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Goal Setting With a Chronic Illness

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

The transcript can be found under the video.

Where do you even start when you only have so much energy? What do you dedicate time to?

We do know that working towards your goal a little by little every day does yield big results over time, but when you have a chronic illness, there's just some customizing and rearranging we have to do so that those with chronic illness can reach their goals easier.


It's difficult to build habits whether you're healthy or sick. Change does not appeal to our brains. They aim to keep us in a similar situation. Why modify something that works?

When I deal with clients, one of the first things I do is create a vision board so that we can always remember where we're going. That way, we know the steps we're taking are leading us exactly to that goal, but more importantly, how does it feel like when you get there? You could even do an exercise like this now.

Perhaps, you'd want to ponder on how you feel once you've arrived at your destination; simply think, where are you now? What's going on around you? What's going on inside of you and simply sit with that feeling? For example, when I was truly alone with POTS, I really wanted to see the one image that was in my thoughts almost every day.

I just love being outdoors, taking walks, hiking, and exploring. It was impossible for me to do. I could go somewhere, but I would just be sitting and would have to take breaks very often. I always kind of had this image in my head and my husband going up on this hill.

Every single day, whenever anything difficult arose, whether it was a new habit I was attempting to establish or new things I was attempting to establish, I would cling to that sensation and refer back to it.

And it was such an anchor for me that I've seen that it also works with others as well. It's just that visualization, and most of the feelings that it carries with it are so powerful, so don't dismiss them.

Setting Realistic Goals

Be realistic about your abilities and limitations. Maybe before your illness hit, you were an elite athlete, so your goal is to angle yourself towards that again, which is perfectly fine. But pay attention to almost the timeframe that you're thinking of.

Perhaps, if you want to get to the peak physical shape, is it realistic for you to necessarily do that in a month? I'm not sure about that. Six months? It depends on where you're at and what your illness is. There are numerous aspects to consider.

It's really important, which is why a customized approach is important, but it's also essential for you to be as realistic as possible. You may have been able to run 5Ks without difficulty in the past. However, even a short walk is now challenging. So, a realistic goal may be to walk and then jog, a light jog around the park.

What would it be like to achieve that as a goal? How do you foster enthusiasm for this aim, given that change takes time? So it's really important not to compare to the healthy version of you, to set realistic goals, and get excited about these goals, because even a jog around the park is a great way to start. You get to feel the fresh air, move your muscles, body, and everything else, and it's just wonderful.

Breaking Down Your Goals Into Smaller Goals

It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you're sick with a chronic condition. You may have personal and life goals, so it's important to break them down into smaller more manageable goals. That way, if you feel like quitting because the goal is too big or unmanageable, you can always work towards one small part of the goal instead.

Let's say that you've read all about the benefits of meditation for stress relief or strengthening the vagus nerve. You really want to try it out. However, you've noticed that every time you meditate, you actually feel worse. You feel panicky or uncomfortable performing it.

So, you read about it and want to try it at the same time. How do we work towards this when it doesn't feel good? One way that has worked for some clients is perhaps to begin by laying down and simply listening to music. That's all there is to it; just try to do it for five or ten minutes, or as long it feels comfortable.

Once you've achieved that goal, you may move on to breathing exercises, which can be anxiety-inducing for some individuals at first and make them feel short of breath. That would merely be the second step. Then, once you're more at ease with that, you might want to try meditation. Now, that's kind of one way to break up a test, but you must also consider thinking of the time. Perhaps meditation is more or less okay, but it is challenging.

Could you try two minutes and see how you feel? For a few weeks, try going for two minutes and then gradually increasing, say, five minutes and then slowly building up. So both of those factors are equally important.

Have Flexible Goals

If you read anything on habit formation, you might learn that sticking to a schedule and routine is crucial.

Some people even set their alarm clocks for 11:00 a.m. I'll complete my workout and then do this at 2:00 PM and that at 3:00 PM. That may work for some people, but it's important to keep in mind for those with chronic illnesses must deal with the unpredictability of their daily lives. Let's assume your goal is to work out at 11:00 AM and perform a light Pilates and you've had a terrible flare-up.

You haven't had enough sleep and wind up sleeping in, and then you feel groggy for the rest of the day, possibly due to pain. You're just not feeling well. One of the important things that I do with my clients to kind of mitigate situations like this is setting up flexible schedules. So, for example, the schedule is based more on what you accomplish during the day.

Let's say that when you get up, you do a breathing exercise. As you're getting ready for the day, you might do some mantras. Perhaps after you're getting ready for the day and you're a bit exhausted, you might rest. You may perform some massage, meditation, biofeedback, or whatever works for you to feel rested, to feel whatever you feel in that moment, whatever you need at that moment.

It also helps a lot with tuning your body in more and going with the flow, right? So, some days you could want to move more, while other days you might want to move less. You might feel as if at a certain point, you really need to do a meditation or a breathing exercise and do something more active.

So it's important that this also helps us become more in tune with our bodies. Creating flexible schedules based on what we are doing throughout the day. Along with that, it's also important to have a backup plan. So, in the previous example of an exercise in the morning for the Pilates workout. You do have a habit for yourself for half a day. If you have POTS, you should exercise first thing in the morning after drinking adequate amounts of water. Then the other things that you're supposed to do to help yourself get up and feel a little bit more okay.

Some days you really might just not feel well enough to do it, that's the truth. The flare-up may completely knock you out. Maybe you want to do a 30-minute workout that just isn't going to cut it again.

How about doing something short of like 5-minute stretching routine instead? How would that feel? Your brain is still getting into trying to set up that new habit, but you're just, you're not being so tough on yourself that you have to push through. Additionally, it's important to avoid self-criticism.

You know, just getting through the day is enough. That's all, that's enough. Some things are under control. Some things are not in your control. It's important to really be kind to yourself. It's important to celebrate everything, even if you get to the 3-minute or the 5-minute or however minutes, stretching routine.

Celebrate! Get up and do something that just makes you feel good. I'm a huge fan of having little mini dancing parties with myself, and I've included my husband in them, and it's silly, and it looks ridiculous, but it's, it's one way that I make myself feel better, that I celebrate. It might feel silly at first, but it works. There's science behind it and it works, and it helps. It helps most when you're trying to set up habits.

Create A Reward System For Yourself

So when you have a chronic illness, it can be tough to constantly motivate yourself, and creating a reward system for yourself, helps keep you focused and motivated on your long-term goals.

For example, let's say you want to do more walking, but you haven't been able to walk for long distances for a few months due to your illness. You could maybe put some money aside each week when you do walk, and you can treat yourself to something nice at the end of the week. That way, you could even stay motivated throughout the week, knowing that there's something waiting for you at the end of the week with the money you've put aside.

Think about what makes the most sense for your own goals and create a system that works for you. It doesn't have to be complicated. Just don't get discouraged if it takes longer than expected. Remember why this is important and keep going.

Have Someone There To Help Support You

If you do struggle with chronic illnesses, it could be really difficult to maintain motivation and stay on track. And having a support system that helps you through the tough days is vital to your success. This could be a friend, a relative, or someone else who has been through this before. The important thing is that you have someone who listens to you and gives you advice when needed and when you want to hear it.

It's always important to remember what your particular priorities are when setting goals for yourself. It might even be beneficial to write them down somewhere so you can remember them through difficult times.

One of my favorite things to do with my clients is to lend this kind of support. So we celebrate their achievements no matter how big or small. If things don't go as planned, we adjust course and make changes, learning from our mistakes and making adjustments. It's not the end of the world, after all.

And it is for this reason that I am a firm believer in the importance of having someone there for you. It's really difficult to accomplish things just by yourself. That is the reality!

What have you found that helps you keep motivated and helps you on track to meet your goals? I'd love to hear your biggest takeaway down in the comments below.


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