Fibromyalgia is often referred to as an “invisible illness”. Despite suffering a multitude of debilitating symptoms, people with fibromyalgia tend to look well. This normal appearance leads others, even many doctors, to underestimate the effects of fibromyalgia. Some people even dismiss the disease completely, stating it is “all in the mind”.
It is difficult enough trying to lead a relatively normal life with fibromyalgia. This denial from the people around us has a negative impact.
I often see fibromyalgia sufferers with wrist supports. Others have walking sticks, or neck collars. I have recently bought a shoe-horn because I find it difficult to bend down to put my shoes on – it’s the sort of thing my grandmother would use, and she’s eighty-six!
Sometimes I wonder if these props have more than one purpose. Not only do they serve their primary function, supporting joints, aiding mobility, etc, they also give a visual clue to the user’s health problems.
There are other clues too:
People with fibromyalgia often look well, but they don’t always look happy. Is this because an unhappy facial expression is another signal of ill health that the sufferer is keen to send out to people?
How are you? Have you ever asked someone that question and wished that you hadn’t? It can open the floodgates to a flow of negative affirmations: “I feel terrible”, “I’m in a lot of pain today”, “I hardly slept last night”.
As a doctor, I often start my consultations with the question, “How are you?” This is such a common question that most people have a standard response – one that comes out automatically. I’m always very interested in their answer, because it tells me something about the sort of person they are.
When I ask this question in my practice, many people will say, “Very well, thank you”, and then remember where they are and laugh. At this point they will correct themselves, saying something like, “Well, I’m not great, obviously, or else I wouldn’t be here!”
Another common response is “Don’t ask”, preceded by a deep sigh.
What is your standard response to this question?
Many aspects of our health are psychological. If we are constantly giving out the message that we are unwell, we are in fact making illness a habit: By the way we act, and appear, and talk, it is easy to reinforce our negative health beliefs.
This behaviour is sometimes called the “sick roll”. It’s the behaviour we lapse into when we’re unwell. Unfortunately, in chronic illness, this roll can become a life-long habit.
I have a challenge for you: Be well for a day. Even though you don’t feel it, PRETEND. Don’t pick a day when you feel especially unwell, but don’t wait until you’re feeling great either – sadly, this day may never come. Discard your visual props, stand upright, smile and face the world. Get ready for the “How are you?” question, and answer, “I feel pretty good today, thank you”.
The way we behave really does have a strong effect on our health. But just as ill-health leads to negative actions – like playing out the sick roll – the same principles can be applied in reverse: By acting the way we do when we are well, even if we don’t feel it, we can make a positive impact on our health.