At some point, everyone experiences illness or injury. Becoming sick or injured can add significant challenges to the already often challenging process of living life on your terms. Illnesses and other conditions fall into one of two general categories: acute and chronic.
Acute illnesses/conditions typically develop quickly (often suddenly) and have a short duration—usually, though not always, less than a month. Examples include: colds, flu, strep throat, respiratory, ear, sinus, and urinary tract infections, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), muscle/tendon strains, joint/ligament sprains, broken bones, and dental work.
Acute illnesses/conditions are uncomfortable and will frequently interfere with daily activities and functioning. However, they may or may not require medical treatment. Many acute illnesses/conditions simply run their course and get better on their own. However, some form of medical intervention—over-the-counter or prescribed medications such as antibiotics, splints, casts, etc.—may be necessary.
Coping with acute illnesses/conditions involves seeking medical attention as needed, taking care of yourself as recommended, and allowing yourself to rest and to heal. It’s important to understand that the condition, along with whatever discomfort and/or pain comes with it, is time-limited. How you respond to it can either help or hinder how quickly you get better.
Chronic illness/conditions continue for three months or more, though many are long-term and some are life-long. Chronic illnesses/conditions tend to develop over a period of time (often months or even years) and usually require ongoing medical involvement. Many chronic illnesses cannot be cured but can be managed in ways that allow those afflicted with them to maintain their quality of life. Examples include: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, COPD, asthma, lupus, arthritis, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain conditions, and addiction.
It can be especially upsetting and confusing to learn you have a chronic illness/condition. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, and wonder “Why me?!” “Where did this come from?” The illness may run in your family. You may have been exposed to something that caused the illness. Sometimes the cause of a chronic illness/condition can be identified, but often no specific cause can be determined and nothing can explain why it happened.
Having a chronic illness/condition can create many challenges. These include:
The illness itself.
The feelings about having the condition.
The effects of the illness and the medications used to treat it.
The condition may affect physical abilities, independence, and even appearance. Being tired, uncomfortable, or in pain is common. Frequently, one’s interpersonal relationships, lifestyle, employment/career, self-image, and sense of identity are affected. As a result of having a chronic illness/condition you may feel different and separate from other people. At first, you may be embarrassed or ashamed that you have such an illness.
For people with chronic illnesses/conditions powerful distressing emotions are common. It’s normal and understandable to feel:
Self-pity and resentment as to why it happened.
Frustrated and angry due to being uncomfortable and/or in pain.
Anxious and fearful about what activities will increase pain and discomfort, and about the future—whether the illness/condition will get worse and what will happen if it does.
Sad and depressed because of the losses related to necessary changes in physical capacity, lifestyle, and how you see yourself.
Guilt and remorse at not being able to take care of certain responsibilities or be as physically and emotionally available to loved ones—partner, children, etc.
Toward Acceptance and Action
If you experience a chronic illness/condition, with time and practice, you can make the adjustments necessary to establish a “new normal.” This involves learning to accept and live with your illnesses/condition.
A person with chronic pain can learn to adjust his or her expectations and activities, refraining from some activities that result in significantly increased pain and find in new activities that are relatively pain-free. He or she can be aware that involvement with certain activities will result in increased pain but make the conscious decision that participating in an activity is worth that trade-off.
A person with diabetes will need to learn to monitor his or her blood sugar by testing it, counting carbohydrates, and taking prescribed medications, including insulin, as necessary.
A person with asthma may need to carry an inhaler and be aware of the circumstances that can trigger an asthma attack, so as to minimize the chances of such an attack.
Even in the face of serious challenges you can develop the awareness and the skills that help you to maximize your quality of life.
Learn more about your illness/condition.
The more information you have and the more you learn how to take care of your illness/ condition, the more “normal” and competent you will feel. Seek information through the Internet, at a library, and from social networks, support groups, national organizations, and (of course) your medical provider(s). Ask your medical provider(s) for websites and other resources that are reliable sources of information.
Be actively involved in your treatment.
Explore all of the available treatment options and develop relationships with your treatment providers. It’s important to ask any questions you have and express your preferences and opinions. Seek alternative medical opinions when you feel it’s necessary.
Maintain a healthy diet.
Good nutrition is not a cure-all, but it always contributes to better health. Be sure to follow any specific dietary instructions from your treatment provider(s). Even if there aren’t any special instructions, be conscious of your decision-making when it comes to what and how much you eat.
Be sure to reach out to your existing support system. If you are not part of a support group it can be extremely helpful to connect with one. Sharing with others, some of whom have been through similar experiences, creates connection and reduces feelings of isolation. In the event your mobility is limited, there are an increasing number of online support groups available for a variety of different conditions.
Keep the faith.
Staying in conscious contact with your spirituality and continuing and expanding your spiritual practices can have a healthy and helpful impact on chronic illnesses/conditions. Research suggests that people with chronic conditions who have and maintain faith in a higher power and who are involved in a spiritual support group—church, synagogue, mosque, twelve-step program, etc.—tend to have less stress and fewer physical symptoms than those who do not.
It might seem counterintuitive, but gratitude is a spiritual principle you can practice even if you have a serious chronic illness/condition. Wherever you can and as often as you can, identify things to be grateful for. Whether these are big and obvious or small and subtle, find opportunities to practice gratitude. Gratitude always has a positive affect on attitude. And people cope more effectively with their challenges—whatever those challenges may be—when they approach them with an attitude of gratitude.