorities change and addressing your physical appearance can drift towards the bottom of the list.

And that’s okay. Let’s move our intention away from changing our appearance, i.e., losing weight, and refocus on being healthy. Exercising does not need to be about losing weight, but about moving to help your body heal and thrive. Weight loss can become an added bonus, but not a goal.

I started the MS Mommy Blog to be a space where I detail my wellness journey into healthy living and eating. My journey was never about changing my physical appearance, it was strictly about setting a good example to Jai and taking advantage of a positive MRI result. I accepted the following three things: I would never dip below an overweight BMI, never have a body I would be proud of, and never find a source of natural energy.

Because of MS fatigue, I had little desire to go out in the blazing Southern sun and humidity to exercise. Eating was a pleasure I gave myself, especially when I was despondent post-diagnosis. I say all of this because I understand how hard it is to take the initial steps towards making physical changes, but it is possible to start the process no matter your ability levels.

What I am about to discuss is based solely on my personal experience and I am not an expert. Because this is based on anecdotal evidence, your own results will not match mine (and that’s okay). Everyone’s path looks different and that’s okay. Speak with your healthcare professional about your ability levels and any recommendations they might have for you.

Stuck in the Body

When coping with a chronic illness, we are stuck in our bodies.

If you are reading this with a chronic illness, you know this, but I say that for the benefit of those without a chronic illness. It’s easy for outsiders to forget that we are stuck with the body we are in, particularly if our illness is invisible. It’s in those moments we get the harmful comments of: “just get up and exercise,” “it’s in your head,” or “you don’t look sick.”

Getting those comments, and living in a culture where we often ignore invisible illness, makes any desire for change discouraging. We are stuck within numb, shaking, fatigue-ridden, weak bodies that don’t listen no matter how many times we yell at it.

Being stuck in a body is discouraging, especially when you see others chase after their physical goals. Or when you see people squandering their abilities. It’s even more frustrating when you start comparing yourself to others with your particular illness and see how they are able to be active ways you aren’t.

That’s where the first change needs to occur: stop comparing yourself to others. Those with a chronic illness and those without. And you have to stop listening to what people and culture tell you (this includes this blog).

The changes you decide to make must be in your time and in ways that work for you. Do not use this an excuse to not make the changes, you do want to take time to get healthier, but do it without any expectations beyond finding a way to feel better that complements your disease management course.

Determine what you can change & what you can’t

There is so much wisdom in knowing what you can change and what you cannot. There are aspects to our bodies we cannot change unless we had unlimited income, and even that’s limited.

The key is to figure out what is changeable and what you have to accept will be a part of you unless certain circumstances change. Once you know what you can change, then you have to decide how much you want to focus on it and how much of it you’ll put into the “secondary” goal category.

Everyone can lose weight, but do you want that to be a primary goal or something that happens as a side effect to being able to move more?

For some, the idea of losing weight is emotionally painful, so that should not be the first physical goal you make. Instead, if your healthcare professional recommends moving more as a means to help manage your illness, then consider adding a fifteen-minute walk in each day and build up to thirty.

Or if you are advised to cut a particular food from your diet for health reasons, rather than seeing it as a loss, view it as a challenge to figure out how to make alternatives to your favorite foods.

When you make the changes you can and frame them in more manageable ways, you should notice secondary benefits. When I cut sugar from my diet, I was shocked at how much weight I unintentionally lost.

Choosing Health

Focusing on physical appearance and any changes you want to make is discouraging. If you had a weight loss goal for this year, are you still sticking to it? Or have you given up on it entirely?

Revisit your goal if you’ve dropped it and refocus it to be about your health. Don’t think about the pounds you want to lose, but how you want to feel by the end of 2019. Not all of the suggestions below are about weight loss, but about finding ways to adapt to your chronic illness:

  • If your illness prevents you from walking more than five minutes at a time if you can safely do it, why not see if you can add on a minute or two?
  • If your weight prevents you from doing basic chores, why not focus on one chore to do and do it well?
  • If you are mostly bed bound and you want to get more exercise, consider small hand weights or a resistance band for twenty minutes a day.
  • If you want to eat healthier, why not consider dropping one sugary or unhealthy snack in your day? If you find you’re hungry, consider adding in water or some other healthy alternative.

All of these changes are small, and if you are getting started, that’s all they need to be. For myself, I found that small changes snowball into bigger ones because I was encouraged by my results to keep moving forward.

Learning to Love your Body

Before you reach your personal health goals, the first thing you need to work on doing is loving your body as it is, warts and all. This includes accepting the chronic illness that inhabits your body. You don’t have to like that it’s there, but just accept that it’s a part of you and you need to adapt around it.

When you take the time to accept your body as it currently is, in this very moment, it takes the pressure off of yourself. When you don’t meet your goals for the day, you can say to yourself “that’s okay, there’s always tomorrow and these things take time.”

Don’t take this as an opportunity to slack off, you still want to work towards making healthy changes, but you don’t need to put as much pressure on yourself that you might feel you need.

Additionally, when you learn to love your body in its current state, you no longer seek validation from outside sources. We look to media and others as opportunities to compare and rarely do we measure up. If we have friends and family influencing our decisions because of a snarky response, we may get sidetracked.

Rather, say to yourself: I am doing this for me, I am doing this to be healthy, and I am doing this because I want to make a change. Then mentally give the middle finger to those who want to keep you down.


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