Filling Your Toolkit to Reduce the Stress of Illness

Filling Your Toolkit to Reduce the Stress of Illness
Martel Catalano
Written by
Martel Catalano Co-Founder & Director of Beyond My Battle

There’s no getting around it: living with an illness is stressful. Countless studies confirm the harm stress does to anyone’s health, and for those living with or caring for someone with a medical condition this poses the threat of intensifying symptoms or developing additional diagnoses. Learn how chronic pain stress can be addressed in your daily life. 

When we launched Beyond My Battle as a nonprofit in 2018, the first thing we set out to do was provide a (physically and cognitively) accessible set of tools for stress-management. We knew first-hand how toxic emotional stress can be while simultaneously having to carry the physiological stress of our respective illnesses, so we developed our Emotional e-Toolkit to help our community understand and implement five scientifically-backed strategies for cultivating calm. 

Relationships, breathwork, nature, movement, and meditation became our go-to strategies when working with both patients and caregivers because they can be made available to anyone no matter their ability, budget, or lifestyle. Personally, I use all five of these tools nearly every day and know the impact they have had on my life as someone living with a rare disease and teaching others how to cope with theirs. Here is why each are so useful: 

Relationship 

The first and most important tool we all have available is our connection to other people. Not only are human beings hardwired to be a social species, those of us living with illnesses often need help from others more than the average individual. Therefore, it’s important that our relationships are healthy and that we’re communicating our needs.

I find that nurturing supportive relationships is the most difficult thing for anyone to work on, and especially for those of us with chronic pain stress. Feelings of being a burden or unworthy of love run rampant in our minds, and as a result we often push others away. It’s equally as difficult for care partners; I get messages each week from parents or spouses who don’t know how to properly support their loved ones. Which is why we made sure the Relationship Tool came first in the toolkit, and why it explains the science behind relationships in addition to offering thought-provoking prompts, journaling exercises, and more, for both patients and caregivers. 

Breath

The breath is special because it’s with us wherever we go, readily available with no assistance needed from others and minimal energy needed from ourselves. It may be no surprise to hear that our breath is directly connected to our nervous system; the way we breathe triggers arousal or relaxation states.

The trouble is that so many of us breathe short, shallow breaths on a moment-to-moment basis. Not breathing to our full capacity creates feelings of anxiety and tension, which can remain lodged in the body. Deep breathing can be used to clear out negative emotions and release physical pain, resulting in improved mood, bodily systems, and much more. In the Breath Tool, we explain why this is beneficial to those living or caring for people with illnesses, and provide three short breathwork videos on how to breathe more deeply and restoratively. 

Nature

Spending time outside is not just a great way to reduce stress, but it’s proven to play a key role in human well-being. When we remember that we are a merely a very evolved animal that evolved from spending all of our time in nature, this is not so surprising. We need connection to our natural environment in order to feel whole. 

Getting outdoors on a regular basis has been crucial for managing my personal stress, especially during times of overwhelm. When I am feeling anxious or down, I know that going out for a walk or into the garden will lift my spirits, if only a little. This can look different for everyone, as each diagnosis presents unique limitations regarding mobility or exposure to the elements. That’s why the Nature Tool inside the Emotional e-Toolkit provides several activities to add bits of the natural world into your life – even if you can’t physically get outside. 

Movement

Depression is a well-documented challenge for those living with illnesses, and when we are depressed, we set ourselves up for a host of additional ailments. Ideally, we’d like to ward off added medical problems if we’re already managing one. Caregivers also benefit from staying physically and mentally fit so they can be physically and mentally available for their loved ones. 

Exercising (in any way) releases chemicals that play a major role in happiness, and therefore, health. There are so many ways to move the body, yet many of us put this fundamental tool on the backburner because we tend to think of exercise as an inconvenience.  Yet, movement can be found and adjusted for our lifestyle and interests. My favorite form of exercise is anything that tackles two things at once; I will weed plants on a sunny day or spend time with family on a long walk. I also try to mix things up by incorporating stretching or lifting on other days. In the Movement Tool, we provide an easy-to-modify exercise guide and a chair yoga video so you can incorporate movement into your life no matter how mobile you are.

Meditation

As a meditation teacher, I know the many aversions to starting to meditation practice. The common misperception is that meditation is sitting down and emptying the mind; I often hear “I can’t meditate because my mind won’t shut up.” However, meditation is more so the process of getting to know your mind, and there are many ways to do it. 

While meditating might seem like the most difficult tool to implement, it is one of the most powerful. Studies show that meditating actually changes the brain itself. It can leave us feeling happier, less anxious, adaptable to change, and connected with others. Meditating also has been show to reduce pain and strengthen the immune system, which is incredibly beneficial to those dealing with chronic pain stress. Inside the Meditation Tool we explain the science behind meditation and offer guided mindfulness meditations, as well as how to practice walking meditation. 

All five of these tools are scientifically proven to reduce the inherent stress of living with chronic pain. That being said, I like to remind people that no self-care practice should ever feel self-disciplinary. While relationships may feel less therapeutic, controlling or forcing any of these tools into place will inevitably result in further tension, rather than reduced stress. If you begin to feel like any of these strategies are becoming an unwelcomed chore, step back and revisit them at a later time. To learn more about Beyond My Battle, visit beyondmybattle.org.

Martel Catalano
Written by
Martel Catalano Co-Founder & Director of Beyond My Battle

Martel was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an incurable and degenerative eye disease, at age 13. Over the decade that followed, she dealt with chronic depression and anxiety stemming from the fear of impending blindness. After years of studying yoga, mindfulness, and philosophy, Martel became committed to creating awareness about the unique mind-body challenges for those with life-altering diagnoses. In addition to serving as Executive Director of Beyond My Battle, she talks and teaches about living mindfully with an illness or disability. She has studied with teachers near and far, and has over 500 hours of yoga and meditation training. Martel is an undergraduate of Skidmore College and received her MBA from Green Mountain College where she focused on corporate sustainability. She lives in Upstate New York where she spends her free time in nature or illustrating. E-mail Martel directly at: martel@beyondmybattle.org