Tips For Coping With Chronic Illnesses

Tips For Coping With Chronic Illnesses

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

A freelancer from Oregon recently interviewed me for a health newsletter, asking tips for coping with a chronic illness. Later, as I reflected on our interview, it dawned on me that some of the information we discussed might be of interest to my readers.

I thought it might be particularly helpful to focus on the five major psychological stressors that a person with chronic and disabling illness may experience. Note that psychological stressors are those that we bring to bear upon ourselves through our thoughts and emotions.
1. "I am not the person I once used to be." This idea might give rise to such thoughts as, "I am worthless now;" "I am no help around the house," "I don't earn a living," or "I can't provide for my family."
2. "Others are not what they used to be." Examples, "They think I am a burden;" "They don't come around me any more" or "They don't love me (or respect me) like they once did." Interestingly, stressors number one and two feed on each other.
3. "Everybody is getting on with their life and I am stuck here." One compares one's own life with that of others in a downward mode. It's not an accurate comparison because one tends to put oneself down and fantasize about the lives of others.
4. Sense of loss of control over one's life. Examples of thoughts that go with it: "This is more powerful than me" or, "No matter how many times I try to get up, the illness flare up and knock me down again every time. There's no point in trying."
5. Some people and some circumstances in fact do change. Coping with those changes does cause stress --- especially if the individual resents these changes.

What are the characteristics of a person who copes well with a chronic and disabling illness? I had the opportunity to observe many people in the last ten to twelve years who in the face of highly discouraging circumstances are able to maintain a positive attitude, hold a realistic view of their illness and future prospects, and still not loose their sense of humor. Based on my observations, I have selected four characteristics of a "coper."
1. You must have a fighting spirit. That means you know exactly what you are up against. Even if it is a terminal illness, you keep your fighting spirit up. Note that people with a fighting spirit are not afraid of dying. When and if that time comes, they are at peace with it.
2. You must like yourself under all circumstances, even when you think you don't look that good. Suppose, you were to lose hair from chemotherapy and you couldn't stand to look at yourself in the mirror, it means that you didn't genuinely and unconditionally like yourself. If you don't like yourself, chances are that you won't take very good care of yourself.
3. You must have a strong belief that you are more than your body. There is more to you than the physical functions you can perform. Faith can be very helpful in such circumstances. For example, if you think God loves you regardless of your appearance, earning power or other capabilities, you too would like yourself..
4. You must have a problem-solving attitude towards the challenges you face on any given day rather than to dwell on a past in which the problems did not exist. Copers believe that "problems" should be translated as "challenges," leading to new solutions and means for personal growth. People get totally embroiled in grief and overly focused on the loss of previous functioning capacity. As a result, they can't focus on dealing with the challenges with which their illness confronts them.

How do you help yourself with disease management and achieve the quality of life permissible under the circumstances?
1. Accept your illness. That word, "acceptance," gets under the skin of people who are still mourning the loss of better, happier days when were far more capable to doing things. Those who make an effort to adapt to their circumstance understand the value of acceptance. They know it helps them to get over loss and meet the new challenges they face.
2. Like yourself as you are today, with all your problems, illnesses, limitations, and of course, your physical appearance.
3. Get over the "Why me?" attitude so you can solve the problems of today. It might be, for example, the problem of how you could be more comfortable while lying in bed or how you could still get some exercise in spite of a knee hurting so much. In order to look at the problem of today, you have to stop staring at the past and the future.
4. Take total responsibility for your health and never overlook all the help you can get.
5. Become an expert on your illness.
6. Take pride in what you can accomplish today, and don't shame yourself over what you can't.

Return to Self Help 

Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted September 2003


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