Approximately half of all adults across the country live with at least one incurable long-term illness such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or autoimmune diseases, just to name a few. Chronic illnesses can present at any age, pose life-long challenges and are often progressively debilitating in nature. It goes without saying that beyond the physical ailment itself, individuals living with chronic conditions can often experience a spectrum of emotions ranging from shock, denial, anger, sadness, confusion, shame, loss, stress, and fear. These illnesses can impact many day-to-day activities that other people take for granted. Many symptoms and disease presentation may also differ between individuals, adding an element of uncertainty regarding the future. All of this can make individuals vulnerable to developing anxiety and depression which in turn can make their illnesses feel more unbearable and worsen their health.
It is imperative therefore, to bear in mind that it’s not just a phase that will pass. The focus shifts from recovery to managing the symptoms of the disease and maintaining a good quality of life. Here are just a few strategies to cope with chronic illnesses to ensure that you continue to live a fulfilling life.
- Actively face your disease. One of the best ways to deal with the uncertainty and unpredictability of your disease course is to arm yourself with knowledge and information that helps you understand your illness and help you prepare for what to expect. Be an active player in your treatment. Do your own research (make sure to use reliable sources!) and note down all your questions to ask your physician regarding symptoms, prognosis, treatment options, and so on. Getting the right information from trusted healthcare professionals and specialists in the field is important and can empower you to make informed choices and decisions regarding your treatment.
- Acknowledge the limitations and challenges. Depending on the nature of your condition, you may face varying levels of limitations on your abilities compared to your past. It can be physical limitations like experiencing fatigue, pain, or impaired mobility. There can be life-style related changes to manage your condition such as measuring your blood glucose before and after each meal or cutting back on certain activities. There can be financial challenges with increased medical costs or loss of income from taking time off work. These changes may happen intermittently over time and may also evolve over the course of your illness. Listen to your body and slow down when you need to. You may need to adjust many of your priorities to accommodate your health. Accepting your limitations will help you make more realistic goals and choices and lessen any disappointment or sadness in not being able to keep up with your previous level of activity.
- Focus on moving forward – Oftentimes, when faced with an illness, we focus our efforts on recovering and look forward to getting “back” on track. However, that may not be a realistic goal for many chronic illnesses. One of the hardest challenges to face is to come to terms with the reality that there may be no going back to the way things were prior to your diagnosis and this alone can understandably cause a lot of distress. One way to cope with this is to embrace your new normal and focus your thoughts and energy into figuring out how to move forward in spite of illness or adversity. While it is perfectly natural to experience a sense of grief regarding your illness or loss of independence, just know that there may still be countless ways to continue to lead a joyous and well-rounded life with meaningful experiences.
- Involve friends and family. Many individuals often hesitate to share their health concerns with friends and family, especially in the early stages following diagnosis. You may not want your loved ones to worry about you or feel like you may be a burden to them, or you may be struggling with feelings of shame regarding your illness. Suffering in silence or isolating yourself from social interactions can negatively impact your mental health and put you at a higher risk for developing depression. Speaking openly about your illness can not only help your loved ones understand how best to support and care for you but it can even make your relationships stronger than ever. Allowing your friends and family to be a part of your journey can ensure you have the right support system that will help you remain optimistic and resilient while navigating difficult times.
- Take control over your actions. While many aspects of your illness may be out of your control, there are still quite a lot of things that are well within your ability to influence when it comes to taking care of your health. Focus on the things that you can control, like taking your medications routinely as prescribed, keeping up with doctors’ appointments, exercising whenever you can, eating a healthy diet, knowing when to slow down and working on developing a resilient mindset. Taking ownership of your actions whenever possible can help you regain some sense of control over your life and over time will be instrumental in maintaining your physical and mental health and wellbeing.
- Be your own advocate. Living with a chronic illness not only impacts your physical health but may also cause many emotional upheavals throughout the course of your disease. You may experience bouts of self-doubt, anxiety, hopelessness, frustration and fear. In those moments, it is important to be kind to yourself and check any inner monologue that may be fuelling negative thoughts. Practice patience and self-compassion and remind yourself that your illness does not define you. You will also likely be facing many invisible challenges that are not always immediately obvious to those around you so make sure to speak up to address any needs or accommodations that will ease your burden. If needed, work with your healthcare provider to connect to resources within your community that can provide additional support and assistance.