Protect Your Quality of Life From Lymphedema
Research consistently reports that lymphedema decreases quality of life. Because lymphedema self-care requires specialized knowledge and skill, most articles focus, understandably, on physical care skills. What is often not covered are ways to cope with the stress and difficult emotions lymphedema can trigger.
This article is different. It focuses on you—not your body.
Emotional self-care helps you protect your quality of life and increase your happiness.
Do you want to be happier? Most of us do. What can you do to live the best life possible, in spite of lymphedema? Can you increase your happiness?
Positive psychology is discovering answers to these questions. Research findings show that by taking specific actions, you can experience more positive emotions, increase your happiness, and improve your quality of life.
Happiness and Health
Increasing positive emotions is especially important for people who have a chronic medical condition, like lymphedema. Positive emotions are associated with better health, better self-care, longer life, decreased pain sensitivity, and more satisfying relationships, as well as other benefits.
This article focuses one of the proven ways to increase happiness in the midst of life’s problems: gratitude.
People who experience and express gratitude feel happier. This is true for people with chronic illness, for people experiencing life difficulties, even for people who are dying. At any moment throughout the day, you can look at what you have to complain about, or you can look at what you have to be grateful for. How you look at your life, and where you focus, makes a difference in how you feel.
See for Yourself
Right now, spend one minute thinking about your life while focusing on what is wrong. Think about the negative aspects of lymphedema and lymphedema care. Focus on problems, challenges, disappointments, losses, etc.
What happened to your emotions during this time? What happened inside your body? Did you feel better or worse? When you think about lymphedema self-care, do you feel more hopeful and energized, or less?
Let go of those negative thoughts. Let their effects flow out of your body. Imagine changing the channel on your inner television. Alternatively, imagine your negative thoughts swirling down the drain like dirty dishwater, or blowing away like trash or snow blown by the wind, leaving a clean, open space.
For the next minute, focus actively and deliberately on things you can be grateful for. You may think of large events: being alive, having friends or family, not living in a war zone. You may think of small, specific events: a family member’s caring act, an interaction with a friend, a stranger who held the door for you, the sight of beautiful trees or flowers. Focus on things related to lymphedema care for which you can be grateful: a caring healthcare provider, a helpful friend or relative, the presence of organizations and newsletters devoted to empowering people with lymphedema and reassuring you that you are not alone or forgotten.
Your thoughts affect your emotions, and together thoughts and emotions affect your body and your actions. Gratitude reduces emotional and physical stress, making it easier to cope with lymphedema and carry out effective self-care.
Benefits of Gratitude
Cultivating gratefulness is so powerful that Robert Emmons, PhD wrote an entire book on its benefits. He summarizes “The evidence that cultivating gratefulness is good for you is overwhelming...By appreciating the gifts of the moment, gratitude frees us from past regrets and future anxieties. By cultivating gratefulness, we are freed from envy over what we don’t have or who we are not.”
Especially when you are stressed, your mind focuses on negatives unless you actively guide it elsewhere. You can counteract this innate tendency by training your mind to focus on things that create positive emotions.
Gratitude opens your mind and heart to positives. This creates positive emotions. Positive emotions increase your ability to cope with stress and to find creative solutions to challenges like lymphedema self-care.
What You Can Do
Here are several research-tested ways to widen your mental lens and to change your mind’s focus so that you see more reasons to be grateful, appreciative, and happier. Discover which ones work for you.
- Once or twice a week write down five good things, big or small, that happened that day for which you are grateful. Think of them as five “gifts” or “blessings”. Write about different good things each time; don’t repeat the same list. Write specifically how you and/or others helped make each blessing possible.
- Pay attention. Deliberately notice and appreciate small acts of kindness. Remind yourself to practice feeling and expressing thankfulness. Seek out opportunities to experience and express gratitude in the course of each day.
- Think about a time in the past when your life was harder—or think about the ways your life could be much worse than it is today. Then gratefully compare that memory or vision to your life now, even with lymphedema, and experience gratitude.
- Give thanks. Put up reminders to be thankful for what is given to you. If you have a religious or spiritual practice, pay special attention to prayers of thanksgiving. Thank other people.
- Recall someone who helped you in your life or in dealing with lymphedema. Think about how their help made you feel and the difference it made for you. Then let them know. Write a letter thanking them in detail (no, not an email; an actual handwritten letter) or express your gratitude through a poem, a song, a drawing, a collage, a photo book, or any other creative means. Tell them or show them what their actions meant to you. If possible, give your expression of gratitude to them personally. Notice (or imagine) their reaction as they receive it. Because this exercise takes more time, you may only do it a few times a year, but do try it. It is very powerful.
Happier and Healthier
Dealing with lymphedema can make you feel self-conscious, sad, angry, anxious, or overwhelmed. You cannot choose to not have lymphedema, however you can choose to approach life with lymphedema in ways that make you happier, more hopeful, stronger, and more able to cope. Actively defend your quality of life against lymphedema.
Living Well With Lymphedema – Ann Ehrlich, Alma Vinje-Harrewijn, and Elizabeth McMahon, Ph.D., Lymph Notes, 2005.
Overcoming the Emotional Challenges of Lymphedema – Elizabeth McMahon, Ph.D., Lymph Notes, 2005.
Thanks!: How The New Science Of Gratitude Can Make You Happier – Robert Emmons, Ph.D., Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Elizabeth McMahon, PhD is a clinical psychologist in San Francisco (www.elizabeth-mcmahon.com) who specializes in helping people overcome challenges and increase happiness. She co-authored The Lymphedema Caregiver’s Guide and co-edited Voices of Lymphedema.
“Protect Your Quality of Life from Lymphedema” appeared in Pathways: Canada’s Lymphedema Magazine, Toronto, 2(2): 22, Summer 2013. www.lymphedemapathways.ca