How To Keep Your Mood Steady During A Chronic Illness Flare
A chronic illness flare can affect your mood – changing it from happy to sad or angry within minutes. Here are some ways to manage your mood during these tough moments.
What is a Chronic Illness Flare?
Medical experts define a chronic illness flare as “an exasperation of disease…” when your chronic symptoms “worsen in severity until it eventually subsides.” The period of time for a flare varies from a few days to several months or more.
Chronic illness flares are difficult times that often require time to recover. You’re likely participating in less activity than usual because it’s too uncomfortable and exhausting for you to do those things.
How Do Chronic Illness Flares Affect Your Life?
Many chronically ill people find themselves staying at home and trying to be as comfortable as possible (i.e., lying in bed, watching television on your couch, taking more naps). Hearing this part alone may sound like a vacation to someone who is completely unaware of what’s really going on.
But there’s so much more involved with a chronic illness flare (and it’s not pretty or fun)!
Here are some other ways that chronic illness flares make things harder:
- Increased pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Change in eating habits (may experience nausea or other adverse reactions)
- Feeling lower energy and high fatigue
- Difficulty caring for yourself (i.e., showering, brushing teeth, preparing meals, cleaning)
- Increased feelings of fear, irritability, guilt and sadness
- Feeling lonely and disconnected from others
- Difficulty concentrating
- Harder time enjoying pleasurable activities
- The need for higher level of care, including hospitalization for treatment
You’re literally in survival mode, trying to get through as best as you can.
Understanding how flares can be difficult, it’s important to know how to get through it without falling (or staying) into a dark space. You’re more likely to keep your mood steady during a chronic illness flare when you go into it with a plan.
So, here are some important components of a chronic illness flare plan to get you started:
#1. Understand Your Symptoms
What does a flare mean for you? Most people with chronic illnesses have a certain number of symptoms that happen consistently, but your symptoms can look completely different from a “regular day” to an active flare day.
Take time to research what is to be expected with your chronic illness at varying levels so that you understand what is likely to happen. You are more likely to feel confident and less worried when symptoms happen when you have this information.
#2. Be Clear About Your Treatment Plan
On the flip side, you are more likely to panic and feel intense vulnerable emotions during a flare when you are unsure of how to support yourself. Discuss with each of your treatment providers how you can maintain your health condition on a “regular day” and during a chronic illness flare.
Be sure to ask if any prescribed medical treatments increase mental health symptoms (i.e., depression, suicidal ideation, irritability, etc.). Have this information documented so that you and your loved ones can follow that plan at a moment’s notice.
#3. Allow Yourself to Feel Your Emotions
Let’s be real, chronic illness flares tend to make things much harder to accomplish, and it’s understandable that you’d feel angry, overwhelmed, sad, lonely or even helpless. There’s no need to hold that in.
Give yourself a moment to let those feelings breathe so that the rest of your energy can be used to focus on getting through the flare, because these emotions can zap all of your energy if not careful.
Here are some consequences of ignoring your emotions:
- More body tension
- Headache or migraines
- Increased blood pressure
- Mood swings and bigger, uncontrollable emotions
- Difficulty communicating your needs
- Others don’t understand how you feel or what you need
Check out my blog post for more ways to help you cope with your emotions on the hard days.
#4. Don’t blame yourself
As a chronic illness therapist, I often have conversations with people who blame themselves for their chronic illness flare starting. Statements like, “I didn’t do enough,” “I shouldn’t have accepted that invitation,” “I pushed myself too hard,” or “this is all my fault” ring loudly in your mind.
Add to that messages from providers, family and friends, and even social media influencers who usually say your health depends on what you do with your body.
This messaging can encourage healthy behavior, but it can also make you feel shameful, especially when you’re doing all that you can and you get a flare anyway.
I get it.
Living with a chronic illness isn’t as simple as 123 or 1+1 = 2. There are many moving parts, and most people that I’ve talked with about their illness tell me about the extensive ways that they take care of themselves everyday.
From prescribed medications, supplements, holistic treatments (i.e., acupuncture, massage therapy), healthy diets, exercise, pacing themselves, attending all medical appointments and more… Your life consists of many acts of self-care that other people don’t see.
So why is it so hard not to blame yourself?
One of the biggest challenges of living with a chronic illness is not knowing how your body will respond to things. Sometimes things that worked last week don’t work the week after. That can be hard to keep up with.
Another major issue comes from feeling the pressure to be the expert on your health. Many chronically ill people feel this way, especially when you are around others that don’t understand your experience or you’ve had medical providers who have been unhelpful.
So, as the personal expert on your health, if something goes wrong, it’s easy to start feeling that it was your fault. Cue all of the feelings that come with that (anger with yourself, sadness, guilt, shame).
This can be the beginning of you sinking into a dark place if you’re not careful…
Don’t get me wrong. Your feelings of anger and sadness relating to your health are valid. It’s hard!
But it’s not your fault, especially when you’re doing all that you can to take care of yourself while living your life.
So instead of blaming yourself for your chronic illness flare, compassionately respond to yourself right now. And if you notice that there is a way you could have approached things differently, take this as an opportunity to learn for next time.
This is a journey, and you’ll learn more about what your body needs over time.
#5. Adjust Your Expectations
Change is uncomfortable for anyone, but for the chronically ill person, it can feel like you are letting yourself and others down. This is one of the hardest things to do, especially if you have to change your plans and miss out on things important to you.
Some of those adjustments may include taking time off of work, canceling plans, allowing others to help more, or even scheduling emergency care.
Adjusting expectations for yourself is necessary because you cause more harm forcing yourself to meet unrealistic standards. That leads to more frustration and lower self-esteem.
It is more helpful to show yourself compassion when you make those tweaks during a flare. There’s that word again…
Compassion in this situation looks like giving yourself permission to pull back and give your body what it needs without judgment or self-criticism.
#6. Focus on Sources of Hope
You are likely to think a lot of negative thoughts during a chronic illness flare. Thoughts like: “This isn’t fair,” “Why won’t my body…,” “I’m so tired of…,” and a host of worst case scenarios and worries flood your mind.
This alone brings on more dark feelings (i.e., depression, panic attacks, angry outbursts, helpless and hopeless), keeping you stuck in a funk. Having feelings of concern, sadness and anger aren’t bad, because we’re human – not robots. Our feelings can be good to explore, but you have to work at keeping them in balance to support your health.
Chronic stress can “suppress your immune system” and make you feel worse (or experience more decline in your health). If you’re already in a flare, your priority is helping yourself feel better – not worse. So what you do with your feelings here matters.
Allow yourself to be present with your feelings and then gently redirect your thoughts to more encouraging and hopeful things. Sometimes those feelings remind you of what’s needed in the moment (i.e., rest, support from a loved one, etc).
It isn’t always easy or possible to just flip the light switch and think all positive thoughts (and I would never tell you that you should). Instead I encourage you to focus on things that bring on positive, helpful thinking and emotions.
Research studies have found that diverse, positive experiences benefit your health by lowering levels of inflammation and pain. So this can actually be a vital part of your chronic flare plan, because it can help you decrease both emotional and physical discomfort.
It may not be an immediate change, but every little bit counts.
Here are some activities that boost hopeful and positive thoughts and mood during a flare:
- Read a juicy or inspiring book
- Write in a journal
- Engage in spiritual or religious practices (i.e., prayer, religious reading, etc.)
- Get some fresh air (open a window, sit outside in comfortable temperatures, listen to nature sounds, count the stars)
- Watch a funny movie
- Talk with someone who inspires you
- Play a game
- Take a nap
Another way to boost your mood or keep it steady is to find more ways to help yourself feel more comfortable. Check out this list of chronic illness flare essentials to have on hand to make things more manageable.
#7. Communicate Your Needs
Remember that your loved ones can not read your mind (although that would be nice in times like these). An essential way for you to be emotionally supported by others during a chronic illness flare is to communicate what’s going on with your body and be very specific about what you need.
If possible, review your treatment plan with them ahead of time. Otherwise, informing them as your needs arise helps as well. This decreases your worries and allows you to focus more on getting through your flare as best as possible.
You may also need to communicate your needs to others outside of friends and family (i.e., school teachers, employers, medical providers). I personally needed to do this once my doctor told me I needed to receive 3-day infusion treatments when I was first diagnosed.
That’s okay. Use this time to communicate your needs so that it takes more off of your plate and helps you focus on recovery.
Read more on how to talk about your chronic illness and your needs.
#8. Surround Yourself with Supportive People
Truthfully, chronic illness flares can make it much harder to stay connected with others, as you honestly are focusing on taking care of yourself.
It’s a period of time where your health and the challenges that come with it are on the front of your mind (more than you thought it ever could).
Surrounding yourself with supportive people can help you get through your chronic illness flare more effectively. Although you may not always feel like talking to people or entertaining guests, having supportive people around can help you feel less alone while you recover.
How can other people support me during my chronic illness flare?
Specific people that you trust in your life can be present to help with things that may be out of reach for you at the time (i.e., preparing meals, cleaning, watching the kids and even sitting with you watching a movie).
Sometimes the best support is just having someone to sit with you in silence, without expectations for you to perform or entertain them. And their visits don’t have to be long (even as short as 20 minutes can be helpful).
Other ways to make these connections are to send a text to let your loved ones know that you aren’t feeling well and may have a hard time reaching out. Request for them to check on you through text or phone call throughout the week to help lift your spirits.
I’ve had clients who initially felt like they were a burden eventually tell me that their support circles changed their life and gave them hope. You can have this, too.
If you are not connected with immediate friends or family members who can support you in this way, consider community groups that may be available to help.
I currently facilitate two chronic illness support groups that could help you connect with others who are looking for more support and to feel less alone.
Supportive connection can start today.
Next Steps for Chronic Illness Management
I provide mental health therapy to adolescents and adults who are living with chronic illnesses and the emotional toll that it can bring. We can talk through your personal experiences, build more supports and help you bring more function in your life – even during a chronic illness flare.
Although you cannot control certain aspects of your illness, your mindset and intentional response to your circumstances are big steps for feeling in control and having more “good days” even during a chronic illness flare.
You can schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation.