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Enjoying the summer with chronic illness can be a challenge. The things that healthy people take for granted, like summer BBQs and beach days, people with autoimmune and other chronic illnesses have to be prepared for or skip entirely. This hits home in a big way for me since I grew up in sunny California and could not go to summer camp like everyone else. Cabins in August without air conditioning seemed like a sure-fire way to invite a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) exacerbation. My amazing parents came up with the solution to send me to camp in Oregon for one of the summers where it was much cooler. So at least I had the experience, but trust me when I say…when it comes to the summer heat and chronic illness, I get it!
I feel so lucky to say that today, the heat doesn’t affect me- I want you to know that there is hope! I will do my best to share tools here but I can’t fit everything into a blog and teaching the body to manage the summer with chronic illness is nuanced. It is never a one-size-fits-all prescription so I always find that individual coaching gets the best results since I can tweak according to a particular client’s circumstances. I hope what I share below benefits you, but most importantly, trust yourself and do this in a way that works for you. In order to understand the steps below, it’s helpful to understand why the heat can have such a powerful impact on the body.
One of the reasons that people with specific diagnoses are more sensitive to extreme temperatures has to do with a process in the body called temporal summation. In short, temporal summation is how the body slowly adapts to new conditions, such as seasons and temperatures. Each day as the seasons change, a healthy body begins to adjust accordingly. As a result, even though 100 degrees will feel very hot, the body will still be able to function. Temporal summation allows most people to manage the shifting seasons. Studies show that people with immune system dysfunction might not have as efficient temporal summation.
Another reason it’s harder to manage the heat is because of how heat affects the nervous system. Nerve conduction slows down in heat. If a healthy person is in a jacuzzi for an hour, they are going to move a little slower when they get out because the nerves are firing slower. They are still functional but they aren’t about to run a marathon. When our nervous systems are already vulnerable, whether it be because of a diagnosis or just a stressful period, heat will impact the body even more.
So what do you do? Do you hide all summer staying in front of the air conditioner? One of my clients recently shared that she feels sad as summer approaches since she feels left out of all the important family time. I’m sure many people can relate to that feeling. As I always talk about, having a positive relationship with our body is of paramount importance for harnessing wellness. The last thing I want is for you to feel resentful of your body when you can’t be out and about over the summer. To avoid that resentment while still protecting your body and health, I recommend the following steps for enjoying the summer with chronic illness.
- Shift your perspective
Imagine that the following thoughts and other similar thoughts are a bubble and POP them. “I am limited in the heat” or “I miss out on summer activities because of my body.” Just pop those bubbles every time they come up. They are natural thoughts and feelings, but your body needs to hear a new message. Our cells are always listening and if we think this then your body has no other choice than to obey…and in essence continue to create the same scenario (Read my previous blog post about placebo and nocebo effects here!) So start by monitoring your thoughts and popping the thoughts that are going to tell your body to continue behaving the way it did last summer.
At the same time, cultivate new thoughts that will send the message to your body that it does just fine in the heat. As an example, if you find yourself getting ready for an outing and anticipating not feeling well because of the heat, respond to your anticipation with curiosity: “Maybe it will actually be fine…Maybe I’ll feel great! I’ve been doing better overall so I’m open to the possibility will be OKAY.”
While shifting messaging so that your body has space to create a new reality, focus on how the steps you take to avoid the heat is about wellness NOT disease. So instead of thinking “I am missing out because my body limits me,” try saying “I love feeling well and take pleasure in taking steps to stay healthy.” Shift the perspective to be about taking care of yourself and having joy and pleasure in that. Be proud of yourself for making choices that honor your body! We all have that “health-nut” friend who goes to sleep at 9pm every night no matter what. They do it without hesitation because they see how good it makes them feel so they don’t risk it, even for a friend’s birthday. Try on their mindset for the summer. What if you could celebrate yourself for the steps you are taking to protect your health?
Let me be crystal clear that I am not suggesting that you have to stay in all summer. The point of shifting perspective is twofold:
- Maintain a healthy and positive relationship with your Body
- Communicate health to your cells so that they actually start repairing
Both of these are crucial to creating a different future where you can be in the heat and still feel well. Everything begins in the mind. I’m not telling you to give up on going out. I’m teaching you how to hack the system so that your body will start lining up to a new future. Start today to harness your mindset on this topic. It will take practice but that’s OKAY…you already know the commitment that disease management requires, so I know you’ve got what it takes to shift your thoughts!
- Be Prepared
While mindset is everything and I’m going to give you tools to retrain your body, you do still need to protect yourself and be practical. A great way to set yourself up for success is by stocking up on amazing tools to keep the body cool in all settings. Thankfully, the heat doesn’t affect me anymore but when it did, I loved my cooling vest and hats (even if I looked dorky!). These products keep your core temperature down so that you can still be out in the heat without it affecting the nervous system. There are many great items like neck coolers, personal misters, and so much more. There are now amazing products available that may help you enjoy your summer with chronic illness. Products are linked below with a special discount for Sanguine readers! Put aside any embarrassment or any hesitations about using them. Remember that socializing and being in nature is also important for your health and wellbeing so get your hands on as many of these items as possible so that you are always prepared!
- Train Your Body
Congratulations! You made it through the first two steps and now get to benefit from the fun part! Remember that phrase “temporal summation” from the beginning? Well what if you could use that process to hack your body into being able to manage the summer heat with chronic illness? If temporal summation does not work as efficiently in a body with autoimmune issue, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work at all. Let’s use this mechanism for your benefit! Start training your body and your mindset in the following way:
Spend five minutes a day in the heat
Yes I said five, don’t try to be a hero. We are training your body, NOT pushing it and your body needs to know it can trust you not to push it. Start this practice in the mornings before the REAL heat sets in. We want to give your body a chance to adjust to the new season the way a healthy body does….it is capable of it, it just needs more time. Be consistent with the timing each day. Obviously it can be tough to make sure it’s exactly 8am each time so you can stretch to thirty minutes before or after but don’t go to an hour later which will be a different temperature.
Before going outside, tell your body that you trust it and will listen to it if it wants to go back inside. Do NOT do this when you are stressed or in a bad mood. Make it a pleasurable experience. Sit somewhere beautiful, listen to your favorite music, bring a good book, or just do some breathing exercises. The most important thing is to stay PRESENT. Be mindful in this practice so that your cells are in peak performance. Remember stress immediately affects the cells and organs so your body won’t be able to make efficient adjustments in that state and you won’t benefit. Get centered before going outside each day so you can get the most of this training.
Do the same practice as week one for five minutes a day but an hour later than week one. So if week one was at 8am, now do it at 9am. Again, don’t push it. If your body asks to go inside, then do so. This training is to give your body a chance to adjust the way healthy bodies adapt but it is also to rebuild your relationship with your body. It needs to know it can trust you not to push too far. So listen to it. Focus on the long term success rather than getting immediate results. Take your time. Even if it takes three summers to nail this, it will be worth it!
Stay at the same time but do it for ten minutes a day. Be careful not to let the mindset part slip. Do not cut any corners in this practice. Get into the right mindset beforehand, make sure you have something pleasurable to do while you are outside or make it a meditative breath or gratitude practice. And again, listen to your body.
You will find that some days are fine and others aren’t. That’s OKAY and expected. It’s like learning to walk or ride a bike. We can be wobbly for a while. You wouldn’t yell at a two year old for still losing their balance after the first week of walking. Be patient with your body and be the cheerleader. Let it hear your support, be your own greatest cheerleader.
Stay at ten minutes per day but an hour later. Continue in these incremental shifts by adding five minutes to the practice and then gradually moving later into the day. Be proactive about it – take your ice water, stay in the shade, etc. Feel free to take a cold shower when you come back inside (which also sends a powerful message to the body that you’ll provide for its needs even after the upcoming afternoon BBQ). Every practice is an opportunity to build or undermine trust. Approach this heat training practice as training for a sport. You are honing a skill. Your body is incredible at adapting, it just needs time and love. And like I said, if it takes a long time to get the results you want, it will be worth it!
Disclaimer: Nothing in this blog is meant to be medical advice or intervention. Always consult your doctor before engaging in activities that might be a risk for you.
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By Kaley Zeitouni