Coping while Giving Back: The Health Benefits of Doing Good by Ashley Boynes-Shuck

Lately, I’ve been astounded by the amount of people who comment upon my strength and positivity in the face of my multiple health problems. A lot of them have the same question: how do I cope?

I have thought about it, and I’d like to answer that question for you now. The truth is — and you can ask anyone who knows me — it hasn’t always been easy. There were times in the past where I very much struggled with the cards I’d been dealt, healthwise. I allowed it to ruin friendships, affect jobs and schooling, and to absolutely torture my self-esteem. It made me feel badly about myself — pitiful, almost — and at times, I felt pretty bummed. There were times where I’d felt I’d been “jilted” out of a “normal” life and that it “wasn’t fair.” However, I barely ever played the “woe is me” card, and always realized that it could, most definitely, be worse.

Age and maturity helped (after all, I’ve been having health problems since around age 10.) Life experiences taught me lessons. Then, once I accepted “what is,” I quickly (for lack of a better term) just “got over it.”

So my first piece of advice – as rude as it sounds – is “get over it!” Depending on which chronic condition you have, if you have one of these rheumatic or autoimmune illnesses, it is likely that there is no cure. There’s a chance you’ll never go into remission. So, then you have a choice – curl up and live your life a grumpy, miserable, no-fun mess. Or, you can just grab life by the proverbial horns and get over it. Naturally, I’m human. I have days where I cry — both out of physical pain and out of frustration. Anyone who acts like they are always happy, always positive and smiling, and never has a weak moment is either monumentally dishonest, hugely delusional, or….not human. The truth is, we all have bad days, regardless of your health. You have to let yourself feel your feelings. That was another thing I realized, that helps me cope – while being positive is definitely preferred and while optimism cannot hurt, feeling good and happy despite all of its benefits is not always an attainable goal. You’ll have days where you feel badly about your situation, and wish things were differently, and you may mourn the loss of your happier self or wonder, “what if?” That’s only natural. Again, anyone who acts like they don’t have days like that is doing just that….acting.

So what else helps me cope? Of course, my support system – my friends, my family, hubby, pets, and even my online support system. Of course, my faith is a biggie. Not everyone is religious, but I feel that it is important to believe in something, to hold onto hope, and to, at the very least, be faithful in yourself and to be faithful in the natural progression of what is meant to be.

However, I knew that there was more to my “coping” than these factors. I recognize that I “do better” at handling my conditions than many people, and for that, I am forever thankful. But… I’m not anything special — so what is it that really helps me go “above and beyond” in the coping & positivity department?

It dawned on me the other day: helping others. Doing good deeds. Donating to causes and charities. Volunteering. Altruism. Practicing kindness. Even just offering a stranger a smile or tipping the people at Starbucks for praying for people. Inspiring you guys online who read my work and appreciate it. All of these things have caused me to LOOK OUTSIDE OF MYSELF. Breaking out of that little bubble that is, “me me me” can really make a difference. Seeing the world as a bigger place, and caring about things outside of your own life can really help take the focus off of you , your illnesses, what “could be,” what “should have been,” etc. If you start to devote your time to other things, especially things unrelated to yourself, you won’t have the time  (or desire) for a pity party!

I have given up a lot because of my health. Career things, personal things, physical things. I have lost sleep, time, and money. My self-image took a beating. However, I have gained a lot, too. I realized that while some things were taken away from me, that I’ve been given the ability and opportunity to really CONNECT with people. I love to educate others, spread awareness, champion causes, and to encourage, motivate, and inspire. I love to listen and to help. I believe that is what I was always meant to do. Maybe my health problems were a catalyst for that — or maybe the do-good-ism is helping my health. Maybe both.

There actually are proven health benefits to giving back and doing good.

Putting the needs of others ahead of your own helps many people to find a sense of direction and bring a purpose to life. It is also helps people survive and to heal from tragic or challenging events. It has been proven that altruism and charity is good for the mind, body, and spirit! So why not give it a whirl?

Choose your philanthropy, and choose your health! What can volunteering/giving back do for your body? Well…

  1. Possibly strengthens the immune-system.
  2. Decreases both the intensity and the awareness of physical pain, according to studies.
  3. Activation of the emotions that are vital to the maintaining good health.
  4. Reduction of the incidence of attitudes, such as chronic hostility, that negatively arouse and damage the body.
  5. Relieves stress which relieves many of the body’s systems.
  6. Experiencing a “helper’s high,” a rush of euphoria, followed by a longer period of calm, after performing a kind act.
  7. A longer-lasting period of improved emotional well-being.
  8. Release of the body’s natural painkillers, the endorphins, which are “feel-good” chemicals in the body proven to reduce the sensation of pain.

According to Forbes magazine,

“Recent research conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Corporation for National & Community Service reveals that charitable work literally makes the heart grow stronger. Individuals with coronary artery disease who participate in volunteer activities after suffering a heart attack report a reduction in despair and depression, and that, in turn, rives down mortality and adds years to life. It’s also true that those who volunteer have fewer incidents of heart disease in the first place. Surprisingly, you don’t need to devote huge chunks of time to doing good activities to reap their health benefits. The research shows tangible positive changes by volunteering just 100 hours per year–a figure that works out to a not-too-onerous two hours per week.”

A 2004 study from Johns Hopkins University found the following:

“Older adults who volunteer in troubled urban schools not only improve the educational experience of children, but realize meaningful improvements in their own mental and physical health, say researchers at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. The Johns Hopkins investigators base their conclusion on the first randomized clinical trial testing the health benefits of participating in an established volunteer program called Experience Corps in Baltimore. ‘While our results are preliminary, what we found is a ‘win-win’ for everyone involved,’ says the study’s lead author, Linda P. Fried, M.D., director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins. ‘Giving back to your community may slow the aging process in ways that lead to a higher quality of life in older adults,’ she adds. ‘Physical, cognitive and social activity increased in volunteers, suggesting potential for Experience Corps and similar programs to improve health for an aging population, while simultaneously improving educational outcomes for children,’ she said. ‘It potentially could have great social impact if taken to a large scale. Evidence is mounting that remaining active and engaged is beneficial as one ages, but our society has not developed approaches that support such activity for the broad spectrum of older adults,’ says Fried.”

According to Michelle Keno of The Daily Evergreen, “There is one way to improve your health that is not obvious but still essential for balance. I am talking about giving back and serving others. Serving others is an important factor to overall health to improve our sense of community and well-being. Most of the time, people are very generous during the holidays but forget about serving others the rest of the year. It doesn’t matter how you give back. It is just important that you do. I suggest finding a cause that interests you or that you find important. If it has personal meaning, you will be more likely to stick with helping out whenever it is needed.”

The Cambridge University Press published a study in 2001 entitled, Aging and Society, which spoke specifically on volunteerism and arthritis. It states, “Research attention has turned towards investigating the motivations and experiences of those who volunteer under conditions that benefit both giver and recipient. The purpose of this paper is to examine the motivation of 22 older volunteers as they embarked on training to become lay leaders of an arthritis self-management program. Older volunteers valued finding a purpose, reported less pain and an increased desire to ‘get on with life’. Results suggest that volunteering in later life can help to offset losses associated with retirement and decline in health.”

This type of quantitative research is all well and good, but I can just tell you from my personal, qualitative experiences that this all rings true. Even on my worst day physically, if I can reach out and touch the life of someone — even if it is just a stranger online — it makes me feel good. Maybe the pain doesn’t go away, but I’m reminded that despite my disabilities, I still have a purpose and can contribute to the world as a whole. So now, I don’t cringe when I write out a check to support PETA, Save the Children, or the Arthritis Foundation. I’m happy to sponsor a child in Africa, to fundraise, and to take on some social media clients – like my best friend who owns a small business, or my church — pro bono just to help out. I have no problem volunteering for Animal Friends events in my area, modeling in a charity fashion show, or donating my time to becoming a Big Sister in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. And for all the time I spend online and on social networks? I enjoy it. I have plenty of other things to do, but I do it because I care … I want to help you all, provide you with health tips and useful information, support you, connect with you, encourage you, and to build a community where we can lean on one another. After all — what you give comes back to you. For all of you who I have supported or inspired, I’ve received that love and support back tenfold. It is overwhelming, and, you know, I cope because I have the support of you all. I cope because I have to! I do believe, however, that my “good-doing” has been the catalyst to help me “get over it” and accept my life for what it is — a blessing!

I’ve had people ask, “why do it if you’re not getting paid?” The answer is simple: I am. It just isn’t in money.

Want to know how you can volunteer with the Arthritis Foundation? Contact your local regional office and/or check out the Volunteer section of the AF website, here.

 

Please, leave a Comment below and let us know how you are doing your part and doing good!

Thanks for reading!

Stay well,

Ashley Boynes-Shuck

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3 thoughts on “Coping while Giving Back: The Health Benefits of Doing Good by Ashley Boynes-Shuck

  1. I have several health problems as well. It is constantly a challenge. I was glad to know others struggle like me. I hate having to give up things I enjoy doing because the pain is to much to bear.

  2. I sooo agree with you about volunteering or touching others lives. The main thing for people with ra is to adapt…find something you can do that you love to do and figure out a way to do it. If you have always loved to knit and you still can, alot of hospitals would love baby hats or blankets for infants. You could take your time and not have to physically go to a location to volunteer. There are tons of ways to volunteer from home. Some organization need people that can make calls or do emails, etc. Figure out what makes you happy when you are doing it and then search online with your hometown name and volunteering and I am sure sites will come up that one can check out to see what might be a good match. I have seen here where they need volunteers to take in an animal until they find a forever home, seasonal volunteering things like gift wrapping for a cause (even just for one hour), ringing the bell for the Salvation Army (I team up with someone just in case I get a really horrific flare), volunteering at any museum, reading to children at schools or the library…the lists are endless. Start off slowly to give it a try and you might just be surprised how good it makes you feel. Great blog post!

  3. Pingback: Blog vignettes « loving blind, borderline reckless

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