One of the most positive aspects of my life with fibromyalgia is that fact that I now have two lovely dogs. I’d wanted a dog for many years pre-fibro, but my former fast-paced, hectic lifestyle wouldn’t have been conducive to dog ownership.
Becoming a dog owner has been one of the best decisions I have ever made, both from a personal and a health and exercise perspective. But when I thought more widely about my dogs, I realised that I’ve learned a lot from them over the years, much of which has changed my perspective on daily life with the pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia.
Here are 5 of the things my dogs have taught me:
1 – Keep moving, preferably outdoors
For dogs, daily exercise is part and parcel of their daily routine. Come rain or shine, getting outdoors and exercising is an enjoyable part (if not the highlight) of their day. If ever my dogs have to miss their daily walkies either through injury or illness, their frustration is clear to see, as canine cabin fever kicks in.
The benefits of exercise in the self-management of fibromyalgia are well documented, but within this, walking specifically is cited by the NHSi as one of the most suitable types of exercise. Having dogs has meant that I have to walk for at least 30 minutes, every day and I’ve found that I now enjoy my daily walks just as much as the dogs do. What’s even better is that I no longer need the walking stick I had to buy in my pre-dog fibro years. The benefits of exercising outdoors, especially in green space, can also reduce levels of anxiety and depression and improve self-esteem, according to a 2018 report published by MINDii.
2 – Accept who you are
Dogs, as far as I’m aware, don’t spend time wishing that they were different to how they are. Instead, they focus on whatever they are doing and whatever they are. Sometimes, I’m joined on walks by a friend with two springer spaniels, who couldn’t be more different in almost every way to my two Shih Tzus. Whilst the spaniels are tearing across fields, launching themselves into streams and performing acrobatic catches with their beloved tennis balls, my dogs are slowly pottering along, sniffing what seems like every blade of grass and taking in all the detail of their environment. They’re not sitting around, looking on enviously at the spaniels, wondering why they can’t be more like them – they’re simply engrossed in doing what they do.
With any chronic illness, it can be easy to withdraw from life, helplessly wishing that things were different and perhaps longing for pre-illness days. But in their book “Living Creatively with Chronic Illness”iii, Eugenie Wheeler and Joyce Dace-Lombard describe how a successful shift away from this victim mentality often requires relinquishing a former self-image and focussing instead upon creating a different life, with new goals and the development of new skills along the way. The nature of these goals and skills isn’t what’s important; what counts is that they provide us with a sense of accomplishment and purpose, which helps us to get out of the habit of ruminating about what was or what might have been and focus instead on what we can do now.
3 – Be mindful
To be mindful means to be fully present in each moment as it unfolds, and dogs have this well and truly sussed. They live in and savour each moment through all of their senses. It doesn’t matter whether it’s eating treats, playing with a favourite toy or greeting their owners as they come home; whatever it is, they’re focussed on it.
Being out and about with dog is a great way to learn first-hand about mindfulness, if we try to explore the world as dogs do. When I’m out with my dogs, I try as best as I can to immerse myself in our surroundings by using sight, touch, hearing and scents to fully experience the environment and by adopting a curious approach to flora and fauna that we encounter. For me at least, this approach helps lower my anxiety levels and gives my brain something other than symptoms of my illness to think about.
4 – Be enthusiastic
Dogs are the most joyful of creatures and their enjoyment of, well, almost everything extends both to the routine and extraordinary facets of life. Whether it’s walkies, tea time, play time, owner coming indoors from taking the bin out time, the reaction of sheer joy and enthusiasm never wavers.
Living with fibromyalgia, it can be easy to focus on the negative – what we don’t have in our lives or what we may no longer be able to do. Evidence suggests though, that we can retrain our brains to focus on the positive aspects of our livesiv. One of the simple ways in which we can do this is note down three positive things about our day, every day. This helps us to adopt more positive approach, celebrating the small victories which often pass unnoticed, and focus thoughts instead on what we do have and the good in our situation.
5 – It’s ok to have downtime
Just as dogs need to exercise every day, downtime, too, is a daily requirement for maintaining peak mental and physical wellbeing. Chilling out on the sofa with me is an important part of my dogs’ day (and mine too for that matter!). They know that topping up their energy reserves is important.
I’d guess that most of us have, at some point, pushed through the pain barrier for the sake of getting something done, only to find that fibromyalgia symptoms flare up afterwards and might see us laid up for days. Taking rest breaks and pacing ourselves is something we probably all know about, but can often be easier said than done. Balancing my activity levels and taking regular, planned rest breaks are something I’m still working on, but as I look over at my dogs, snoozing upside down in their beds, I might just take a leaf out of their book right now…