How to Find Mental Strength When Dealing With Illness and Injury

Inline_Mental_Strength_Illness_Injury_08.31.17However tough, rugged, and badass we might consider ourselves, the fact is none of us is indestructible.

The human body, for the miracle that it is, is vulnerable as well as mortal. Even those of us in perfect health may at some point become injured—with or without the possibility of full recovery. Most of us are down for the count (or moving more slowly) a couple times a year with this or that virus. But even with the best Primal efforts, there are those among us who will go through medical crises. For all of us, age will inevitably diminish some of our faculties (although not how the culture tells us it must).

How we mentally move through these experiences will certainly have a hand in our prognoses, but more importantly it has the power to cultivate a more unconditional resilience.

The history of life itself revolves around the struggle to survive, to fend off, to recover. Remains of our prehistoric ancestors reveal their struggle with broken bones, episodic pestilence, and even (in some cases) long-term disability. Our lot has always been up against the pitfalls of physical existence. Recent generations, I think, had an easier time accepting this truth than we might.

Today we enjoy remarkable medical advancements. We know more about nutrition, fitness, and health than ever (although we’re still waiting for CW to catch up on that front). Although more of the population contends with chronic disease than ever, our perceptions of health have also undergone a curious shift that can isolate disease, injury, or even common illness.

After all, we’re supposed to be too busy, too ambitious, too invincible for a standard sick day.

In a society that jokes, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and aggrandizes overworking, what does that mean for those who need to spend months if not years (or the rest of their lives) downshifting into a lifestyle that requires them to center life around self-care?

Blame it perhaps on culture and media forces that favor the shiny, happy and distracted over the complex, nuanced, and messy. Troubles aren’t fit for public display. We go away for help. Give us the inspiring comeback story, but the gritty process is best left behind the white curtain, thanks.

It’s a far cry from our ancestral imprint.

While we can and should be grateful for our sophisticated care systems, state-of-the-art facilities, and corrective treatments, they have, to some degree, resulted in disease being more marginalized and people feeling more medicalized. There are exceptions of course—developments that thoughtfully speak back to this trend, that seek to reinstate community, ritual, and even spirituality within health treatment and wellness care. Human story and connection can be profoundly healing forces on their own after all.

I see many people come to the Primal lifestyle with various kinds of illnesses, injuries and disabilities. Some have chronic conditions they’re looking to overcome through lifestyle changes. Others are more interested in a measure of relief or alternative means for enhancing their lives beyond certain personal incapacities (temporary or long-term). A Primal lifestyle has something powerful to offer for all of these intentions.

Regardless of their particular goals, however, many of these folks navigate extra emotional or mental hurdles—short-term or long-term—in moving their health and lives forward. The journey may be more nuanced and profoundly meaningful, as we all witness in MDA success stories. The Blueprint’s promise is just as solid, just as bold in these circumstances: you can make progress in a Primal lifestyle—no matter what your current medical status or physical hardship.

Chronic (but Reversible) Conditions

Whether it’s type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, “high” cholesterol, or a digestive or autoimmune disorder, you may have been told it was a life sentence—and perhaps one that will ultimately take your life. Perhaps you’ve lived with that story, that expectation for years—even decades. Maybe with a standard American diet, reduced activity, psychological stress, or the side effects of multiple prescriptions, your symptoms have worsened over time, and it’s only appeared to confirm the initial prognosis.

But there’s plenty of reason to reclaim hope.

Many of the people in the MDA Success Stories section began their Primal endeavors with exactly the same diagnosis—and prognosis. They were told they would be on medication their entire lives. They heard that their conditions would inevitably worsen with time and perhaps even result in growing complication, illness, and incapacity. Their reality, however, ended up looking much different, thanks to their Primal efforts.

Countless readers have overcome or significantly decreased the burden of these types of conditions with the right changes. And here’s an important point… Reclaiming vitality isn’t a black or white affair. Perfect ideals shouldn’t discourage us from valuing progress. 

Success doesn’t come overnight. It might take some additional care in shaping the Primal eating or fitness ideals to certain immediate needs or limitations. It’s imperative to take your time. Use your intuition and self-attunement to discern what’s a manageable step forward. Get support from those who have been through the process and those who know your story.

Talk to your doctor about your Primal changes, but know you may not get resounding encouragement if he/she thinks in conventional terms. Nonetheless, keep up on your lab testing, learn what additional markers may give you better or more precise information. Consider taking advantage of a consultation with a Primal-friendly physician or a Primal Health Coach, particularly if your condition is advanced.

Bring compassion to the beliefs you once held about your condition even as you leave them behind. All of us know and do the best we can with the information we have available to us at any given time. Make feasible but encouraging short-term goals you feel good about, and keep making them as you surpass each milestone. Actively rewrite your story through journaling, talk therapy, photo albums or other means to follow and demonstrate the efforts and achievements you never believed would be possible again.

Physical Injury, Limitation, or Chronic Pain

It’s probably safe to say that thousands of Primal adherents came to the Primal Blueprint with a history of physical limitation related to injury or disease. For some, physical limitation might be a relatively recent occurrence. For others, it’s been something they’ve lived with for years. This may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway—because there may be issues of substantive damage, muscle imbalance, decreased flexibility or structural misalignment, get support with an appropriate medical professional, physical therapy provider, or appropriately trained coach.

Remember, even if you can’t do all of the Primal Essential Movements, you will find ways to make your current and developing abilities work for you. Be creative with substitutions and adaptations. Bringing certain exercises to the pool rather than unpaved trails may open up your program and limit strain on joints for example.

Be patient, and work with a series of short-term goals without an over-attachment to a final outcome. Work with the idea of evolving acceptance. Those who live long-term with chronic pain, for example, often share that a certain dimension of surrender relieves the psychological struggle they experience, which can free up energy for physical effort. If nothing else, you aren’t working against yourself. Frustration, especially when we direct it against ourselves, is draining.

Naturally Shifting Abilities

As I’ve written many times in the past, among the boons of a Primal lifestyle is its ability to roll back the common effects we assume are inevitable results of aging. It’s unfortunate that we accept poor health as an inescapable outcome of moving into later decades.

Many of us here offer proof that aging doesn’t have to equate with limited opportunities. Nonetheless, I think some changes are natural to experience. As I say regularly, see what feels fine and what doesn’t. Use your own instinct to target/revise exercise. If your body responds better to more recovery time, let yourself take it. If alternatives to running sprints feel more effective, do those.

You may find that you’re just choosing a slower or more mindful rhythm, and (in keeping with that) different exercises or lifestyle practices appeal that didn’t before. Perhaps you want more time between heavier exercise bouts. The next day you might feel a day’s hike through some area hills more than you used to, or you might take longer to make the same trek. You might not have the same patience for a frenetic schedule or social drama. (Personally, I consider this one of the gifts of later decade living.) You’re more selective in what you give your time and energy to.

In keeping with that, it’s critical to recognize the abilities and capacities we have now that our younger years didn’t offer. We’ve likely grown in self-attunement, in equanimity, in patience, in compassion, in gratitude. We’re more comfortable saying no to what doesn’t serve us. We’re more cognizant of the elements and practices of life that do.

Primal health isn’t about looking a certain way or meeting any given set of criteria. No matter where we’re at in physical health or capacity, the Primal lifestyle offers us a means to enhance the life we have—not to feel we fall short of an ideal.

The ancestral story reminds us that we’re meant to move and progress through life, not feel fixed in place. The Primal story is our story. It’s dynamic, fluid, fluctuating just as we are—each of us from a unique and promising space.

Thanks for stopping by today, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the comment board. Have a good end to the week.

Primal Kitchen 7 Days, 7 Salads Challenge

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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19 thoughts on “How to Find Mental Strength When Dealing With Illness and Injury”

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  1. I am having chemotherapy for colon cancer and find I feel so much better if I am ding something, not just ‘being the patient’. I can eat primally, move when I can and tap into the support from friends, family and neighbours. All this helps me with the strength to get through this.

    1. Best wishes for your successful treatment! I had a colon resection last October and found that support of friends, cultivating the mental determination of seeing myself as strong, and being active rather then passive in my treatment decisions helped me so much in the process.

      1. Thank you, Colleen. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Hope you are fully recovered x

    2. Hi Jean. Your journey is similar to mine but mine was 14 years ago. Dukes colon C, hemicolectomy and six months of chemotherapy. Today, 14 years later I feel great. All the best for your journey.

      1. Inez, it is so good to hear that you are so well. My grandmother and now, my cousin, have both got through this but they didn’t need the chemo. I am very hopeful for my future, especially as my grandmother lived into her 90s. I will of course, follow the Primal Blueprint as I go on. Even with all this going on I feel very well most of the time which I put down to my diet.
        Thank you so much for sharing that – made my day! X

  2. Mark, thanks for the thoughtful and compassionate approach to this topic! As someone who frequently ‘falls down’ in my health efforts and has faced some serious physical setbacks this last year, this article really spoke to me. I keep coming back to MDA, even when I am not living primally, because the info and inspiration give me the kick to get back to it. I really, really appreciate it when you cover topics for people who may not be young and buff!

  3. “The Primal lifestyle offers us a means to enhance the life we have” is so true. Love this entire piece, but think that really sums it up. No matter where you are in life, the Primal lifestyle can only make it better.

  4. Thanks for this: “In a society that jokes, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and aggrandizes overworking, what does that mean for those who need to spend months if not years (or the rest of their lives) downshifting into a lifestyle that requires them to center life around self-care?”

  5. I was diagnosed with psoriasis when I was 20. For 10 years I was using harsh steroid creams and special sunbeds to treat my symptoms.Not one of the so called “specialists” ( even the psoriasis charity I went to ) even asked me about my diet and lifestyle. It was basically “you will have it forever”. Within months of stopping eating grains my psoriasis just disappeared never to return again ( I’ve been symptom free for over 10 years ). No thanks to modern medicine, “specialists” or doctors. So that’s one “inevitable” immune disease I got rid of.

    On top of that I suffered from deliberating heart burn since I was a teenager. It was so bad it would wake me up at nights. This went on for decades with the only solution offered being anti-acids.
    Of course none of that helped until I went primal/paleo. I have been symptom free for over 10 years now.

    Another odd thing was allergic reactions to sun light. with itchy, bleeding bumps after sun exposure. Again, the solution I was offered was to avoid the sun and slather myself in toxic sun blocks. That too is a thing of the past.

    My mum suffers from same heart burn I did yet she finds it hard to believe me that she is suffering from low stomach acid rather than too much of it which doctors keep telling her. I can’t get her to fully commit to a high fat/low carb diet and she keeps taking bicarbonate and various pills to eliviate her symptoms without treating the cause. Sigh….

    1. Wow, you have had amazing results, Jacob! I love hearing stories like this- of people taking their health into their own hands when conventional doctors aren’t up to speed on the links between diet and disease. I know it’s frustrating when people you love are suffering in ways that might be unnecessary, but I’ve learned that everyone must make their own health decisions. Just keeping living your awesome, healthy life and you will be a fantastic role model for her. 😉

  6. I had a stroke when I was eight and I wrote Mr. Sisson a month or so ago asking if primal could help relieve my chronic pain, so imagine my excitement when I saw this article.
    Thank you, Mr. Sisson, Grok on!

  7. In Germany, people are not so open to the mental part of their lives. As mentaltrainer, I often have access only when the “conventional” modules have failed. Or if classical medicine does not cure. Greetings from Berlin Michael

  8. This post is a powerful compliment to the previous discussion around the NYT article… I appreciated every word and felt I have and continue to live it myself. We’re never a finished product… always an ongoing work in progress. It takes hard work, it take the right mindset, and it takes a willingness to do what works best for one’s self, even when that is the exact opposite of conventional wisdom, SAD, and even the medical establishment.

  9. This is it. This post is the final straw. I’m diving into primal/paleo. I’ve always had aches/ pains/ bloating. Never enough to really distract me from my life. However, 6 months ago I had a vasectomy and I’ve been in serious pain ever since. Now the post vasectomy pain combined wut all those little aches and pains are starting to control my life. It’s time to control what I put into my body. Thank you for this post.

  10. A lot of people benefit from picking up on the primal lifestyle and amongst these people are those who find self help with various diseases as the comments show. Most of the hunter gatherers upon whom the blueprint is based also experience mental states in accord with their lifestyle. Long periods of walking, some time in solitude, some in the midst of the group, living a non-materialistic lifeway meant that the mental pace varied. There were periods of intense mental activity. There were spontaneous periods of natural mental rest – reverie or day dreaming where the mind slows and stills. In our modern world with all its activity people are so busy that these natural mental variation and periods of rest may not occur with the result of a build up of tension that may also be expressed in mind and body. The tense one says – if only I could relax, things would be better. But, we all know how to relax – it is an ability that we were born with and it is a matter of re-learning what we can already do rather than learning something new.
    Just as I credit Mark Sisson with the primal blueprint idea I need to credit Dr Ainslie Meares (1910-1986) the eminent Australian Psychiatrist and medical hypnotist as the source of the natural mental rest idea above. I think Meares’ method makes an excellent addition to the blueprint.