Chronic illness and pain can take a toll on emotional and mental wellbeing. I have learned that illness is a journey, often with a long and winding path, and not just a speed bump in the road. When we take this bird’s eye view, and accept the enduring nature some illnesses have (often with no clear end in sight), we take back some power. Even if you cannot immediately defeat symptoms that are wearing you down, you absolutely can, no matter the illness, take steps to fight back against the emotional effects of unpredictable, ongoing pain and discomfort.
For an in-depth look at each of the following topics, please read (or listen to) my 3-Part Series on Chronic Illness and Mental Health. This piece will serve as a quick reference guide. You can think of this as your go-to refresher course to help you remember (and apply) needed strategies.
Here, we will review some of the tactics and practices that will help you deal with chronic illness. Hopefully, these ideas will prompt you to explore more of your own solutions, experiment with what works best for you, and above all, stay mindful of how your physical condition is affecting your mental and emotional health. At the bottom of each skill, you will find a “TAKE HOME MESSAGE” to help guide your practice. The skills are in no particular order of importance, so discover what speaks to you and start there.
Let’s dive right in!
Lacking self-compassion during a period of illness is like kicking yourself when you are down. Yes, compassion is a need that every human shares, and it is especially heightened when we are going through a rough time.
Not having compassion for yourself is like responding to a loved one in pain by coldly telling them to “buck up!” and “stop being such a baby!” As you can imagine, they may feel worse, cry harder, develop feelings of shame and judgment, and have a more difficult time getting through their distress. The same happens when this harshness is turned inward.
For this reason, developing a sense of compassion for yourself is on the top of this coping list. If you are constantly beating yourself up for not feeling well, even in subtle ways, the vicious cycle will wear down your emotional stability until you feel worse – regardless of your physical symptoms!
Self-criticism is a damaging habit, and when you are not feeling your best, have to cancel plans, move slowly, take more breaks than others around you, it is all too easy to start calling yourself names, label yourself a failure, and so on… Would you ever say these things to someone else?
Would you label a loved one as a loser or call your best friend stupid because their body wasn’t functioning how they wanted? Of course not! Yet, we all too readily use these names in conversations with ourselves.
An antidote to this detrimental self-criticism is two-fold:
- Pay close attention to your self talk. (Click here for an exercise in heightening your awareness of the impact this language has on you.).
- Start a DAILY self-compassion practice. This means showing up and engaging in the practice, whether or not you feel like it. Here are some resources for practicing:
TAKE HOME MESSAGE – Self-compassion is a skill that must be practiced regularly. Use some of the suggestions above or design your own method for practicing and commit. Hint: keep it simple. Sometimes, a nice gentle touch accompanied by three deep breaths is all you need to teach yourself to respond in a sweet, loving way. By keeping your practice brief, you will be more likely to follow through. The key to this practice is consistency (not duration).
2. Clear, Unapologetic Communication
People tend to hide what they perceive as “weakness.” In an effort to appease others, they will often push themselves too hard, make excuses for why they can’t participate in a given activity, or close themselves off from others – instead of communicating clearly about what is actually going on.
All of this secrecy and defensiveness can take a toll on emotional wellbeing, and worse, prevent the people who care about you from being able to help (or even understand what you might be dealing with).
To keep these problems at bay, try practicing open, unapologetic communication, especially with the people closest to you. You can be honest about not feeling well, not having energy, about foods you cannot eat or places you don’t want to go.
If you are transparent and firm about what you need, you will achieve two important objectives.
First, you will let others in, and allow them to have a better understanding of how your illness affects your daily life.
Second, and perhaps more important, you will teach yourself how to ask for what you need and articulate your limits without concession.
If you notice that judgments about yourself or others are getting in the way of communicating clearly:
Practicing Nonjudgment can help clear the cobwebs and pave a clear path to knowing – and being able to describe – your experience and needs.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE – Step 1: practice dropping the judgments and describing, in a matter-of-fact way, what is going on with you or what you need. Practice writing this out or saying it to yourself. Step 2: communicate! Extend this clear communication to loved ones. Remember, you are brave! Even if you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, remind yourself how important this skill of direct, clear, and unapologetic communication is to your health – and go for it. You can do this!
3. Face Your Illness
I CANNOT EMPHASIZE THIS SKILL ENOUGH. A stage most people with a chronic illness pass through is complete and utter denial. This can manifest in forgetting that you have a diagnosis, minimizing the impact your symptoms have on your life (e.g., continue to expect yourself to work just as hard and participate in all of the activities you did pre-illness), and making plans for an arbitrary date when you will feel better (with no evidence that the illness will be cured by this date).
No one wants to be sick, and often, your first instinct is to fight it. This can look like completely refuting the reality of the illness:
- “I’m not that sick,” I’ve heard someone with Fibromyalgia who was hunched over in pain at work say.
- “Next year, when I feel so much better, we are planning a trip overseas,” a patient with Multiple Sclerosis and no indication of symptom improvement in the near future stated.
- “I think I’ll return to work next week,” was matter-of-factly uttered by a migraine sufferer who was unable to keep his eyes open most hours of the day.
While this is a completely normal and understandable reaction to an illness, not facing the full reality of how sick you are (and the impact it has on your life) may cause you to:
- Push yourself past your limits, causing even more pain and flare-ups
- Create unrealistic expectations that set you up to feel disappointed when they don’t happen
- Help you avoid dealing with your new reality and the limits that must be set to support your long-term health and wellbeing
Often times, seeking help in the form of therapy can be a necessary part of coping with chronic illness. If you are having trouble accepting that you are sick, and this lack of acceptance is causing problems, please consider reaching out for professional help. Chronic illness is overwhelming to cope with, and hiring a competent therapist to help support and coach you can be time and money very well spent.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE: You cannot adequately cope with what you do not face. If you are sick, you must accept this reality (and all of its consequences) so that you may effectively plan for your future. If you notice yourself continuing to deny the illness and its effects, reach out for professional help. Ask a friend or family member to help you find a therapist who specializes in treating people with chronic illness.
4. Prioritize Self-Care and Feel All The Feels
Self-care takes center stage when you are coping with an illness. That may mean extra sleep, planned downtime, certain foods… And it may very well mean saying “no” to things you want to do if saying “yes” may produce a pain flare-up or otherwise compromise your overall wellbeing.
Remember, coping is not the same as “powering through.” Denying that you need to take extra care of yourself will likely prolong recovery, make symptoms worse, or take a toll on your emotional wellbeing, leaving you depleted.
The tough part of self-care can be admitting that you need to modify your expectations for yourself and your lifestyle. (See #3: Face Your Illness – for help.) Part of chronic illness involves emotional pain. Facing the truth of your current limitations can feel devastating, so you may want to fight against them and push yourself harder than is helpful. Feeling devastation, despair, grief, and guilt are all part of living with an illness. Read more about grief, illness, and metabolizing your emotions here, and take part in the Welcoming Emotions Practice to help you through.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE: Prioritize your needs, not what you think you “should” need or wish you needed, but your actual needs, given everything as it is right now. If you find yourself resisting, it may be time to “feel all the feels” and process those emotions getting in the way. If you need some encouragement, check out some of my guided practices to help process your emotions, and read my post on the most useful poem on emotions ever written to help change your perspective on those pesky and painful feelings.
5. Validate, Validate, Validate!
Usually, a chronic illness begins with confusion. You and others (doctors, loved ones) try to figure out what is going on, and often, there is a long process before arriving at an accurate diagnosis – let alone treatment.
This road is frequently paved with invalidation. Medical professionals not knowing how to help, family members not understanding what’s wrong, friends and loved ones offering well-meaning, simple solutions to your complicated problems, and even your own uncertainty and sense of betrayal by your body. All this may leave you feeling invalidated, criticized, and misunderstood.
Validation = making sense of.
Validation is a basic human need. Do not underestimate its value!
“Validation” sounds like a simple term, yet we all need to know that at our core, we make sense. There is nothing inherently different and bad about us, there is a cause-and-effect to our experiences, and ultimately, we make sense. For the reasons above, this sense of self-validation can be hard to find amid an illness. This is why deliberately practicing this skill is essential.
Even if you aren’t sure what’s causing your symptoms, or how to describe how you are feeling from moment-to-moment, you still need to be validated. Use this practice to help you master the art of validation. To learn more about validation and chronic illness, read the full articles here.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE: You cannot overestimate the value of validation. Listen to my guided instructions  and start validating how emotions make sense. You can practice this on yourself and others. The critical point is that you PRACTICE!
6. Make Meaning
The point of all of these skills is for you to have a life that you know is worth living, even when in the depths of your illness.
I hope that by practicing all of the skills above, you get to a point where you ask yourself, “What now?”
That is, given everything in your life as it is at this moment, what will you make of it? What are your options? How can you, given the cards you have been dealt, design a life that is fulfilling and meaningful, where the world is better off for you having been here, and you feel your worth?
TAKE HOME MESSAGE: After practicing the skills above, including letting yourself feel the depths of despair and anger for the unfairness of your circumstances, you will get to a point where you are ready to ask yourself some questions about the meaning of your life. Get curious, get inquisitive, ask and answer. No matter what is happening, you have a place and a purpose here. What will you do with it?
If you are wondering where to start and what to do now, go back and pick one of the five steps that calls out to you – or feels important to develop. Follow the “Take Home Message” and start gently practicing this skill. For a more in-depth look at chronic illness and mental health, please read my 3-part series here.
My wish for you is that you not only know your worth, you experience it regardless of illness or any other obstacle sent your way. There is only one you on this planet, and you have a unique contribution. Be well in body, mind, and spirit.