Chronic Illness Offers Special Challenges
Here's How to Handle Them
By Lisa M. Petsche
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Approximately one in three North Americans has a chronic illness, defined as a permanently altered state of health that significantly affects daily living. Examples include arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease and neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease.
Upon diagnosis of a major medical condition, most people initially go into a state of shock or disbelief. Subsequent emotions typically include anger, fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness and loneliness.
With progressive diseases, losses can be many, including strength, coordination, energy, communication, bodily functions, roles and responsibilities, previously enjoyed pastimes and plans for the future. Resulting dependence on others can strain relationships and negatively affect self-esteem.
Time frames vary for individuals, but eventually most people come to accept the reality of their situation. At that point they're ready to plan for their future and take control of it as much as possible.
- If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, the following are some ways to become empowered mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
- Learn as much as possible about the illness and its management, and educate family and friends to help them understand.
- Be receptive to learning new ways of doing things and trying new activities. Concentrate on what you can rather than can't do.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude, consciously focusing on the good things in your life, such as supportive relationships and your religious faith, and seeking beauty and tranquility - for example, through appreciation of art or nature. Learn to live in the moment and enjoy life's simpler pleasures.
- Redefine what quality of life means to you, recognizing that there are many ways to lead a meaningful life. Remind yourself that your identity goes much deeper than your appearance and physical abilities.
- Find an outlet for expressing your thoughts and feelings - perhaps talking with a friend, keeping a journal or participating in a support group.
- Accept that how you feel and what you can do may vary from day to day, and be flexible about plans and expectations. Take things one day at a time.
- Recall past life challenges and how you overcame them, to remind yourself of your resilience and generate hope.
- Stay connected to people who care. If your social network is limited, develop new connections through volunteering, taking an adult education course or joining a club or group.
- Allow yourself plenty of time to adjust to your illness and the lifestyle changes it necessitates. Recognize that your family and friends will also need time to adjust, and may not know what to say or do. Let them know how you wish to be treated, and keep communication lines open.
- Do something nice for someone. It will take your mind off your own situation and boost your self-esteem.
- Set aside quiet time each day, to nurture your spirituality and help keep you grounded.
- If applicable, turn to your religious faith for comfort.
- Seek counseling if you get stuck in one of the phases of grieving, such as anger or depression, or find yourself making unhealthy lifestyle choices.
- Recognize that no matter what happens, you always have a choice about how to respond. Tap into your mental power.
However unwelcome it may be, illness - like other life crises - presents opportunities for growth. Many people gain a richer perspective on life, including a deeper spirituality; discover inner resources they didn't know they possessed; develop new interests; acquire new skills; and, form new relationships or experience deepening of existing ones.
If you are living with a chronic illness, rise to the challenges it presents, perceiving yourself as a survivor rather than a victim. Attitude really does make a difference.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.