“Your health is in your hands.”
It’s supposed to be an empowering phrase, meant to encourage you to take good care of your body and mind. And yet, there’s a kind of accusation hidden in there that so many chronically ill people face: have you done enough to stop this from happening to you?
Over the last decade or two, the way our society thinks about health and happiness has changed a lot. Thanks to a growing body of research on how our lifestyle affects our health – in good and in bad ways – and the widespread availability of information via the Internet, our mindset has gone from trying to control (chronic) disease with medication to actively preventing illness through healthy nutrition, exercise, stress management and positive thinking.
And that’s a good thing: with all the present-day knowledge, why wouldn’t we avoid serious risk factors and learn about how we can feel as fit, strong and upbeat as possible?
Somewhere along the way, however, we’ve started to believe that health, happiness and success are mostly within our control, that we can shape our own futures if only we’re determined and disciplined enough. Accounts of people who’ve cured themselves through food alone are all over the Internet. Magazines are covered with pun headlines compelling you to “beat the blues in six simple steps” or “get that bikini body under four weeks – just in time for swimsuit season!”. Hell, we even created a new word to describe all the fitspiration on Instagram and Pinterest.
And although I don’t doubt the truth behind these inspirational and encouraging stories, all put together there’s this underlying message: you’d probably feel much better if only you’d ‘eat clean’, work out three times a week or meditate each day. If you don’t, maybe you shouldn’t complain about feeling sick.
It’s the pitfall of the self-empowerment movement: people unconsciously think that because you can take some control over your own health, not being healthy must mean that it’s partially your fault.
Obviously this kind of blameful thinking doesn’t help anyone. Worse so, it triggers ruminative thoughts, feelings of depression or anxiety and self-destructive behaviour.
This attitude also ignores the fact that there’s only so much in life you have influence over. Your genetic strengths and vulnerabilities, the environment you live in, deeply-ingrained habits and thought patterns from your childhood — they all have an impact on your wellbeing too.
Now, as you might have guessed from reading The Health Sessions, I honestly believe in taking responsibility for your own health and doing whatever is within your reach to feel as energised and symptom-free as possible. I believe in the power of hope and gratitude, in nourishing your cells with vibrant food, in moving your body everyday in enjoyable ways.
But we should also have realistic expectations. Healthy living is no guarantee for staying healthy. Living with chronic illness isn’t a picnic in the park, and we don’t always get better, no matter how hard we try. There is no one magical cure, no one-size-fits-all when it comes to illness.
The pursuit of health and happiness shouldn’t make us overly averse to negativity. Pain and anguish, dark feelings and loneliness aren’t inconveniences in what’s supposed to be a smooth existence. These inner struggles are a natural part of life, not just a negative experience that should be swept under the rug as soon as possible.
That’s why there should also be room for acknowledging the hard times: the grief for the life you once led, the frustration about your limitations, the feelings of loneliness.
Life is full of ups and downs. And although we should always remain optimistic for better days, there’s no shame in admitting you’re not OK right now.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to choose the things I can and wisdom to see the difference.”
— Reinhold Niebuhr
What’s your view on taking your health into your own hands? Have you experienced critical comments or well-meant advice like “you should just think positive” or “have you tried so-and-so diet yet?”?
How do you balance accepting that being chronically ill sucks while also taking some responsibility for your health and happiness?
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