Gaining Psychological Control of Your Chronic Illness

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

After crossing the stages of shock, denial, anger, and protest, you ask yourself the sixty-four thousand dollar question, "How do I manage this disease?  What coping skills do I need for the job I have been 'volunteered' to do?"  We have the choice to live up to the challenge or to dodge, duck, and "pass the buck" to our doctor or our family.  I we opt for the first choice, we start learning to swim with the "shark." If we take the second choice, we sink under the weight of the blue whale, the chronic illness.  The stories below illustrate the two choices.    

 Arthur suffers from chronic pain resulting from arthritis and an old work-related injury.  He was laid off last year during the downsizing by his company.  He believes they let him go because he was too slow and the company didn't want to risk re-injury on the job.  Although, in the last few years, he had thought of quitting a lot of times because the physical work had become too demanding with his condition.  He is extremely bitter "the way company did him."  He spends his day sitting at home.  He avoids yardwork or household chores because of pain.  He has become irritable.  It doesn't take him much to lose his temper with his spouse and children.  When relatives and friends come to visit them, he goes to his room and stays there until they leave.  He hardly ever laughs.  The only joke he has made since the last year was that the word, "arthritis" should be renamed after him, as, "Arthuritis."        

 Esther also has chronic pain due to arthritis and an old work-related injury.  When work became too much for her, she discussed it with her company and took early retirement last year.  She has a lot of time on her hand now, so every day, she walks several blocks and does her stretching and range of motion exercises.  She works three afternoons as a volunteer at the local behavioral medicine center. She practices relaxation techniques at least once a day.  Whenever, she notices her pain escalating, she practices muscular relaxation and mental distraction techniques.  She loves visiting her children and grandchildren. She looks forward to her friends and relatives visiting her.  

 The severity of arthritis and past injury is comparable for Arthur and Esther, but their attitude and outlook and level of self-effort is different.  Therefore, the level of their pain and capacity to function in daily life is very different.  Cultivate a positive outlook.  Develop self-management skills.  You can make it easier for yourself to live with whatever illness you have

 If a disease becomes for you a life-long companion, the more determined you feel to manage it, the more you can improve on the quality of life you live.  Whether you have arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, emphysema, or any other chronic illness, you can make a difference in what happens to you.  You can learn to play a more active role, cope better, and exercise greater control over the outcome of your illness and your capability to function in life.  

 When you become an expert in your disease, you manage it better.  Learn everything you can find about your condition.  That will give you ideas as to what actions to take to minimize your disability and complications.  Become an active partner in your treatment and rehabilitation and help your doctor to help you.  Ask yourself the following  questions, and if possible, write down your answers:  1.  What makes my condition worse or better?  2.  What should I and my family do when my symptoms flare up?  3.  What are the warning signs to watch out for professional help/emergency care?  4.  What can I expect from my medical team and what will I need to do myself?  

 There may be specific skills that you need to learn, for example, measuring your blood sugar if you are diabetic, how to breathe properly if you have a lung condition, or how to exercise when you have back or neck trouble.  Do not depend on someone else in the family to read up on your illness or to learn how to manage your disease for you.  You are the expert on your illness.  You should be the one to answer all questions about the home management of your illness in consultation of your medical team, of course.   

 When you visit your doctor, prepare.  Write down your questions prior to the visit regarding what you want to know, for example, regarding test results, medication, surgery, etc.   

 Explore your community resources.  Is there a support group for your problem?  Most local newspapers, radio and TV stations issue a calendar of events for community resources.  Do you know what your local hospitals, social service agencies, or health department offers that may be beneficial to you?  Perhaps the local library has books on your medical condition; request the librarian to help you find the information.

 Most chronic disease symptoms wax and wane.  When symptoms are bad, nothing is more consoling than the proverbial reminder, "this too will pass."   

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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