Being Type “A” With Chronic Illness: Slowing Down to Survive

Stack of notebooks with colored pens on topI was never one of those girls who had a racy life pre-diagnosis. Nope. It was utterly, boringly free of sex, drugs…even rock ‘n’ roll. I listened to punk, actually, ate vegetarian (then vegan) organic food, and spent my time climbing mountains, swimming, and working to rescue animals. All very worthy, so what went wrong?

Some days I wake and feel pellucid, like I’m held together not with bones, but with vibrating golden wires. Transcendental! Then, there are other days when just breathing is an effort. Everything moves painfully. Slowly.

When living with illnesses that include chronic fatigue, when you are literally forced to slow down, how do you manage when you are a strong, “type A” personality?

I can turn anything into a project, even resting and relaxation. I’m a perpetual list-maker. I love doing it. Planning. Researching. (After emailing her a numbered list and detailed itinerary for my relaxation action plan, one of my teachers remarked she’d never seen anyone work so hard to unwind).

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about slowing down when your nature says speed up.

1. Breathing – Notice your breath. Right now. This is an important clue in your wellness journey. Are you breathing deeply or shallowly? Through your nose or your mouth? When you breathe does your chest move? Your abdomen? Are you feeling out of breath, or calm? Do you sigh or yawn often? These questions are important to increase your self awareness – and the quality of your breath.

When breathing into the chest, alone, taking shallow quick breathes may actually indicate the second stage of stress. Dubbed the “adaption” stage, it occurs during the fight or flight response. Looking at your jam packed calendar and feeling that stress spike? Getting anxious? Frustrated and tapping your fingers waiting for your emails to load? Or having that sensation of liquid irritation streaming directly into your nervous system after that car cut you off? One and all: adaption. It happens when you get so many of these alerts throughout the day, your body doesn’t feel safe enough to come out of alert mode. So you adapt to it. Adaptation becomes your new normal. And with it comes adrenal fatigue, exhaustion, a racing mind, altered blood sugar levels, lowered digestion, less body repair, higher heart rate and more unsavoury stuff designed to hold you back. Breath. Deeply. Consciously. And feel the change, immediately.

2. Back Out of Adaption – When you are in the adaption stage you speak quickly, move quickly, and everyone else seems frustratingly, puzzlingly slow. If you’ve been there (or are there now), there are ways to cope. I speak from personal experience; I didn’t want to slow down. I felt effective and alive a whole lot of the time, but it came with a huge side order of stress. I was living in a perpetual stage of adaptation. And, ultimately of course, this wasn’t sustainable. It never is.

So there is a choice that must be made: consciously calm down or run out of energy and into the exhaustion (heart-attack, collapse etc.). It isn’t that difficult to break the chain. Here’s how: take note. Notice if you are constantly in adaptation mode. Make a choice. To slow down. To put your body over your to-do list. (If you want extra help, book a session with me!) I promise that on the other side of adaptation, there’s a whole ocean of calm, peaceful action that is more effective, and healthier to boot.

3. Buffer Periods – Ever felt like your life is crunching gears? Like there is no room to really exhale? Increasingly, even designated times “off”, like weekends are so long-awaited, so hyped up, that they end up more stuffed with to-dos than the regular work week. In our overly-Pinterested and sanitised online world, our “off” moments often become time to finish up all the extra work: fold the sheets. Make a cake, Exercise. Play with the kids. Connect with loved ones. Read. Sleep. Start the next project. Start a garden. There are 1001 projects, and fully accepting that it’s impossible to fit them all into a 48 hour period – even wearing white lined separates and sipping a glass of herbal tea – is an absolute must.

Re-setting unrealistic expectations of perfection is a fundamental step in removing stress and slowing down. (Click to Tweet!)

And re-framing – creating – those “down times” with true, mindful buffer periods that suit your needs, can be unbelievably useful. For me, taking a full day to wind down from work into rest mode is essential. Similarly, I also need a day to charge back up into a “work” mindset. Friday and Sunday nights are my buffer periods, and those may great for you too. Be real with your expectations, your needs and yourself to help your genuine relaxation flourish.

4. Bookend Your Enthusiasm – If you’re a natural overachiever and you find it spilling into everything, do yourself a favour and give this aspect of your personality a container. Allow yourself a project and then give it limits. When I first founded Healing Boxes CIC, I worked one day a week on it. On Fridays I made phone calls, replied to emails, worked out plans, pricing and product testing. It was super focused and super effective.

But as an overachiever myself, I found that if I didn’t have a work project on the go, there was the constant inclination to turn every activity on my roster – even those intended strictly for pleasure or relaxation – into “tasks”. Date night? Check! Yoga? Check! Chillin’ on the sofa? Check! Happiness? DONE! Gleefully crossing these kinds of items off a list (imaginary or not) actually undermines the activities (and their purpose) themselves. How does one avoid this and remain productive in the areas that matter most?

Pick a project. Where would you like to focus your drive this week? Once you’ve decided, add bookends. Give your project boundaries and stick to them. If you find yourself thinking about said task while eating, in bed, or talking to someone, just stop. Remind yourself that this isn’t the time and send those thoughts to your imaginary project inbox. If you begin to make a project out of something else, pause: ask yourself, “is this a good use of my time and energy? Am I putting in more ‘work’ than is needed?”

Your goal isn’t to work hard, it is, in all likelihood, to feel a certain way. To be full. Content. Abundant, even. To feel as though you are making a difference with your mission. (Both Danielle LaPorte and Erika Lyremark are masters at helping folks zero in on how to do this effectively!) Just like the sit-ups and weight training, no effort is effective unless the muscle in the proper place (Surely, I’m not only one who kept putting all the force into my neck?).

Embrace your Type-A-ness! And embrace those moments that will allow you to maximize your assets and be your most effective. You’ll see a huge difference if you do.

Do you consider yourself Type A? How do you relax?