Empowering chronic health sufferers: distinguishing between fear and limitation

Robert Rees – Director Share

I frequently work in therapy with individuals enduring chronic and acute health conditions, particularly those grappling with recent diagnoses, adapting to life changes, and facing the challenges of deteriorating health. I possess firsthand insight into this journey as I was diagnosed with MS in 2012, marking over a decade of navigating life with this condition.

While a life-altering diagnosis like mine has taught me invaluable lessons about the mental and physical dynamics surrounding health conditions—especially chronic ones—this awareness has been notably evident in those contending with long COVID-like symptoms. These symptoms, though often unseen by observers, significantly alter the sufferers’ lives, leading to a more restricted existence due to reduced exercise, persistent fatigue, pain, and other related challenges.

Understandably, many adapt their lifestyles to accommodate these limitations, aiming to manage their energy levels or disabilities better. However, some choices stem from a desire to avoid confronting these new constraints. For instance, reluctance to walk due to anticipated fatigue might not always align with the actual daily experience of fatigue.

This juncture fascinates me: distinguishing between genuine limitations and fear-based responses. It begs the question—how often do we mistake a fear-driven reaction for an actual limitation, hindering us from living more fully? Overcoming this confusion isn’t a one-time event but rather a daily practice.

Our brains, wired somewhat primitively, tend to seek the quickest solutions when stressed or faced with limitations—this instinctual behavior is a survival mechanism. This primal response often leads to avoidant behaviors, akin to the widespread prevalence of addiction as a means to cope with discomfort or distress. While these choices offer immediate relief, they aren’t conducive to long-term well-being, a consequence of our brains not evolving with these modern choices in mind.

When confronted with thoughts or experiences highlighting our limitations, fear prompts us to avoid them, generating tangible physical responses like chest tightness, panic, or a sense of imbalance. Consequently, we instinctively seek to suppress these sensations swiftly.

This instinct to avoid discomfort manifests in various forms—choosing not to engage with friends leading ‘normal’ lives, preferring indoor solitude over outdoor activities, or dissociating through screen time. The crux of daily overcoming chronic health conditions lies in discerning between fear and actual limitations, a skill honed through consistent practice.

Yet, it’s a complex process that necessitates cultivating different qualities within ourselves—patience to endure discomfort, observing our bodies objectively without biases from past pain, respecting our energy fluctuations without judgments or future predictions, and allowing fear to naturally dissipate instead of evading it, thus conserving energy and fostering a better sense of well-being.

Acknowledging the grief associated with life changes and openly discussing these feelings with loved ones can fortify relationships and replenish our energy reserves. Moreover, it’s crucial to recognize that our bodies aren’t fixed in a permanent state, even though our perception may occasionally lead us to believe otherwise.

Robert is a Psychotherapist at The Grove Practice, he teaches on The Grove’s Embodiment, Regulate, Sleep and Trauma trainings. See here for The Grove’s full list of courses.

To work with Robert or speak to him about The Grove’s courses please email robert@thegrovepractice.com.

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