Managing the stress of chronic illness

Emotional pain, fear, and sadness are common in people dealing with a chronic illness. In fact, one of the reactions to being diagnosed with a chronic illness is an intense wish to “return to normal” – to once again enjoy that sense of well-being you felt when your body was healthy.

If your disease has no cure, however, returning to “your old self” may be an unrealistic goal. Instead, you must develop new ways of “feeling normal” and learn to manage the stress of coping with a chronic illness.

In my practice I see patients who are facing many types of chronic illness, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, arthritis, heart failure, asthma, multiple sclerosis and lupus, among others. These illnesses require people to adapt to life changes and treatments that can be extremely stressful.

Research has shown that the stress associated with dealing with a chronic illness can affect your immune system and adversely affect your overall health. The good news is that we all can learn how to manage stress better and make lifestyle choices that can improve our mood and our overall health.

The ability to cope effectively with these challenges is called resilience – bouncing back from stress, adapting to new circumstances and flourishing within them.

Tips to Manage Stress and Chronic Illness

Learning to develop skills of resilience and coping requires an approach that is realistic, but also positive. Developing a positive outlook about the future may seem impossible, at first, but can be accomplished.

The following ways to improve resilience in chronic illness have been adapted from the American Psychological Association and the New Jersey Overlook Medical Center Hospital Initiative, “The Key to Coping with Chronic Illness.”

Connect with people.

Establish and maintain quality relationships with family members and friends. This provides social support and strengthens resilience. Try to avoid isolation and reach out. If you can’t get out of the house, begin to build social networks through your house of worship and consider support groups run by hospitals or disease-specific organizations.

Take care of yourself.

Make time to eat properly, relax, rest, and exercise. Use relaxation exercises or treat yourself to relaxing activities such as listening to music or reading. Remember, you will need to adapt your self-care activities to your current abilities and limitations. Caring for yourself and even giving yourself “permission” to have fun will enable you to deal with stressful aspects of your illness.

Keep things in perspective.

Even when facing very painful experiences, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Many people who have experienced chronic illness have reported developing meaningful relationships and a heightened sense of spirituality and appreciation for life.