How Our Choices Keep Us Healthy

healthHow choice helps us to recover from illness and stay healthy.

Recently in my family, an elderly relative became unwell; she was not so unwell that she needed to be admitted into hospital, but was too unwell to be home alone, unattended. Many families face this kind of situation, and aside from any of the wider or longer-term implications, one of the things that I found particularly interesting, and have reflected upon a great deal, is the way that this challenges our own attitudes, beliefs and perceptions about choice.

When someone inquired after my relative, our conversation developed into a fascinating discussion about the way that family expectations and desires can be directly in conflict with the choices of the individual who is needing to recover and to receive care.

As we spoke about the emotional relevance of choice in relation to physical illness, I was reminded of my own therapeutic work with people who are coming to terms with invasive forms of illness. In my experience, those who have greater opportunities for choice, both practically and relationally demonstrate a far greater durability and resilience in coming to terms with their diagnosis. In fact the more that they are able to take charge of their lives, the more their stress levels subside, regardless of the diagnosis that they are having to manage.

I have found that working with choice can make the difference between an experience being manageable or spiraling into a more acute state of trauma. There’s a relationship between our ability to make choices and the severity or intensity of our emotional distress, and therefore for the potential build up and development of ongoing trauma.

So let’s define trauma? Trauma is the emotional outcome or the emotional consequence that comes from an experience of something happening to us that’s out of our control. We are helpless and unable to do anything about it, frightened or even terrified and we lose all sense of safety.

We tend to associate trauma in relation to big and catastrophic events, but actually there are many different levels of trauma and many kinds of traumatic experience and it’s important to appreciate the significance of the kind of trauma that comes from more everyday circumstances. Lenore Terr, author of “Too Scared to Cry,” defined this distinction using the terms “Single Blow” or “Repeated” Trauma. When we experience a big event, we are more likely to allow ourselves validation of the way that we feel, and this can also give us a valid expectation of receiving some kind of support. However, there is also a kind of trauma that can build up over time.