Directing your life
Wellness coaches can help people with MS get on the right track.
by Matt Alderton
If life were a movie, multiple sclerosis might feel like an unwelcome plot twist. It certainly did for 33-year-old Lauren of Washington, D.C. When she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS in 2017, Lauren, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, had a hard time coping. So, she did what smart thespians do when they need help playing a new part: She sought direction from behind the camera.
“If I’m the actress, Kate is the director,” Lauren says of her adviser, health and wellness coach Kate Costello of Wildcrafted Wellness in Washington, D.C., and Bethesda, Maryland. “I’m the performer, but she helps me get on the right track.”
Costello agrees. “A good director helps an actor actualize their role. I don’t tell Lauren what to do, exactly; I help her be the best actress she can be in the role that she’s playing.”
Of course, MS isn’t a role at all. It’s a reality. And with the help of a wellness coach, people with MS can learn tools and techniques that help them manage it.
What is a wellness coach?
Wellness coaches, also known as health or life coaches, help clients create a vision for their wellness, develop personalized strategies to create healthier habits and support them during each step of their journey.
“Coaching is about helping someone be their best self,” says wellness coach Barbara B. Appelbaum of Appelbaum Wellness in Deerfield, Illinois. “A coach doesn’t tell a person what to do or how to do it. Instead, a coach asks powerful open-ended questions to help a person figure out what it is they truly want and how they want to get there.”
In that way, a coach differs from other professionals who might be part of a person’s wellness team. A doctor might prescribe medication. A nutritionist recommends a food plan. A physical trainer sets up an exercise routine. A wellness coach, on the other hand, “plays on the same field as the individual,” Costello explains. “It’s not about the coach’s plan; the client directs the whole thing. It’s completely collaborative.”
“A coach is an accountability partner,” she says. “Because it’s much easier to achieve your goals if you have someone helping and championing you along the way.”
Another important distinction is wellness coaches’ focus on holistic health and well-being. A wellness coach is trained to combine all the myriad aspects of one’s well-being — physical, mental and emotional health, for example, as well as social and even professional wellness — in order to create a larger picture. This can be especially meaningful for people with MS, says Mindy Couture, an MS Navigator with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and owner of Courageous Heart Life Coaching, a coaching practice based in Littleton, Colorado.
“MS, of course, is a big part of somebody’s life. But it’s just a part. The role of a coach is helping you think about your whole health — the other hopes, dreams and desires you have,” Couture says. “I hear from people all the time who say they have trouble moving on after their diagnosis. They get stuck. A coach’s role is to help them get unstuck and keep moving forward.”
Because wellness can be physical, mental, emotional or even social, anyone can benefit from wellness coaching, proponents say. But for exactly the reasons Couture describes, people with MS often find it especially advantageous. After she was diagnosed with MS, for example, Lauren felt angry, depressed and dispirited. Over time, coaching helped her feel whole again.
“In a situation that feels so out-of-control, having someone who can keep you grounded is vital,” explains Lauren, whose coaching sessions with Costello focus on, among other things, overcoming negative belief patterns — separating Lauren from her disease — and correcting negative self-talk. This includes learning to have compassion for herself by reframing internal dialogue around optimism instead of pessimism. “I take a disease-modifying therapy (DMT), for example. Instead of thinking about it negatively, I’ve learned to think about it as me doing something good for myself.”
By thinking positive thoughts, Lauren has discovered that she can manifest positive feelings. “I do regress at times,” she admits, “but through this process, I’ve realized that I am not MS. I have some MS symptoms, but MS isn’t me. I’m still Lauren, and I can do anything.”
Negativity can come just as quickly from external sources as from internal ones, says Appelbaum, who was diagnosed with MS in 2006. When they get together virtually or in person, she says, people with MS sometimes end up in a negative feedback loop that’s fueled by a sense of shared suffering. When that happens, a coach can be a voice of positive dissent.
“There’s a tendency in the MS community to want to jump in and say, ‘Yeah, it sucks. I’m suffering, too,’ ” Appelbaum says. “A wellness coach can break that cycle by saying, ‘It’s OK. Vent for a minute. But after that, let’s do something about it.’ ”
Although people with MS should seek medical advice only from their healthcare providers, a wellness coach can help them execute their provider’s advice. In that way, coaching can support physical as well as mental wellness. If someone with gait issues has been prescribed stretching exercises or walking, for example, a wellness coach may be able to help them establish routines, incentives and behaviors that help them achieve their physical therapy objectives.
“Whatever your goals are, a coach can help by providing motivation and accountability, and by helping you find ways to make the work fun,” Couture says.
Are you ready for change?
A coach can help you set goals. It’s important to realize, however, that it ultimately is up to you to achieve them.
“I believe that coaching is an amazing, important investment in yourself, your health and your quality of life. Before you invest in a coach, however, you need to be in a place where you’re ready to be coached,” Couture says. “Just showing up for coaching doesn’t improve your life. You have to be committed to yourself, committed to your goals and committed to making the changes you want to see in your life.”
Because changes won’t happen overnight, expect to work with a coach for anywhere from several months to a year. After that, you should feel empowered enough to be your own coach.
“After coaching, you should have a newfound ability to handle on your own whatever the next issue is that you encounter in your life,” Costello says. “The end goal is to have the capacity to be your own change master.”
Matt Alderton is a Chicago-based writer and editor.
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