The African proverb, “It takes a village” usually applies to childrearing, but the same can be said about living — and thriving — with an autoimmune disease. Having a “tribe” or community of supporters can have a positive impact on your ability to manage your illness through increased connection, inspiration, and education.
Stress is a known trigger for many autoimmune diseases. Scientific studies show that having a strong sense of community can reduce stress-inducing cortisol levels and raise mood-boosting oxytocin levels. In other words, having a support system is a healthy way to calm the body, reduce stress, and limit trigger-inducing inflammation.
So who exactly should be on your autoimmune team? It’s more than just doctors and clinicians. While there’s no one “right” answer — after all, just like our autoimmune symptoms and triggers, we are all unique — for me personally, having a variety of support systems is most effective. I like to break it down into four distinct groups:
- Doctors, homeopaths, medical clinicians, health practitioners, nutritionists, therapists, trainers, and/or holistic health coaches — These are the professionals who are trained to know the details of my disease and are well-versed in all the current modalities available for treatment. As someone with Hashimoto’s Disease (and only half of a thyroid), Raynaud’s Syndrome, IBS, PTSD, and a host of secondary conditions, it took me years to build the right team to meet my complex needs. Today, I rely on my endocrinologist, functional medicine doctor, gynecologist, therapist, trainers, and others in order to craft a life management plan that suits me best. Who’s on your expert team may take some trial-and-error to determine, so trust your gut. Finding a team who is willing to think outside the box and look at you as more than just lab results is key to maximizing treatment and maybe even finding remission.
- Friends and family — The people you live with and love on need to understand what it means for you to have a chronic illness so they can provide the emotional support and compassion you need. As my fellow blogger, Charity, wrote in her last post, open communication is essential to avoid miscommunications and reduce the frustration and even resentment that can result from a lack of understanding. True human connection and feeling understood is both cathartic and healing.
- Online groups like AutoimmuneSisters.org — Having an invisible, chronic illness can feel lonely and isolating, even if you have a supportive family. Finding an autoimmune support group — either online or in real life — to lean on and learn from provides a sense of togetherness and belonging that is unlike anything else. When I found Autoimmune Sisters, I knew I found a sisterhood of women who truly understood what it feels like to be in my body; It is the perfect blend of support, encouragement, and resources that I needed to round out my “village.”
- The “Others” — This last group is my x-factor. They are my gym friends, sideline sisters, work colleagues, and acquaintances. They are the people who know me as someone other than my illnesses, and frankly, some of them don’t even know I have an autoimmune condition. If I’ve told them, it’s only in passing. To them, I am the fitness girl, the sports mom, the writer, that lady who’s always in Whole Foods or Wegmans, NOT the middle-aged woman with an autoimmune disease and a host of other issues. This group gives me something entirely different than the others, and they probably don’t even know it; They provide me with the much-needed reminder that I am more than just my disease. That I am a whole person, with interests and abilities that extend beyond my diagnoses. And some days, that validation is more valuable and effective than any medication or lab result.
Whatever you want to call it — a village, a tribe, a community, a sisterhood, a circle, or something else — we all need people who support, encourage, and teach us how to live our best, most productive, autoimmune-challenged lives. That human connection is the special sauce to thriving. It feeds our souls and soothes our bodies. It allows us to feel seen and heard, but also reminds us that we are more than just our illnesses.