The Importance of Being Lazy

…but not too lazy.

A few days ago I had a long day. I was on the road a good bit of the day, driving in bad weather, and I also spent time lifting items to load them into my car and then unload them at my destination. These particular types of activities made my RA symptoms flair up.

The next day, I got up at about my usual time, but I just didn’t have any motivation. I felt very lazy. Ordinarily, I would have to push through and go about my day regardless, but I didn’t have work on that day, and I didn’t have any appointments, so I just went back to bed. I stayed in bed for about four more hours and ended up only getting up when it was time to take the dogs out and make some lunch.

This ended up being absolutely the right decision for me on that day. I was able to accomplish a pretty good bit in the second half of the day, and I avoided a bigger or more prolonged flair of my symptoms by listening to my body and giving it the extra rest it needed.

The only problem with this is my own perception of how others would view me for staying in bed half the day. We don’t reward people for rest. We tend to judge people harshly for exhibiting signs of laziness. We make fun of them and look down on them.

Yet rest is one of the most important things we can do for our bodies when we need to heal. Most of us walk around with a major case of chronic sleep deprivation all of the time. We keep our bodies in a constant negative cycle of too much pushing through.

I, for one, am simply unable to push through seven days a week. I look at people who seem to be always on the go even on Saturdays and Sundays, and I just don’t know how they do it. If I don’t crash for at least half the day at least one day a week, I don’t function that week. I do have a chronic illness, and that is a factor in my need for regular rest, but I believe a lot of people probably need more rest than they are getting.

Of course, with RA I have to be careful not to overdo the laziness. I do need a certain amount of movement each day to keep my range of motion up. With RA, “you snooze, you lose” really can hold true. If you just go to bed and stay there, you can end up having an even harder time getting up the next day. Everything goes stiff and sore.

Regardless, since I do normally go to a job five days a week, my bigger problem is finding enough time to rest. That’s why I’m committing to the lazy lie in as part of my overall health maintenance plan.

The other day I got up around 7:30 and took the dogs out. I fed the animals and made myself a cup of green tea. I got back in bed with ice packs for the parts that hurt, my tea, and a book. I didn’t go back to sleep, but neither did I try to do anything work related. I just relaxed and let my body rest. Even though this was a day off for me, this felt like an indulgence and maybe even an overindulgence, but it was necessary and very very good.

I’m a person who loves a good challenge. I like to track how many days in a row I can walk 10,000 steps or practice DuoLingo or take photos or drink green smoothies or whatever challenge is making the rounds. I think my next challenge should be to track how many Saturdays in a row I can stay in bed being lazy until noon. Something tells me a good track record on that goal would pay off on my overall health more than just about anything else I’ve tried.

Stress and RA

I’ve always known that stress played a large role in my rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to find doctors who would listen to what I had to say about this or address stress as a factor in any way. Rheumatologists have a protocol that they follow, and that’s what they do. It would take a remarkable doctor to incorporate lifestyle management into the protocol, and I’ve yet to find that doctor. I’m left with figuring this out for myself.

When my spring semester ended, I made a list of things I could do to help myself.

  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Recumbent Bike
  • Mineral Baths
  • Whole Food Diet
  • Meditation
  • Normalizing Sleep Patterns
  • Time in Nature
  • Laughter with Friends
  • Regular Zone Out Times
  • Keeping a Journal
  • Brain Training Exercises for Pain Relief
  • Ice Packs and Heating Pads

I haven’t done everything on this list consistently in past six weeks, but I have been working on it, and I’ve seen results. I’ve also been off work, and I can’t discount the importance of time away from the rat race. Still, if time off were enough, I would get well during every school break. That isn’t the case. I’ve had to be proactive about my own health in order to reap the benefits of my break. I go back to work next week, so I will have to doubly commit to keeping myself on track.

I know that stress is my primary trigger for my symptoms because stress and arthritis flairs have been the story of my life. I was in my mid-twenties when I was diagnosed. At the time I was studying for my comprehensive exams for my PhD. I was extremely stressed out because I had planned to take the exams in October but was told without a lot of warning that I would have to take them in February to keep my funding for the following school year. It was a change in policy from the department that did not grandfather in people like me who were caught in the middle. That’s life, right? Sometimes you find yourself drowning in stress. In my case, this particular bout of high anxiety triggered the onset of a chronic autoimmune disease.

Over and over, stress has play a huge role in my disease process. I went into a long remission at one point, but my symptoms reappeared after the death of a close friend that I had been caring for in the final stages of cancer. Those symptoms continued to accelerate despite steadily increasing my medications during the period of my father’s illness and death. By the time my father died, I knew I was at my own rock bottom physically and emotionally. I had to do something to keep going.

I started with diet primarily, but I also recognized that stress management had to be part of the plan. Because I was still working and at one of the most hectic points in the school year, there wasn’t much I could do in those first few weeks, but I did do something. I started by spending just 5-10 minutes a day sitting in a lawn chair in my backyard, sipping on herbal tea. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a time of deliberate winding down and decompressing. It helped. It didn’t cure me, but it helped to keep me from breaking.

Once the semester was over, I was able to focus more on reducing the impact of accumulated stress. I started using the Calm meditation app. I also started using an app called Curable that is specifically for people with chronic pain. I started keeping a journal, and I made epsom salt baths a priority.

All of this has helped, but it is a work in progress. I will need to continually work on my lifestyle management plan in order to keep up with the stress levels that will inevitably come with a demanding job and unanticipated life events.

Exercise is still something I’m working toward. I’m much improved, but I’m still struggling with pain in my right leg and my left shoulder. I have difficulty establishing an exercise routine because I keep making a little progress with these conditions only to find myself right back where I started all over again.

That brings me to another aspect of lifestyle management that I need to address–ergonomics. With my leg, for example, I know that driving is a problem. With my shoulder, my sleep positions and my posture at my desk are problems. If I can find ergonomic solutions, I believe I will start to make more progress there–but that might be a topic for another post.

My point is that I know stress is a major problem, and I know I have to take charge of managing my stress. I don’t have the option to quit my job. I can’t control when life is going to throw tragedies my way. I can’t help the fact that pain, fatigue, and other issues related to RA are self-perpetuating stressors in and of themselves. I have to just do what I can.

I’m hoping to start walking regularly this week, but if that doesn’t work out, if my leg refuses to cooperate, or it rains all week, or somethings comes up that demands all of my attention, I will start where I am and do what I can.

I’ve been reading a book called The Stress Solution by Rangan Chatterjee. I’ve also been listening to Dr. Chatterjee’s podcast Feel Better, Live More. He recommends a 10 minute morning exercise routine. That brings me back to the same philosophy that inspired my 10 minutes of lawn chair time. Do what you can with the time you have. Do what you can with the ability you have.

If I’m unable to do 30 minute walks, maybe I can do 5-10 minutes of some type of exercise. Possibly I can even do 10 minutes three times a day.

I will get there somehow. That will have to be my mantra for a time.

The topic of how stress affects my health is way too big to explore in one post. This is something I need to revisit again and again on my blog. It is something I need to revisit on a daily basis in my life. Meanwhile, I’m about to put on my walking shoes and go to the grocery store to shop for whole fruits and veggies. I need to spend the afternoon working on school prep and laundry. This evening I will give exercise my some. I will start somewhere and get there somehow. If I want to do more than just exist as a person with chronic illness, I don’t have a choice.

My Illness/Wellness Journey

Disclaimer #1: Everyone’s journey is their own. What works for me may not work for someone else.

Disclaimer #2: I credit natural approaches to helping me feel better, but I am under the care of a rheumatologist and taking the medications prescribed by my doctor. I recommend taking charge of your own health as much as possible, but I don’t recommend doing so without medical advice.

Today I want to talk about my success, but the story of my success is also the story of my failure. I wouldn’t need to share a success story today if I hadn’t been down to a place I needed to fight my way back from…again…and again…and again.

I have rheumatoid arthritis, and for the past few years, it has had me. I’ve been struggling with pain, fatigue, stiffness, depression, and pretty staggering overwhelm. I’ve gained weight. I’ve felt isolated from friends because I haven’t had the wherewithal to go places after work. I’ve existed, and I’ve managed, and I’ve survived from day to day, but I haven’t thrived.

Today is different. I feel pretty good today all things considered. I’ve worked for this feeling, though. For the past few months I’ve been working on diet, sleep, meditation, exercise, and anything else I thought might help. I’ve succeeded. My symptoms are down by as much as 50%, and some days I would say as much as 80%. I’ve been losing weight. I feel positive and hopeful and ready to tackle my giants.

I would like to share how I got here in case my story helps someone else, but at the same time I feel unworthy. I’ve done this before. I’ve fought my way back before, and I’ve gone down again. It’s a cycle. I would like to say this will be the last time I will have to fight back from such a low place, but I know it isn’t. I have a chronic illness. It can go into remission, but it’s still there. The next time I face a series of unrelenting stressors in my life, it will probably rouse itself to kick me while I am down. That’s what chronic illnesses do. I just hope I remember when it happens that there are ways to come back again even if I grow weary of the fight.

I’ve been reading and listening to podcasts a good bit lately. One podcast I like is called Feel Better, Live More. In it, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee talks about his 4 pillar plan for health. He defines the 4 pillars of health as sleep, diet, movement, and relaxation (or mindfulness). I’ve been working on all four, and I think it is the multi-faceted approach that is helping me feel so much better.

I’ve seen the most dramatic results from diet. I started out in March saying that I was going to eat a lot of soups, salads, and smoothies. That was the only way I could think of at the time to supercharge my diet and blast myself with some nutrition. At the time, my father was in the last few weeks of his life after having been in a steady decline for the better part of a year. I was trying to spend as much time as I could with my parents while holding down a demanding job and juggling my extreme fatigue and pain from RA. I felt like I was about to have a total breakdown, but I didn’t have the luxury of a breakdown. My family needed me. My students needed me. My dogs needed me. I had to do something to keep going, so I went with a radical change in my diet.

That one change pulled me through what would be some of the most difficult weeks of my life, but I didn’t feel like I had truly made a breakthrough until early June–almost two months after my father’s death–when I decided to go on a 10 day green smoothie challenge. At the time, I was off work. I was meditating every day, putting ice on my leg and shoulder three times a day, taking epsom salt baths every day, and spending time just sitting outdoors with my dogs. I basically created a 10 day at home wellness retreat, and that’s what swung the pendulum.

The green smoothies felt like a miracle cure. Maybe blending the whole raw fruits and veggies really does help you absorb more nutrients as they claim. Maybe sipping them slowing throughout the day helped me to absorb more nutrients. Maybe drinking them at the same time that I was able to rest and recover helped me to benefit more from them. I do not know. I just know that I have not felt as good in years as I felt while drinking those smoothies. I had normal energy levels again. With the exception of sciatica in my leg and tendinitis in my shoulder, I had almost no pain. The normal symptoms of RA disappeared. Only the secondary issues that developed as a result of the RA remained–and those improved by a pretty big margin during this time.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to drink a whole pitcher of green smoothie every day for an indefinite period of time. I am drinking one small green smoothie each day now and eating salads and whole fruits and veggies. I’m also on an elimination diet, but that might be a story for another time. It has not done nearly as much as the smoothies.

Since I cut back on the smoothies, I’ve retained some but not all of the benefits I felt during the 10 days of my challenge. I feel pretty good, but I’m not marveling over how much energy I have. My joints are doing okay, but my hands are a little stiff.

Regardless, for me to be able to say I’m feeling better and feeling positive is pretty huge. Maybe green smoothies would help someone else with my same illness, or maybe everyone’s path is different. My main message to others (and to my once and future self) is to keep trying. Don’t give up. Find something you can do for your own health and take charge of it. Start small if you have to. Just keep trying something, and if that doesn’t work, try something else.

If you are interested in the smoothies, check out the website Simple Green Smoothies. They have some great recipes and great advice.

This is only a small part of my story, so I plan to come back to the blog a few more times to tell about where I’ve been, where I am, where I hope to go, and how I am getting there. Maybe my audience is only myself, but if it is, that’s okay. I need to hear what I have to say.