How to avoid a downward health spiral

Cheerful Senior Woman With Walking Frame Looking At Camera Outdo

Sometimes life lives up to the saying ‘it never rains but it pours’. This woman explains how falling set off a string of health problems. But what could she — and all of us — do to sidestep that?

The woman is a participant in the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project, and this quote was included in Cassandra Szoeke’s book Secrets of Women’s Healthy Ageing:

“I can tell you the exact day I got old, it wasn’t a particular age or announcement, it was a particular thing. I simply fell. That was it, the fall, the hospital time, the rehab, it was all bed rest and limited mobility. I began to put on weight, my annual check-up suddenly showed high cholesterol in my bloodstream and borderline ‘impaired glucose tolerance’ and vitamin D deficiency. That was just a few months before the pain in my side, gall bladder disease, more operations. I’m not surprised that my cognitive tests have dipped today, I honestly have not felt back to my previous health level since I tripped.”

Perhaps some of these issues were already in play and simply hadn’t shown up before the fall, but here are several ways to be proactive about recovery.

Look for what you can do

While injuries and illness can restrict our mobility, often we can do more than we think. For example, if you’ve hurt your lower body, you might still be able to exercise your upper body.

Your right arm might be out of action, but could you use your left? There’s some transfer of benefit between limbs, so even when you’re only exercising your left arm, your right arm benefits.

And even if you’re confined to bed there might be small movements you could do to stimulate your muscles and nerves, encourage circulation and keep your mind engaged.

In addition, you may have heard of elite athletes who injure themselves too badly to train for a big event and use mental preparation. By imagining themselves going through their paces they keep their mind and body ready to compete.

So if, for example, the injuries from a fall prevent you from walking, you could still benefit mind and body by imagining yourself completing your daily route.

Bottom line: even when there’s a lot you can’t do, see if there’s something you can do (provided it’s not contrary to medical advice).

And PS. Too many people impair their recovery by not doing what they’re told, so if you’re given rehab exercises, do them. Sometimes not everything mends perfectly but give yourself the best possible chance. The same applies to the recovery protocol for an illness.

Eat smart

If you’ll be sidelined for a lengthy period, think carefully about your diet. It’s challenging enough to recover from a mishap like a fall without also putting on weight and having to deal with the flow-on effects of that.

If you have a medical condition, stick to any dietary requirements, but if you can’t move normally due to injury you could consider intermittent fasting: e.g. having breakfast later and/or dinner earlier to restrict the length of time over which you eat each day.

To avoid issues like impaired glucose tolerance (i.e. too much insulin), which can trigger a raft of other problems, skip the sweet and starchy carbs, and processed food in general.

Remember that a body in recovery needs nutrient-rich food. You can’t build healthy muscle, bone and tendon on toast and jam or instant soup.

And note that if you’re inside for a prolonged period it might be worth a chat to your GP about a vitamin D supplement.

Manage your mindset

One of the most challenging aspects of illness and injury is our thinking. Kate James, author of books such as Change How you Think, wrote a piece for a newspaper earlier this year about how she coped when her husband was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer (which he recovered from).

One of her main points was the need to balance the negative bias of our brains. The brain is wired to protect us, so it’s inclined to identify the worst possible outcome, even when that outcome is highly unlikely. But some of us will act as though that worst option is happening or is destined to happen.

It takes discipline to ground ourselves and respond to what’s actually in front of us. A useful way of doing that is with slow, rhythmical breathing that helps us get present and slows down the hurly-burly in our heads.

I remember reading what journalist Julia Baird said about the way she got through breast cancer. One important strategy was to shut out negativity and drama. She surrounded herself with people who were big-hearted but down-to-earth.

One of the challenges of not being able to live our normal lives is boredom and feeling down. Kate James recommends committing to do something every day that brings joy. This could be connecting with good friends, doing something creative or just sitting in the garden or watching the birds.

She also advises trying new things: a new recipe, a new café, a new course online. It helps to keep life feeling fresh and interesting. If you’re confined to bed none of these might be options, but as before, keep your mind open to what you can do.

If all you can do for a while is watch a screen or read a book, be selective about your choices.

Another suggestion is to make a list of at least 10 things in life you’ve done that you’re proud of. It’s a reminder that you have what it takes to get over this hurdle.

There might even be an upside to your circumstance. Sometimes a block of downtime gives us a chance to rethink parts of our lives or space to explore ideas for our future.

So while nobody relishes illness or injury, there are things we can do to help steer ourselves through it.

If you do find yourself struggling to turn things around, consider a chat with a counsellor.

Remember that every tiny step forward — mental, emotional or physical — makes a difference.


Photo Source: Bigstock

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