Having a chronic illness is like having a second full-time job. On top of managing the ins and outs of a rigorous, sometimes burdensome health program, dealing with the symptoms and ramifications of a chronic illness can take a toll on your mental health, too. The stress of appointments, the medications, the paperwork, the procedures — not to mention feeling the actual effects of the illness itself — it can be overwhelming.
You’re not alone with these feelings, and there are tools to help you feel like you have your life more under control. Clinical psychologists Forrest Talley, PhD, and Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., shared with us their best tips for refocusing your mental and emotional energy so you can not only feel better but also live your life well.
According to Dr. Gilliand, some people dealing with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or another kind of chronic illness may also have depression. That’s why it’s more important than ever to focus on getting your mind right, honing in on positivity.
Ways to Stay Positive If You Have a Chronic Illness
1. Remind yourself you’re not alone
“Be aware that feeling depressed in light of a chronic illness is not unusual,” Dr. Gilliland says. “Be knowledgeable about what the symptoms are.” This understanding and awareness can help you feel more in control, less helpless, and more able to take action and get the support you need. Find a support group with people who are going through a similar situation, or turn to people who care about you most, like family and friends.
2. Get the support you need
“There are a lot of things you can be doing to help your recovery,” Dr. Gilliland says. It’s imperative that you have a support system and a plan for your mental health, because according to Dr. Gilliland, stress and mental ailments can suppress our immune system.
“Research has shown that cancer patients with depression have more greatly suppressed immune systems, and treating certain chronic illness sometimes involves using medication that suppresses the immune system,” Dr. Gilliland says. In essence, it’s harder for the body to recover when you’re down and out — so make sure you have a game plan with a mental health professional. “When we’re reluctant to look at mood and anxiety, we are taking away from our body’s ability to recover — be mindful of the negative impact,” Dr. Gilliland says.
3. Manage all the symptoms you can
Don’t let yourself get bogged down by side effects. Whether it’s headaches, an upset stomach, or dry mouth, the more you can manage your symptoms, the more you can focus on feeling good.
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4. Make little goals
“Don’t compare yourself to somebody else, or to people in general — if you’re going to compare, compare yourself with how you were yesterday or one week ago,” Dr. Gilliland suggests. “That’s where you want to look for improvement — marginal gains. Are you one percent better today? You want to make progress.” Even small progress is progress. Celebrate the little goals, and it’ll magnify how you feel.
5. Focus on quality of life: Manage physical activity, interpersonal relationships, and nutrition
Dr. Gilliland says this is the holy grail of stress management and mental health hygiene. When patients are chronically ill, Dr. Gilliland says, he notices a decrease in physical activities first and foremost.
Beyond that, medication may leave patients sedated or with upset stomachs. “They don’t feel good or have energy, and when they feel this way, they don’t eat as well or interact with people,” Dr. Gilliland explains. His advice? Start small. It can be as simple as walking to the mailbox.
Dr. Gilliland also emphasized spending time with friends. “Even when you don’t feel like it — especially when you don’t — have one to two people who you can call and get together with, and don’t talk about your illness,” he says. “You’re looking to have normal conversation; talk about a movie, the Golden Globes, some new salad you just had.”
While you’re focusing on quality of life, Dr. Talley says to try something new. “Take up a new interest,” he suggests. “This will help shift your focus from the illness, and teach you that there is still much that you can do, new horizons in life to explore, despite the illness.”
6. Keep a gratitude journal
“This helps keep things in perspective,” Dr. Talley says. “Although chronic illness is challenging, most people still have much for which they can be grateful.” Even people without a chronic illness could benefit from this activity!
7. Let the illness make you stronger
Dr. Talley says to try to learn as much as you can from this challenge you’re facing. “Take time throughout the week to reflect on what the illness can teach you about life — something that you may not have learned had you not been faced with this adversity,” he says. “Do these lessons in some way help you live more deeply or more fully?” It’s not often you take time to think about what you’ve gained from a bad situation.
“Life’s hardships do one of two things,” he says. “They can break and embitter you, or make you stronger. With this in mind, write down the ways in which the illness has forced you to be stronger than you believed yourself to be. Has it caused you to become a better person in some way, for example, more patient, or more understanding of others?”
8. Don’t let your illness define you
“Our illness never defines us,” says Dr. Gilliland, who has worked with people with everything from cancer to alcoholism to all sorts of chronic illnesses that impact mental well-being. “You’re not defined by your illness,” he says. “You may be a breast cancer survivor, but what you go on to talk about is the full and meaningful life that you have now.”
1 as measured in a 28-day clinical study.