According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, 133 Million Americans, or 45% of the population, suffer from at least one chronic illness. Of those with autoimmune diseases, nearly 80% are women. On a global scale, according to the World Health Organization, more than half of those who die annually from a chronic illness are under 70 years of age and are women.
Staggering statistics, when you consider the emotional impact of living with a chronic illness, knowing that it may lead to disability and/or early death. So how does one cope with this reality?
While strategies for lifestyle changes, like appropriate exercise and nutrition, may help diminish symptoms and promote healthier outcomes, strategies for mental and emotional changes are often overlooked. Yet, studies have found an optimistic outlook, humor and a sense of hope all have a long-lasting impact on blood pressure and cardiac disease, infections, cancer and overall wellness.
How then best to tap into these qualities on a daily basis? First and foremost, learning to be present to the current reality is critical. Frequently, those suffering from chronic illness are living in a mental model that isn’t conducive to change. Coping mechanisms like denial, anger and depression all have real and important roles in the progression of grief and loss associated with illness. Unfortunately, one can become stuck in one of these emotional states.
For women, in particular, the role of caring for and nurturing others doesn’t necessarily translate to self-care and self-compassion. Cultural beliefs may also contribute to a “blaming the victim” approach to illness. And, other beliefs regarding one’s ability to work, produce and contribute are often equated with value and worth. Combined, accepting illness in oneself and in others is contrary to the status quo.
Review the following questions and write down your answers. Keep a journal of your feelings and your progress. This will help you to cope on an ongoing basis.
How do you feel about your chronic illness? What emotions are most pervasive?
What mental and emotional strategies are you currently using to cope with chronic illness?
Reflect on your beliefs: How do you feel about illness, in general? What are your attitudes toward others who are ill?
How do you believe your illness impacts your sense of worth? Would you be willing to believe you are worthy of care and support?
Part 2 coming next week.
By Alana Karran