By John Fry, PhD
- HOW CAN I BECOME A STRONGER PERSON in the midst of the pain and inconvenience of fibromyalgia?
- IS IT BETTER TO HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS, or to not expect anything at all so I won’t be disappointed
- ARE POSITIVE THINKING AND AFFIRMATIONS THE ANSWER, or is that just being unrealistically “Pollyanna?”
- ISN’T PESSIMISM THE REALITY in my situation?
- HOW CAN I FEEL BETTER emotionally and experience less pain when the pain is very real? It’s not just in my head!
- HOW CAN I BECOME A MORE RESILIENT PERSON, less easily discouraged, when fibromyalgia seems to stop me at every turn?
- HOW CAN I BE HAPPY when I hurt so much? Isn’t that impossible?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE “RESILIENT”?
In their excellent brochure on this subject, the American Psychological Association defines resilience as “…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”The APA continues, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”
The following are a series of suggestions that psychological research shows can help you to become a more resilient person, even with the pain of fibromyalgia. You can learn to see yourself as a survivor, not a victim.
You can learn to be happier, be in a better mood, achieve more of your goals, have a brighter outlook, and severity and duration of the pain. I have seen my wife, Elizabeth—who has fibromyalgia—apply many of these concepts to lessen the impact of her illness and to be a happier person than when she first experienced her symptoms. You can also become more resilient by applying the following approaches and principles.
OPTIMISM, PESSIMISM, AND “BEING REALISTIC”
Some people with a chronic illness choose a pessimistic outlook a way of protecting themselves against disappointment. However, pessimists experience their pain more, are more likely to be depressed, and actually don’t live quite as long on average. Pessimists are fond of reffering to themselves as “realistic.” But they are using the word in a negative way, often without realizing it. They mean, “Don’t get your hopes up.” They rarely mean, “Your expectations are not high enough to match reality.”
Yes, the pain is real, but the chances of reducing it by being more positive are also very real. Typically pessimists ignore the positives that are in their lives and pay an inordinate amount of attention to the negatives. This is not being “realistics.” An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity. A pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING “REALISTICALLY OPTIMISTIC”
You don’t have to feel that you are being a Pollyanna, denying reality, to be an optimist. Some people use affirmations—saying and picturing positive things—as a way to improve their mood and accomplish more. This can be very helpful as long as these affirmations are within the realm of a reasonably possible positive outcome.
You don’t want to say to yourself, “I’ll be totally free of symptoms tomorrow.” But you certainly can say to yourself, “I’m going to do the things that will help me feel better and have less pain. I can have a major positive effect on my illness. I can do this!”
YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MOOD
At the very heart of depression is a distortion in how we see our lives. Depressed people tend to pay a lot more attention to what’s wrong in their lives than what’s right. They say, “I should worry and be upset about my problems until they are solved, and my illness until I’m better. To do otherwise is irresponsible.” They have a deficit in paying attention to the positive things in their lives.
Southern California cognitive-behavioral therapist Dr. Sarah Kerr said, “Remember: if you focus directly and diligently on stopping, destroying, or diminishing the bad and evil in your life, your life is focused on destruction and depression. If you focus openly and operationally on starting, creating, and constructing the good and godly in your life, your life is focused on construction and creativity.
“Where your lens is focused determines the picture you receive.”
Dr. Martin Seligman, the foremost researcher on happiness, found that if you list three positive things each day and note why they happened—even just over the course of a week—as much as six months later you will tend to be less depressed. I’ve put this suggestion into an exercise called “The Good Stuff List.” Do the exercise each night for at least a week; do it before going to sleep until you are feeling better. It will be a healthy corrective to any tendencies to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive. Chances are your mood will improve.
IDENTIFY AND RE-LABEL YOUR DISTORTIONS IN THINKING
Whenever you are down or anxious, identify your most recent thoughts and do battle with any distortions you find. Fighting this “battle of the mind” is at the heart of the most successful approaches to improving mood. Ask questions of the negative thoughts. “Is this really true, or am I exaggerating the negative?” The words “always” and “never” are red flag words for distortion. Black-and-white thinking is almost never absolutely true.
Another common form of distortion is overgeneralization. “Because I have felt terrible the last month, I will always feel this way.” The truth is you can do some things to avoid feeling this way forever.
A frequent distortion is to believe that you are one of the few people who has something really wrong in your life. The truth is the vast majority of people feel that at least one area (if not several areas) of their lives is not good. I got clear about this when I was giving a talk at the Crystal Cathedral’s International Conference for Women.
I asked an audience of 400, if they divided their lives up into a half dozen major areas such as health, career, family, friendships, etc., how many felt that they were at a “C” or better in all the major areas of their lives—that there were no areas that were a major problem. Our of 400, only 15 raised their hands.
The first line in M. Scott Peck’s best-selling, A Road Less Traveled is, “Life is difficult.” Once we realize that life is generally difficult for most people, we’re less likely to throw a “pity party” for ourselves. It helps to write down the distorted thought and the relabeled version of it:
Distorted thought: “Because my friends rarely call, it means they no longer care.”
Relabeled thought: “The truth is, I haven’t been returning calls and rarely reach out. They probably feel I’m not interested in them. I need to reach out.” Carry a 3×5 card with you and any time you’re feeling blue, write down the distorted thought and see if you can re-label it to be more in tune with reality.
DON’T TELL YOURSELF YOU ARE HELPLESS AND CAN’T CHANGE THINGS
Self-efficacy is defined by Albert Bandura, the foremost researcher on this topic, as “people’s beliefs in their capabilities to perform in ways that give them control over events that affect their lives.” You can make a difference in your life by the actions you take. If you dwell on your self-doubts and your perceived inadequacies, you’ll by unlikely to do anything. Passivity in the face of obstacles breeds depression. You are capable of making big differences in your life if you take action.
Develop the attitude of Henry Kaiser, the man behind the Kaiser automobile: “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” The following suggestions will help you to increase your sense of self-efficacy:
- Make a list of some of your accomplishments in the past, when you reached a goal, accomplished something, or overcame obstacles. Savor that list.
- Spend time with others who are moving their lives forward in spite of FM.
- Make a point of spending more time with others who encourage you to move forward, and who pay attention to what you can do, not just what you can’t.
- Don’t rely on your pain or bad mood to judge your capabilities. You are a lot more than your pain or depression!
HAPPINESS IS AN INSIDE JOB
Don’t think of your happiness as dependent on what happens to you. The truth is that you can learn how to be happier. Seligman found that there are three types of things that make people happy: pleasurable experiences, good connections with others, and a sense of purpose. People feel happy while doing any of them, but pleasurable activities rarely carry happiness over to the next day. Good connections with others and having meaning and purpose in your life have more lasting effects. It’s not a surprise that the best-selling non-fiction book of all time, besides the Bible, is The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
THE BOTTOM LINE ABOUT RESILIENCE
Being Resilient isn’t something that will just happen isn’t something that will just happen to you if you are lucky or blessed. You can learn how to be more resilient if you apply yourself to it. You can learn to rebound when you are having a difficult day, improving your mood and lessening your experience of pain.
You can develop a more positive outlook on your life by paying more attention about what’s right in your life. You can become a more positive person who sets reasonable goals and goes after them. You can make a big difference in how your life unfolds. You can become a much happier person by nurturing relationships and developing a sense of meaning and purpose to your life beyond your pain. You can go through your experience of fibromyalgia—or you can grow through it. You have a choice!
Dr. John Fry has been a psychologist in private practice in Costa Mesa, Calif., for more than 30 years. His wife has had fibromyalgia and he has been active in helping the FM community through the NFA.