December 07, 2022
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Felix Chacon/Stocksy United
I learned to use the power of my mind to feel hope, gratitude, and even joy instead of spiraling into darkness.
I have been an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) warrior for over 14 years now. I have fought my way through so many IBD flares that I’ve lost count. Once I was even named a “frequent flyer” of a specific hospital because I visited their halls far too often. When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 19, I believed my life was over, and I didn’t know how I was going to navigate my hopes and dreams with this diagnosis hanging over my head.
Unsure how to move forward, I got by the best I could with the few coping skills I had already acquired. As a result, I’ve experienced many “highs” in the past 14 years with IBD, including studying abroad in Spain, running a marathon, and moving to California. However, my “lows” were very low. Each time I went into a flare, I felt myself go into a dark hole of shame, frustration, agony, and anger, and I didn’t know how to bring myself out of it.
I had a conversation with my mom one day as I was walking (very slowly) around my neighborhood and recounting my frustrations of being in a never-ending flare. At that point, I had been in an ongoing IBD flare for nearly 2 years without any relief. My gastroenterologist and I kept trying different medications, most of which failed me.
Each time I went into a flare, I felt myself go into a dark hole of shame, frustration, agony, and anger, and I didn’t know how to bring myself out of it.
I couldn’t stop crying and yelling and just being angry at a situation outside my control. My mom stopped me and said, “Holly, you can choose to keep going deeper into the darkness or you can choose to stand and fight.”
So that’s what I did. I brushed away my tears and started putting my mind to work FOR me instead of against me. I figured that if my mind could lead me down into a dark hole, then my mind could certainly pull me back out of it.
That’s when I chose to dive deep into mindset work and learn the power of the mind and brain, for my mental and physical health.
Here are a few things I did to help shift my mindset during the worst flare of my life, and the tools I continue to use even as I am in IBD remission.
When my mind begins to spiral into thoughts of “worst-case scenarios” about my health, I stop my thoughts in their tracks by switching my focus to the “best-case scenario.” I ask myself, “What is the best thing that could happen?” or “What is the best possible outcome?” I journal through all of the positive scenarios that come to mind until I feel myself come out of the spiral.
I do this whenever an isolated symptom appears, a flare begins, a medication fails, or fatigue hits.
I absolutely love journaling as a part of my mindfulness practice. At its core, journaling is a practical way to stop my thoughts from constantly cycling through my mind, by putting them on paper. It’s also a great way to objectively process my emotions about a situation. I began journaling years ago when I couldn’t verbalize how I felt about being in a flare, so I began writing about it.
When I’m in a flare, I use a few journal prompts every single day to get my mind in the right headspace to start my day. I’ll set a 5-minute timer and then write:
When I’m in a flare, it’s hard to remember how I feel when I’m healthy and in remission. It’s so easy to constantly think about how sick I am instead. Visualization has been a helpful tool to keep my mindset focused on my healthy body.
I take at least 10 minutes each day to sit in a quiet place, calm my mind, and begin to visualize myself as healthy and in remission. Starting from the time I wake up, I explore in as much vivid detail as possible a typical day for me in remission. What do I eat? How do I feel in my body? What am I wearing? What do I do throughout the day? How do I exercise?
For years, I never paid any attention to my thoughts, let alone how important they are in my journey with ulcerative colitis. However, I recently created a habit of gratitude, and it has completely changed how I view my health and my life. I went from feeling like “woe is me” to feeling warmth from the countless things I have to be grateful for.
Each day, I schedule time to specifically name everything I am grateful for. Sometimes, I write it in a journal and sometimes I say it out loud when going for a walk. How I express it matters less than being consistent with this practice.
Exploring my five senses is a newer tool I’ve implemented as a means of managing anxiety and taking control of my mind, and it’s a game-changer. It grounds me and brings me back to the present moment.
When I’m in a flare, it’s far too easy to focus on what’s going wrong in my life: I’m sick, I’m in pain, my medication isn’t working, I feel isolated and lonely, and on and on. I allow myself to feel all of these valid feelings, but I also make space for the things that bring me joy.
Each week I prioritize doing something that brings me joy. I like to check in with myself on Sunday and ask myself, “What would bring me joy this week?” Sometimes it’s catching up with a friend; other times, it’s going for a gentle hike on a favorite trail, or enjoying a solo date at the beach.
I am a sucker for a true-crime podcast or a dark drama TV series. That being said, I noticed a couple of years ago that my mindset, outlook on life, and even sleep quality would be affected when I watched too much of this type of show without a comedy “palate cleanser.”
So, I began focusing on consuming lighter media and spending time with people who made me laugh. Laughter, after all, is known to release feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin and alleviate stress and anxiety.
IBD is a tough disease to manage and can take a major toll on your mindset and physical health. Taking back control of your mind and rewiring your mindset around IBD can make a huge difference in your life.
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