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20 Things To Try in 2014

2014 is upon us. Out with the old, in with the new. We've entered the time of year where people reflect on the past year and look ahead to new beginnings.  Resolutions are made, some of which are kept while others fall by the wayside because, as we all know, old habits die hard.  I'll be turning 38 tomorrow (wait, what?) and I can say a lot has changed in my life since I was 26 and diagnosed with my chronic illness.  I'd like to say I've grown wiser in the past 11+ years, and not because I went to graduate school, but because of the life lessons that living with Crohn's has taught me.  With that, here are 20 things all of us living with chronic illnesses should strive for in the new year:

1.  If you haven't accepted your diagnosis, work towards that.  It's one of the most freeing things a person with a chronic illness can do.

2.  Connect with people who get it, whether it's online, at meetups, or in a support group. They don't necessarily have to have the same diagnosis, but understand the ups and downs, lefts and rights an illness brings to the table.

3.  Let go of people who don't understand and stress you out, even after you've tried to help them do so.

4.  Slow down.  No really, slow. down.  Or as a professor of mine in grad school once said "Don't just do something, sit there."  Try to find harmony in life and with your illness.

5.  Practice relaxation when you're not feeling super stressed out.  Most people don't really know how to relax, and the time to learn isn't when life is pushing you along at 100 mph.  Take a yoga class, or get a yoga DVD.  Try meditation or mindfulness.  It's harder than it looks, but will pay off big time when you need it most.

6.  Keep up to date on your illness and its treatments.  Medicine is rapidly evolving and we need to understand what our doctor is recommending (or not recommending). Use reliable sources like WebMD, Mayo Clinic, or PubMed.  Knowledge is power.  Be prepared for your 15 minutes.

7.  If you don't like your doctor, find a new one.  The doctor-patient relationship is very important in predicting that you'll do well with your illness.  You should feel like you're part of the team, not a passive recipient of orders.

8.  If you don't exercise regularly, start.  You don't have to be able to run a half marathon, or even a 5K.  Simple walking is sufficient, but if you can do more go for it.  It's as good as an antidepressant for your mood, reduces stress, and can help with pain and fatigue.

9.  Whether it's a new relaxation method or exercise, choose something that you enjoy, not something you think you should be doing.  This, along with setting small goals, is a huge predictor of whether or not you'll stick with it.

10.  Kick excessive worry to the curb, especially catastrophizing.  Even if the worst case scenario happens, odds are you can handle it.  Look what you've handled already and you're here to tell the tale.  Don't discount your strength when the "what ifs" get rolling.

11.  Live in the moment as much as possible.  Spending too much time in the past often leads to depression and spending too much time in the future can mean anxiety.  Enjoy today.

12.  Embrace life's grey areas and let go of black or white, all or nothing thinking.  Rarely is anything in chronic illness-land an absolute!

13.  Accept the changes to your body from your illness as beyond your control.  We can hate our scars and be ashamed of them, but it does nothing to make them fade away. It only adds new scars to our psyche.  The good news is we can make those fade by changing our thinking.

14.  Start writing down your thoughts and experiences.  Whether it's a blog, an anonymous message board, or in an old fashioned paper journal, writing has several positive effects on our mental and physical well-being.

15. Do something that's really meaningful to you every day.  This is one of the "secrets" to happiness.

16. Know that it's okay if you cannot solve the unsolvable problem that is a chronic illness.  You're not a failure if you don't achieve remission or if you don't respond to treatments like you "should."

17. Pay attention to your self-talk and if it's kind.  If it's not, try to understand why and work through those reasons.

18. If you're like me and go through bouts of insomnia, check your sleep habits against recommended "sleep hygiene."  There are probably things you can adjust that will pay off big.

19.  If you've kept your illness hidden from everyone, make it a goal to tell 1 person in 2014.  We know that disclosing an illness is much better, and less stressful, than trying to keep it hidden.

20. Look for the humor in your situation.  Kurt Vonnegut said it best:
Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward — and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.
So it goes.  Here's to a happy and healthy 2014!

Dr. T

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