Whether you have been newly diagnosed or whether you have been living with a chronic illness like multiple sclerosis for many years, you will most likely be familiar with the concept of mourning your old self – that healthy person you were with their whole life ahead of them and without a care in the world.
I was that person. And losing my identity was one of my biggest worries after being diagnosed with MS. I worried about the path my life would take and ultimately what things I would be forced to give up.
What I have come to realise in the two years since my diagnosis is that there is absolutely no need to give up! Yes, adjustments are inevitable. I still cannot run, as foot drop still causes me to trip – especially as I get tired. But that doesn’t mean I have to stop exercising altogether. I just have to find something else that gives me what I used to get out of running.
With running, the primary outcome for me was to keep fit and keep my weight in check. But a good hobby is not really about the outcome. The secondary outcomes and ‘side effects’ of running were the real reasons I loved it so much. The commitment to myself to show up on the same day every week. The headspace it gave me to think about anything and everything. The enjoyment of being outside in nature when running along the beach or through the stunning countryside.
These were the real positives, and today I can still get all of those things from going out and pursuing my new hobby: photography.
I have put together a list of the benefits I get from having and committing to a hobby and why I think it’s important for everyone to have one – especially if you have chronic illness.
Getting out of the house
Photography makes me go outside and being outdoors is good for my soul. Fresh air, nature, time to breathe and time to be alone with my thoughts are all great for my wellbeing. And having a hobby that involves joining a club or class also means socialising with like-minded people. It makes you accountable as others rely on you to show up. Spending time with people who are passionate about the same thing or things you are also means you can develop other facets of yourself and get to be more than the “person with MS”.
Feeling pride and gratification
When you enjoy doing something and you do it on a regular basis, you automatically become better at it. In turn, being good at something makes me feel validated and proud of my achievements. This is really important if, like me, you worry about being or becoming a burden to others.
Having fun and the act of selfcare
Hobbies are supposed to be fun activities that don’t take effort to be enjoyed. By practicing a hobby you are doing something for yourself for the pure joy of it. There is no need for others around you to understand or be included and you can give yourself permission to do something only you enjoy. Having a hobby can add meaning to our lives and leaves us feeling fulfilled and happy. What better way to care for yourself!
Distraction and mindfulness
When I take a photo I’m 100 percent focused on getting the perfect shot. In that moment, I don’t think about anything else. It helps me forget how tired I am from walking around for ages or how my left leg is constantly hurting with nerve pain.
There is a kind of flow or zone you get into when you are doing an enjoyable activity – a sort of single-mindedness that makes you lose track of time and helps you feel removed from a sometimes difficult reality, even if just for an hour. I find this to be a very useful coping mechanism.
General health benefits
We all know exercise helps to improve our physical health and helps to combat anxiety and depression. But I came upon another unexpected benefit recently…
After much deliberation I decided I was physically ready to join a Street Dance class. I was very worried about not being fit enough, and to be fair, I am slower and somewhat less nimble than the others in my class – BUT – I realised after just 3 or 4 lessons that my cognitive function at work had improved hugely. Learning the dance routines must have switched on stuff in my brain that I simply hadn’t used for ages.
A few ideas to help you get started
To help you get started in your pursuit of a hobby, I asked a group of fellow people with MS with varying abilities what they would suggest.
If you have a good camera then great, but you don’t need one. These days you can take amazing photos using only your phone. Focus on finding things to photograph, rather than the quality of your image.
Even if you have little musical talent you can still learn to play an instrument or join a local choir. And if you really have no desire to take part, you can join a music appreciation group.
You can take up regular local art classes, or just draw or doodle by yourself. Can’t think of anything to draw? Why don’t you try your hand at colouring in. There are great adult colouring in books these days and the results can be really gratifying.
Expressive writing is extremely cathartic, and you can try your hand at anything from fiction to romance. If you would rather stick to non-fiction, why not try journaling or keeping a diary?
You can join a class with a friend or do it at home with a book, online classes or even an app on your phone.
Sewing is great for mindfulness and relaxation and you can let your creativity run free.
Actively making time to read an enjoyable book is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
I hope I have inspired you to take up a hobby. Pursuing an activity for the pleasure of it enhances your life and helps you cope with your daily struggles. Remember, the outcome of your activity is of secondary importance. It’s the act of enjoying it and the unexpected secondary benefits that come with practicing it that are key.
UK/MED/18/0273 October 2018