Many techniques have been developed to help people cope with ongoing stressful situations and develop new skills to handle them more effectively. When you engage your body, mind and emotions in new ways, it can help you nourish yourself, change patterns and refresh your spirit.
Two practical and easy-to-do approaches are described below with exercises you can try. You can use these tools whenever you need them to help you relax, shift gears and create new strategies to handle situations in your life.
Mind and Body Exercises:
- CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
- Exercise 1: Transforming Negative Self-Talk Into Something Positive
- Exercise 2: Regaining a Sense of Control
- Exercise 3: Empowerment and Being Kind to Yourself
- Guided Imagery
CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is based on the idea that how we think, feel and act are inter-related. This means that changing any one of these elements will begin to make changes in the others.
How does this help someone living with a chronic disease? CBT can help people deal with the concerns, feelings or fears that living with a long term health condition or disease can bring. It can help you feel calmer and better able to handle challenges by changing how you think about things and what actions you take.
There are many different aspects of CBT, but common techniques include:
- Questioning automatic thoughts, assumptions, judgments and beliefs that might be unhelpful and unrealistic
- Keeping a diary of significant events and related feelings, thoughts and behaviors
- Trying out new ways of behaving and reacting
The following are some CBT exercises you can try on your own to help relieve distress and learn new ways to cope. They are designed to give you more control over your thoughts and mood. This is an empowering skill to have.
Exercise 1: Transforming Negative Self-Talk Into Something Positive
We all catch ourselves thinking things like, "This is too hard" or "I'll never be able to do this." For just one day, try listening to the voices in your head. You may discover that many of the comments you say to yourself are negative in tone or content. In fact, research has found that people generally make three negative statements for each positive one. We all have our own patterns of negative self-talk.
It is common to have negative thoughts when dealing with a chronic illness. Because our thoughts influence how we feel, negative statements can make us feel hopeless, depressed and out of control.
A technique called cognitive restructuring can help you become aware of negative thought patterns, decide how accurate they are, and replace them with kinder and more realistic thoughts. Many people find that this helps them feel calmer and more able to handle what comes along each day.
Let's take the example of a common statement that many people express: "My whole life revolves around my health condition. I can't enjoy myself anymore."
Here is how you can use cognitive restructuring to transform this thought.
- Ask yourself: How do I feel when I say that statement to myself? What effect does it have on me? (Ex. "When I think that thought it makes me feel hopeless and depressed.") Write down your answers.
- Now ask yourself: What is true about this statement? (Ex. "I spend a lot of time in my doctor's office undergoing treatment.") Write down your answers.
- Next, in what ways is this statement not completely true? Are there times when it is not accurate or correct? (Ex. "Spending a lot of time in my doctor's office is not the only thing I do; I have many other components to my life.") Write down your answers.
- Replace the original negative thought with a less overwhelming, more accurate and more positive statement. For example:
- "Sometimes I feel like. but there are other times when."
- "This condition is just a condition - It does not define who I am."
- "This thought is not completely true and I can choose to think differently."
Try this exercise with other thoughts you have that you would like to shift. First, identify the thought and write it down. Go through the steps listed above. Once you have created a more accurate statement, write it down and practice saying it whenever that loop of negative thinking creeps into your mind.
Exercise 2: Regaining a Sense of Control
Another common feeling is "I feel overwhelmed by all the changes I'm supposed to make. It's too much to handle." Doing Exercise 1 above can also help you when you are feeling this way. Here is another CBT exercise to try.
- Breaking things down into small, simple steps keeps them do-able and less overwhelming. It also gives you an opportunity to measure your progress more easily. Make a checklist of the changes you are trying to make that feel overwhelming right now.
- Make a plan. Looking at your list, pick one change and break it down into small steps. These small steps should be specific and practical. For example, if you want to improve your diet, step one might be to make a list of healthier foods and where you can buy them. Step two might be to write down when you will go to the store and which foods you will buy.
Here is another example: If you're trying to exercise more but feel you don't have enough time, try breaking your exercise down into smaller bites or do it in several shorter time periods over the course of the day (for example, get your 30 minutes a day of exercise in three 10 minute segments). Make a list of small activities you can do throughout the day like taking a 5 minute walk, getting off the bus one stop earlier, and getting up to change the channel on the TV instead of using the remote control.
- Let's see what you can do today. Start with step one of your plan. Once you have accomplished it, check it off your list.
- Once you've accomplished step 1 of your plan, move on to step 2. Again, decide what you will do and when you will do it.
Here are some tips to think about:
Recognizing obstacles to change: Even when we want to make changes, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the reasons why it's hard. It could lack of time, lack of support or not feeling well enough to tackle something. Once you've identified common obstacles and patterns in your life that make change difficult, you can begin to figure out actions or steps to help you overcome them.
Recognizing your progress: As you get started with your small activities, focus on what's working and notice how you feel. You may find yourself feeling more confident and able to make changes, more positive, more interested in life, more rested, or more open to new things. Each little step you take brings you closer to your goals. This is not about doing it perfectly. When you focus on what you have accomplished, you will be feeding positive feelings-and this will help you continue to progress towards your goals.
Be gentle with yourself: Success in making changes may not occur on the first try-in fact, some research suggests that it takes between 3-5 tries. Over the long term, lapses are normal-expect them and just get back on track as soon as you can.
Set long term goals and keep them in mind. This will help you stay focused and on task when things feel challenging. Examples of long term goals that can keep you motivated are:
I want to stay healthy enough to play with my grandchildren
I want to stay healthy enough to be able to travel and visit friends
Exercise 3: Empowerment and Being Kind to Yourself
Here is another common statement: "I can't stand another day of this." In addition to using the techniques in Exercises 1 and 2 above, you can try this CBT exercise.
- Ask yourself, "Have I ever felt this way in the past?" If so, simply recognize and appreciate the fact that you overcame those situations.
- When facing a difficult situation, it can be helpful to think about the specific ways you managed or overcome challenges in the past. For each of the situations you thought of in response to question 1, think about what you did in those situations to feel better. Would any of those strategies work in the present situation? Write down your answers.
- Even if you have never felt this exact way in the past, think about what kinds of things make you feel better when you are feeling down. (Ex. I feel better when I go to a movie with a friend; I always feel better after I take a hot shower). List some of those things.
- Challenge your negative thoughts by asking, "What would I tell my best friend if he or she were in this situation?" Write down your answers.
- Try to do one thing each day that you enjoy no matter how small. Write down what you are going to do tomorrow that is enjoyable to you. You'd be surprised at the positive effect this has.
This guided imagery exercise is a powerful relaxation technique that helps reduce anxiety, stress and discomfort. Research shows that using imagery can produce positive physical changes in the body. By guiding our images in a healthy direction, we can affect our heart rate, reduce muscle tension, improve the circulation of oxygen, reduce pain, and lower blood pressure.
You can listen to this 5-minute exercise as often as you wish. It is suggested that you listen once a day or at least several times a week. The more you do this exercise, the more effective it will be as a tool for relaxation.
Please remember to adjust the level of sound through the volume settings on your computer.