Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

How to find life balance when coping with chronic medical conditions

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: emotion coping, pain

This question came in from a friend I know well. She writes, "I seem to struggle with….balance! How to get all the projects I want to do done and still take care of my ailing body." And that's the focus of today's topic. How to find balance. 

Just out of curiosity, I recently googled "How to achieve balance in life." Google returned more than 140 million search results for the topic. Obviously, as humans, this is a topic that's on many of our minds. But not much I could find addressed this question for people with health conditions. To get us thinking about balance today, let's start with a story. 

A Beach, Some Rocks, Some Shells

A child was walking on the beach, looking around and picking up things she found interesting. She picked up little snail shells, broken bits of clam shells, small pretty rocks—anything that caught her eye. Eventually she saw a beautiful conch shell. “Pick it up!” Her dad yelled encouragingly. She looked at the conch shell longingly. Her gaze shifted back and forth between the shell and her hands a few times; she was getting more and more distraught with each glance. Finally, she looked up with tears in her eyes and yelled back,“I can’t! My hands are full!” 

The solution is obvious to us wise adults, right? Put some things down, child. We only have room to hold so much. It's easy to give that advice to others, but it's hard to take ourselves. Our limited capacity can be a hard fact to square up with our vision of our ideal self, our vision of how we should be or how much we should be able to do. 

What do you really want in your life? What do you really value? What brings you joy, a sense of well-being, a sense of accomplishment or happiness? Those are your beautiful shells. If you haven't taken time to consider that in a while, take a few minutes now. Having a clear picture of what you want will help you say YES to things that matter—beautiful shells—and NO to things that don’t matter—broken bits and rocks. 

How Does This Change with Health Conditions?

Everyone struggles with balance at some point. If you have a serious medical condition, it can be even more complex. Oftentimes people with health conditions have an added layer to wade through: sorting out what's reasonable to expect from ourselves given our conditions. When trying to sort out managing health conditions vs reasonable expectations, our brains can have sneaky, subtle thoughts that throw us off. There are hundreds of ways this can happen. Today I'll just give three examples.

Example 1: You usually like parties and social gatherings, but you find yourself more often saying "I can't go because I'm sick." When maybe what's really true is, I don't want to go because I feel sad, embarrassed, angry, or any one of a hundred other possible emotions you could be experiencing.

Example 2: You've been having a lot of trouble sleeping, and you find yourself saying "I can't sleep well because I'm ill, so there's nothing I can do about it." When maybe what's really true is that you can't sleep because there is something stressing you out that you haven't been dealing with. 

Example 3: This can go in the other direction, too. "I should be able to do all of this, but I can't because I'm sick." When maybe what's really true is that no one, even a perfectly physically healthy person, could be expected to do all the tasks you're expecting of yourself. 

Balance when you have a chronic health condition is about frequently checking in with yourself. When you're feeling like you can't do something, pause and ask yourself, is that really true? Sometimes it is true, and if so, it's important to respect and acknowledge your limits. But allow yourself to reflect on whether there is something deeper happening, and if there is, look for ways to sort that out. If you’re feeling like you should do something, again, check in with yourself. Is it reasonable to expect that from yourself right now? If not, look for other solutions. 

An Easy 10 Step Guide to Achieving Balance

Okay, okay, just kidding. There's not a step-by-step, 5 easy tips, realistic guide to finding balance. Finding balance is a process. Some days we are closer to finding that balance, and some days we are far away. 

What you can do, though, is take a few minutes to reflect. How have you been doing with finding balance in your life lately?

If you are enjoying your life, rest in that happiness! When you find yourself struggling, practice compassion. Look at yourself the same way you'd look at a friend or loved one if they were in your situation. What advice would you have for them? Taking an outside perspective can sometimes bring clarity. Are you carrying around rocks or broken bits of shells; is there anything you need to put down? Is there something you want to pick back up?

Bringing balance into your life isn't about axing out all the "bad" stuff all at once; that's impossible. It's a daily, weekly, monthly process. Balance is about finding small ways to pick up the good stuff, to engage in the things that you value. Balance is about gradually letting go of tasks, to-do list items, and maybe eventually even jobs or certain relationships that have been weighing you down. It's about reflecting on limiting beliefs or unrealistic expectations and letting them go when you are ready.It's about putting down the rocks and picking up the beautiful shells.