celebrate-life

Celebrate Life

Today I wanted to focus on celebrating the big things since we discussed celebrating the small stuff on Monday. So, why not go for the most significant thing worthy of our celebration, and that’s life itself? Why not celebrate life?

Living with a chronic illness makes celebrating life hard, but it can be done. We might wish things were different, hope that we were healthy. But let’s be honest: if we were healthy, there would be something else to make celebrating life difficult. It’s in our nature to skew towards the negative.

We all wish for what we don’t have, no matter how rich or healthy we might be. We are always desirous of something, and with that, we sometimes forget the most important thing out there: that we have our lives.

Using Mallory Smith as an example, let us celebrate each day despite the setbacks we encounter.

Appreciating Victories (Big and Small)

Each day we wake up is a small victory. If you wake up with no pain, a victory. If you wake up with no exacerbation, a victory. If everything is going well, then that’s a victory! That is a moment worthy of celebration.

Maybe you don’t take each (relatively) good moment for granted, but there might be moments where you forget. I often forget to appreciate the exacerbation-free days. I am reminded to recognize them when I am in the middle of a particularly frustrating exacerbation episode. At that point, it’s too late. I am in the past, appreciating what I had; or in the future when the event is over.

Neither of these options is ideal because I am struggling to maintain my mindfulness practice, which can help me manage my discomfort and stress.

It’s difficult to appreciate life with a chronic illness. The absolute uncertainty of when we’ll experience a flare-up is frustrating. Deep in the moments of an exacerbation brings us to the breaking point. Yet, we have to press on. The moments our illness minimally impacts us are worth appreciating.

Allow yourself to celebrate the mundane. Try not to feel weird about it because it’s something everyone, healthy or chronically ill, should do. Celebrate over social media if you need to, let others know what’s going on in your life but do not worry about getting validation. You probably won’t get it, or you’ll get a negative person trying to bring you down. Ignore them because it’s your celebration. Not theirs. If it’s important to you and you are the only one who matters.

Putting it into Perspective

A few months after my diagnosis, I was in the position of being “at least I’m not them,” for some stranger. It was not a good feeling to be the subject of someone else’s perspective-check. Yet, it’s a mindfulness exercise, recognizing that while your life might not be where you want it, there is always someone worse off than you.

To put it into context: I was in group therapy at the time, and it was my final session. As I was doing the “graduating out” exercises, the person taking my spot overlapped and was in their first session, seated beside me. I described my life with MS, how I was coming to terms with it, and I noticed this new person writing furiously in their journal.

I later learned that it was poor form for the facilitator to allow the journal into this safe space.

Curiosity overcame me, and since they were sitting next to me, I peeked over to see what was on the paper. I saw the words “…she has MS, at least that’s not me. I am lucky not to be her.” I was humiliated to see those words. No one else in the group had MS, so it was clearly about me. I could feel my anger towards this person rise and towards myself for being put into a position of pity.

Was that a breach of privacy to peek at what they wrote? Perhaps, but they didn’t exactly try to hide what they were writing. The journal was wide open and tilted towards me. Not knowing this person or their situation, it’s possible they wanted me to see what they wrote.

I recognize the importance this practice plays in our lives. It allows us to acknowledge that while our situation is not ideal, we could have it worse. Often it is said to us by others either as a means to comfort us or get us to be quiet about our situation.

So it’s a mixed bag as to whether this type of perspective check is healthy or not. I am not going to endorse it one way or the other beyond recognizing the importance of maintaining perspective.

For this person, perhaps I was able to provide small comfort in their life. It was incredibly humiliating and yet positively humbling. It would take a few more years before I had a better perspective, but I learned at that moment that I am not as perfect as I thought I was. It humanized me to myself. I know that sounds weird, but for years, I had an inflated sense of self as a coping mechanism. I was out of touch with reality, and this private journal entry broke through that.

It gave me perspective in a different way that it gave the writer perspective. I suspect, given what I remember of what little they shared about themselves, I probably gained more from the whole experience than them.

Mindful of the Moment

Practicing mindfulness is a chance for us to appreciate life.

When we celebrate the moment, at the moment, everything melts away. I am fortunate enough to spend a week or two on the shores of Lake Michigan every year. Looking out at the endless watery horizon, I can put everything aside and focus on that moment, staring off into the distance. It grants me an opportunity to put my life into perspective, but also recognize how fortunate I am.

We may not be able to spend a few moments in a place conducive to personal reflection, but we can spend time being mindful of our life. We can appreciate being able to breathe on our own; our ability to walk or if we can’t, the tools available to us so we can remain mobile; and we can appreciate the support network available to us, regardless of its size.

Take time to connect with the ground beneath your feet, the chair you sit in, or your bed. If you connect with the earth, reflect on all the other people who stood in that spot throughout time. Feel a connection to the faceless masses over several millennia. The animals, the plants, and all of life that experienced the same place you are in right now. Feeling that connection to others, allows you to feel a connection to life itself.

Celebrate that life.

It’s typically in these moments I feel small, but not in a negative way. I recognize my space and place in the universe. My existence is not even a blip in time or space. My problems, concerns, and worries will not matter in the end.

What is important is what I do with my blip in time.

Celebrate Life

Take some time to celebrate your life, as it is, no matter where you are in life. Put it into proper perspective, experience the benefits of mindfulness, and take time to decide how you want to spend your time. Do you want to engage in negativity beyond healthy expressions, or do you want to enjoy the time you do have, as imperfect as it may seem?

Choosing to celebrate life will help you feel better, lower stress, and find the personal satisfaction you might be searching for, despite your chronic illness.


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Appreciating the Small Things

One afternoon, Jai and I walked to meet Ash at work. In the middle of the walkway was a considerable Skink that I almost stepped on because I wasn’t paying attention. This was the second time I almost got this little guy because I tend to be single-focused to keep Jai moving along. Each time I almost step on the little lizard, I feel bad. They are just sitting there, on the sidewalk, appreciating the midday sun. As the Skink scuttles off to avoid my feet, I give a moment of appreciation for them. Here, in a major metropolitan area, is a reminder of nature and a moment to appreciate the small things in life.

Now that I am aware that this is the Skink’s favorite sunning spot, Jai and I keep a lookout for him each time we visit Ash. It’s an opportunity for Jai to learn more about his local ecology, and me to appreciate its size and coloring. With a toddler, each Skink-sized stick is our sunning friend, and each little Skink discovered is the big one’s “baby.”

Watching Jai get so excited over discovery is one of the sweeter moments of parenthood. These are the moments he and I treasure, but often get lost in daily life. I have chores to do, posts to write, and training to manage, that I often forget the importance of slowing down and appreciating the little moments.

Appreciating the small things in life is so integral to de-stressing and finding inner satisfaction.

Don’t Get Bogged Down

Appreciating the small things is not an opportunity to practice avoidance. Sometimes, we use little details as an excuse to procrastinate. Try not to get so bogged down in the minutia that you lose focus of your goals. You may even miss the more significant moments worthy of our appreciation when we focus too strictly on the small stuff.

That said, it’s essential to strike a balance between the little and big things in life. Take time to appreciate the moments you might overlook, but don’t let that consume you. On Wednesday, I will focus on the more significant parts of life worthy of our appreciation.

Grateful for the Little Stuff

How do you determine that something is worthy of appreciation? Why is it important to appreciate?

If the moment or experience strikes a positive response from you, it is worthy of appreciation. Looking at a cute dog walking down the street is an opportunity to appreciate living alongside our canine companions. Hearing a child’s unbridled laughter across the store is a moment to enjoy living in the moment like a child. Seeing a stranger do something kind for you or another stranger is a moment to appreciate the kindness in the world.

These are three moments we might miss or not devote the level of appreciation they deserve. If we want to rewire our brain, take the time to be mindful, and show gratitude in the small things is another area to start. Engage in the feelings a dog, child, or stranger brings up in you. A dog might make you feel good because of how cute it is. A child’s laughter might make you feel good because it reminds you of positive childhood experiences. A random act of kindness might make you feel good because it reaffirms your faith in humanity.

These are all moments of mindfulness. The small things in life tend to only happen in the current moment, so when they arrive, embrace these moments and appreciate life as it currently is. Not how you wish it would be, or your past. These little moments keep us from focusing on the negative that bog us down.

If we are busy appreciating the little things, we do not leave room to focus on the negative.

Take the rest of the day to find moments to appreciate. Observe others behaving kindly. Enjoy a stranger’s happiness. Give your companion animal an extra scratch and take comfort in the feel of their fur (or scales, or feathers).

Find some time today to appreciate the little things in life and see how they add up to the richness and positivity of your day.


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Gratitude

Looking for an easy way to hack your brain? Consider practicing gratitude on a daily basis. It’s rather simple, but sometimes hard to do. When we practice gratitude, we are stating to ourselves and those around us that we are worthwhile and we appreciate our life. Gratitude is so important to our overall well being, it really does re-wire your brain to focus more on the positive and make healthier choices.

Gratitude can help you manage your stress, your illness, and how you operate in the world on a daily basis.

In the month of November, I try to focus on gratitude in some capacity. I decided to do it a few months early this year because gratitude should be a year-round thing. Doing it for a month out of the year, a week, or a day, is not enough to make meaningful changes.

Gratitude should come as a daily practice if we want to truly rewire our brains to be healthier.

The Science of Gratitude

Often we look for quick and easy solutions for our problems. Living in an age of instant gratification dulls our ability to be patient, so finding a solution to a long-term problem is difficult sometimes. With that in mind, gratitude is one of those easy to do exercises that offers a short-term response with long-term ramifications.

Have you found yourself feel better after doing something nice and unexpected for someone? Or when you express your appreciation for someone without cause? It might be a temporary good feeling, but science backs up that these moments, when added up, can re-wire your brain to be more receptive to positive experiences.

But when you are dealing with a chronic illness, sometimes the last thing you want to do is express gratitude for yourself or the world around you. After all, your body’s betrayed you. Often all we can think about is what we lack, such as our health, and not what we have.

When we take the time to incorporate more gratitude in our lives, despite our illness, we rewire our brains to spend less time on the negative aspects. Focusing on the positive brings us into a space to make healthier decisions for ourselves and can lower our overall stress.

And stress is something we strive to avoid in chronic illnesses.

Creating Space

We must be present in our lives, chronic illness or not. We choose to take a chance to do what needs to be done, or we choose to let life happen to us. If you struggle, like I have, with incorporating gratitude, consider creating a five-minute space to practice one instance of gratitude each day. Often the recommendation in the morning to set the tone for the rest of the day, but if that’s not possible, do whatever time works for you.

I learned this lesson recently: there’s an expectation to do things at a specific time because “that’s what’s right,” but that may not work for you. If your moment of gratitude is in the middle of the day or before going to bed, then do it then. When it happens does not matter. Just that you are doing it.

Try to set the alarm at your preset time if you often forget to do something, and commit to a short practice of gratitude for five minutes. Five minutes out of all your day is but a drop and passes by rather quickly.

Practicing Gratitude

Find the practice that works best for you, there are so many ways to practice gratitude. Try until you find something that works, don’t settle on what you think you’re supposed to do. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  1. Buy a gratitude journal and follow the prompts
  2. Think of something silly about yourself that you love
  3. Do a random act of kindness for a stranger with no expectations of a acknowledgment/validation (i.e. don’t post about it on social media)
  4. Compliment a stranger on something you genuinely like about them
  5. Create and maintain a list of things you appreciate everyday. Add a new one during your gratitude time
  6. Find a silver lining in a difficult situation
  7. Relish a challenge or adversarial situation, rather than taking on a victim role
  8. If you are able to, volunteer your time
  9. Surround yourself with people who are grateful and make you feel good about yourself
  10. Find a gratitude rock or object that you can keep near yourself at all times to remind you of being grateful

The Importance of Gratitude

We don’t have to wait until November to practice gratitude in our daily lives. If you want to work towards rewiring brain towards a more positive outlook, just start with gratitude. It’s still going to take time to undo what might be years of negative thinking, but it gets you into the head space you need to be in to be receptive to change.

That’s the best space to be in: open to making positive changes in your life if you’ve previously struggled with it. Gratitude truly is one of the easiest and quickest ways to get into a positive space for yourself. I am already finding that I let things go a lot quicker than I used to, and appreciate the moments I have more.


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Gratitude for Yourself

For the past two Novembers, I’ve spent the month examining gratitude in different ways. I am going to shake things up a bit by talking about gratitude in July. Why? Because it’s important to be grateful for yourself no matter the time of year.

If you don’t know where to begin when trying to love yourself more, try starting with gratitude. I find it’s easier to acknowledge what we are grateful for than what we might like about ourselves. For instance, saying, “I am grateful I can walk today,” might be easier to acknowledge than, “I love how I feel when I buy a stranger coffee.”

It might just be me, but if you struggle to love yourself, give gratitude a try.

What are you Grateful For?

Do you have any ideas about what you might be grateful for in yourself?

If you don’t, that’s okay, we’ll start off simple. Consider that you are alive, it might not be quite what you want, chronic illness or pain, but you are breathing. For each breath you draw, you are given an opportunity. You have unrealized, untapped potential.

I understand it’s trite to start with that, but I think when dealing with a chronic illness, we often forget that life can be worth living and that we should be grateful that we can experience life at this moment, such that it is.

Imagine dealing with your illness fifty years ago. Try one hundred. Now five hundred years. Suddenly, those week-long hospital visits seem less awful because we’re lucky enough to have them. This isn’t minimizing your experience, it’s putting it into perspective.

We live in a time, with medicine being as advanced as it is, that we can be alive. While my MS may not have slowed me down fifty years ago, there’s a chance I’d be blind, lame, and possibly erratic from the brain damage brought on by untreated exacerbations any time earlier than 1919.

Sure, it would be nice to be alive when all chronic illness is cured, so I never had to deal with my MS, but I’ve grown so much because of my illness. I am grateful for my life and to be alive right now. When I say that, I can feel a sense of love flow within for myself.

If that’s too much for you, or you can’t get past the hokey-ness of it all, which I understand, consider something you can do. Maybe it’s a talent you hide from the world, like realistic cat doodles. Or maybe it’s something people know about, your ability to craft a beautiful project without a plan or pattern.

Find something special about yourself that you may overlook, and express a moment of gratitude for it.

Why Gratitude is so Important

Science backs up the importance of expressing gratitude.

In short: we become more open to others and opportunities; we can improve our physical health; it helps us with emotional regulation; it increases our empathy and lowers aggression; we can sleep better when we’re grateful; it improves our self-esteem; and it reduces stress while building up our mental fortitude.

Several of these points are significant in the daily management of a chronic illness: improving our physical, mental, and emotional health; increasing our empathy; helping with sleep; and lowering our stress.

It helps us accept what we cannot control, and give us peace in the face of the uncertain nature of chronic illness. Gratitude, no matter the form it takes, can ease our suffering.

While gratitude will not cure our illness, it might help us with managing it. It’s holistic in nature and complementary treatment to the prescribed drug regimen you have with your healthcare team.

Best part? It’s free.

Gratitude in a Chronic Illness

Practicing gratitude while coping with a chronic illness is a puzzler. How do we engage with a practice of appreciating life when we see others surpass us in health? So many times I feel passed by from peers who have heaps of energy and drive that I struggle with daily.

Knowing that my MS has no specific trajectory also adds to the stress. While it shouldn’t progress to SPMS any time soon, what if it does? And when it does, what then? It’s hard to be grateful when there is so much uncertainty.

As mentioned above, there is a chance to be grateful despite our illness. We are fortunate enough to be alive when medicine can help us, either in managing the illness or make us comfortable.

Another perspective to take is that our illnesses allow us to have a clearer perspective of the world. We are aware of our limitations in ways that others might not be, and we know how far we can push ourselves. We’ve had our dose of adversity, things that used to bother us, might not anymore.

We can view each day without an exacerbation as a gift, something to be celebrated because we know what it looks like when we can’t walk or get out of bed. When we have an exacerbation, we can look at it not as a setback, but as our body telling us we need to slow down and take care of ourselves.

Exacerbations can provide us with the opportunity to try something new, like painting or reading a book or binge-watching a show we’ve been meaning to view. It sucks, for sure, but our gratitude for the slowdown can allow us to see the silver lining while dealing with the symptoms.

It’s important to take this perspective when it comes to our chronic illness: I cannot control it beyond my management regimen. Everyone, healthy or ill, has uncertainty in their lives. Everyone. I have the added benefit of the chronic illness, but it does not differentiate me from others as much as I think. Finding gratitude is not ignoring the illness but accepting that it will not be going away any time soon.

Finally, ask yourself this: if I cannot change my life with the illness, what can I change? The answer is your perspective by being grateful for what you do have and what you can do.


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Gratitude for all Things

For the month of November, I am taking each day to highlight some element in my life that I want to express my gratitude about. This could be something deeply personal or just a passing appreciation for something more superficial. 


We are at the end of my short journey through things that I am grateful for and I want to thank you for coming along with me. I know that people listing off things they are grateful for can be boring, but hopefully it’s provided some food for thought. Whenever I hear others talk about their gratitude, it gives me a moment to think about those same things in my life and wonder if I’ve expressed my gratitude for them as well.

While I know I missed discussing a lot of important things in my life, I wanted to highlight topics that I rarely discuss on my blog but are deserving of my thoughts. My blog, my parents, my companion animals… all are extremely important to me but don’t get as much love as they deserve here.

I also found that reflecting on the positive impact my MS has had in my life has helped reaffirm my perspective. I cannot change my diagnosis and the impact it has in my life, but I can change my attitude and how much I allow that impact to be negative. By turning towards the positive elements of my illness (perspective change, refocusing of priorities, etc.) I no longer feel the bitterness I once did, nor do my symptom heavy days keep me down like they once did.

The Advantages of Gratitude

In my more successful meditative practices, I get my grounding faster when expressing gratitude to even the more mundane parts of my life. It feels weird being thankful for a house, car, or the privilege to take a few moments to meditate. For me, expressing internal gratitude for these items allows me to recognize where I would be if I did not have them. I feel like it motivates me to do more when confronted with others who don’t have as many privileges as I do.

I also find that when I am grateful for what I have, I have less stress in my life. There is an element of recognizing what I don’t have (and might wish that was different), but as long as I don’t focus on that part as much, I am fine. It goes back to how I approach my illness: don’t focus on the negative or the lack, but on the positive and what I can achieve.

Moving into December

Spending time reflecting on how important gratitude is in my life and how important it is to be grateful for what I do have makes a smooth transition into December when I spend a little more time about the prospect of giving and compassion.

It makes a lot of sense for one seasonal idea to follow the other: after recognizing what we have we can take the steps to help others in many different but meaningful ways.

What have you to be grateful for at the end of this month? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton