Over the past couple of years, I have experienced more injuries and sickness than I had in my whole life. Between sports injuries (back and shoulder), bacterial and skin infections, and flu and other illnesses, I’ve had a constant steady flow of obstacles that have kept me from consistently being active and, what’s worse, consistently being positive.
It hit me a few months ago, when I was dealing with one of these ailments, that if I couldn’t remain positive and energetic with these minor issues, then I would certainly crumble if (or when) I am ever diagnosed with cancer, or injured in a car accident or fill in the blank of the random unfortunate things that happen in life. I realized that figuring out how to stay positive, despite these small physical issues, would serve me later in life when things could be much more difficult to bare.
So for the past few months, I have been making a list of how I can remain positive and keep these ailments from negatively impacting my life. I haven’t mastered them – no, not at all – but I have learned their value in small doses, and as I continue to work on these I am confident that they will lead me to a better life.
1. Remember that someone else always has it worse off
I remember a story of a man in a hospital who had a broken leg. He lamented in his sorrow because he would not be able to work or play for weeks with his cast on. He worked on a manufacturing floor and even being in the floor with crutches and a cast would be a liability and safety hazard and he would miss out on weeks of pay. Furthermore, his main hobby was golfing and he certainly wouldn’t be able to play in the annual tournament next month that his friends put on each year.
“I can’t believe this!” he said as he struggled into a wheelchair to leave his hospital room, “this is the worst possible thing that could have happened to me!” Just then, as he wheeled through the door and into the hallway, he connected eyes with another man, also being wheeled through the hall, who was missing a leg due to a terrible accident. The man hung his head in quick realization that it can always be worse.
I had a similar experience, albeit not quite as dramatic, when I recently watched the documentary Gleason on Amazon Prime. Here I had spent two full weeks feeling sorrowful about an injured shoulder and a sore lower back. Now, while watching the film, I spent an hour in the life of Steve Gleason, 35-year-old former NFL star who has, for the last three years, been struggling as his body deteriorates from ALS. I quickly had something to be grateful for. Sure I wasn’t in 100% health, but I had my body and my speech, unlike Steve. That thought alone helped me to be more positive, because, as I will discuss more, I had so much to be grateful for.
2. Be Grateful
I have written in the past about how gratefulness can change your mood and lead to better performance in life and at work. Being grateful isn’t just a trick for being happy though. Being grateful is a way of life that makes everything better. Gratefulness is especially important when you’re down and out with injuries or illness. And I don’t mean just “wow, I’m glad I don’t have ALS,” or “I’m so thankful I broke my leg instead of losing it.” No, I’m talking about being grateful for other things, like your house or car or job or friends or family. Feeling gratitude for all of the positive things in your life quickly takes away any pain or angst about the negatives.
It’s impossible to write a list of all of the things you are grateful for while simultaneously pitying yourself. It’s impossible to say “I’m thanks for blank,” while feeling sorrowful about blank. Yes, it’s true that simply exercising the internal emotion of gratitude can change the way you think and feel, and can make life with illness and injury so much easier. But gratitude alone won’t do it, you also need to find other ways to be active, so it’s important to find new outlets for your energy.
3. Find other outlets
When you’re sick or injured, the easiest thing to do is sit on the couch and watch TV or lie in bed playing with your phone. Sometimes, that’s exactly what your body needs, R&R, and other times you need to get up and move and find things to challenge your body in ways that don’t worsen your ailment. Below is a list of a few things that have helped me to get up, get active, and feel better, despite being sick and injured:
- Stop researching about what’s wrong with you. We all know that WebMD and the many forums out there on the web do not make you feel any better, so stop reading them and read something else. Get your mind off of your body.
- Go for a walk. If you’re able, there is really nothing that boosts a mood more than walking outside. If weather permits and your legs are in good enough health then get outside and walk and leave your smartphone at home.
- Take cold showers or ice baths. Cold water therapy has been known to treat depression. Even Vincent Van Gogh wrote about how much happier he became after ice baths which he took regularly in the insane asylum which he was sent to after he cut off his ear. (see my other posts on the topic: Cold Showers and Ice Baths).
- Moving to another location, even if it is simply to sit. This could be to a coffee shop to read, to a movie theater to watch a movie, or to a park bench to watch the birds. Anything to get you up, get the blood flowing, change your scenery, and keep living.
- Meet with friends. Isolation is like gasoline on the fire of depression when it comes to being sick or injured. Being alone means more time to think about your pain and feel sorry for yourself, whereas being with other people forces you out of the self-centeredness. Just make sure you don’t meet with friends and let your ailment be the main topic of conversation, instead try to resist talking about it altogether.
4. Refuse to talk about it
This one is possibly the hardest to practice. When illness and pain are so prevalent in your mind, it’s difficult not to share this information with those who care about you. And while it is important to inform your loved ones about the struggles in life, it is obvious that this information is not uplifting to them but actually rather oppressive.
I have known people whose entire conversations were about their illness. There was no judgment for these peoples’ pain, and their hurt was certainly warranted and I truly cared when we talked about their struggles. However, I felt these people were sometimes unable to have real relationships and real conversations. Instead, they were so caught up in the misery of their state of being, that they couldn’t enjoy anything besides lamenting. I sometimes felt put at arm’s length by the barrier between us, the discomfort and agony that they wedged between themselves and everyone around them. They were unable to set it aside, nor did I really want them to. To ask a person to “stop talking about how sick you are” would not only be rude but incredibly selfish and cruel. Of course, you would never truly want a person to do this.
However, I have also known people who are plagued by life-long injuries, diseases, and ailments who spoke only briefly of the matter, or not at all. They lived in pain and discomfort but found ways to bury it in their conversations. It rarely came up, and when it did the person shared some positive progress or explained that they were feeling OK today
It’s not that one of these people or the other is necessarily right or wrong. It’s not wrong to talk about your injury or sickness, and it’s not necessarily right to leave it unknown either.
However, there is without a doubt an obvious difference in a person’s spirit and in his or her happiness depending on which route he or she chooses. The person who speaks of his illness often thinks of his illness often. The person who reports on her injury to each person feels her injury quite regularly. Whereas conversely, I believe that the person who refuses to bring up his injury in conversation probably feels his pain less and the person who chooses not to inform everyone about her sickness feels less ill. It seems simple, but our choice to let our ailments dominate our conversations are actually a powerful choice to feel ail or to not feel ail.
I know this because I have been on both sides. I have recognized my desire to talk about my ailments, and I have, at times, stopped speaking about them. By holding my tongue about my problems I have been able to engage in meaningful conversations that deterred my mind from everything besides my ailment. And while this is so much easier said than done, I am now renewing my vow to speak less to others about my physical problems and more about other things. It helps with relationships and it helps to stay positive.
As I stated earlier, I have not mastered these tactics. I am not a mindful guru sitting in quiet meditation tricking my brain to feel no pain, and I am certainly not the image of perfection when it comes to being complaint-free and always being grateful. But I have learned that these four things are key elements of behavior that I can control in order to stay positive when I am sick or injured, and I plan to work on them more as physical challenges will certainly continue to arise. I hope these four actions help you as much as they have helped me.