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Coping with Chronic Illness

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Chronic or long-term health conditions have a profound effect on people’s lives. In addition to the immediate impact on the body and mind, symptoms of chronic ill health can have a ripple effect, impacting all aspects of a person’s life, from work to personal relationships.

The process of receiving a diagnosis can be incredibly difficult; beyond this, the process of adjusting to life with a chronic health condition also has a significant impact on mental and emotional well-being, but there are strategies that can help make things easier to cope with. 

Regaining a sense of control

Whether it is a genetic condition such as CMT4 or disability due to an accident, it’s not uncommon for people with chronic health conditions  to feel a loss of control and autonomy, especially where symptoms involve significant changes to how their life was previously.

Concepts like Steven Covey’s circle theories, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and even the Serenity Prayer used in AA meetings all operate on a similar principle: that while many aspects of life can feel beyond our control, the key is to focus on what is within our grasp. 

Knowledge is power

Most fears are born from a lack of available information. It’s why children are often afraid of the dark, and it’s also why avoidance surrounding health issues can make things seem all the more frightening. Knowing the details of your illness can help shed some light on the situation and what to expect.

  • Knowing your primary disease prognosis 
  • Any related comorbidities or related syndromes
  • Information about medications and any side-effects
  • Keeping a symptom diary to share with your doctor

Feeling out of control may also relate to uncertainty about the future. People with chronic health conditions often report a shift from worrying about the past or working towards long-term goals to experiencing life in the present (a key concept in mindfulness).

Identity and change

Everyone experiences “seasons” of change in their lives. For those with chronic health conditions, this feeling is even more profound, with many experiencing a direct split between the person they were before and after the onset of their illness.

Allow yourself (perhaps with the support of a licensed therapist) to grieve the life you had before your illness, while reconnecting with a sense of self. You are more expansive and complex than your diagnosis, as is your life.

Building support

A common theme in the chronic health community is resilience, yet pressure to “be brave” or “stay positive” may feel exhausting. Rather than labelling emotions as good or bad, adopting a more neutral stance can help. 

Emotions like sadness, anger and regret are valid response to trying circumstances, and processing these in real time (rather than bottling them up), can help ease the overall stress of living with chronic illness. 

Making meaning

For some chronic health sufferers, empowerment comes through campaigning. Others may find connection and comfort through creativity. In addition to building your inner resources, a support network of healthcare professionals, friends and family is essential.

Many report how their diagnosis prompted a reassessment of their personal values, highlighting what was most important (and what to let go of). In addition to learning how to adapt in practical terms, creating a life of authenticity and meaning can offer relief and hope.

Julian Carter, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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