I have been working with people who have long term conditions for over ten years. Whether life-limiting or not, the onset of a long term condition always presents challenges and in some circumstances can lead to profound changes in how a person feels, what they are able to do and the way that they see themselves.
Many people adapt and move on extremely successfully in line with their new reality. I have been privileged to share some of the journeys that people have taken towards a meaningful life which takes account of their changed circumstances. Over this time one thing has become very clear to me. Throughout life, it is simply not possible to stay the same. In fact, it has been a strong wish for things to stay the same which has presented the biggest obstacle to people grappling with the onset, maintenance or progression of troublesome physical symptoms.
I have learned from those who have grown personally in the face of challenging circumstances that it is important that we maintain the ability to respond to choices and opportunities that arise within the life that we are living today. I have also learned that, as life becomes more challenging, it is less likely that we will be in a position to do so without help. In times of difficulty we will tend to look for stability. If we meet this need for stability by grasping on to ideas of how we should feel or what we should be able to do then we can easily become pulled into a cycle of self-criticism and trying to the point of exhaustion which only adds to our symptoms in the long term.
I have seen this cycle playing out on many occasions. It is natural to be desperate for some 'steady ground' in times of challenge. I have seen how difficult it is for individuals that when they seek this 'steady ground' in their ideas about what they should be able to do or how they or others should respond The consequences are often the opposite of helpful. Not only have I observed this pattern in others, I have also noticed it playing out in my own life. The work I do has helped me to understand that the tendency to look for stability plays out in us all, and can have unintended consequences for anyone, including myself, when it does.
I find the imagery of the Resilience Tree helpful. We can use the tree to connect with sources of stability and reinforcement. It can help us to connect with the need to be flexible, which becomes increasingly challenging and which we can forget in challenging circumstances. It may help us to see that there are some habits, strategies and ways of thinking that are no longer helpful to us in the current circumstances and which we now need to let go of.
The roots of the tree represent our ongoing sources of stability. These may involve trusted figures from our present or past who we could contact or bring to mind. Regular routines that help us and mindfulness or religious practices can also help us to stay connected to our roots and grounded.
The tree trunk represents our inner strength and flexibility. We know from observing trees in nature that solid tree trunks can splinter and fall in a storm while far weaker trees survive because of their capacity to flex and bend. While difficult circumstances tend to pull us first into solid and unbending responses we can use the tree imagery to deliberately remind ourselves to take things gently in the face of challenges. We can recognise that strong feelings are often triggered as a defensive response but that this does not mean they are true or helpful. We can remind ourselves that talking gently to ourselves through our difficulties is also an option, as we may do to a friend in a similar situation. We can know that by deliberately trying to respond in this way we are increasing our strength and resilience
The tree top includes many of our everyday activities, habits, interactions and responses. We can consider which of these continue to serve our wellbeing so that we can plan more of these responses into our lives. We might also consider if there are attitudes, thoughts or habits which served us well at one time but which we now need to let go of in the light of changed circumstances.
I have found this worksheet of the Resilience Tree helpful both for myself and in working with others. I hope that you find it helpful too.