And in the past 2 years I’ve been watching as he’s been slowly recovering.
I’ve noticed how he has handled chronic pain, loss of mobility, severe nausea and the catastrophic up-ending of everything he thought he knew about life.
And I’ve been impressed.
I don’t know how many of us could have handled what he has been handed with as much grace.
Not that he’s been gracious every minute of every day. He’s been profoundly depressed. And really angry about his situation. At times.
But on the whole, Matthew has maintained a profound equilibrium.
How has he done it?
Well, I’ve been watching, and I’ve figured out that this exceptional ability to roll with the challenges of multiple chronic health conditions is the result of mindset.
So, I thought I’d ask him to tell us about it.
Mindset for Living with Pain & Illness
I asked Matthew these questions while we were waiting for a ferry. Something we do a lot of on the West Coast of Canada!
Petra: What role does mindset play in your healing process?
Matthew: It’s difficult to quantify the role of mindset in my healing. I know when I’m viewing things with the right filters it’s much easier to manage all my symptoms.
Petra: What are the right filters?
Matthew: That’s such a complicated question. I call it ‘happy pessimism’. I’m trying to figure out the right adjective to put in front of ‘hope’. It’s elastic hope.
Petra: In what way is it elastic?
Matthew: It allows for reality. It allows for the eventualities of downturns. When hope is too brittle, when all you have is hope, it’s easy to spiral into depression when things go bad. There are so many unexpected things that can happen. And do happen.
Petra: How does ‘elastic hope’ change things?
Matthew: It demands that you are very honest about your limitations. Beyond the limitations of just being a human [laughs], there are the added limitations of being a human with a chronic illness. Having the right perspective ensures that you aren’t unnecessarily surprised when you have a flaring of symptoms, for example.
Petra: How does mindset help you manage symptoms?
Matthew: I don’t know if there’s an easy explanation. It’s certainly not a linear thing. And it’s not something I can count on. What’s almost definite is that if my thinking is off, it makes it harder to manage symptoms. It’s not a given that a good mindset will improve my ability to manage symptoms, but it is a given that a poor mindset will decrease my ability to manage symptoms.
Petra: What strategies do you use to improve your mindset when things are bad?
Matthew: An easy one to start with is that there are people in the world who are facing a lot worse that I am. You could have an autoimmune condition in a war-torn place, you know? Then I start thinking about the things I do have: you, the kids. And there are things like my my artistic pursuits. Particularly photography because I don’t have to do much and it enables me to step outside of myself and feel connected at the same time–to everything. Then there are mindfulness practices that I learned from Jon Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living. That’s easy because you can do that anywhere. And watching funny British panel shows like ‘Would I Lie to You?’ and ‘QI’. The British sense of humour rejoices in the absurdity of life.
Petra: When is it challenging to stay positive?
Matthew: It’s always a challenge. The only time it’s not is when the symptoms aren’t there.
Petra: What advice would you offer to someone who is just learning how to use mindset as a way to manage life with a chronic illness?
Matthew: [Laughs] [Twice] Be very wary of taking advice, because things are so individual. Things may get worse, even with the right mindset. It happens. My advice is: don’t allow a rigid mindset to close off potentially beneficial strategies or keep you locked into an unhelpful way of thinking.
Petra: Did you have to work at your mindset or did it come naturally to you?
Matthew: Both. Being the type of person I am, having a flexible ego, made it natural. But it’s still always work. It’s something I can always refine. I can learn new strategies.
Petra: Would you say that mindset is an important element of your healing strategy?
Matthew: Absolutely. But it’s a lot to ask. I recognize that this is a lot to ask of someone who has a chronic illness [laughs], but it may be the only thing you have any real control over, so it makes sense to use this to your advantage. Even if it seems so small compared to the symptoms you’re experiencing, it can have a big impact.
Want more ideas for improving your mindset? Check out this post from the Paleo PI.