6 Ways You Learn to Accept Living with a Chronic Condition
Positive psychologists describe acceptance as embracing “all of your attributes, both positive or negative.” Coming to a place of acceptance is a major part of moving forward and finding meaning in your life. But what does that look like when living with a chronic condition?
Here are six ways that you can learn to accept living with a chronic condition.
#1. Accept Your New Norm with a Chronic Condition
Once you receive a chronic illness diagnosis, you are faced with the task of figuring out what’s next. There are many unknowns and unanswered questions as you make big and small adjustments for the sake of your health.
Here are some things to consider as you begin to acknowledge your new reality with a chronic condition.
Observe how your life has changed without blaming yourself
Take a look at how your life has changed as a result of your chronic condition. If you’re like most chronically ill people, you’re not happy about these changes (understandably). It’s hard to accept that certain important parts of your life have changed because of your illness. Some changes you may face are: health symptoms, dietary changes, more medical visits and following a treatment plan.
Acceptance doesn’t require that you feel good about your diagnosis or the changes in your life. Instead, it encourages you to explore supporting yourself today without self-blame or judgment. This is not the time to get stuck thinking about what you could have done to avoid this happening, because there may not have been much you could have done. What’s most important is to focus on doing all that you can today, giving yourself grace and time to figure everything else out.
Focus on meeting your current health and lifestyle needs
Do you find yourself thinking about what worked for you in the past? This information could be helpful as long as you use it to explore what your needs are for today. Acceptance of today’s needs means that you are not holding yourself to standards that no longer work for you.
As you grieve your old life before living with a chronic condition, you will notice that some needs have evolved. And that’s okay.
Consider your needs within these four categories: psychological, physical, social, and spiritual using this self-care needs assessment. You will then be able to prioritize what’s most important to address (i.e., medical needs, safety, health supports, etc) with more clarity.
After completing the Self-Care Needs Assessment, think about how you could communicate those needs to others if necessary (i.e., loved ones, employers, teachers, etc.). To help you, here are some ways to talk about your chronic condition with others.
Build a healthy, compassionate relationship with yourself
The relationship with yourself can change when living with a chronic condition. As a chronic illness therapist, I often hear people say things like “my body is my worst enemy,” “me and my body don’t get along,” and “I feel defeated when I think about my body.”
These thoughts are often experienced when you’re reminded of your body’s limitations on a daily basis. Truthfully, you may also feel like you’re having a health related identity crisis, not seeing your “old self” as your chronic condition changes how you approach your life.
In order to accept your life with a chronic illness, developing a healthy, compassionate relationship with your body in its current state (chronic illness and all) is necessary. This process is similar to meeting a new person and building a friendship. Take the time to learn the you of today, including strengths, weakness, needs, and how you respond to different people, places and things.
One way you can grow your self-acceptance and build a stronger relationship with your life is by checking in with yourself every day (just as you would call a friend to check in on them). Start by placing your hand on your chest, taking a few calm breaths and observing how you feel mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Then respond with compassion, nurturing that relationship by giving your body what it needs to feel good, respected and understood.
#2. Grieve What’s Changed in Your Life
Many things about your life are changing, and that brings on a host of different emotions. This is part of grieving your life with a chronic condition. Although being present with your feelings is uncomfortable and sometimes painful, acceptance is possible when you give yourself time to explore all emotions attached to your health.
Express how you feel about living with your chronic condition
You are in a better position to respond with clarity and less worry when expressing your feelings (rather than keeping them stored inside your mind). In fact, research says that holding your feelings inside can actually compromise your health leading to higher stress levels, and more mental and physical health decline overtime.
Some helpful ways to express your feelings are speaking with others with similar circumstances (i.e., chronic illness support group), confiding in a close friend or loved one, journaling, or expressive art. I’ve observed people firsthand feeling more understood, connected and seen when they talk about their feelings with others. On the other hand, those who internalize their feelings tend to feel more loneliness, higher stress and are more likely to experience health decline.
Honor your past through photos and conversations
Sometimes talking about your feelings isn’t enough. You need to take your mind to a space that helps you relive some meaningful moments in your life. Make yourself a photo gallery or craft book showing other fulfilling experiences in your life.
This is important because your mind can often get stuck on the negative experiences when grieving your health. Thoughts about uncomfortable symptoms, missed opportunities, feelings of rejection from others, and worries about your future are all likely to be on the front of your mind.
Acceptance is reachable when you allow your mind to explore other parts of your life (past and present) that are meaningful – not just painful. You can still grieve what has changed while finding humor or joy in a memory of your past. Reliving those moments can be a vital chronic illness management tip that helps you endure the harder days along the way.
#3. Learn to Live with Your Chronic Condition
Living with a chronic condition is not easy, but you can learn how to handle what comes with it over time. The goal of working towards accepting your life with a chronic illness is to figure how to live with it in a meaningful way.
Learn about your chronic condition
One of the first things to do after being diagnosed with a chronic condition is to learn more about it. Learning about your chronic illness can promote clarity, relieve stress and help you make a plan moving forward. You are more likely to feel prepared to manage your health symptoms when they occur when you are informed of what could happen.
Shift your focus away from “fixing” your health or being symptom free
Many times, when living with a chronic condition, it can be very difficult to transition from the mindset that you need to be “fixed.” It implies that you are a problem and “broken” rather than a person with amazing qualities that happens to be chronically ill. Attending more medical appointments and focusing mostly on how to respond to your symptoms can also make you feel this way.
This is a common mindset that can negatively impact your mental health in the form of increased anxiety, lower self-esteem and the likelihood of feeling depressed. There’s nothing wrong with feeling down about how things have turned out. However, in an effort to work towards acceptance, identify more supportive ways to focus on moving forward living with a chronic condition. Sometimes that means giving yourself a mental break from focusing on changing things.
Figure out what works for you today
Sometimes your body will respond differently to certain life events and stressors than the day before or after. That can be pretty confusing and overwhelming when you’re trying to learn your body in its current state. Moments like these require you to be more flexible with yourself.
I know. Being flexible is not necessarily what you want, right? Most people would agree, because we often like things to happen consistently. We like to know what’s coming up.
Flexibility and compassion isn’t always easy because these moments require you to make tough decisions, saying “no” to certain opportunities that are important to you. Instead of trying to force yourself to do what used to work for you, focus on doing what’s best for you today. Your mind and body will thank you later.
Make adjustments to support your life with a chronic condition
One of the most important parts of accepting your life with a chronic condition is acknowledging that you will need to make necessary adjustments from time to time. Planning ahead for what these adjustments could look like can reduce your anxiety and guilt when you need to carry them out.
Have a Plan A and Plan B day, with A being your initial plans and B serving as your backup option when needed. Some people have a Plan C, especially during a chronic illness flare up when they need to focus solely on recovery. Consider what adjustments could support you in moving forward, accepting your chronic condition with a plan.
Learn and practice pain management strategies
Chronic pain is a symptom that is known to increase the risk of mental health and physical health decline over time. An effective way to find meaning in your life with chronic pain is to learn how to manage it proactively.
Here are factors that increase chronic pain:
- Stress and muscle tension (including emotions like sadness, anxiety and anger)
- Mental factors: Focusing more on pain, being bored, unsupportive thoughts
- Lack of activity: Fear of pain often leads to lack of movement, increasing pain levels over time
- Over-activity: Participating in activities beyond your personal limits.
Factors that decrease chronic pain include:
- Relaxation and contentment: Positive emotions can decrease awareness and experience of pain
- Mental factors: Focusing on supportive thoughts, things/activities that give you a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment (distract from pain)
- Activity: Intentional, paced movement within your limits can increase fitness, improving mood and decreasing pain.
- Other factors: Medications, holistic treatments and stimulation (heating/cooling pads)
#4. Learn How to Manage Your Emotions
Life with a chronic condition is full of ups and downs, with some days feeling happy and other days feeling low or worried. As you move towards acceptance, learning how to manage the emotions that come up is just as important as managing your health symptoms.
Observe how your emotions affect your chronic health symptoms
People who live with chronic conditions are more likely to feel increased mental distress (i.e., sadness, worries and or discouraged). Emotions are a natural part of what makes you human. However, it’s important to understand how they impact your health, because too much of certain emotions can make you feel worse physically.
Learn different strategies to reduce stress and improve your mood during hard times
What are some ways that you cope with difficult emotions? Do you hold everything inside or take your feelings out on others? Do you ignore your feelings when they get too heavy to face? Or do you try to push through and hope for the best?
These are common unhealthy ways that many people deal with their feelings, especially when facing them are painful and scary. Although these approaches may feel most comfortable and safe, they are short-lived and the emotions can come back much stronger than before. So, it’s an important part of your health plan to find healthy, long-term strategies to reduce your stress. Here are some ways to keep your mood steady with chronic condition.
Another helpful way to manage your emotions is to face your problems. Your emotions are sometimes a sign that there are certain issues happening in your life that need to be addressed. Relief and support can be achieved when taking the time to resolve issues with support. These moments can be when you are advocating for yourself or having important conversations with medical professionals or loved ones.
#5. Build a Community that Supports Your Chronic Condition
Distance yourself from unsupportive people
One of the most stressful things that I’ve noticed when navigating a life with a chronic condition is in interacting with people who are unsupportive. Have you ever experienced this? Here are some signs that you are feeling unsupported with your chronic condition.
These types of people increase your stress and bring out your inner critic, making you blame and doubt yourself when you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. And you don’t need that in your life right now. What you need more of are people who enhance your life, not ones who bring you down.
Some loved ones don’t know how to support their chronically ill loved ones, but they are not excused from trying to learn. Supportive relationships help you feel heard, understood, included and valuable regardless of how much your chronic illness has changed the relationship. In fact, supportive relationships help carry your stress about your health rather than making you feel like you’re dealing with it all alone.
If your loved one does not learn to grieve your chronic condition without making you feel guilty, the relationship is at risk for arguments or breakdown in the future. Sometimes this is necessary to protect your own mental and physical health, but it doesn’t always feel good to make those decisions.
Remember: Healthy relationships are about quality – not quantity. You want high value relationships in your life instead of multiple stressful, damaging ones. Having supportive people around you supports you in accepting your life with a chronic illness.
Request help from those who show you compassion
How do you handle situations when it’s too much for you to handle alone? Do you ask for help or keep it to yourself? Asking for help is a sign of self-compassion, as you are accepting and honoring your personal limits at the time.
Many people talk themselves out of asking for help for fear that they will appear weak or will be a burden on others. However, it’s actually a sign of strength when you admit that you need help. Because let’s be honest, it’s not always easy to do.
Focus on making requests of those in your support circle who show you compassion and grace, if possible. They are more likely to help and respond in ways that make the situation better. They are more likely to cope with their own emotions when supporting their spouse or chronically ill child.
Here are some common requests you can make in various stages of your health acceptance journey:
- Call to catch up with one another
- Visit and eat a meal with you
- Continue to invite you, even if you may not know if you can attend yet
- Watch the kids while you catch up on rest or errands
- Accompany you to a medical appointment
- Include items on the menu that meet your dietary needs.
- Talk about your feelings
- Pick up groceries on your behalf
- Prepare a meal (or bring a meal for you)
- Watch a movie
- Help with household chores
Your loved ones stepping in to help with these requests are a key way to help you move towards acceptance, as they reduce stress from your plate. Your supportive community allows you to focus on living with your chronic illness without the pressure of having to handle every little detail of your day.
#6. Explore Fulfilling Parts of Your Life
I often tell my clients that living with a chronic health condition feels like you are working a full-time job with no time off. There are so many parts of your life that you have to manage relating to your health, and sometimes those parts can overshadow things that fulfill you. Honestly, you may find yourself feeling out of touch with things that bring you joy when you are mainly focused on surviving your illness.
I’ve been there.
Give yourself time to explore things that interest you and bring you joy. What are some hobbies that you used to enjoy that are currently within your personal limits? Are there people in your life who bring these feelings out for you?
If so, allow yourself time to do these activities. And if you are unsure of what your options are, this is the time to explore so that you can stay present as you grieve your chronic illness.
Next Steps for Accepting Your Life with a Chronic Condition
I help individuals, families and groups who are living with chronic illnesses and chronic pain manage the emotional toll that it can bring. Therapy is a powerful tool that can help you find meaning in your life after making all of the necessary changes for your health. Although the journey with a chronic illness is hard, therapy can give you tools to support yourself as you move towards acceptance.
You can schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation.