7 Things to Expect When Working with a Chronic Illness Therapist
There are many benefits to participating in therapy for your mental health. But it’s important to work with a therapist who is trained to help chronically ill people when you have a chronic illness.
Here are seven things to expect when working with a chronic illness specializing therapist.
#1. A Safe Space to Talk About Your Health
From being made the center of unwanted attention, feeling dismissed or living in a society where people expect you to feel good at all times, you’ve learned that it’s not okay to talk about how you really feel with your chronic illness.
You’re not alone.
As a chronic illness therapist and warrior, I hear stories every day about how chronically ill people feel it is unacceptable to talk about their health with most people (i.e., loved ones, employers, friends, and even previous therapists).
What’s interesting is that most of these are the people you’d want to feel comfortable talking to about your health. That’s one of the main reasons that I decided to make this my specialty.
I know firsthand how hard it is.
How Will My Chronic Illness Therapist Make a Safe Space for Me?
Working with a chronic illness therapist – one that specializes in supporting chronically ill people gives you a safe space to talk freely without all of the consequences you’ve experienced in your personal life (i.e., being blamed, ignored, dismissed, punished or alone).
We approach your care with the understanding that in order for you to receive the best mental health support, you need to be able to freely discuss the health challenges that impact your life (i.e., chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia, brain fog, mobility issues, disability, etc.).
Chronic illness therapists are trained in how to respond in supportive ways when you are having a hard time, feeling depressed and worried, or experiencing high levels of discomfort. You’re not expected to act like everything is fine when it’s not, because we understand that it’s not always fine.
The space is arranged to meet your emotional and physical needs, and we make sure to ask you questions beforehand to ensure we’ve covered all the bases before you arrive.
As I tell my clients, leave your mask at the door. You’re safe to be yourself here.
Here are some tips to help you talk freely about your chronic illness with more confidence.
#2. Learn How to Interact with Unsupportive People
In your work with a chronic illness therapist, you’ll talk about the people in your life and how they respond when it comes to your health. This is important because living with a chronic illness can feel isolating even when you are surrounded by others that you love all day.
It’s not uncommon for people living with chronic illness to feel unsupported in different areas of life.
I mean let’s be real. Many people in your surroundings do not have the same experience you’re having with your health. Also, society is historically setup for people to thrive without chronic illnesses.
Cue the eye roll, right?! I know!
What’s sucky about this is that most people likely don’t even realize they are being unsupportive. Here are some signs that you are feeling unsupported with your chronic illness.
How Chronic Illness Therapy Empowers You to Deal with Unsupportive People
Do you need to feel heard? Or maybe you need others to do something specific for you (i.e., call to check in with you occasionally or continue inviting you when they make plans)?
Talking through the relationships in your life can help you figure out what you really need from them and how to communicate it.
You’ll be able to notice how the relationships in your life make you feel and then use those feelings to meet your needs (even in uncomfortable situations). Your chronic illness therapist can practice these skills with you so you feel more confident having these conversations outside of the session.
#3. Learn How Your Physical and Mental Health are Connected
Have you ever wondered why your stomach hurts more when you become upset? Do you have a harder time feeling calm or thinking clearly when you’re in pain?
Therapists who specialize in supporting chronically ill clients are trained in understanding the connection between your mind and body. We are informed about the science behind your physical and emotional experience and can communicate that with you.
This information empowers you to effectively manage or decrease your pain symptoms on your own because you see the full picture.
#4. Your Therapist Takes Time to Be Informed About Your Health Condition
Do you feel obligated to teach other people about your chronic illness? Sometimes this allows others to support you, but other times it can become draining and frustrating if you constantly need to repeat yourself.
Therapists who specialize in supporting chronically ill clients take the time to review current research on your health condition to better understand your experience.
Be sure to ask your therapist what they know about your health condition when you meet with them. How have they helped other clients with similar conditions make improvements through therapy?
This information will let you know whether or not your therapist understands your experience and is equipped to support you.
If your chronic illness therapist does not have experience supporting clients with your health diagnosis, they should tell you so.
This does not automatically disqualify them from helping you (unless that’s a criteria you have). But it’s important to have a therapist that will be upfront with you about their experience from the beginning.
#5. Your Chronic Illness Experience is Not Up for Debate
Many clients who have worked with me expressed feeling that past providers (medical or mental health) did not believe them when discussing their symptoms. They’ve even found themselves trying to convince their providers that their experience was real.
That stops here.
Chronic illness therapists understand that test results do not always line up with what you feel physically or emotionally. The experience with your health is real and valid, and it’s our job to support you with how these symptoms affect you emotionally.
Your chronic illness therapist will also help you advocate for your needs with other providers when you feel unsupported and disregarded.
Read more on how to manage medical appointment anxiety.
#6. Healthy Collaboration with Other Treatment Providers
Your chronic illness affects you both physically and mentally, so approaching your care plan from both of those angles is key to seeing long-term improvements. There are many benefits to your healthcare providers collaborating with your care.
Medical and mental health providers can collaborate as needed to provide you the best care. This communication allows your chronic illness therapist to advocate for your needs and report progress to your doctor.
Your chronic illness therapist can also explain how your mental health treatment progress supports their work with you. This collaboration between providers helps them make necessary changes to your treatment plan to help meet your health goals.
This communication is not a requirement for therapy and should not be made without your consent. You can discuss it with your therapist beforehand and make a plan together.
#7. Mental Health Treatment with Your Health as a Key Focus
A chronic illness therapist is trained to assess your mental health while keeping in mind that some symptoms are medical – not mental.
We approach your treatment from the lens of understanding how your chronic illness affects all other areas of your life, making treatment more effective and specific to your needs.
For example, many chronically ill people experience a change in appetite or energy levels – not because they feel depressed, but because their health conditions or treatments bring on this change.
A chronic illness therapist understands the difference and sees the whole story clearly.
Signs that Your Therapist is Not Making Your Health a Key Focus
- The only time they bring up your chronic illness is during the intake appointment.
- The topic of discussion is changed to focus on something else when you are talking about your health.
- The provider completes a mental health assessment but does not ask if any of those symptoms are also symptoms of your chronic illness.
Now let’s be clear. Your chronic illness can absolutely impact your mental health. So your therapist will be able to explain the differences you’re experiencing and then teach you skills to improve your mental health.
As a matter of fact, many clients have noticed that using the skills from therapy have helped them feel better both emotionally and physically.
Read more on how your chronic illness can affect your mental health.
How to Prepare for Your First Appointment with Your Chronic Illness Therapist
Here are some things to help you prepare for your first appointment:
- Schedule an initial consultation. These are typically held over the phone and range anywhere from 15-20 minutes. This allows you to briefly discuss your situation and how that chronic illness therapist can help you.
- Ask about accommodations to meet your needs for the appointment. If you need in-person or virtual appointments, request that. Also be mindful to ask about how the provider can support your health needs.
- Wear comfortable clothing. You and the therapist will discuss tough topics briefly during the appointment, so wearing something that you feel comfortable in can help you feel more at ease.
- Bring something to take notes with (i.e., notebook). Your therapist may make recommendations for you during the appointment, and it could be helpful to have a designated place to keep up with it.
- Think about ways that you want your chronic illness therapist to support you ahead of time and write it down. You can keep this list in your therapy notebook.
- Give yourself at least 10-15 minutes before the appointment to relax and clear your head. It’s hard to be present when you’re rushing into the appointment. A helpful way to do this is to drink a cool or warm beverage and focus on your breathing.
- Complete your paperwork ahead of time. Most providers have online forms or will mail you the paperwork (per request) so that you can complete the paperwork before the appointment.
- Be sure that you know how to get to your appointment (even virtually). Log in and confirm where you need to go for your virtual appointment. If your appointment is in-person, be sure to have a phone number to call in case you get lost or have difficulty finding the office.
Next Steps for Chronic Illness Therapy
I help individuals and families who are living with anxiety, chronic illnesses and the emotional toll that it can bring. Therapy is a powerful tool that can help you continue talking about chronic illness in a safe space. Although the journey with a chronic illness is hard, therapy can make it more bearable by working on skills to relieve stress relating to your health.
You can schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation call.