Tuesday, January 29, 2019

From Illness to Wellness


Isha called in sick for work, as she was down with a bad cold. The youngest child of her parents, Isha was brought up in a loving, protected, environment. As she had been small and weak as a baby, her parents had always been extra careful about her health, always that she was well protected against rain, heat and cold. She was never allowed to eat out, as her mother feared she would come down with a stomach bug. Every little physical complaint was catered to, and taken care of, with the utmost love and attention. Isha grew up with the belief that she was physiologically delicate and did not keep good health.

Sandhya, Isha’s colleague, was always at work, come rain or sunshine, come health or illness. She grew up in a family where minor scrapes, aches and pains were considered as part of day-to-day life, where she was encouraged to go about her daily work even if she were down with a fever, and where mental and physical resilience were always encouraged and appreciated. Sandhya’s self image today, vis-a-vis her health is that she is a sturdy and resilient individual, who does not crash at the first sneeze or cough.

Today, all of us, at some level, understand and accept the huge impact our mind has on our physical well being. Research has today implicated the mind, not just in psychosomatic disorders such as ulcers, blood pressure and headaches, but in chronic conditions such as diabetes as well as in terminal illnesses such as cancer and tumours! This intangible, invisible thing called the mind, which has the power to bring the body to its knees, is also a delicate entity, easily influenced by external winds. And the strongest influence on the human mind is the thoughts and messages communicated by the significant others in our life. Our close family members can, and often do, influence the way we think, the way we look at life, and at ourselves. It is only natural; then, that our thoughts about our physical health and well being can be significantly influenced by our close relationships. And we, in turn, influence the health and well being of our family members as well.

Knowing this, it is time for each of us to take charge of how we impact the health of our family members, and do so in a positive manner rather than otherwise. Let us look at some ways in which we can be a positive influence on the health of our loved ones. 

Be a Positive Support
When your loved one is feeling unwell, sympathise with him or her. Be sensitive to the illness, or condition, that is causing pain or discomfort. Communicate your understanding to your loved one. At the same time, point out the positive aspects of the situation. For instance, if your spouse is down with a viral fever and has to miss an important meeting, empathize with him. At the same time, also point out that “at least you will be well in time for the big presentation next week.” It always helps to be positive in the face of illness. It helps restore immunity, it makes you feel better, and it makes the present situation far more tolerable.

Condition Health, Not Illness
A lot of our behaviours are the result of conditioning, that usually takes place in our childhood. Behaviours reinforced by our parents in a positive manner are repeated, and those that are criticised or punished are less likely to be repeated. Thus, as parents, ensure that you condition your children to grow up as healthy adults, and not as sickly, delicate beings. Treating a child as a weak child, and giving too much attention every time the child is sick, will condition the child’s system to repeat those behaviours, and will also condition the mind to believe that he is a weak child. In contrast, if you focus on health and well being, the child will be conditioned to do so himself, and if you teach him to be tough in the face of illness, he will eventually internalise this idea. Build psychological hardiness in children, and that in turn will ensure higher resilience to and quicker recovery from illnesses.

Don’t Mollycoddle
People often mistake care with mollycoddling. It is one thing to care for a sick child and be concerned about his well being, it is quite another to fuss over a slight sprain or a little stomach ache! When a loved one is unwell, pampering him or her will always make him feel better, and there is no harm in doing so – to a certain extent. Overdoing it can backfire badly, not so much on you, but more on the person himself. Mollycoddling leads the person to believe that even a small illness or ache is big enough to bring work to a standstill, lie on the bed, and complain about the discomfort. Worse, it conditions the person’s mind to believe that the body is really suffering and is unwell, and as discussed earlier, this conditioning goes a long way in shaping the person’s belief about his or her own physical health and well being.
As a child, Parag suffered frequently from the Flu. Every time he came down with the Flu, his mother would take leave and be home with him. He would not be allowed to go to school until not only his fever, but his cold and cough were completely recovered. Eventually, every time he got a cold or cough, his parents started him off on an antibiotic course, and his mother often said to him, “You are coughing, I know tomorrow you will come down with fever.” Now, as an adult, Parag has the same mindset. Every time he comes down with a severe bout of cold, he gives up on his body, and “knows” that he will now come down with a high fever.
In psychological terms, the person inculcates something like a ‘learned helplessness’. This means, that the person does not even make an attempt to fight the illness or overcome it, but succumbs to it meekly.

Teach By Example
Every time Rohit feels unwell, he remembers his mother. Diagnosed with cancer at the age of 42, Rohit’s mother never lost her zest for life. Despite intensive and invasive treatment interventions, she was always smiling, and went about her life as normally as she could. Rohit could not remember a single day when his mother was not up and about every morning, waking them up with a smile for school, seeing them off, having hot lunch waiting for them, taking their studies, and going about being a mum and a wife as though there was nothing wrong with her. She maintained not just her positivity and her enthusiasm for life, but also her routine and her activity levels, right up to the last few months, when her body was racked with pain, medications, and radiation.
Actions speak louder than words. It’s as simple as that! If your children and your spouse, or any member in your family, see you taking illness or physical discomfort in your stride, it will create a far stronger impact than any words could. Thus, the way you tackle illness, both in action as well as in thought, will help shape the way your family members look at it.

Use Humour
Ill humour is often a concomitant of ill health. Naturally, when one is unwell, one feels irritable and out of sorts. Showing them the light side of the situation, helping them laugh at themselves and their condition can often create a positive change in the person. Of course, it is important to use humour sensitively. In our attempt to distract the person from his illness, we should not engage in humour that could be even remotely perceived as being derogatory, sarcastic or insensitive. Remember, humour is to be used to generate positivity and bring a smile to the person’s face, and happiness in his heart. 

Enumerate Strengths
When Bhushan got a severe asthma attack and could not accompany his daughter on her first day of nursery school, he was very upset with himself. Bhushan suffered from chronic asthma since childhood, and this had often deprived him of many opportunities. This time around, he felt really low, as he felt he was missing out on little things in his child’s life due to his asthma. Bhavna, his wife, smilingly told him that this was not the case. She pointed out how, while he did have this chronic illness, he otherwise enjoyed good health and was always around when she or their daughter needed him. She reminded him of the times when he had taken so much pressure at work and yet not subdued to an asthma attack.
As a family member, if you can support your loved one to focus on his or her strengths, it can be immensely helpful. Illness is typically a time when you feel low and down, and it is natural that at such times, you dwell on your limitations or your weaknesses and lose sight of the strengths. Having someone see those strengths can be heartening and uplifting.

Help Build Perspective
At the end of the day, what really helps change one’s mindset from illness to wellness is the way in which one sees the illness, the perspective that one is able to gain on it. Here, having a family member with a positive, sensitive, and sensible approach can help the person see things in the right light. Yes, illness can be debilitating, and at times, even devastating. Its implications range from a few missed days at work, to a complete lifestyle change, and at times, a real threat to life. Yet, when dealt with in a positive manner, each one of us can take illness in our stride and carry on with life as best as we can.

Restore Harmony
A disease is a state of dis-ease. Another way to see it would be that a disease, or an illness, upsets the internal harmony in an individual. This disharmonious state could be in the mind or the body, but usually, the repercussions are felt and experienced in the body. Anything you can do to help restore this equilibrium for your loved one, will not only make him or her feel emotionally relaxed, but will also directly impact the severity of the symptoms as he or she is experiencing them. While the mind-body relationship is a complex subject of scientific study, as a supportive family member, it is enough if we just try to understand the internal sense of upset or disharmony that our loved one is experiencing, and do whatever is in our power, to restore harmony.

Create a Wellness Culture
Every family has its own unique culture, shaped by the family members, their experiences, and their personalities. Make a proactive, conscious attempt to ingrain in your family members, this positive outlook toward wellbeing. Create a family culture that focuses on health and wellbeing, and not on ill health and illness, that can accept occasional health upsets as part of life, yet not get overwhelmed by them, and can keep the focus on becoming and being healthy.

Just one word of caution, though! Having an illness focus by no means implies that you have to be insensitive to an unwell family member, that you must expect every member in your family to be on his two feet no matter what. Far from it! What it does mean is that you see, and help that family member see, that occasional illness or disease is part of Life, and must be treated as such. It means being sensitive to the discomfort the person may be suffering, at the same time, encouraging the person to see that it is a small part of his existence at any given point in time and help him focus equally on other things that are happening in his life.

Article first published in Complete Wellbeing magazine, July 2011