Every person who steps into a psychologist’s office wants change. I’d often watch clients’ faces light up as they shared their goals for a better future. And then all too often the shadow of fear and self-doubt would creep into their voices, reminding us of what binds them to their current state of being.
Every person’s story and circumstance was unique but the desire for change, with the promise of a better tomorrow, was universal. We often crave change from repetitive and paralysing thoughts, change from unhealthy behaviours and oppressive emotional states, or change from compulsions, grief or physical and emotional pain.
Just like Pilgrim's Progress
So with so many people searching for it and so much psychological research devoted to it, why are we still struggling to make a lasting commitment to a new way of living? I believe we over-complicate change. It is often portrayed as a hardship – an obstacle to happiness.
It is this negative view that stops people from embracing it as a powerful catalyst for renewal. We are rarely told that change is soul enhancing, eternal, inevitable, strengthening, and a powerful ally of personal growth. Change can bring wisdom and heal the deepest emotional and physical wounds. You are not the same person you were 5 years ago.
Yet we often overlook the tremendous growth to our body, mind and spirit that occurs every year we are lucky enough to experience on this earth. If you think you are incapable of creating change in your life, you may be surprised to learn that it is already recreating you without your conscious awareness.
Change is inescapable
Change is inescapable. The process of change for each of us is as unique as we are. Nothing reminded me more of this than two beautiful ladies I worked with recently, who were both suffering crippling pain and had become reliant on painkillers (not MS clients).
Through daily mindfulness activities, as well as diet and lifestyle changes their pain reduced and they decided to tackle their dependency on medications. One lady slowly reduced her dosage over the course of a 2-month period while the other stopped abruptly and dealt with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. When they visited me at subsequent appointments they both looked amazing, had lost weight, and reportedly felt incredible. I was struck by how they had followed two vastly different paths to arrive at a mutually desired goal – being drug-free and managing pain naturally. So it is for each of us with a common desire for change from debilitation, fatigue, pain, and progression of our MS.
Some of you may have stripped the fridge and pantry of all dairy, meats, processed foods and unhealthy oils, and then joined a local gym all in the one day. Others may have adopted a gradual approach of removing one nasty food at a time until you built up a good repertoire of ‘healthy’ meals.
The point being that there is no right or wrong way to initiate change. If you haven’t been successful in the past it may be because you weren’t ready, or you were letting something or someone hold you back from trying. I recall my motivation for change coming in waves.
At my lowest point during my second relapse I had been stuck in bed for days unable to even lift my head from fatigue and nausea. I was sick of my own miserable company and I remember sobbing as I promised myself I would never feel this bad again. I had no plan, no ideas for how to achieve this and I was still wasting energy battling against my inevitable diagnosis.
A commitment to oneself
Nevertheless, I made a commitment to my poor suffering body that I would do anything to get as far away from here, out of this suffocating bedroom, and back to my loved ones. I had unknowingly grasped the first tenet of change – if you want things to be different you must do things differently.
And I did. I quit my job, downsized life demands, researched my disease, overhauled my diet and lifestyle and prioritised my health for the first time in my life. The love I showed my body was eventually rewarded with completely clear MRI scans – no new or old lesions.
I have been happily living a symptom-free and active life with my little family of boys ever since. If you think that you are ready to try again and embrace the positive habits of healthy eating and living to manage and recover from MS then here are my top three tips for change.
TIP #1 To begin, begin – William Wordsworth
Don’t wait for the right time to start your recovery; that time is now. Choose herbal teas over caffeinated drinks, drink water instead of all other beverages and incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into your next meal. Don’t rigidly plan this, just do it. Walk to the mailbox, the end of the driveway, around the block or through a patch of nature each day. The distance and length is irrelevant. It is the intention of changing your daily routine and embracing movement that is important. Don’t think about tomorrow’s schedule unless planning is your thing, just make healing choices in every present moment and you will remain true to your desire for lasting change.
TIP #2 Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it
Too often we let our mind dominate our actions. We perseverate on long-term challenges and obstacles and often get stuck in the contemplation stage of change – spinning our wheels in a quagmire of mind games.
Acknowledge negative thoughts that tell you, “I can’t stick to anything”, “I’m too old to try”, “life’s too short to not eat…?” These are perfectly normal, uncontrollable thoughts that come to all of us.
But when we allow these thoughts and the feelings they evoke (e.g., hopelessness, defeat, self-loathing) to control our actions we remain stuck. Acknowledge these thoughts but don’t let them keep you from moving and stretching your body daily, from taking one bad ingredient like dairy off your menu, from practicing deep breathing or researching mindfulness. Not enough emphasis is given to action.
My fabulous Tai Chi teacher once told me, “fake it till you make it Angela”. I had stopped in the middle of a set because I lost my place in the 108-move sequence – pretty easy to do! She taught us to wave our arms around and move our feet in time with the class until we found our way again because action stimulates muscle memory, engages our mind and is the pathway to learning.
Learning by ‘doing’ rather than ‘thinking’ was a powerful lesson for me. You don’t need to know everything there is about healthy cooking or have the meditation skills of a Buddhist monk to start incorporating these actions into your daily life. You don’t even have to like them at first. Simply focus on practicing daily healthy actions and where your body leads your head will follow.
TIP #3 Your health is MOST important and you are not responsible for changing others
There is nothing selfish about caring for your health and wellbeing above all others. Follow the advice given by flight attendants who encourage you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child or those around you. If you don’t take care of yourself first then you may not be able to help those you care about most.
Focus all your energy on YOU because your health and wellbeing is essential to meeting all your other hopes and dreams in life. Also, don’t try to save the world by changing the diet and lifestyle of other family members and loved ones during your recovery.
Focus on your diet first and deal with wider food and lifestyle issues of your partner and kids when you have arrived at your goals. They will learn more from your actions and the example you set than from anything you say.