Dr. Kimberly Sanders, ND
One of the most stressful events that can occur in someone’s life is a shocking medical diagnosis. A person may feel as though he was “normal” a week ago, though displaying some unfavorable symptoms, but now he carries a label. Patients diagnosed with an autoimmune disease may go through an extra stage of shock as they learn that their own body is attacking itself. As naturopathic physicians, we manage a person’s illness from the perspective of mind, body, and soul. The shock of a diagnosis, and the accompanying grief, can rattle all three of these realms. This stress does not create an environment for the patient to heal, and it cannot be ignored. Luckily, there are ways that a patient can handle the stress of an autoimmune diagnosis and start the process of healing.
The first step towards handling the stress of a diagnosis is to become educated about the condition. As humans, we all tend to fear the unknown. Patients especially tend to rely on anecdotes that are heard about a distant family member or friend with the same condition. By taking steps to truly understand the nature of the diagnosis, the course of the disease, and the action plan, a patient can remove some of the unknown variables. In a world full of technology, blogs, and search engines, it is crucial that patients become educated from reliable sources. Some suggestions include speaking to a naturopathic physician or medical doctor about the diagnosis. Schedule a session and bring along questions that were created ahead of time. Bring a paper and pen to take notes. Avoid reading stories on the internet about the condition, as this form of education is not reliable and may only serve to worsen fear and stress.
Another step patients can make towards handling the stress of an autoimmune diagnosis is to take action against it. Part of the stress of a scary diagnosis is feeling helpless against the disease. Patients may feel like this just happened out of nowhere, and they may feel like there is nothing to do but wait and see how bad it gets. By being proactive against the illness, some may feel a small sense of control over the process. This may improve the feeling of self-empowerment. Small steps to take action against your diagnosis include cooking healthy meals, going for a walk every day, or drinking green tea each day. With these tiny actions, patients are saying that they refuse to “watch and wait” as a passive spectator in their own health.
Address the Grief
Specifically for autoimmune patients, I have noticed an increased sense of grief at the thought of the immune system attacking its own tissues. It seems like the ultimate betrayal. I find that performing regular visualizations can help to relieve some of these negative feelings. The patient should lay down in a quiet, dark space. They should close their eyes for a few minutes and take deep breaths. After a few minutes of this deep relaxation, the patient should start to present positive images in his/her mind. Picture the immune system going up to your own tissues and turning away. Picture your immune cells stopping their attack on your tissues and focusing on attacking invaders, instead. Perform these visualizations regularly.
I often recommend that certain patients recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease join a support group. Many support groups exist online or in the local community. This allows patients to share common experiences and reduce the feelings of isolation that can come with a rare or misunderstood diagnosis. However, it is important to feel that the support group is a positive experience. One can determine this by taking an inventory of emotions after encountering the support group. Do you feel more hope or less hope? Do you feel supported or isolated? Do you feel understood?
Natural Medicines to Relieve Stress
Lastly, a patient diagnosed with an autoimmune disease can focus on the physiologic causes of stress that come with the diagnosis. This can include looking at cortisol levels or levels of neurotransmitters. During times of stress, the body will increase the secretion of these stress chemicals, and this may lead to negative emotions, fatigue, weight gain, and a general sense of not feeling well. This can contribute to a cycle of negativity that only further worsens the levels of stress chemicals in the body. By intervening at the physical level, we can help to break the cycle. Certain methods of reducing stress chemicals include meditation, breathing exercises, aerobic and anaerobic exercise, carbohydrate controlled dietary interventions, balancing the blood sugar, and obtaining adequate sleep. Certain botanical medicines, termed adaptogens, can help modify the stress response. Some of the best adaptogens for autoimmune patients include Astragalus, Rhodiola, Schisandra, Amla, and more. I typically recommend that autoimmune patients be cautious about the use of Withania (more commonly known as Ashwagandha) since this botanical is a member of the nightshade family. Certain autoimmune arthritis cases are quite nightshade sensitive and may flare in response to Ashwagandha intake.
Ultimately, a patient dealing with a diagnosis of autoimmune disease may feel like his/her world has been turned upside down. The patient may be left with feelings of hopelessness, fear, and sadness at the thought of the self-attack occurring in the body. In my experience, positive mental attitude is one factor that separates the patients who do well versus those who don’t. One can achieve a positive mental attitude with the steps listed above. Of course, the body is a complex being, and there is much more to the healing process than simply following these steps. However, following these steps can help put your mind in the right place to truly enter a healing phase in your disease journey.
Kimberly Sanders, ND, is Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine. She is the founder and chief naturopathic physician of ArthroWell Naturopathic, a private autoimmune specialty clinic in Milford, Connecticut.