About 1 in 10 Canadians encounter a disabling illness or injury during their working years (Statistics Canada, 2017). This initially presents as a health crisis. Some incident – like a heart attack, loss of a spouse or back injury – sets major life changes into motion, often within a matter of weeks. As functional declines kick in, most people report feeling like their body has hit a wall. Like they are broken or defective. They typically worry about keeping their job or providing for their family.
And, a growing number of Canadians have taken on these personal health risks. People are increasingly incentivized to work past the age of 65, as R.R.S.P. savings and pension plans cope with a longer retirement age among Canadians. And yet, the risk of disabling illness significantly increases per decade of age. Many Canadians are living longer, but necessarily healthier.
Some people talk openly about their health challenges. But, most usually talk about the health challenges others have. It seems shameful to talk about how our own health failed, because we often feel we contributed to our own demise.
And, we are all guilty of this avoidance. As a Registered Nurse, I often prefer to let patients manage their own preventative care. It feels less patronizing that way. Likewise, patients prefer to have “proof” that something is wrong before making any substantive changes in health behaviours. Clinicians like me don’t always get to address the glaring health risks we see starting back at us. And yet, most patients report that they rely on their health professional to advise them on recommended lifestyle changes.
Our shared failure of effective self-management of disease is, in fact, dangerous. It sets even the most health individuals up for experiencing a major health crisis in their lifetimes.
Resisting Health Change
In my experience, some of the healthiest people are also some of the hardest hit by health challenges. I’ve personally worked with elite athletes who didn’t want to treat extremely high blood pressures with medications. Despite average ambulatory BP readings ≥ 180/110, the performance athlete was certain they could run away from their blood pressure. Any time their BP spiked in the doctor’s office, they ran extra hard that week. In one case, an athlete continued to run from their BP challenges until their body hit a wall. Syncope and collapse. With all the stress, it ended up being a hypertensive emergency requiring EMS response.
Of course, running is an excellent method to lower blood pressure in the long-term. And, athletes are not wrong that increasing the consistency of exercise would lower their blood pressure over time. They were wrong, however, in ignoring the acute nature of their health condition. The failure to act early, to treat disease promptly and reverse key warning signs set them up for a health crisis.
In a sense, this “healthy” athlete was no different from my many patients with diabetes who aren’t ready to start taking action, even if only to start on a new medication or insulin. They were just doing what society expected of them. The athlete was guilty of “pushing through” a serious disease, assuming they had 100% control over their health condition. Clinically, we see this time-and-time again. We often hear patients share their regrets about how unfair it is to get a disease, or how they feel derailed in their attempts to self-treat their own health challenges. Health crisis is a shock to the system.
3 Tips to Manage a Personal Health Crisis
By this point, you probably agree that a major health event can impact almost anybody. And, for most people, the pride of being healthy seems to get in way of recovery. So, if you want to overcome your health challenges, try these three techniques to tune into your body:
1. Practice Non-judgement
We all have “positive” or “negative” thoughts. And, multiple studies have shown that the average person thinks more positively about their own health then they do others’ health in the same situation. This is commonly referred to as attribution bias.
Because we naturally judge everything as good or bad, positive attributions make us feel better about ourselves. They prevent us from feeling too sad or too incompetent in a bad situation, giving us a sense of achievement and control in our life. However, attribution bias also allows us to delay taking action on urgent health changes.
Health should not privilege us, and there is no shame in having to live with disease. But, when confronted with a health crisis, it is hard to see the facts objectively and take on the role of being “sick” or “infirm”. Most would prefer to ignore the crisis, and keep acting like they are healthy.
Struggling to accept your current health status? Read this post: Shifting Perspectives of Chronic Disease
2. Reconnect to your Body
We often ignore what our body is telling us, because we have other commitments to the outside word. We may eat – even though we aren’t hungry – because others want to eat with us. Or, we go to work despite feeling sick because it’s “the right thing” to do.
For example, if you feel tired all the time, try graphing your fatigue levels through the day. Decide on a “level” of fatigue that you can tolerate. When your fatigue surpasses this level, make sure you find time to rest. It sounds simple, but people who do this are respecting their body and what it is telling them. And, among those who practice this on a regular basis, they start to notice that their body literally starts to “scream” for specific changes in their life.
Feeling “dead inside” after a health crisis? Try this Body Scan Meditation (UCLA-Berkeley)
3. Efficiently Lean into Suffering
This may be surprising to hear, but so many health problems come from seeking constant pleasure (or satisfaction) in our lives. Perhaps the biggest secret about health is that it requires some level of suffering to achieve it. Almost all serious diseases threaten to radically change our life, sometimes even pushing us towards greater purpose and potential.
True health involves “leaning in” to the suffering when it makes sense to do so. It means finishing those painful daily exercises prescribed after knee surgery. It also means eating foods you may not like. And, it could even involve putting up with important treatments that cause uncomfortable side-effects.
Popular health advice so often overlooks this fact. If you want to be healthy, you’ve got to do the hard – even uncomfortable – work of health change. Some people have to work harder than others. But, at the end of the day, we all have to take those painful first steps towards recovery and adaptation after illness.