Chronic Illness: Oh, the Stress of It All!

(Melissa is a patient, advocate, and runs her own website www.curegp.com)

Everyone must deal with stress from time to time, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Stress can actually be beneficial when it is short-term and low-level. It can boost your energy and memory, act as a motivator, and even enhance your physical strength. But those of us with chronic illness often battle prolonged stress, with few or no breaks, and this can be quite detrimental to our health. There is a growing body of evidence that indicates this type of stress can lead to serious health issues such as heart disease, migraines, stomach problems, high blood pressure, and depression. In order to avoid, or at least minimize these possible risks and effects, it is important to know how to recognize and manage potentially harmful stress.

Coping with stress can be particularly difficult for those of us living with chronic illness because of its long-term and serious nature. It comes with additional stressors that most other people do not face, and there is rarely a respite from these. Diagnosis is often accompanied by fear, confusion, and disbelief. Some of us experience apprehension because we feel we have not been given a proper initial explanation of our condition or enough information to manage it effectively. Conversely, there is commonly an overload of information to process regarding our numerous medications and the complex medical routines we must follow. We are often shocked by the overwhelmingly difficult lifestyle changes required of us. Upon initial diagnosis, many of us are confused and upset about the nature of our illness, its causes, its symptoms, our prospects for treatments or a cure, and the measures that will be required of us to accommodate the effects of our illness. We fear what the future holds.

There are other complications that concern us as well. It can be difficult to find a doctor who can (or will) treat us, and we must sometimes interact with several different physicians who manage our care. On occasion, we receive conflicting advice and recommendations from the medical professionals providing for our treatment. In times of medical crisis, we face decisions about whether it is appropriate to treat our illness at home, see our doctor, or perhaps visit the emergency room. Many of us struggle to find medications and treatments that work for us and must determine this through trial and error. Once we find helpful medications and treatments, we may face difficulty in gaining access to them and at times must battle with insurance companies who deny us coverage or physicians who hesitate to prescribe them. It can all be pretty overwhelming.

In addition to the hardship of dealing with the day-to-day management of the actual symptoms themselves, there are long-term concerns. Severe symptoms can eventually interfere with one’s social life and even jeopardize one’s career. Friends and family members may have unrealistic expectations about what a chronically ill person is capable of, and often, we ourselves have these same unrealistic expectations. We are regularly too sick to participate in social activities, and we feel much guilt over our withdrawal from social functions and gatherings we once found enjoyable. We may begin to feel increasingly cut off and isolated from the friends and family members we once knew. If serious enough, symptoms can result in missed days of work and eventual unemployment, which can lead to monetary woes. The loneliness, seclusion, and financial strain associated with these factors act as additional stressors and make it all the more difficult for those of us who are chronically ill to cope.

Indeed, life with chronic illness can be burdensome and stressful. Nonetheless, there are methods of averting or minimizing many of the factors that contribute to our stress. For starters, we can make an effort to prevent stress from occurring in the first place by educating ourselves. Searching the Internet, reading articles, asking questions of our doctors, and seeking out others with the same condition helps provide us with insight into our illness. It minimizes the fear of the unknown that accompanies our diagnosis and gives us an idea of what to expect in terms of symptoms, treatments, possible complications, and prognosis. It helps us recognize what is “normal” for our condition and what is cause for concern and aids us in preparing for what might be coming down the road.

We can also do our best to maintain a healthy lifestyle. (I am not suggesting we can attain perfect health; I am simply recommending doing whatever we can to be as healthy as possible given the limitations of our illnesses.) This might mean taking vitamins and supplements, exercising, making the most nutritious food/drink choices possible, getting adequate rest, and taking our medications as recommended.

In addition, we can work toward strong mental health. Rather than expecting “perfect” lives, we can focus on the good we have and be grateful for the small, joyful moments. Likewise, we can learn to manage the circumstances in our lives that can be governed and adapt to the ones beyond our command. (We may not be able to attend courses on a college campus, for example, but perhaps we can take online classes. Maybe we cannot make it to the movie theater, but we can view videos in the comfort of our own homes.) We can also forgive ourselves for our perceived shortcomings and pardon others for not acknowledging our limitations. We cannot control missing an event due to illness, but we can refuse to feel guilty and accept that we cannot “will” ourselves to be well. Our illnesses are real, and they come with genuine physical limitations.

Finally, we can learn to recognize the signs of harmful stress (i.e., mental confusion, anxiety, worry, depression, fatigue, altered sleep patterns) and seek help when we feel discouraged and defeated by joining support groups; talking to trusted friends, family members, and neighbors; or pursuing professional counseling. We can engage in pleasurable activities – such as reading, writing, listening to music, playing board games, etc. – that momentarily distract us from our debilitating symptoms. We can read encouraging books or practice relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation. We can ask loved ones for assistance or consider employing home helpers/aides to lend a hand with household chores or other tasks we have difficulty completing. Perhaps we can identify government and charitable programs (for prescription aid, low-income housing, reduced-cost medical care, and the like) that might ease our financial burdens.

We may not be able to entirely avoid the stress that results from our complicated and sometimes overwhelming circumstances, but we can learn to manage it. As chronic illness warriors, we face a constant, daunting battle against stress – but it is not one we must necessarily lose.