Now before you shoot me in the foot… I will clear up some misperceptions.
First of all, CFS or any chronic illness is not in the head. However, in this article you will see why the mind/brain has a huge role to play in the steps to recovery and there is science to back it up.
Secondly, you can’t just think your way out of an illness. Anyone can wish and hope for better days, we have all done it and achieved very little from sitting, waiting, wishing. It just doesn’t mean anything will change. Wishing and hoping may actually make you feel more depressed as research as shown through the book “The Happiness Trap” by Dr Russ Harris.
In saying this there is a common theme amongst people who have recovered. And that is they had a sense of belief, knowing and drive that they would eventually get better. Now again this isn’t some positive psychology woo woo.
I recently sat down with a man who is fully recovered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He said despite the fact that his father worried that he may never recover, he himself had an unwavering belief that he would recover eventually!
I asked him, “What was the most helpful thing in your recovery?”
He replied, “Knowing that I was going to get better eventually.”
In observation it wasn’t so much his belief that got him better (as you can’t think your way out of anything), however it was the actions he took because of this belief over time that got him better.
And this is the fascinating part about it all. It wasn’t so much his belief that got him better, but it was the actions he took because of his belief that got him to where he is today. Which is now a full-time teacher, loving partner, property owner and long distance runner.
Anyway, back to beliefs. Beliefs are formed from a state of mind that indicates that what they are thinking is true. Beliefs form our behaviour. So you can see how believing a certain way could affect you. (Our brains are good at finding evidence to support our beliefs regardless if they are true or not). For example, take two people. They both go through the same experience, let’s say a relationship break up. One of the people sees it as an opportunity to grow, to be independent and to live their life on their own terms. He finds evidence to back up his belief by seeing other people who are single, happy and free. The other person who went through the same experience reacts differently, becomes a miserable wreck, thinks that his life is over because of the break up and finds reasons why it just won’t ever be as good as he had it. Both of these people had the same experience yet behaved differently due to their beliefs.
So, let’s say you hold the belief: I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I am never going to get better.
The behaviours to support that belief would be feeling sad and depressed about your situation, feelings of being powerless, you would most likely become passive in your life and your life would probably be dictated by your illness. Meaning you have become the identity of your illness because you believe that to be true. You most likely feel like giving up on a daily basis because it feels all too hard and that you do not have any options to improve your life. You will most likely defend yourself for having an illness because you hold on to the belief that it can never get better.
Because you feel this way your brain (its job is to be efficient) will find evidence to support your beliefs. You will most likely focus on all the bad stuff, how bad the symptoms are, focus on the setbacks, and potentially research other stories similar to yours so you can identity and feel comforted that you are not the only one.
Just as a reference I am not saying that the above is right or wrong, I am just stating the truths of beliefs and how they form our behaviours and actions. On a personal note I have been on both sides of the coin. For a long time I believed I would never recover and I didn’t recover in that time of believing that…I was a victim of my own suffering for two years. More about my story later.
On the flip side, let’s say someone holds the belief: I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but it is not a life sentence, I will get better eventually. I will recover.
Well, first of all, by holding the belief that CFS is not going to be a life sentence means that you wouldn’t be dwelling on CFS like it is the end of your life. You would have more emotional energy to spend on something worthwhile in your life. Holding the belief that you will recover, would help you through the hardest times of setbacks, even though you may be experiencing pain you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Holding the belief that you will eventually recover would make you behave in a way that you will become healthy. This behaviour may help you make healthy choices now. It may help you do things that will aid your recovery from rebuilding and restoring strength and energy in your body, eating well, getting into a good sleep cycle. By believing this, your brain will be finding evidence to support your belief. You would most likely search inspiring recovery stories on YouTube, you would most likely set goals for the future, you would most likely shut yourself away from any negativity that would hold you back.
I can tell you from my own personal story that when I held the belief that I would never recover I was at the mercy of wanting to give up on life. I wasn’t responsible for my health or life and I was quite passive in terms of helping myself get healthy again. On the flip side when I stopped being a victim and realised that maybe there is a chance that I can recover or even improve, my behaviours started changing:
I started looking forward to each day, each challenge and each set back. I embraced my fear instead of being scared of it.
I was diligent in my routine and structure.
I ate healthily all the time.
I was smart with my movement plan, we hired a coach to help me.
I started reading personal development books and read hundreds of articles that inspired me. I printed them out and read them over more than twice.
I got my dad to drive me to the hydrotherapy pool five mornings a week even on the bad days were I could only last five minutes.
I had a glass half-full attitude.
I was grateful even when I was struggling.
I started to visualise and imagine what my life would be like when I got healthy again.
I stopped talking about my illness and instead spoke about my intentions to where I wanted to go.
I started to change mentally and emotionally in turn helped me change physiologically. I went from weak to stronger and stronger.
I stopped beating myself up and became my best friend, not my own critic.
I asked better questions.
Instead of asking, why is this happening to me? I asked, what can I do to help myself?
All this helped me change to become the person I wanted to be. A healthy one.
I haven’t met one person yet who recovered who didn’t believe they would get better. (I have seen over 3000 people recover from CFS since I started my recovery program seven years ago). It makes sense though right; our beliefs dictate our behaviour.
Now, before you get defensive just remember what I said before, this isn’t about it being all in your head and thinking your way out of things.
For some solid references to this, check out these two books:
Bruce Liptons – The Biology of Belief.
Norman Doidge – The Brain that Changes Itself.
Both refer to the amazing physiological changes the body makes through the process of psychological beliefs held within the mind which positively effects the brain.
So it wasn’t so much just believing that I was going to get better that actually got me better, it was my actions around my beliefs. Now, of course there were setbacks, hard times, days of just wanting to throw in the towel and give up, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have all this.
A past client who has been recovered for over a year now since she battled ME/CFS for over six years recently called me on the phone. She was telling me how much her life has improved and how good it is now. I asked her what did she wish she had done differently. She said, “I wish I always just believed I was going to get better, because not believing that I was, caused me a great deal of stress and suffering on top of the already hard thing of dealing with ME/CFS”. And now that she is better she realised that she could have been more forgiving to herself and more optimistic about her life and recovery.
A belief only needs to be changed if it is limiting you in your life. And remember your brain is going to convince you to what it knows best in this current moment. That doesn’t mean it is true. It just means that you will have to find new evidence to support a more suitable belief that will suit you.
And, by the way, if you have had unhealthy limiting beliefs, welcome to the human club. We all have them, no need to beat yourself up about it. This is purely to give you some perspective and hopefully change your life for the better. Also, it is important to know that just because you believe something doesn’t mean it is true. For example, if you say to yourself, “I can’t lift my arm, I can’t lift my arm” and at the same time you lift your arm then that is evidence to show you that just because you are having negative thoughts or beliefs, doesn’t mean they are true.
Today I invite you to consciously investigate your beliefs and ask yourself are they serving you to where you want to go, and if not, question them and turn them around. Ask yourself, what do you need to change?
At CFS health we have developed a worldwide recovery program that helps you not only with the physical side of recovery but also the very important mindset component of recovery from beliefs, action plans and step-by-step recovery approaches that cover every aspect of health from sleep, restorative movement, nutrition, specific progression tools, setback and symptom improvement, mindset and personal development, tools to improve how you deal and dissolve stress and anxiety to give you a strong foundation to improve the quality of your life, plus an online support forum to connect with others on the same journey. On top of this you will get members-only access to 12 Live webinars per year with Toby to further help you on your life journey. To find out more about our worldwide platinum online recovery program and get on the waiting list click here.
Founder of CFS Health.