When I had the opportunity to have a conversation with the renowned Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, I knew that I was in for a treat. Dr. Lombardo, who is a clinical psychologist AND physical therapist, helps patients to “enjoy less stress & more happiness, regardless of what else is going on in your life.” She specializes in patients with chronic pain, and has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, and on the Montel Williams Show, as well as in Redbook, Self magazine, Woman’s Day, Glamour, Arthritis Today, and Cancer Care. Dr. Lombardo has been published in peer-review journals and co-wrote a book for psychologists about how to best treat their patients. Her new book, titled “A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness” teaches everyone how to live a healthful life of happiness and wellness – despite what adversities they may be facing.
Dr. Lombardo has worked with the likes of Montel Williams (who lives with Multiple Sclerosis) and Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA superstar, who calls her his “head coach for happiness.”
I, as someone who lives with multiple chronic illnesses including arthritis, was excited to hear what Dr. Lombardo had to say. My personal beliefs are that we create our own happiness, and that it takes just as much work to be miserable to be happy. In my given situation, I recognize and realize my limitations, and I go through “ups-and-downs” like everybody else, but I do realize that a healthy dose of positivity and optimism is crucial in getting through life with chronic pain. After talking with Dr. Lombardo, I see that she agrees, and had much more insightful advice and opinions to add, and I’m happy to share with you some more about stress, anxiety, and chronic illness – and how these things are all linked together….AND in direct relation to arthritis.
Dr. Lombardo “knows her stuff” – she earned a Master’s Degree in Physcial Therapy from Duke and then went on to get her PhD in Clinical Psychology with a focus on Health Psychology. There’s a reason that she’s been featured in “Arthritis Today” Magazine – it is because she has a lot to say on the subjects of chronic illness, pain management, and the direct link between certain conditions and stress – as well as how living with arthritis can affect patients on an emotional level.
The most important point that Dr. Lombardo wanted to get across to patients, and their physicians, peers, and loved ones: “It’s NOT in your head!” Patients with chronic pain – especially with diagnosable conditions such as arthritis – often feel insulted or belittled if someone tells them to “go see a shrink.” Dr. Lombardo, however, embraces patients who want to talk about their emotions – and she acknowledges that chronic pain patients are experiencing VERY REAL symptoms. She wishes to educate the public on the role that STRESS plays on our body!
Have you heard of “pscyhoneuroimmunology?” Probably not. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is defined as, “the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body.” Through studying PNI, Lombardo and others in her field have discovered that stress can adversely affect every single organ of our bodies – even on the cellular level! Additionally, studies have shown that stress can affect muscle repair AND wound healing. In addition to the physical ramifications, stress affects us behaviorally, and can cause anxiety, depression, or a feeling of being overwhelmed. All of these emotions are common to those with chronic illness – and, let’s be real about it: being sick can be very stressful to the patient, on both mental and physical levels.
Chronic pain causes a ripple effect that affects every aspect of your life, your relationships with others, and, most importantly, your relationship with yourself. It can hinder our ability to work, our exercise patterns, and, our mind-set. For this reason, we have to be careful that chronic pain and/or illness does not become the center of our life. It can be a vicious cycle, though – pain/illness affects our social or professional lives, we fall into a depression, which makes us feel worse about ourselves, which makes us feel physically sicker or in more pain, and so on.
Lombardo says that, while we have to accept “what is” (i.e. symptoms of arthritis) – we don’t have to let it control our mindset. She asks, “what are you saying to yourself?” Are you treating yourself well? If you, as a patient living with chronic illness, constantly put yourself down, you’re going to feel….well, down. You must find value in yourself before others will!
While this is all easier said than done, it is important to try not to let stress get to you. Stress has SUCH a powerful impact on our bodies that, in addition to affecting the human body’s healing process, it can also affect our mental capacities and memory. One study that Dr. Lombardo spoke of showed that the hippocampus (a part of the brain in control of memory) actually shrinks in size in patients who are under “chronic stress” – as many arthritis patients are. (Could THIS be what the elusive “brain fog” is all about?)
So how do we combat stress? Think happy thoughts and do things that make you happy! Try a hobby. While you may be disabled or physically in pain, do SOMETHING that you enjoy or that you can focus your energies on. Even if you are unable to work or partake in past activities, there has to be something that you “can” do. Is it writing? Reading? Riding a bike? Taking a walk? Skydiving? Painting? Attending museums? Traveling or going to the opera? Whatever it is, get out there and “do it!” Why, you ask? The mind can only focus on a certain amount of stimuli. Sitting around being idle and “doing nothing” will allow us to ONLY focus on our illnesses. By having a hobby, or some type of activity that we can enjoy now and then, we will give our mind “time off” to focus on something fun/enjoyable instead of on our illness or our pain. I, for one, enjoy spending time with family, friends, and loved ones. I like walking my dog, attending concerts or art/fashion events, shopping, yoga, reading, writing, watching movies, boating, bowling, taking pictures, and “all things pop culture.” I keep myself busy by also moderating online support groups, Twitter, and Facebook pages for people with chronic illness, and, I try to do things that I “like” intermittently in between all of my doctors’ appointments and “feeling-icky” days! Granted, we may not be able to partake in our hobbies every day – but that’s okay! (Baby steps!) Dr. Lombardo says that redirecting our focus off of the pain will help minimize the pain that we feel. It isn’t that anyone with arthritis is “making up” the pain, but, we can trick our minds to NOT focus “so much” on the pain. Also remember that staying busy works more effectively when what you do has VALUE and is something that you enjoy. Doing housework that you despise, that causes you pain and that you begrudgingly do as a “mindless activity” won’t cut it – focus on activities that are following your passions! Being “happy” is physically good for you, too – happiness releases “feel-good” endorphins that combat stress and can act as natural pain relievers, believe it or not!
What else can be a natural pain reliever? The Arthritis Foundation isn’t the only entity that pushes exercise. In fact, ALL of my doctors encourage it, and, so does Dr. Lombardo. She says that, unfortunately, too many arthritis and fibromyalgia patients feel overwhelmed and/or intimidated by the idea of physical activity, and have an “all-or-nothing” frame of mind regarding exercise. It doesn’t have to be that way, as every person is different. Gentle stretching, walking, or light jogging are fine - no one is asking you to do gymnastics, hit the weight room, or run a marathon! (But, if you can do any of that – more power to you!)
Moral of the story? While arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other chronic pain conditions are VERY REAL and “not in your head”, the thoughts that go ON in your head CAN affect how you feel!
To learn more about Dr. Lombardo, please visit her new website: http://www.AHappyYou.com – and also check her out on Twitter and Facebook!
I know she inspired me….what will YOU do to become a Happy You & continue living well with arthritis….or whatever condition that you are battling? Please, leave a comment and tell us!
Thanks for reading!