Everyone has habits - good ones, big ones, small ones, bad ones. Some can be easy to change or adopt; while others require a great deal of effort to weed out, or to cultivate. When you have a chronic illness such as RA, your habits can be a big source of support for you, or a dreadful drain on your energy, health and time.
One of the definitions for the word habit is the development of a behaviour pattern until it almost becomes involuntary. “Almost becomes involuntary” is a phrase loaded with hope. It implies that there is room for change - that because it is not involuntary, you can either fan the flames of a new habit, or extinguish an old, non-resourceful one.
Suppose you have a habit you wish to break, like biting your fingernails. Perhaps you started biting them when you were feeling nervous. Unconsciously, you realize that while biting your nails your feelings of nervousness faded away - your focus shifted to your nails as you actively worked at trimming them. The next time you feel nervous, you unconsciously remember that you felt a sense of relief from biting your nails. So you do it again; then again, and again, each time you want to feel a little bit better. In science it’s called Stimulus and Response. Then, often, over time, the stimulus isn’t needed and it becomes just something you do, even when you’re not feeling nervous. The habit seems to take on a life of its own.
Change unwanted habits
Keep in mind that you may be unconsciously remembering a time when you felt better by taking part in that behavior, even if the behavior is ultimately bad for you. Acknowledge your feelings. Name them. When you suppress your feelings, it is the equivalent of trying to stuff more kitchen waste into an already over-stuffed garbage bag - it eventually leaks out.
Note your habit triggers - people, places and things that elicit a feeling, which may activate the habit. Refrain from berating or belittling yourself, as this puts you into the stress zone. Instead, get curious. Observe whether you are doing something to distract yourself from those feelings. Do you bite your nails, reach for a drink or light up a cigarette? Maybe chocolate or chips call out to you. Perhaps you shut out your feelings by sleeping the day away.
It may be helpful to start by adding some healthy habits because the positive feelings you generate with your success can be used to change your more challenging habits.
Gently breathe. Practice replacing unwanted thoughts with more positive ones. Luxuriate in the feelings that are generated by a favorite memory. Take a walk. Drink some water. Sing a song. Dust. Phone a friend. Be aware that until you have extinguished the non-resourceful habit, you will feel uncomfortable. Reassure yourself that you are safe.
Grow some RA-friendly habits
Invest in yourself. Take the time to cultivate these habits to help you live well with RA:
- Transform your stress - you may inadvertently trigger the stress response each time you soak in negative thoughts and emotions. Stress distracts. It impairs your ability to make conscious choices. It depletes your resilience and dampens your resolve. When you develop skills to transform your stress, you feel better. When you feel better, it’s easier to weed out the unwanted habits and sow the wanted ones.
Body awareness - tune in to when you feel good. What were you thinking and feeling in the previous days and weeks? Next month, I’ll be discussing how you can work on this habit.
Rest and sleep hygiene - establish routines that will help you.
Exercise - is good for you and can help decrease inflammation. Get advice from your healthcare team.
Nutrition - pay attention to how you feel after you eat certain foods. Are you suddenly drained of energy? Do you have trouble digesting.
Love - be immersed in the people, places and things you love.
Nature - get out there - land, sea, sky. Make nature a part of your daily routine, if only for minutes at a time. Leave your electronics behind and immerse yourself in your surroundings.
Build your team - compile a list of people you trust to help you on your RA journey. They can include healthcare providers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, naturopaths, movement specialists, support groups, on-line sources, friends - the list goes on.
- Appointments - develop a system to keep track of your appointments. When you miss an appointment it can wreck havoc in the schedule, affecting the practitioner and other patients.
- Medication - designate a safe place to keep your medication - one where you’ll see it, then remember to take it. (See Lisa’s post, Medication Safety: Watch What You Put in Your Mouth.)
- Complaining - when you constantly complain, where is the focus? On what hurts. The more you focus on your pain, the more pain you tend to have. Grumbling, kvetching, whining can slip you into the stress zone. A place that you don’t need to visit, since it can trigger the inflammatory response.
Keep in mind that habits - both wanted and unwanted - help to carry you away from pain, and bring you towards pleasure, even though it may not be apparent in the case of unwanted habits. Purify your habits and enjoy healthy pleasures.
Your turn. What are some habits that you have either added or subtracted? How did it make a difference in your life? Did you use any particular techniques?
Marianna Paulson is known as @AuntieStress. On her website, you’ll find links to her two blogs, Auntie Stress Café and the award-winning A Rheumful of Tips. When she is not helping clients (and herself) address stress, she keeps active by swimming, dog walking, and taking frequent dance breaks. She takes steps in a number of different directions in order to work on being a “Superager.” She may have RA, but it doesn’t have her! “Choose to be optimistic. It feels better.” - Dalai Lama XIV