How Thinking Outside the Box Can Save Your Life
Sometimes personality can really get in the way of living a happier, less stressful life. I mean the part of personality that involves habitual patterns, mood, and temperament. By temperament I mean one’s nature, something intrinsic and seemingly unchangeable. I have an artistic temperament, for example. I tried to work as an accountant but the finance environment was stifling, bloodless, and the office politics were nearly as convoluted as those of the government in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Ostensibly I quit to write a novel, but I really quit to save my life. In the end, I accomplished both. I don’t know how much of a role MS played in my inability to cope in that office. I do know that the hostile work environment stressed my bladder into dysfunction. Temperament. Is it changeable?
It seems to me that there are two basic kinds of temperament that inform the reasoning process: The kind that can come up with one or two ideas to solve a problem, and the kind that can rattle off 5-10 possible solutions in rapid succession, all without involving any emotion. I fit into the first category. For my own sake, I wish I could fit the second.
For example, I get a medical bill that has a rather high patient charge, something we with chronic illness have to deal with at least once a year. The first thing I do is vocalize my outrage over such a travesty. Then I begin to think why that charge is there. I stew over it for days, nursing my anger. Then I start with the phone calls and ask probing questions. I act like a calm human being until the process gets bogged down by customer service reps’ myriad uncertainties and responses that contradict one another. In the absence of a clear explanation, I launch into a tirade about the plight of the poor and sick people on fixed incomes drowning in medical charges. I’m not abusive, quite reasonable, actually, but I use a strong, angry voice. This does not make the situation get solved any sooner and it doesn’t make me feel better afterwards, either. It is my temperament. Am I stuck with it?
Perhaps not. The introduction of stress, acute or chronic, can create new patterns that impact temperament. Like low-grade chronic pain, stress can wear on your psyche. The result can be the reverse of those goals we want to achieve using cognitive behavioral therapy. We can start thinking new thoughts, dark and fateful, which in turn can affect our mood and behavior. We might relive a stressful event in our minds in an endless loop. Then, in effect, we start spinning our wheels. We remain distracted by the stress loop and might stop doing the things that help us manage pain, weakness, muscle dysfunction. Decreasing activity in response to that prolonged state of stress would be a common choice to make. It’s also one that diminishes our quality of life. Our sleep patterns will suffer, too. Sleep deprivation is anathema to the MS patient. We might withdraw socially as well, and put off calling our doctors about a problem that needs investigation. Withdrawal is one of the most damaging things stress can do.
What can I do to override the anger/helplessness El train loop? I can reach out to the people who possess temperament number two, the ones who have endless ideas and an enviable detachment from my fear and anger. I’ve done this a lot lately. I am not exaggerating when I say that it has saved my life. Perhaps I should say it has saved me from myself. If you live alone like I do and socializing happens once or twice a week—or less—that kind of isolation cuts us off from the fresh perspectives of others about issues most of us face.
Thinking outside your box—with the help of others—can lighten your emotional burden and free you to solve the problems at hand. As always, reach out to your online MS community so others can disperse the heavy burden you’re dragging around and plant a fresh perspective in that stressed-out brain of yours. Make that uncomfortable phone call to your health practitioners and ask the questions you think might sound stupid and embarrassing. You can lead with this: “I’m having a little problem I hope you can help me solve. I’d be grateful for your feedback.” It’s a good place to start. I believe most people want to help us. It’s our choice whether we let them.
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