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Belief, Positivity, and Chronic Illness

“Embrace the power of positive thinking!” We hear that all the time when we endure a health crisis, a rut, or embark on a wellness journey. We are told if we want to change our mindset or become healthier, we need to shift our thinking to be positive. It’s something I frequently promote on the blog. But that isn’t possible with a chronic illness. Sometimes we need a little extra help.

Can positive thinking help you manage your illness? What if you are feeling particularly low on positivity?

This is where a higher power or greater cause can step in to help. Belief comes from the same place in our brains, whether it’s religious or not. Having strong beliefs, no matter the source, helps us create a sense of community and support when we find others who are similar. Prayer or meditative practices can help quell darker emotions that arise in illness.

Depending on your perspective and your practices, it’s effortless to slip in positive thinking. You just have to use what you already know to work with you, rather than against you.

Positivity, Meditation, and Prayer

Nature works against us when we want to sit down and focus on the positive. Geared towards survival, we get caught in the negativity to help keep us safe. Yet, negative thinking causes so much mental and physical harm. We no longer need it to survive, yet it still follows us around.

Belief can help us ward off negative thoughts. If you have a higher power, you can engage in your practices to find comfort in the routine and tradition. If you don’t have a higher power, you can participate in relaxation/self-care exercises to help set your mind at ease.

Regardless of your background, when you want to start engaging in positive thinking, there are tools available to you. If you are religious, look into your texts, and any devotionals explicitly created for comfort. If you aren’t religious, there are a lot of secular and science-based books available to get you started.

Seek out someone more knowledgeable too: a leader in your community, life coach, or counselor. They can give you text, tools, and mantras equivalent to meditation or prayer.

Prayer, or self-reflection, help bring comfort to the practitioners. It can take the edge off of emotions, help you collect your thoughts, and self-soothe. Most importantly, it can give us a break we need to refocus our thoughts to be objective. While coping with a chronic illness, we sometimes sink into darkness and crisis. Prayer/meditation grants our brains the break we need to help see beyond the darkness.

If you have a higher power, you might hear them speak to you with words of comfort. If you don’t, you might gain a similar moment of peace while meditating. These practices serve as a wonderful means to distract us from our despair.

Is it Helpful?

Finding a sense of direction within your personal philosophy should always be helpful. Your belief system (of any kind) needs to bring you comfort, not additional stress. If you find that you aren’t getting the support you need, figure out what’s going on. You may need to re-examine your beliefs to see why it’s not fulfilling your needs.

When you are in a time of personal crisis, such as a diagnosis or exacerbation, you want something to draw your strength upon.

I found as I grew older that the philosophy I used as a child no longer worked or brought me comfort. It only brought anger and resentment. I needed to look elsewhere to draw support as I dealt with my MS and settled on one that I dabbled in since I was a teenager. It took me a long time to feel okay with this switch, but it was more important to care for my mental health than anything else.

If your philosophy works for you and brings you comfort, continue to find ways to keep it working for you. If not, then speak with someone objective: they might be able to healthfully redirect you to materials to help you reaffirm your beliefs. Examination and reflection is essential no matter your faith, or non-belief.

Keep trudging forward as you deal with your illness and continue to draw sources of strength close to you as a means of help.


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Positive Chronic Illness Blogs

As we get towards the end of summer, and the end of a month focusing on positivity, I wanted to share some of my favorite chronic illness blogs out there, especially ones that focus on staying positive while managing their illness. Life with a chronic illness is difficult, but it’s nice to read others who have a similar approach to the disease: engage with the positive.

Please take a moment to read through these blogs and give them a follow if you haven’t done so already.

Multiple Sclerosis Blogs

  • Fight MS Daily: Alyssa chronicles her ups and downs as she manages her MS, but she always has a positive spin to offer her readers
  • Dinosaurs, Donkeys, & MS: I love following the adventures of Heather and her “donkey” dizzy as they journey through life with MS. Through Dizzy do we get a positive perspective of living with MS.
  • Tripping Through Treacle: The name alone promotes positivity, as treacle is sweetness in the UK. Jen works to educate people on life with MS from a positive and honest perspective.

Chronic Illness Blogs

  • Invisibly Me: Caz pours everything into this fantastic blog about life with an invisible, chronic illness. You’ve seen her comment frequently here, always something sweet and positive to add to the conversation.
  • Crafts, Chronic Illness, & Adulting: Coping with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, CC&A seeks to educate readers on life with an invisible illness and fatigue. She also shares her artwork and crafts. What drew me to her blog is her humor and approach to life.
  • Life with an Illness: Mackenzie also chooses to approach her chronic illnesses (which include Lupus, Celiacs, and Fibromyalgia) with positivity and never giving up as much as possible.

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Positive Thinking Leads to Positive Actions

Since the 1952 publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking, there’s been a market for promoting positive thinking in the self-help circuit. It does make sense, and science backs it up: when we focus on engaging with our positive thoughts, we are less stressed and improve our health. The more we engage with positive thinking, the more it leads to positive actions in our lives.

We are marketed positive thinking as a way to increase our overall happiness in life. The issue is that happiness gets conflated with satisfaction. What we are truly seeking is total satisfaction with our lives, whereas happiness becomes a byproduct from that satisfaction. We can achieve joy, and therefore, happiness when we begin to shift our mindset from mostly negative to mostly positive.

To begin this process, we must self-reflect and be open to rewiring our brain to be receptive to positive experiences and thoughts.

Positive Thinking = Healthy Mindset

So positive thinking, what is that anyway?

The theory is this: if we start to incorporate more positive thoughts in our daily lives, we engage in a healthier mindset. Once we have a healthier mindset, we engage in more positive behaviors.

Anecdotally: when I started viewing myself with a positive perspective, I found I was open to doing positive things for myself. I have a hard time accepting myself as a decent person, but once I stopped thinking of myself as a bad person, I was more willing to eat healthier. I started to make healthier decisions regarding exercise. I decreased my desire for self-destructive behaviors. The idea of making healthy decisions became palatable because I finally felt like I was worthy of the effort.

It all stemmed from the moment I chose to engage with positive thinking.

Healthy Mindset Leads to Healthy Actions

The science is there: when a person develops a positive mindset, they are more inclined to engage in healthy behavior. You are more prone to go to the doctor to treat an exacerbation of an ailment you might have ignored. You re-prioritize your thoughts, choosing not to get distracted by things out of your control. You may even decide to reconfigure who you spend your time with, opting to be with people who leave you feeling good about yourself, rather than those who are toxic.

To be clear, this isn’t saying we take on a Pollyanna perspective and only view the good out there. We still acknowledge the negative and yet get caught in the negative thought cycle, but we spend less time in the negativity.

For those of us who spent a lot of time in the negativity, incorporating more positive thoughts is not a 180-degree turn, but a chance to be more centered in our thoughts. Be realistic, but also choose to be more positive in our realism.

Engaging with Positivity More

Find ways to think of yourself in a positive light. Celebrate your life as much as possible. Did you let someone in front of you in line today? How did that make you feel when you brightened their day, even for a moment? Engage in those good feelings you get when you do something positive.

Often we look to others to be our cheerleaders, our parents, friends, coworkers, and sometimes strangers. But the biggest cheerleader in our lives has to be ourselves. External validation is nice to have, but its the internal validation that’s more important. If you let that person in front of you in line and they didn’t acknowledge it, that’s okay. You didn’t do it for their validation or gratitude. You did it for yourself. If you feel good about doing it, who cares how others react?

Praise yourself for the moments you did something that makes you feel good. Don’t look around for others to do it. Engage with your positive thinking and positive actions as often as possible.

It will be gradual, but you’ll find that after some time, your actions will begin to reflect your positive thinking. Your feeling of self-satisfaction and its byproduct of happiness will increase as well.


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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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Illness as a Positive, Part II

In November 2018, I surprised myself when I wrote about how I was grateful for my MS diagnosis. Before writing it, I thought about the benefits of my diagnosis, in light of all limitations. I was healthier, mentally and physically because of it. I made and achieved personal goals since my teenage years. Can an illness be a positive? I asked myself.

As I wrote, I found the answer was “yes.”

This isn’t a case of the dreaded “inspiration porn,” that plagues people with chronic illness. I am not saying that chronic illness is some test that brings enlightenment to its sufferers meant to inspire others.

I was talking to Ash a few weeks ago about how my MS isn’t “sexy” enough to be inspirational. I’ve temporarily lost leg function before, but never to the extremes that other people with MS experience. There’s nothing inspirational about my diagnosis and disease-management story.

What I am saying is that, for me, getting ill was the wake-up call I waited for all my life. The call rang in the background, but I kept ignoring it. Getting the “all clear” from my neurologist on my brain lesions shook me out of complacency. I reached my “rock bottom” and needed to work towards the person I dreamed of becoming for so long.

I absolutely have my moments where my MS is a negative thing. I hate my brain fog, when objects slip out of my hands, or I struggle to get out of bed due to fatigue. There are days where I wish I could trade places with someone who isn’t chronically ill just to feel “normal.” I will admit: this daydream occurs at least once a week.

Taking a mental tally of the benefits my illness brought me versus the negative, I’ve found that the positive outweighs the negative. This won’t be the case for everyone, my MS was never that bad, to begin with, but making the decision to be positive is one form of disease management.

How? It gives me a more realistic view of the severity of my illness. Before, I had a hopeless view of my future. I waited until I progressed to Secondary-Progressive. I now see that the MS does not limit me as much as I thought it did.

Deepening Appreciation

My perspective on my illness is evolving. Rather than re-publish the post in November with some edits, I wanted a separate post to reflect on everything I’ve learned about myself and my MS in the last eight months. Life is a classroom, and I’ve learned a lot more about myself since November.

In childhood, I was taught adversity was a good thing: it’s what shapes us into stronger adults. It’s one of the reasons why I chose the lotus for MS Awareness on the blog. Through the mud does the beautiful lotus flower bloom: a perfect metaphor for what it’s like to live with a chronic illness.

We sit in our dark moments, in the middle of an exacerbation, unable to see the internal growth taking place. When the exacerbation is over, we blossom into a more resilient person, wiser from the experience.

I just passed my second anniversary since my last major exacerbation, but I still live with a fear that I will wake up with blindness in one eye, or unable to lift my leg to walk.

I am more aware of a lot of things in life.

I’ve become more mindful of my time, choosing to live in the moment more, rather than focusing on the future fear of an exacerbation. I appreciate each day I get exacerbation-free. I am aware of my aging, and what my elder years might look like with MS. I recognize my mortality more, not because MS might kill me, but it might take my ability to function away from me, so I have to wait for years to die in a hospital bed.

This is unlikely to be my situation, but this disease is so unpredictable that I cannot rule it out entirely.

That is something the MS taught me: the unpredictability of it all. Everything. Each time I go out to exercise, I play with Jai, I interact with Ash, or love on my cats; each of these moments is so precious because I do not know what I will wake up to in the morning. If I am lucky, MS won’t get me, but MS did make me aware that anything can. MS taught me that every day is a gift and you never know when it is your time to go.

I know that’s morbid, but it’s why I developed a more positive outlook. If we are given a brief chance to look back at our lives at the end, will I leave feeling positive about my life overall, or negative?

The Importance of a Positive Outlook

I am speaking from a place of acceptance with my illness, so it’s easy to maintain a positive outlook. We are not all there yet, as we work through the stages of grief post-diagnosis.

Once you reach a space of acceptance, try to look at life more positively. Look not at the series of moments of what you cannot do, but at the moments of what you can. You may be surprised that you can do a lot more than expected. Now re-examine the things you think you can’t do and see how you can adapt to make things happen.

I never thought I could be a runner, before MS and especially after my diagnosis. I did not think I could be a mother. I never anticipated getting into a positive space with my more adversarial acquaintances.

I never thought I could improve as a person, especially after my diagnosis.

And yet, here I am. If I had the opportunity to go back ten years to interact with myself, past me would not recognize present me both physically and in personality. I am a completely different person.

It started when I stopped looking at what I couldn’t do and adapted myself, so I could “do.” Embracing a more positive outlook, I started to say “yes,” to more opportunities to grow. I don’t know if that would have happened without my MS.

The Grace of Chronic Illness

Having a chronic illness is awful. This is never in dispute.

There are difficult days where we can’t get anything done. Where we are so miserable, physically, and emotionally, that we just wish it could be over. But the grace of the chronic illness is this: it teaches us compassion towards ourselves and to others in similar situations. We can share our knowledge and experiences with others who are struggling to navigate their chronic illness.

Another reason why we should view ourselves as lotus flowers: the lotus flower represents compassion and courage. We are reborn in our illness and able to cope in ways we previously wouldn’t expect.

The illness teaches us how much we can endure, and we are capable of enduring a lot. You might discover one day that a friend experiences the same pain you do, but cannot manage it without external help. Meanwhile, it’s a pain you experience daily but manage through mindfulness and perseverance.

It’s not about comparing pain or experiences, but acknowledging that our perspectives and thresholds differ from person-to-person. It’s also about acknowledging what you are capable of doing.

Who you are and who you can be.

It would be nice to have a cure for our illnesses in our lifetime. But that may not be on the horizon any time soon. Waiting for a cure and rehabilitation to change our lives is something we may not have the luxury in doing. Shifting our perspective towards our illness, no longer looking at it as an entirely negative force in our life, can help get us on the path of self-discovery and self-appreciation.

The grace of our illness teaches us to appreciate our lives as they are now and the value of life itself.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton