A woman decides whether to go with a sad face or a happy face.

How To Stay Positive When You Feel Like Crap

A question I often get asked as a lupus patient, along with "Why is your hair so messy?" and "How much coffee can one person drink?" is "How do you manage to stay so positive?" It's worth noting that only people who know me well ask me this. Mere acquaintances still have several layers of sarcasm and type A personality traits to wade through before they encounter my inner cheerleader.

In the years I've lived with lupus, I've noticed that my physical health is directly related to my emotional health. Stress is my main trigger for lupus flares. When I'm struggling with depression or long-term stress, I almost always feel physically sicker. Occasionally, extreme emotional stress has even set off severe flares. I don't always succeed in maintaining a positive attitude, but I keep trying because I know it's what I have to do to stay healthy. Below are ways I try to stay positive when I feel like crap.

I keep a gratitude journal

Almost every night while I was bedridden with lupus cerebritis, I wrote down three things I was thankful for. Usually, my 3 things were simple, like clean sheets or sugar-free chocolate. Sometimes they were philosophical:

I'm thankful for the incredible patience of my mother-in-law, who takes care of me.

Other times, they were sarcastic, bordering on desperation.

I’m thankful that at least my head is not on fire right now.

I'm thankful that none of my students can see me because I look terrible.

The important thing wasn't what I wrote, but that I wrote. Forcing myself to think of 3 things I was grateful for shifted my perspective from one of fear and depression to one of hope.

I liked to write in a hardcover spiral-bound notebook with butterflies on the cover. I suppose the whimsical design cheered me up. On a practical note, the hardcover was perfect for balancing a mug of coffee on when I was too sick to leave my bed.

I try to smile, even when I’m feeling bad

Women everywhere despise being told to smile. Whenever some random guy in the grocery store tells me to smile, I hear, "Please rearrange your facial features for my visual benefit." To be told to smile sounds simple and patronizing, but hear me out.

When I smile in order to stay positive, I'm not smiling for anyone else's benefit. Smiling for yourself is different than having others trivialize your serious health problems by requesting your smile to make them more comfortable. When you smile, your brain unconsciously sends little happy messages to your neurotransmitters, like magical little fairies bearing chocolate kisses. Even when you don't feel happy, smiling more frequently sends little jolts of dopamine to cheer you up. And we all know that natural dopamine is way cheaper than synthetic dopamine. Not to mention, everyone knows it takes more muscles to frown, and if you have lupus, you're probably exhausted.

I prioritize spending time with friends

When I'm feeling depressed or alone, no one does better cheering me up than my friends. As lupus patients, we have so little time and energy because of the amount we need to rest. We feel guilty when we're spending time not working or not taking care of our families. But maintaining these friendships is exactly what we need to do to survive all the pain and exhaustion lupus throws our way. There's just something about laughing with friends that pushes the pain aside.

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