Saturday, June 4, 2016

Making Relationships a Priority When I’m Tired and Everything is Important

Taking a break to watch the salmon swimming
while on a 
bike ride with friends
I didn’t worry about needing to consider my social life as it related to my health before I was diagnosed with MS.  The downside was I also pushed myself beyond my limits and consequently averaged two exacerbations per year. Unknowingly I was adding stress to my body and accelerating my MS disease activity.

Spending time with friends and going on adventures were something I believed I should be able to do, and I didn’t see fatigue as a symptom of something larger and more serious. I still believe I should be able to spend time with friends and experience adventures, but I now weigh and budget the energy it takes with the joy I’ll experience.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked men for 75 years (and counting) and showed that people with good quality relationships with family, friends and community are not just happier than people without good relationships, they are also physically healthier. They experience less memory loss, pain doesn’t affect their mood as much, and they’re generally more resilient.  

As such, I see my relationships as imperative to my future health.  Investing time in my social relationships is not optional.  MS symptoms like fatigue can make it more difficult to build and maintain those social connections.  When work, bills, housekeeping and everyday tasks take more energy than a person has, it’s easy to turn down invitations to social gatherings and become isolated. 

Rethinking beliefs: 
I grew up believing that school came first and only after you get all your work done can you get the reward of playing with friends. As an adult with a chronic condition that affects my energy level, I’ve learned that this approach feels like constant punishment. It also neglects the human need to have more in life than work. I’ll never have enough energy to do enough of the good stuff I want to do after all the work is done.  To compensate, I pace myself on things I need to do, reduce the effort it takes to do them, and save enough energy for the good stuff in life. Among the good things are spending time connecting with other people.

I’ve heard the saying that to be rich, a person can make more or want less. I translate that as to be more energetic, I can make more energy or use less energy. I can do things that recharge my energy level, and I can conserve my energy by reducing the effort it takes to do things.

I boost my energy by exercising, eating nutritious food, being organized, pacing myself and resting. I’ll conserve my energy by streamlining, prioritizing, and delaying or delegating tasks. Doing these things allows me to feel confident that I’m doing the best I can, and it allows me to feel justified in placing a high priority on fun and relationships.

Prioritizing Joy and Relationships:

A terrific method to maximize joy with limited energy is to double up on the benefits by combining things that need to be done with social interaction. I’ll go for a walk with a friend to combine exercise, social engagement, time outside getting fresh air, and time not eating or doing other things I should limit.

If I need to do some shopping, I might go with a friend who can drive and help me find what I need. I make sure to allow time to rest before, during, and after the excursion. It often changes the experience from one that can be draining to one that is invigorating and recharging.

I’ll reduce the effort it takes to participate in social events.  I’ll shorten the length of time I’ll stay, but I’ll still show up. Sometimes I choose events that are easier to do and less physically taxing.  Other times I’ll choose events that may require a lot of energy but are rewarding and worth the effort.  If I love it, I make sure I streamline and reduce other activities so that I can have enough energy to do the one that’s a big deal.

The level of effort it takes to engage socially vastly ranges. I can choose how I want to connect at any time based on my level of energy and the relationship I want to maintain:
Write an email
Write a letter or send a card
Call them on the phone
Meet for coffee or lunch
Go to a movie together
Exercise with a buddy: Go for a walk, hike, bike ride, swim, etc.
Go to an event: Attend a concert, museum, or dance
Plan an adventure 
Take a trip, visit family, explore new places with someone

It also helps to explain to the people in your life how MS might limit your activities and that you’ll do your best to stay connected. While talking on the phone with my sister one night, we were having a very engaging and fun conversation when I hit the metaphorical wall.  I interrupted her, “I’m sorry, but I need to go now so I can go do nothing.”  We laughed at the time, and I still crack up that I could say that to her without being rude and without her feelings getting hurt.  It’s important and empowering to recognize when to push myself to be socially engaged and when to quit while I’m ahead.