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. Chronic illness 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 anxiety 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 frequently 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/or 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 and sometimes even attempt to deny the existence of our disorder, hoping that it will somehow magically disappear.
There are other problems that contribute to our anxiety as well. It can be difficult for some of us 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 or whether it is best to 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.
Even after the initial shock settles in, there are other factors that come into play and add to the stress associated with chronic illness. Besides the hardship of dealing with the day-to-day management of the actual symptoms themselves (pain, nausea, dizziness, headaches, etc.), 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. Loved ones sometimes seem content to carry on without our participation. 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.
There are ways to address these additional stressors, though. We can prevent or minimize many of these factors and find methods of relieving any stress that does ensue. For starters, we can make an effort to prevent stress from occurring in the first place. One way we can do this is by educating ourselves about our illness. We can search the Internet, read articles, ask questions of our doctors, and seek out others with the same condition who might provide us with insight. This can help minimize the fear of the unknown that accompanies our diagnosis. It can give us an idea of what to expect in terms of symptoms, treatments, possible complications, and prognosis. It can help us recognize what is “normal” for our condition and what is cause for concern and aid us in preparing for what might be coming down the road.
We can also do everything within our power 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 illness.) This might mean taking vitamins and supplements, exercising, making the most nutritious food (and/or drink) choices possible, and getting adequate rest. All measures we can take to keep ourselves physically strong will surely help us in our fight against our chronic illness.
In addition, we can work to achieve strong mental health. We can do our best to maintain a positive attitude despite our circumstances. Rather than seeking perfect lives, we can learn to focus on the good facets of the life we do have, small as they may be, and be grateful for the joyful moments. We can endeavor to manage the aspects of our circumstances that can be controlled and adapt to the ones beyond our command. (We may not be able to go off to college, for example, but perhaps we can take online courses.) We can forgive ourselves for our perceived shortcomings and pardon others for not understanding our limitations. We cannot control missing an event due to our illness, but we can refrain from feeling guilty about it and recognize that we cannot “will” ourselves to be well. Our illnesses are real, and they come with genuine physical limitations.
Finally, we can seek help when it is needed. We can join support groups or talk to trusted friends, family members, or neighbors about our infirmities when we are feeling discouraged and defeated. We can focus on activities – such as reading, writing, listening to music, yoga, meditation, etc. – that distract us (if only for a few moments) from our debilitating symptoms. We can read books, listen to tapes, or view video resources that encourage us and help us to find the means to relax and focus on the positive aspects of our lives. 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 that might be able to ease our financial burdens.
We may not be able to avoid stress entirely, and I am not sure this is even advisable, but we can find ways to fight the stress with which we are confronted due to our complicated and sometimes overwhelming circumstances. As chronic illness warriors, we face a daunting battle against stress –but it is not one we must necessarily lose.