After hearing about my health condition, one question people ask me is “wow how are you coping?”. My answer is usually short and straight to the point “I distract myself 24/7, 7days a week, and have been doing it for 5 years”.
On first look, it sounds like a bad idea or like I’m not facing my problems. But, here’s the thing. When you are almost always in pain, there’s no “running away”.
Recently I stumbled on a book and found out there’s a neurological explanation for what I do and why it works. Incidentally, I do what I do to live with pain instinctively and was quite surprised to find out there’s a study around it.
I thought to share because I have realized a lot of people around me are also going through physical or mental pain and I hope this would help. So here we go:
A science writer, Winifred Gallagher stumbled on a connection between attention and distraction after she was diagnosed with a fairly advanced kind of cancer.
After the diagnosis, on her way out of the hospital, she decided that since the disease wanted to monopolize her attention, as much as possible, she would focus on her life instead
The treatment that followed was exhausting and terrible, but Gallagher noticed her commitment to focus on what’s good in her life, “movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini” worked surprisingly well.
Her life during her battle should have been filled with depression and pity, instead, she was often pleasant.
She decided to figure out/understand the role of attention – what we focus on what we ignore – plays in defining our quality of life.
What she found out was that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your existence.
Here’s the thing,
As humans, we tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or doesn’t happen) determines how we feel.
When you think of it this way, tiny details like how you spend your day aren’t important. Only large outcomes, like getting a promotion or getting that visa you have been applying for matter.
What Gallagher found out is that the brain constructs your worldview based on what you pay attention to.
So, in her case, if she focuses on her cancer diagnosis, her life becomes bleak and unhappy but if she focuses on her 6:30 martini, her life feels more pleasant – even though the original problem remains either way.
As she says – “who you are, what you feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on”.
What she realized draws a parallel line to what I decided when I got my initial diagnosis.
When I first started the surgeries, I promised myself that my jovial disposition was not going to change and I would never become a cranky sick person which is what most people with physical ailment default to by using the excuse “you don’t know how I feel”.
After the 3rd surgery, I realized my life was changed forever. Instead of dwelling on that fact and dwelling on the thin line between depression or something worse, I decided to start working on filling my days with micro pleasures to distract myself.
So I cataloged the things that bring joy to me: movies, series, anime, chocolate, banana bread, games, and the occasional drink. And then I split my day into buckets where, if I am not actively working, I’m doing one of the things above.
E.g. I eat banana bread at night while watching a movie series or anime. Almost every day, no matter how bad the day goes, I know that my sweet moist banana bread is waiting for me.
Now, there’s a thin line between avoiding your problems and simply not letting the problems control your life.
I still get depressed quite a bit. But the very very few times I decided to focus on my health condition, I spiraled so hard and realized my quality of life could indeed get much worse if I don’t follow my system.
Now, I’m not saying what works for me would work for everybody, but I believe that the use of these “bright spots” can indeed generate a significantly more positive outcome after a negative event.
One last thing.
Different people have different things they can potentially use as their “safe zone”. It can be something as basic as evening walks or a spa day every 2 weeks.
You just need to create bright spots in your life that you can focus on instead of only dwelling on things that are out of your control