group of volunteers

How Community Service can Help you Feel Better

group of volunteersFor many of you, even thinking about adding another item to the calendar can cause a bit of panic.  Life is chaotic, and we often feel too stressed out or busy to worry about helping anyone else, especially when you are struggling too.  This is especially true for people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.  I have found that many of my patients can barely get through the day and take care of themselves or their families, so considering community service seems like a far-fetched idea.

Helping others will give you a sense of purpose and uplift your spirits, which in turn will help keep you motivated with treatment regimens and lead you to feeling better.

Battling a chronic disease is difficult, and my patients with fibro and CFS find it a struggle even to get out of bed in the morning.  When you feel like you are the one who needs help, it can be distressing to think about helping anyone else through his or her difficulties.  For anyone to suggest volunteer work can sound like condescension.  That is not my intention with this piece.

I have been treating fibromyalgia and CFS patients for almost two decades, and I know that this disease can suck the life right out of you.  I have seen it with my own eyes and have been working diligently to create better treatment regimens for patients who are suffering with this chronic condition.  This is why I fervently stand by community service.

I have found that helping people less fortunate than yourself improves overall physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being. 

Smiling woman and little girlYou may be thinking, “How could anyone be less fortunate than me? I’m in so much pain!”  Trust me, there are people who do actually have it worse, but that is not to say what you are going through is easy. There are Helen Keller’s and Christopher Reeves inside all of us.  Everyday thousands of people live day to day in poverty and disease in third world countries subjected to slave labor, abuse, war, natural, and man- made calamities.

I have patients with severe physical limitations, but they still find the strength and time to volunteer.  These patients always report to me that volunteering gives them such energy that they feel better both physically and mentally.  Plenty of studies show these results as well.

In Great Britain, a survey reported that, “Volunteering can be counted on to keep you smiling.” The survey showed that “being happy” was the main reason to volunteer at 42%.  It showed that “being connected” was the second best reason to volunteer at 38%.  Volunteering and community service cause positive physiological changes in the brain that are associated with happiness and joy.  Studies show that volunteer work can efficiently treat depression since it removes the risk of isolation, a common effect of depression.

Volunteering gives you social connections and adds you to a good network of resources.  The connection to other people will offer you a support system outside your home and personal circle.  This support system will help you combat the problems and stresses that arise from having a chronic pain condition like fibromyalgia.

Helping those less fortunate than you will encourage a more active, healthy, and happy lifestyle. It will distract you from your own problems, improve your competence and self-esteem, as well as engage you in meaningful activity that truly makes a difference in our world.

The sense of belonging that comes with volunteer work significantly reduces isolation.

It is all too easy to withdraw from society and isolate yourself when you are suffering from a chronic illness.  This is not healthy.  Being in a social network with support will help you feel like you belong, as if you are not alone.  Even if you can only do it once or twice a month, volunteering with your church, Red Cross, or United Way will help relieve some of the loneliness and isolation.

One of the most positive effects from volunteering is that it puts things into perspective for you.  When you are helping people less fortunate, you see that life is very short and that it is important to count your blessings.  Even if life is painful and your future looks bleak, the people you help will show you undying gratitude because you have reminded them that they are not alone.

I am not suggesting you over analyze and compare yourself to everyone; I am simply saying that this will offer you the chance to see the world with different eyes so as to better understand your own life and your own blessings.

Kitchen Serving Food In Homeless Shelter

Whether it is health, money, a roof over your head and clean clothes on your back, you will find that helping others with the basics of life will open up your mind to how life should be lived.  This leads to more positive outlooks and behavior.  Nobody is “better” than anyone else is, but there are circumstances that will inevitably make you feel like you are very lucky, while also uplifting your spirits at the look of gratitude in the other person’s eyes.

There is always something to be thankful for, whether it is warm meals or thick blankets on a winter night with a roof over your head.  This realization and perspective will help you drift away from negative thinking that leads to the hopelessness and isolation of depression.

Physically speaking, positive emotions like joy and gratitude boost the immune system and reduce stress levels, while restoring those necessary hormones that help you cope with stress.

Negative feelings like aggression, anger, and hostility fire off hormones and agitated signals to the rest of the body, which puts a great deal of stress on glands and organs, putting you at risk for disease and deteriorating health. 

Some studies of older people have shown that those who volunteer and help others in need live longer with higher quality of life.  Give it a shot.  What do you have to lose?


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