Well-Being In the Face of Stress, Serious Injury or Illness

In times of great stress, illness, or injury, our self-care, healthy habits, and sense of well-being may seem out of reach. Yet deep down we know that the same techniques that sustain and improve our well-being in easier times become even more vital when things go wrong.

When I sustained a concussion and subsequent post-concussive syndrome, I felt depressed, not only as a symptom of the syndrome, but also because I wasn’t doing the things that made me feel like myself and brought me happiness. I took it easy with exercise and stopped beloved activities that could possibly bump my head again; I didn’t expose myself to anything that hurt my brain like sound, light, certain movements, or reading. I felt I needed to protect my brain rather than pushing myself hard enough to kick it back into working for me as normally as possible. 

I wasn’t only held back by fear. Looking back on that dark time (literally—I wore super dark sunglasses and kept the shades closed all day), I realize I didn’t try very hard to make myself feel emotionally better because I didn’t feel worthy since I was unable to work. No longer teaching, I didn’t have a clear sense of purpose. I also didn’t have someone in my life nudging me towards habits that would foster well-being. 

Sure, I had lots of doctors and therapists, and they did, in the end, help me get through, but following are some suggestions I’ve learned as a health coach and through my research into illness and well-being that I wish somebody had told me.

Take time to nurture yourself (using the suggested practices below), even if you feel pressed or exhausted by doctors’ recommendations or stress of having too much to do for others or work.  Otherwise you will be no good to anyone.

Personally I also had to stop identifying as a person with a concussion, focusing on my symptoms, to justify to myself why I was not back at work. You don’t have to identify as a victim of your illness or circumstance, or devalue yourself if you are unable to work or do what you normally do to give you joy and even identity. I may not have been able to throw myself into a classroom of teenagers or into whitewater paddling or telemark skiing, but when I began to include more rigorous exercise (actually prescribed by the concussion clinic) and getting out of the house to interact with people (even if only at the Y), I started to feel more positive. I slowly realized I deserved a fulfilling life. And don’t we all, as human beings deserve to live our best lives?

Good news: you can start with any of these habit changes; even small positive practices can create momentum to make a “virtuous cycle,” which is the opposite of the vicious cycle of not adequately taking care of yourself and feeling worse. In a virtuous cycle, each step towards a meaningful, healthy goal lifts you out of the downward spiral and begins to create an upward spiral instead.

    1. Self-Care: Exercise, getting adequate sleep, eating nutritious food, and staying hydrated are foundational to feeling better and improving health. Even when exercise is difficult, getting moving is key for healing. The same is true for restorative sleep, nutritious food and plenty of water. Pressed for time or energy? Take baby steps, maybe in one realm at a time. Each step not only improves your health, but also, the more sleep, exercise, healthy food, and water you get, the more vitality and productivity you will have. As you reach adequate amounts of each (I’ll cover specifics in another blog), you’ll end up with both more time and energy to do what you need to do.
    1. Social support is well documented as a having a protective role in health and well-being. Reach out to friends, family or support groups. Find ways to strengthen your connections to community and actively work on your important relationships. Studies of populations who live the longest, healthiest lives show that these connections are keys to happiness and healthy longevity.
    1. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease anxiety, pain, and improve many measures of health. Recommended reading on mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living. Some mindfulness techniques include meditative practices that I teach my clients such as:
          • Guided meditations using apps, podcasts, etc.
          • Paying attention to breathing
          • Breathing exercises
          • Body scan
          • Progressive relaxation
          • Noticing sounds and sensations without attaching thoughts
          • Noticing thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without judgment
          • Visualization (often guided)
          • Loving-kindness meditation
          • Practicing gratitude
    1. Finding meaning and purpose.  Ask yourself, what are you doing in your life that provides meaning and purpose (e.g. helping others, being with family, political participation)? Decide what activities you can increase (or decrease) to align with your meaning and purpose. For me, studying health, learning coaching skills, and as a health coach, helping others individually, brings me tremendous satisfaction. I also look at my to-do list for “not-to-do’s”: items I felt (for whatever reason) I ought to do, but are not aligned with my purposes of health coaching and my own well-being. Cross ‘em off!
    1. Find flow, joy and challenge. Choose everyday activities to improve your sense of well-being.  
      1. Flow is a state of complete absorption in an activity that gives just the right amount of challenge. Try a challenging puzzle or hobby (for me, hula hooping tricks). 
      2. Schedule and engage in activities that promote joy and creativity. Give yourself permission and put it in your calendar.
      3. Give yourself achievable challenges to meet goals meaningful to your life and which will promote a sense of purpose, optimism, mastery and personal control.

How does health coaching help in the face of serious illness or stress?

A health coach listens to the client to:

    1. Discover what is meaningful to the individual person
    2. Identify relevant and attainable goals for the client. Help devise goals that are concrete and immediate, relevant to personal values and not overwhelming. These goals usually relate to the practices outlined above
    3. Emphasize opportunities for personal control (especially in cases of feeling helpless). Meeting even minor goals can provide a sense of control of one’s life.
    4. Encourage behaviors to meet these goals by providing support, guidance, accountability and actionable steps. With the client the health coach can create a plan of working towards goals. The process of moving towards the goal is in itself satisfying and keeps a person engaged in life.
    5. Revise goals if they are not working or to meet changing needs.Encourage positivity by helping clients recall positives in own lives and schedule activities that give a sense of achievement and joy.

Health Coaching has been shown to provide vital roles in promoting well-being while facing chronic illness. According to an American Academy of Family Physicians 2016 report, health coaches help clients in five main roles:

  1. Self-management support: provide information, promote behavior change, encourage follow-up and participation 
  2. Create a bridge between physician and patient. A health coach can work with the provider to explain the care plan, become a liaison and an advocate.
  3. Empower the person in navigating the health care system.
  4. Provide emotional support.
  5. Provide continuity—trust, familiarity, availability and time to follow up 

Will health coaching support you in increasing your quality of life? Rachel is pleased to offer a free initial consultation. During this consultation you will clarify your well-being goals and needs, and get a sense of working with Rachel. Schedule today with the link to the right of the page or by email or by phone.

 info@rachelkurtzhealthcoach.com • 518-350-4434